31 Days of History: The Conquerer in York

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Today One&Other delves in to the history of William the Conqueror and his importance in the history of York. Born in approximately 1028, William was the Duke of Normandy, and eventually became the first Norman King of England after defeating King Harold and his Anglo-Saxon forces at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. However, even with the crown upon his head he still had to consolidate his power throughout the new realm that was in his hands.

In 1068, William marched north with his army extinguishing the little fires of rebellion along the way. However when he eventually reached York he met little to none resistance and was handed the keys to the City. The Normans had arrived and York quickly became William’s base for operations in the North. The property of the city was divided equally between the Normans and himself, and William proceeded with the consolidation of his power. His first action was to strengthen the defences of the city, by building two motte and bailey castles situated on both sides of the River Ouse. This style of castle involves building the castle on a raised mound of earth called the motte, and also includes an internally protected courtyard called the bailey. These castles provided a way to monitor those who were entering the city via the river and Clifford’s Tower still stands in York to this day, providing visitors a chance to witness the remaining evidence of William the Conqueror’s influence upon York.

Just as the conqueror believed York was safe in his hands, King Swein of Denmark challenged the King’s power over the City and emerged, powering towards York with a large fleet of ships in August of 1069. The force took the city by storm, with the massacring of Norman occupiers and many buildings being burned to the ground. But William was determined to stamp his authority on York, and quickly retaliated fiercely. Part of the Norman defence tactic was to burn their castles and buildings, so that the attackers had nowhere to hide and no shelter from the retaliation of the Normans. The blaze spread expeditiously and a large part of the city was lost, including the Minster. William retook York, and for the next two years caused havoc among the inhabitants of the country by burning their crops and livestock and destroying their homes and farms. Symeon of Durham recorded that ‘It was horrible to observe, in houses, streets and roads, human corpses rotting…For no-one survived to cover them with earth, all having perished by the sword and starvation, or left the land of their fathers because of hunger’.

This savagery became known as ‘The Harrying of the North’, with records of the population in the Domesday Book (created almost 20 years after the horrific slaughter) dropping from 8,000 to 2,000. By stripping all means of survival, with the burning of foods and homes to just ashes, the devastation was outstanding and obvious. But York rose from the ashes of turmoil, and began to rebuild. The walls of defence around the city were rebuilt and strengthened and new fortified gates, or ‘bars’ were built to regulate the traffic that entered York. These ‘bars’ still stand proud in our city today, with Monk Bar providing an entrance for visitors to take a stroll back in time around the walls of the city. The other three gates also still stand strong around the city, with Bootham Bar still including the oldest surviving stonework that dates back to the 11th century.

Incidentally, York flourished and blossomed under Norman rule, and regained economic importance, with high prosperity in trade and commerce business.

The reverberations of William the Conqueror’s invasion of York is something that we take for granted in the city today, as we casually wander by the gates and walls of the city that have witnessed tragedy and despair before we were even a twinkle in our ancestor’s eyes.


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