Friday, July 23, 2010

The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans

Genre: History
Author:Peter Rex
For years, what I had read about the Norman Invasion of England was summarized by the events of the Battle of Hastings in late 1066, when King Harold Godwinson and his "Saxon" forces were defeated by William the Conquerer. King Edward (the Confessor) had left no surviving heirs and the Witan council had named Harold king. His elevation to regal status was short lived.

There were three major battles that year, and all had been bloody tests for the English forces: first, the northern earls (at Fulford Gate) and for King Harold (at Stamford Bridge and Hastings) . This is from a review of this same book by Carla Neyland, and sets the stage for the rebellion to come after William of Normandy came to power in London:

"'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)."

Harold's ships and levies of soldiers were all too taxed from a bloody battle against the Vikings in the north of the kingdom to get back to Hastings with any measure of rest and preperation. The Norman Duke knew all about Harold's troubles with the Norwegians and William was poised to strike across the Channel when he found the time just right.

Harold and his men could only march hundreds of miles-- again--- and still had reinforcements coming up when the Battle of Hastings was all over.

It was the end of the story, at least as far as popular history goes. One assumed after the victory at Hastings, William the Conquerer (or the Bastard) moved on quickly to quell most of Britain and that was that.

Peter Rex's book shows that was not all that.

For the next five to six years, and sporadically for decades after, the English (with Welsh, Scottish and Danish support) refused to accept the Normanization of their islands and their lands. While rebellion around London and the southern regions of the kingdom ended around 1067, the remaining Earls of the Saxon dynasty and the various groups of 'silvatici' (forest dwellers) was just getting started.

There were vast parts of England (Cornwall, Northumbria, many parts between thee Humber River and the Wash, et al) that hadn't seen any Normans yet and hadn't got "the memo" it seems that the fight was over and their lands were forfeit to William's fighting chums. In Wales, for example, Eadric "the Wild" gathered forces to give the Normans a warm welcome when they moved westward.

Norman progress in the north toward Yorkshire was not all that smooth---newly-minted nobles were set upon and killed by the locals. York itself was attacked as soon as the Normans got their castle up in 1068 and the combined English-Danish forces drove the surviving invaders and their quislings back down to safer turf. William himself, dealing with problems in his own territory back at Normandy, had to rush back to lay siege to towns like Chester.

Only William's own leadership saved the day for the Normans in this new realm, filled with angry "outlaws" who hoped for a new Saxon king in the shape of Edgar the Atheling ( a young man gathering what forces he could in Scotland as a guest of King Malcom) or even in the hopes of a restored "Danelaw" king who could drive the Normans back to the Channel and restore the less onerous burden of Norse foreign rule.

A video on early Norman attempts to isolate and destroy resistance:

Rex's book focuses a great deal on one man in particular, Hereward the Exile or Hereward the Outlaw. He was one of the leaders of those forest dwellers and a military strategist who ranked up with William the Bastard or Harald Hardara of Norway, only without the loyal forces these monarchs enjoyed. Hereward (also called "The Wake" by a later generations) made inroads up and down the northern coast of England and at the then island of Ely near the deep marshes of the Fens. Needing to keep his restless Danish allies sated, Hereward sacked treasure from the abbeys that the Normans solely needed to finance their campaigns against rebels on both sides of the Channel. William responded in more than kind. It was, in Rex's phrase, William the Bastards' "government by punitive expedition."

It was all of course a bloody and brutal affair, but there is little evidence William expected anything else. To combat the forces of the resistance, The Bastard lead men up and down the north in a "harrying" operation that left farms burning and innocents slaughtered. The major battled at Stafford took on tactics that would be, in Rex's view from the surviving documents, precursors of German occupation atrocities 900 years later in places like occupied France.

Eventually, lacking loyal support from the Danes, who may never seriously considered taking on the Normans in a major battle, and after the Norman invasion of Scotland in 1072 sent Edgar Atheling to Flanders and safety and made Malcom a more passive neighbor, the English resistance dwindled. But Peter Rex and other historians he cites make a strong case that it took almost a decade for William to consolidate his 'total victory' at Hastings.

The last part of the book recounts the blending of English and Norman Noble families over the next few decades into a group with a increasingly independent identity from Normandy. As for Hereward the Outlaw, he apparently escaped from his last big stand at Ely as the Normans built a causeway and forced their way across. Hereward also escaped from any reliable historical account as to how he spent his last years. That he was the prototypical horse-mounted knight--likely trained at Flanders while in a previous exile imposed by the Confessor--is very likely. That he might have also served as a precursor to the legends of Robin Hood have also been proposed. Its his whereabouts with his bands after escaping Ely that makes for the intriguing speculations and where history and legend cross over into the great theme of resistance to foreign powers that characterizes English history just after 1066 and for centuries to come.

And now a word on 11th Century Norman taxation schemes, read by actor Chris Bailey . It looks a lot like what a Public Service Announcement from Bill The Bastard's New Order would "encourage" the public to prepare for :


  1. Yes, it was an eye opener for me Heidi. (As you can likely tell from my review.)

  2. This is a damn good book - one I'd recommend everyone read if they have an interest in how England became England....

  3. I can only concur. That's two people besides me who have read this one. That's great!

  4. It's one that's passed me by I'm afraid. But then, my schooling in history concentrated on that period. I confess to being heartily bored by it and my history teachers probably ruined my interest in the subject. Much later my interest in history pretty much starts at the beginning of WWI.

  5. Yes, Jim, I'm afraid I feel that way about some periods of history myself. The American Civil War is one I'm pretty much bored by at this stage----although so much of it has reverberations in America today its hardly irrelevant.

    The most popular period in English history for readers seems to be the Tudor Period. No shortage of books, documentaries and films on the wives of Henry VIII, for instance. An interesting period to be sure, but one heavily mined and taught with great emphasis in European history and humanities courses in America.

    One of the interested things about this book to me, in addition to it being a newer subject, is how the author shifts through the various historical chronicles written at this time, and afterwards. Rex tries to separate the most reliable sources in his opinion, so we see once again how history is shaped by the winners. Also how documents get a bit more "truthful" after a monarch is buried.

  6. So true Doug.

    But what interests anyone about any part of history is probably what has shaped their lives in the first place. In my case I was trained as a weapons radio and radar technician in the navy. Couple that with the fact that by far most technological advances have occurred during wars (aren't we always looking for a more efficient way to kill each other?) and you can see why my historical interest pretty much runs from the start of the 20th century.

    During the second war in the infancy of Radar for instance, we miniaturised it to such an extent that by the wars end it was fitted in night fighters. In order to try and hide the fact that we had this technology (which by the way so did the Germans) we explained our great successes at shooting down incoming German bombers on the 'fact' that our aircrews were being made to eat lots of carrots! We also had a pilot called Cuningham who was decorated several times for knocking down several German bombers, he was known (in the press at least) as 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham.

    During the same period the electronics boffins had perfected the amplifier and the very simple and now commonly used triode amplifier was classified as Top Secret. There were all sorts of instructions to aircrew to destroy the radio and radar sets before abandoning their aircraft. I'm damn sure that if my plane was going down rapidly the last thing on my mind would be the destruction of the radar set.....

  7. A fascinating period of history indeed Doug and one in which I have also been interested for sometime, although I have not read this particular book myself.

    It looks an interesting read thanks for reviewing it and raising awareness about this important time in the evolution of England and subsequently Great Britain and eventually the United Kingdom.

    The resistance to the Normans as you have indicated here was not only from the Saxons, that is the English but also the Danes and other rival Viking competitors to the equally Norse-man or Norman rulers of northern France.

    There was also resistance from the pre-Saxon indigenous Celtic and northern Pictish tribes and in some ways the resistance has never completely gone away since that time.

    The Norman Conquest also represented the beginning of integration and cross fertilisation between England and France which ebbed and flowed for the next 400 years.

    William's tax audit of his newly acquired lands the Domesday Book was only possible because of the development of a complex civil service in the form of a rural squirearchy of manorial lords in the late Saxon period.

    In other words the infrastructure by which the Normans were able to rule England was already fully in place by 1066 because between 600 and 1100 English towns, villages and the road-system plus much of the distinctive character of the countryside took shape in a form recognisable today.

    The Norman hierarchy insinuated itself on the land but the customs, practices and physical shape of England today was bequeathed us by the Saxon kings that created England and whose people were the originators of English language.

    The history of resistance in England is not only a resistance to foreign invasion it was resistance to the arbitrary power of government and dynastic legitimacy was frequently challenged right up until the Victorian era.

    There is also a mythic element here of course as well, characters like Hereward became in the popular imagination the perpetually good guys whilst William and his heirs were the perpetually bad.

    The Anglo Saxon Chronicles gives us a Saxon take on history and they underscore the legendary underpinnings of English history and national identity to such an extent that the Normans remained the notional enemy even as late as the mid 17th century- in the popular imagination of the non-conformist and peasant revolutionaries.

    Thanks for posting this review Doug, there is so much to say about this subject so far as I'm concerned.... I will look out for the book in question.

  8. Interesting background on the fdevelopment of radar by Britain in World War II, Jim. (I hadn't known they were carrying the equipment in the planes.) One more secret to keep from the public i naddition to the breaking of the incredibly complex German military codes that were centered at Bletchley Park. More people were in on the radar secret obviously.

    Yes, I think I'd be more ceoncerned about getting one and all out of the plane (including myself) if it went down, then the radar sets. Some guys do amazing things in wartime--silly little me, I'd just be thinking about when the plane was going to explode!

    With your own background as a radio and radar technican I can see why you have focused on World War One and beyond. It is a sad fact that quantum leaps in progress on things such as the first computers and aviation improvements came only when they were needed to kill people by land, sea and air in the most scientific ways available.

  9. Thanks for adding more concrete background to economic and governing aspects of that story AA. The Domesday Book is referred to a good deal in this book, and it does say something signifigant that the Saxon systems and customs and temper could not be superseded by the Normans despite their ofte nrithless efforts. It also says something that it is Edward the Confessor and not William the Conquerer who served as the model of an English king for centuries after the events of 1066.

    It also says something about the Normans that they made the reign of the Danes seem more tame by comparison. More English earls and their underlings remained in power under King Canute and his followers. But, as you say , the character of all these invasions from Europe always led to fierce resitence and, even if not overcome, the gradual cultural absorbtion of the victors into an English identity.

    The "Normans Yoke" was indeed quite heavy as I'm sure you well know. It does speak to the character of the people that unlimited dynastic rule was challenged and overtaken by the ceremony King John was forced into by his barons at Runnymeade 150 years later. And even when dynastic power became more pronounced--say, under the Tudors and early Stuarts--the seeds of a more bottom-up (or mid-level up) type of resistence asserted it self in England in due time.