‘Lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people’

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 present-day Cumberland and Westmorland (‘Cumbria’) were remote and little developed regions of northwest England. The area was peopled by a mix of Cumbric-speaking Britons, Norse-Irish settlers and, mainly in the low-lying fringes, English-speaking Anglians. There were certainly local strongmen, or lords; what were called thegns in Anglo-Saxon England, but life for ordinary people was mostly peaceful and, as long as the people paid their dues to their lords, there wasn’t much violence or repression. Though the magnates themselves loved to plot and murder each other. The English didn’t have and didn’t need castles; a fact that is of extreme importance in explaining how it was that the brutal Norman-French invaders were able to maintain their grip on the resentful and hostile country they had conquered in the face of persistent resistance and rebellion.

In the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings, Norman Duke William ‘the Bastard’ and his henchmen moved swiftly to cow the native English, who they despised, and dispossess them of their lands. William declared that all the English who had fought at Hastings would forfeit their estates, which he then divvied up between his French followers, whether they had been with him at Hastings itself or had arrived in England soon after. But William’s policy of suppression and dispossession went further. With a few notable exceptions (we shall see at least one such in Cumbria) the vast bulk of England was soon wrenched from the English and passed into French control. The English Church was also robbed to pay for William’s mercenaries.

A Norman French Conqueror

A Norman French Conqueror

Although I will occasionally use the word ‘Norman’, because William was after all the duke of Normandy, I tend to avoid the misleading construction ‘Anglo-Norman’. The invaders were French and that is what they called themselves in all their documents from the time of the Conquest onwards. They spoke French and continued to do so for several hundred years. ‘Anglo-Norman’ is a euphemism which tends to obscure the brutal reality of foreign invasion, repression and exploitation.

The Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, who was born in England five years after the invasion of an English mother and Norman father, and therefore can be said to be ‘Anglo-Norman’, wrote about the consequences of the invasion during Williams’s six-month absence in Normandy in 1067:

Meanwhile. The English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king’s injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree, and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, the king’s vice-regents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable pleas of the English or give them impartial judgement. When their men at arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.

Things didn’t improve when William came back to England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is terse: ‘When he came back he gave away every man’s land.’

In the early years William and his French, Breton and Flemish followers didn’t yet feel secure in England. English resistance and rebellion was rife. The remaining family of the defeated King Harold made several unsuccessful incursions in the West Country, Eadric the Wild and his Welsh allies were continuing to resist and fight back in the borderlands of England and Wales, while William’s grip on the north of England (Northumbria, Yorkshire and Durham) remained very tenuous. Northern English earls such as Morcar, Waltheof and Gospatric made accommodations with Duke (should we now call him King?) William, but were always plotting revolts to remove the French curse from England.

Eventually in 1069, with the support of the Danish king Swein, the north of England rose against the invader.

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

The initial spark for this venting of northern English resentment occurred in early 1069 when William replaced Gospatric as earl of Northumbria with a Fleming called Robert Cumin (or de Comines). Cumin arrived in the North with a band of between 500 and 900 Flemish mercenaries. The chronicler Simeon of Durham tells us, to use historian Marc Morris’s words, that ‘the new earl advanced leaving a trail of destruction, allowing his men to ravage the countryside by pillaging and killing’. People started to flee their homes. But, writes Simeon: ‘Suddenly there came a heavy fall of snow and such harsh winter weather that all possibility of flight was denied.’

‘With their backs to the wall’ the local English decided on resistance – they would ‘kill the earl or die trying.’ Robert Cumin was warned not to enter the town of Durham but he ‘spurned the advice’. Once in Durham ‘his men continued their killing and looting in their quest for quarters’. But the next day Simeon tells of the English revenge:

At first light the Northumbrians who had banded together burst in through all the gates, and rushed through the whole town killing the earl’s companions.

The streets were ‘choked with blood’. The English massacred Earl Cumin and all his mercenaries. Flushed with success the English of the North rose up. Orderic wrote: ‘The English now gained confidence in resisting the Normans, whom they saw as oppressors of their friends and allies.’ They attacked York where a Norman garrison was holed up. William heard of the revolt and, says Orderic: ‘Swift was the king’s coming’, with ‘an overwhelming army’. Norman massacres ensued and William ravaged York and its church. Many of the English magnates escaped, hopefully to fight another day.

William left a Norman called William fitz Osbern in charge at York and returned south. But knowing the precariousness of the Norman grip on England he sent his wife back to Normandy ‘away from the English tumults’.

Northern resistance was in no way over. Yet for the English the worst was still to come. English envoys had been sent to Denmark to ask King Swein to come to their aid and throw out the French. He finally agreed, seeing his main-chance in a part of England that was heavily Scandinavian. In the summer of 1069 a huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying of the North

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. Yet the Danish army spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the arrival of King Swein in 1070. The latest threat to French occupation was over, but William wasn’t yet finished with these pesky and truculent north-country men. He began what has become known as The Harrying of the North, which is a pretty innocuous name for what amounted to a regional genocide. He started to seek out the rebels, ‘slaying many’, but, writes Orderic:

In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance.

He wanted to make sure there was no more northern opposition to his rule. In this he was, it has to be said, only very partially successful. Orderic continued:

As a consequence, so serious a scarcity fell on England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.

Orderic, usually a supporter of the Norman cause (though no Norman apologist like William of Poitiers) added: ‘For when I think of the helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger, I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people then make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.’

Simeon of Durham also described the consequences of the Harrying of the North:

There was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses and dogs and cats. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword and famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of wild beasts and savage robbers.

Perhaps the most relevant recent historian of the Norman conquest of the north of England, William Kapelle, rightly states that to keep control of England William had resorted to genocide in the north of England.

So far I haven’t yet touched on events in Cumbria. All the forgoing happened in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. The dreadful Harrying of the North, so far as I’m aware, didn’t extend to the north-western region of Cumbria.

Unlike across the Pennines, Cumbria didn’t really start to come under the Norman yoke until a quarter of a century after the Conquest. To be precise in 1092 when the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) arrived with an army in Carlisle, threw out the local lord Dolfin (Gospatrick’s son), occupied the town and ordered the construction of the ubiquitous Norman castle. Prior to the Conquest Cumbria had for a long time been part of the earldom of Northumbria. Although the designations Cumberland and Westmorland had already appeared they were not yet ‘shires’ and there was no local earl. It was the earl and great magnates of Northumbria who held sway, very often owing allegiance to the king of Scotland.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle

As the French suppression and repression of Northumberland and Yorkshire continued (it didn’t end by any means in 1069) and while the majority of the English, thegns and otherwise, were being dispossessed of their lands and replaced by French, some northern magnates fled to Scotland and some to their estates in Cumbria. One such was the former earl of Northumbria, Gospatric, who I have already mentioned. He was a scion of the powerful Northumbrian family who had controlled Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and held lands throughout the north of England. William had stripped him of the earldom of Northumbria (to replace him by the short-lived Robert Cumin) and he had been one of the leaders of the 1069 uprising. Yet somehow, still being in possession of Bamburgh, he had submitted himself to William and been able to make peace. William regranted him the earldom, which he held until 1072 when the king took it away for a final time. He fled to Scotland, then briefly to Flanders, before returning. It’s possible he found refuge in his Cumbrian estates, as Cumbria at the time ‘belonged’, it is generally believed, to the Scottish King Malcolm Canmore. I wouldn’t go into more detail here about this fascinating man. The important thing for this Cumbrian story is that there is an extant letter, or writ, written by Gospatric in English (Anglo-Saxon) sometime between 1072 and the capture of Carlisle in 1092. It is addressed to all his ‘dependants’. It concerns Cumbria where he seems to have been not only a great landowner but also perhaps the de facto ruler of post-Conquest Cumbria.

I will quote the letter in full using James Wilson’s translation:

Gospatric greets all my dependants and each man, free and dreng, that dwell in all the lands of the Cumbrians, and all my kindred friendlily; and I make known to you that my mind and full leave is that Thorfynn  MacThore be as free in all things that are mine in Alnerdall as any man is, whether I or any of my dependants, in wood, in heath, in enclosures, and as to all things that are existing on the earth and under it, at Shauk and at Wafyr and at Pollwathoen  and at bek Troyte and the wood at Caldebek; and I desire that the men abiding with Thorfynn at Cartheu and Combetheyfoch be as free with him as Melmor and Thore and Sygulf were in Eadread’s days, and that (there) be no man so bold that he with what I have given to him cause to break the peace such as Earl Syward and I have granted to them forever as any man living under the sky; and whosoever is there abiding, let him be geld free as I am and in like manner as Walltheof and Wygande  and Wyberth and Gamell and Kunyth and all my kindred and dependants; and I will that Thorfynn have soc and sac, toll and theam over all the lands of Cartheu and Combetheyfoch that were given to Thore in Moryn’s days free, with bode and witnessman in the same place.

James Wilson explains the meaning and significance of this rare post-conquest Anglo-Saxon writ in his article An English Letter of Gospatric published in 1904. For our purposes I think two things are important. First, that Cumbria prior to 1092 was ruled by an indigenous northern English magnate, owing allegiance to the King of Scotland, who was granting or reconfirming a border ‘fief’ to the wonderfully named Thorfynn MacThore. Wilson puts it as follows:

It may be inferred from the general tenor of the document that Gospatric held a high position in the district beyond that of a great landowner, for it is most improbable that he should have used such a style of address to the men of Cumbria had he been only the lord of Allerdale. Subsequent events, such as the position of his son Dolfin at Carlisle in 1092, and the succession of Waldeve to the paternal estates in Allerdale, appear to warrant the belief that Gospatric ruled the district of Cumbria south of the Solway as the deputy of King Malcolm.

Second, Gospatric refers to pre-Conquest days by mentioning the  Northumbrian Earl Siward and the names of several obviously pre-Conquest (‘in Eadread’s days’) Cumbrian landholders: Melmor and Thore and Sygulf. And this Sygulf (or Sigulf) was none other than the father of Forn ‘Sigulfson’, the first Norman appointed lord of the barony of Greystoke. A man who, as I will discuss later, named his son Ivo after the first Norman ‘enforcer’ in Cumbria, Ivo Taillebois, and indeed the father of Edith fitz Forn Sigulfson who was to become a mistress of King Henry I. Unlike so many others, this northern Norse family managed to hang on to its possessions after the conquest and even thrive. Forn became a trusted servant of the Norman kings in the north of England and his  ‘Greystoke’ family, as it became known, continued to be lords of Greystoke in a direct male line until 1306, when more distant relatives succeeded to the title: first the Grimesthorps, then the Dacres and then, in 1571, the Howards – the Dukes of Norfolk.

During these years following the conquest the native lords of Cumberland and Westmorland owed allegiance, as I have mentioned, to the Scottish crown. It is precisely because of this fact that most of modern-day Cumbria was not included in King William’s Domesday survey of 1086. Cumbria was not yet controlled by the Normans. This was soon to change.

Carlisle Castle of a later date

Carlisle Castle of a later date

When did the Normans actually ‘arrive in Cumbria’? It is possible, although there is no real evidence for it, that a Norman warrior, a so-called ‘strongman’, had already been sent to Cumbria before 1092. But much more likely it was in that year that the Norman French first made their appearance. As mentioned, the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) brought an army north in 1092 and captured Carlisle. The local lord of Carlisle, Dolfin, the son of Gospatric, was expelled. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

In this year King William with a great army went north to Carlisle and restored the town and built the castle; and drove out Dolfin, who ruled the land there before. And he garrisoned the castle with his vassals; and thereafter came south hither and sent thither a great multitude of [churlish] folk with women and cattle, there to dwell and till the land.

William Rufus had stationed a garrison in the town, ordered the repair of the Roman town walls and the building of a castle – no doubt the locals were pressed into helping with its construction. He also ordered that settlers be brought from Lincolnshire to help maintain and defend his new conquest. The French occupation and seizure of Cumbria had begun.

The castle was key. As I alluded to earlier, it was the fact that the Normans built castles and knew how to use them while the English knew almost nothing about them that more than anything explains how William and his successors were able to hold on to their newly conquered lands. As Orderic Vitalis wrote:

The fortifications the Normans called castles were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English – in spite of their courage and love of fighting – could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle groaned: ‘… they built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to worse. When God wills may the end be good!’

Historian Marc Morris in his excellent The Norman Conquest tells us what castles were for:

(They) served as bases for soldiers and knights who would ride out each day to cow the surrounding countryside into submission, indulging in acts of plunder, rape and violence.

There is little doubt that this is what the French garrison at Carlisle did in the years following the seizure of the town. The people of Cumbria started to experience the grim and brutal reality of what foreign invasion and occupation actually meant, as their compatriots elsewhere in England already had.

William Rufus

William Rufus

The first Norman strongman, or perhaps better said enforcer, we know about in Cumbria was a certain Ivo Taillebois, who was given extensive estates by William Rufus, probably shortly after Carlisle was taken in 1092. (Taillebois itself is a village in lower Normandy is an area amusingly called today Swiss Normandy). Ivo had married the Lincolnshire heiress Lucy, and it was no doubt because of this connection that William Rufus ordered  that settlers be brought from these Lincolnshire estates to colonize Carlisle. Ivo died in 1094, but, as Oxford historian Richard Sharpe comments in his Norman Rule in Cumbria, 1092 – 1136, Ivo can probably be regarded as ‘the first Norman lord of Cumbria’.

While the local people started to suffer, were probably forced to build the new castle at Carlisle and were increasingly taxed and pillaged, what became of the local English and Norse lords? Many were simply dispossessed, as had happened so often elsewhere in England. Others tried to reach an accommodation with the Normans. One who succeeded was Forn Sigulfson, the son of local lord Sigulf mentioned in Gospatric’s writ. As I have stated, he was to become the first ‘Norman’ lord of Greystoke in Cumberland. It’s likely that Forn wanted to hold onto his family estates in Cumbria as well as in Yorkshire and sought an accommodation with the conquerors. It’s also probably not a coincidence that he named his son Ivo. I would conjecture that this was to ingratiate himself with the Norman strongman Ivo Taillebois. Forn Sigulfson was of Scandinavian descent, as his name and that of his father bears witness. Ivo on the other hand was a decidedly French name. The connection seems obvious though can never be proved.

After Ivo Taillebois’s death in 1094 we know nothing more about how Norman rule in Cumbria progressed until William Rufus appointed Ranulf Meschin as a type of colonial ruler over Cumbria. This was probably in 1098 or shortly thereafter. Ranulf was neither an earl nor a sheriff (though much later he was made Earl of Chester by Henry I), but he was clearly given full power to rule Cumbria as he saw fit. During his over twenty years as Cumbria’s Norman ruler he created two new lordships for Frenchmen and it is quite likely that he, at least implicitly, confirmed some local lords such as Forn Sigulfson in their existing possessions. These were, in Forn’s case at least, later to be reconfirmed by King Henry I (William Rufus’s younger brother) during that king’s one and only visit to Carlisle in 1122.

All that's left of Wetheral Priory

All that’s left of Wetheral Priory

Ranulf Meschin remained the effective French ruler of Cumbria until about 1122 when Henry I made him Earl of Chester, probably during his fleeting visit to Carlisle. He relinquished his duties in Cumberland and Westmorland. During his time ‘in office’ the castle at Carlisle had been fortified more and other castles were built at, for instance, Appleby. The priory of Wetheral was founded before 1112 and the machinery put in place to start to ‘farm’, or better put, to milk the surrounding countryside and the newly discovered silver mine near Carlisle. Increasing numbers of French, Flemish and English settlers were enticed to the area and their settlements can still be pinpointed by their settlements names – for instance Johnby, to take just one example among many.

And there, rather abruptly, I shall end. The Norman French subjugation of Cumbria, as in much of the rest of northern England, took many years to complete. In fact in 1136, under King Stephen, it reverted to the Scottish crown where in was to remain until 1157.

Cumbria never was, and still isn’t, an economically very important part of England. Events there never much impinged on subsequent English history, except as the setting for the interminable border wars between England and Scotland. Perhaps it is precisely because of its remoteness and unimportance that Cumbria to this day remains, to my mind, one of England’s most authentic regions. Brutally exploited over the centuries to be sure, but still retaining a wonderfully strong streak of Norse, Celtic and English belligerence and cussedness.

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  1. […] the Norman French first arrived in Cumbria in 1091, twenty-five years after the Conquest. See The Normans come to Cumbria. When they did the rugged independence the Norse Cumbrians of Grisdale and elsewhere had enjoyed […]

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