The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans

by Peter Rex

Tempus Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-7524-2827-6

As attested by 1066 And All That, the date of 1066 is the most memorable in English history (and one of the book’s only Two Genuine Dates). But William of Normandy’s conquest of England did not happen overnight after the Battle of Hastings. It took William several years to establish his grip on his new kingdom, years in which various English and Anglo-Danish notables rebelled against him, sometimes with foreign help from Denmark and Scotland, and in which William put down the opposition with ever-increasing brutality. Yet this period of revolt and reprisal is rarely covered in accounts of the Norman Conquest. This study by Peter Rex covers the five years immediately following Hastings, from 1066 to 1071, and provides a valuable account of this neglected historical episode.

The English Resistance begins with a survey of the three battles of 1066. Gate Fulford was fought just south of York on 20 September, when Tostig Godwinsson and Harald Hardrada defeated Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. Stamford Bridge was fought east of York five days later, when Harold Godwinsson defeated and killed Tostig and Haradrada after a forced march from the south of England. Hastings was fought on 14 October on the south coast, when William of Normandy defeated and killed Harold Godwinsson (after Harold and his army had marched all the way back from Stamford Bridge). Casualties in all three battles were heavy, and Hastings in particular saw the death of many of the English leaders and thanes. After Hastings only three English earls survived, Earls Edwin and Morcar (who had not joined in the campaign, presumably having taken heavy losses to both manpower and military reputation after Gate Fulford), and Waltheof* Earl of Huntingdon, who was the son of Earl Siward of Northumbria and had good reason to dislike Harold Godwinsson after having been twice passed over for his father’s earldom (first for Harold’s brother Tostig, then for Earl Morcar).

The book then moves on to consider William’s policy for consolidating his new kingdom. At first his administration included the surviving English earls, churchmen and officials of King Harold’s government. Over the period of the study, the authority of the English earls gradually declined and administration of both church and state became progressively more Norman. The author draws an interesting comparison with the actions of the Danish king Cnut, after his successful invasion some 50 years previously, who co-operated with the surviving English nobility to create a combined Anglo-Danish state. William comes out of this comparison unfavourably, though the author states fairly that there is no way of knowing whether William intended to replicate Cnut’s policy and was forestalled by English rebellion, or whether William deliberately deprived the surviving earls of land and authority to provoke a rebellion and so destroy them.

An account of the various rebellions against William’s rule then follows, including the rebellions of Eadric the Wild on the Welsh borders in 1067-1069, raids made from Ireland by the sons of Harold Godwinsson, the revolt of the city of Exeter in 1067, and the rising in Northumbria in conjuction with a Danish army in 1069, which was followed by the brutal reprisals known as the Harrying of the North. The rebels used tactics that would now be called guerilla warfare, hiding in inaccessible areas of hills, marshes and forests, emerging briefly to attack Norman targets where they could do so with little risk, and disappearing back into their hideouts at any retaliation in force. The author suggests that some folktales of woodsmen and ‘The Green Man’ may be derived from these times, and that some of the tales may have contributed to the development of the legend of that most famous of outlaws, Robin Hood. The Harrying of the North was an effective counter to such tactics, depriving the rebels and the civilian population alike of the means of susbsistence.

Finally, the book gives a detailed account of the career of Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile (his more famous name Hereward the Wake does not appear until several centuries later), covering his part in the attack on Peterborough and the siege of Ely in 1071 and then dealing with his likely origins, parentage and earlier career.

The narrative is lively, with a reasonable balance between fact and speculation. The author does not use footnotes or endnotes, but for the most part he says in the text which source(s) he is working from and why. Occasionally the line between evidence and opinion gets blurred, e.g. when the author says “....Orderic Vitalis is well-informed as ever....” - as I am not an expert on this period, it isn’t clear to me whether that is the author’s opinion, or whether there is evidence that Orderic is really better-informed than the other sources. Similarly, when he says that support in Northumbria “would have tended to go to Tostig not Harold” (explaining the lack of Northumbrian contigents at Hastings), I would have liked more explanation of that remark given that the Northumbrian thanes had thrown Tostig out in decisive fashion only two years before and had shown no sign of wanting him back since.

Although the material is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with 1066 and working forward to the siege of Ely in 1071, the author does not hesitate to skip back and forth between events that happened before and after whatever he is currently describing. Usually this is to illustrate a point by means of reference to an individual’s earlier or later actions, or to follow through a theme. But it does mean the reader has to pay attention. If your concentration slips for a couple of lines you’re quite likely to find yourself three years and five counties away, and will have to go back and re-read to pick up the thread.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Norman Conquest period may also find the large number of names and places daunting, and should find the maps and genealogies in the appendix helpful

There are lots of little-known (to me, anyway) facts in the book, which make it a delight for anyone interested in the period. For example, there is an excellent discussion on the process by which lands shifted progressively from English to Norman landholders, illustrated by the records of Hereward’s (probable) family, which I found the clearest explanation I have so far come across. The author also discusses variations in English and Norman custom - for example, he argues that Norman sheriffs had wider powers than English shire-reeves, and that the English and Norman view of oath-taking was quite different. He suggests that these might have contributed to the accusations of treachery and oath-breaking levelled at both sides, if each had a different idea of what the agreements meant. And apparently William introduced the offence of ‘murdrum’, which meant that any hundred in which a Norman was found dead had to either hand over the killer within five days or pay a fine of 40 marks to the king and 6 to the deceased’s relatives. From this, according to the author, arises the distinction between murder and manslaughter in English law.

The author draws a parallel between the situation in England after Hastings and the Nazi Occupation of France in the Second World War, and makes this something of a theme throughout the book. This parallel has occurred to me, and it is certainly a powerful image. I personally would be wary of carrying the analogy too far, and in particular I would question the use of terms such as “collaborator” and “Resistance”. I have my doubts as to whether the sides appeared as clear-cut at the time as they do to us now, looking back with nearly a thousand years of hindsight. Viewing Hastings as a conflict between ‘English’ and ‘Norman’ seems to me to be a modern view, treating it as a war between nation-states like the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1066, though, England as a political unit was only about a century old, having been established by Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, in the 930s. The Anglo-Danish kingdom of York did not always sit easily under a southern monarch, the Danish population in England had suffered the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, and the wars prior to Cnut’s succession and after his death would have been within living memory in 1066. Loyalties of region, lordship, landholding and kinship, and obligations of blood-feud and vengeance, were probably at least as important to most of the protagonists as the relatively recent concept of ‘England’. Some of those labelled as “collaborators” may have considered Harold Godwinsson a usurper. Some may have suffered real or imagined insult or injury during the rise of the Godwin family to power and may have seen Harold as their primary enemy. Some may have remembered the faction fighting before and after Cnut’s reign and believed that William had a better chance of preventing a recurrence. Some may have seen William and his Normans as no more ‘foreign’ than Harold, who was Danish on his mother’s side. Some may have seen it as a private squabble between rival claimants to the throne and been happy to keep out of it until the outcome had been decided on the battlefield, after which they accepted the new status quo. Some may have regarded victory in battle as a sign of divine approval and taken that as proof that William’s claim had been just. So I rather think the author’s division of the English players in the drama into “Resistance” and “collaborators” may be something of an oversimplification.

The English Resistance is a fascinating survey of a neglected period in English history, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the Norman Conquest in particular or in conquest and its aftermath in general.

*Readers who read my review of The Winter Mantle may like to know that this is the same Waltheof.