William the Bastard, or as he has since been called by English writers, the Conqueror, was sixth in descent from Rollo, one of the most daring and terrible of the sea-kings about the beginning of the tenth century. The north of France was the theatre of his exploits, and in time he brought the whole sea-board under his authority. Rollo the Ganger, as he was surnamed from his activity, was, at this time, like the rest of his countrymen, a heathen, but his wild and fiery spirit was brought under the influence of the gospel by the exhortations of Franco, the Archbishop of Rouen. He renounced his pagan gods, and consented to hold his acquired territory as a vassal of the French crown. The district was henceforth known as Normandy, or the land of the Northmen.
The victory of William, at Senlac, was most complete, and obtained with comparatively little loss to the victors, but, when he led his Norman soldiers to the conquest of the north, he met with a stubborn resistance from the inhabitants of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland, which did not cease until the greater part of Yorkshire and Durham had been reduced to a wilderness.
When the news of the defeat and death of Harold reached London, the witan assembled, and contrary to the cherished expectations of William, who believed the natives would offer him the crown, Edgar Etheling, the legitimate heir of the Saxon kings was, by the unanimous voice of the council, placed on the throne. But Edgar was not only young and inexperienced, he was devoid of those abilities without which no ruler in those turbulent times could long maintain his authority. The first place in the council was assigned to Stigand, the metropolitan, and the direction of the military operations was committed to the two powerful earls, Edwin and Morcar, who had so long successfully resisted the tyranny of Tosti, whilst he held the earldom of Northumberland. Their first efforts were unsuccessful; and the confidence of the people was shaken by the feeble resistance which a numerous body of natives had opposed to an inferior force of five hundred Norman horse. William marched his army to the metropolis, even then a powerful and wealthy city, but afraid to venture on its reduction, he contented himself with burning its suburbs, and then led his troops through the adjacent counties, devastating the country, and pillaging the towns. and villages that lay in his route.
These ravages alarmed the English; and distrust in the abilities and sincerity of their leaders seized the general mind. Disunion spread among the nobility and upper classes; and Stigand seeing the futility of further resistance, hastened to throw himself on the mercy of the Conqueror. Other defections followed and all hope of successful resistance fled. Edgar, Edwin and Morcar, as the representatives of the nobility, and the Archbishop of York, with the Bishops of Hereford and Worcester, on the part of the clergy, waited on William and tendered their allegiance. The Conqueror accepted their submission, and appointed the Christmas following for his coronation, but took precautions for his safety by the erection of a strong fortress, which now forms part of the tower of London.
What might have been the character of William's government, had no untoward circumstances occurred, it is impossible now to say; but it is certain that, at the commencement of his reign, he endeavoured to ingratiate himself into the goodwill of his new subjects. He confirmed the leading nobility in the possession of their estates, and conferred many important offices on those whom the common dictates of prudence would have led him to distrust, had he contemplated any gross violation of English liberties. The ancient laws, and the mode of administering justice, were strictly preserved, for William was too politic to wound English susceptibilities by any violent changes in the system of government, before he was prepared to enforce them.
The submission of the English was, however, but specious; they only awaited an opportunity to break out into open revolt. The proud and haughty character of the Normans irritated them; they beheld, with jealousy, the erection of castles and fortresses in their midst ; and their sympathies were still more deeply wounded by the confiscation of the estates of those who had fallen in the battle of Senlac.
For some reason or other, and various ones have been assigned, to sift which is foreign to our purpose, William determined to visit his Norman home. During his absence the reins of government were entrusted to William Fitz-Osbern, and Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, and Northumbria was committed to the care of Copsi, a Saxon thane, who, in the Confessor's reign, had governed it as the deputy of Tosti. William conferred upon him the title of earl, and no truer or stauncher friend had the Conqueror than Earl Copsi. No sooner had William quitted the kingdom than the smouldering embers of rebellion broke out into open flame. Morcar and Edwin raised the standard of revolt in Northumbria; and Edric the Wild kept the Normans at bay in Herefordshire. Copsi, who had sworn allegiance to William, remained loyal to his trust, but his vassals, after wavering for a time between attachment to their lord and attachment to their country, at last joined the insurgents. Edgar Etheling, the feeble representative of the race of the renowned Alfred, hastened from Scotland; Durham was invested, and the Norman garrison slaughtered. Copsi escaped, but was shortly afterwards surprised at Newburn; he fled for protection to the church, but Osulf set fire to the building, and when he tried to escape, he was cut down by his enemy.
From Durham, the insurgents, under Edgar and Gospatric, proceeded to York, where the citizens threw open their gates; the people from the surrounding country flocked in to join their standard; and they were still further strengthened by reinforcements from Malcolm, of Scotland, and Bethwin, of Wales. They had, however, little time to arrange their plans. The Conqueror returned hastily from the continent, and at the head of a large army marched into Yorkshire, and surprised the insurgents in the city before the completion of their preparations. Morcar and Edwin, accompanied by Gospatric and Edgar Etheling, fled into Scotland, and the citizens gladly accepting offers of mercy, opened their gates to the conquerors.
After the death of Copsi, William sold the earldom to Gospatric, a noble thane, who claimed his descent from a sister of King Ethelred. But the Conqueror soon had reasons to doubt the fidelity of Gospatric, and he, therefore, transferred the earldom, or at least Durham, a portion of it, to his trusty follower, Robt. de Cumin, who, at the head of 700 horse, hastened to take possession. The Northumbrians refused to receive him for their earl, and Egelwin, Bishop of Durham, warned him of the danger which threatened him if he persisted in the intrusion. Cumin treated the episcopal admonition with contempt, and entering the city of Durham, took possession of the bishop's palace. Before the morning's dawn the English had collected in considerable force, and, bursting into the town, they put the guards to the sword. For a time Cumin, and the Normans who had fled to the palace for protection, kept their assailants at bay from the doors and windows, but the torch soon put an end to their resistance, and Cumin and his associates perished in the flames. Of the whole number, only two escaped from the massacre.
This success revived the drooping hopes of the English, and the following year (1069) the Northumbrians were again in the field under Gospatric and Waltheof. They were joined by Edgar Etheling with the exiles from Scotland, and by the Danes, whose aid they had solicited and obtained. The Danish fleet, consisting of 240 ships, anchored in the Humber, and the united forces advanced upon York. The Normans prepared for the siege, burnt some of the houses in the suburbs to annoy the enemy, but the fire spread further than was designed, and consumed the minster and its valuable library. In the confusion, the English and Danes entered the city, and put the garrison, 3,000 strong, to the sword. When the king received the news of this outbreak, and of the annihilation of the garrison, which he had left for the protection of the city, he hastily departed for the north, swearing, "by the splendour of the Almighty," that he would not leave one rebellious Northumbrian alive. Waltheof, by the common consent of the English, was appointed governor of York, and the Danish general took up his position between the Humber and the Trent, in order to check the advance of the Normans. William, with an army largely recruited from the continent, appeared before the walls of York, and at once laid siege to the city. For six months its defenders offered the most vigorous resistance, and so exhausting was the sanguinary struggle, that William found it necessary to reinforce his army again and again. A breach having been made in the walls by the engines of the besiegers, Waltheof, the governor, a man of prodigious strength, stood single-handed in the opening, and hewed down each Norman that attempted to enter. At length famine accomplished what force could not achieve, and Waltheof and his brave associates capitulated on honourable terms.
The Conqueror was one of the most daring, and courageous men of the age, and he admired bravery whenever he met with it, even though it were in his enemy. He restored Waltheof to his estates, and to his earldoms of Northampton and Huntingdon, and gave him Judith, his niece, in marriage. Gospatric solicited and obtained his pardon, and was reinstated in his earldom of Northumbria. But William determined to inflict such summary vengeance on the district as would deter its turbulent inhabitants from participating in any future revolt. He sent forth his mercenary avengers, with instructions to spare neither man nor beast. A tract of country eighty miles broad, lying between the Humber and the Tyne, was converted into a desert. The towns and villages were plundered and then given to the flames, and all the corn and implements of husbandry destroyed. Some of the inhabitants fled beyond the Tyne, others concealed themselves in the forests or escaped to the mountains, where, without food or protection from the inclemency of the weather, they died of hunger and disease. One hundred thousand men, women, and children, the monk of Malmsbury tells us, perished by this barbarous policy, and for nine years afterwards not a patch of cultivated ground could be seen between York and Durham.
Seeing the futility of further resistance, the English chieftains gave up the contest, and Edgar Etheling retired into Scotland, and subsequently became a dependant of the man that had robbed him of a crown. The following year the Scots, - then, and for centuries afterwards, the implacable enemies of England, - overran the northern counties, where they sacked and burnt the churches, and massacred the young and the aged. The strong and healthy were carried away captive, and sold as slaves in Scotland. In retaliation for this outrage, Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria, in 1070, made an inroad into Cumberland, then a dependency of the Scottish crown, drove out Malcolm, placed his own son Dolphin on the throne of the little kingdom, and then returned laden with plunder to his castle.
With the single exception of Hereward, who had raised the standard of independence amidst the fens and marshes of Cambridgeshire, William had now overcome all resistance to his authority. He felt, however, the insecurity of his position, whilst Edwin and Morcar, the two noblemen to whom the English looked as their only hope of deliverance, were allowed their unrestrained liberty, and he, therefore, endeavoured to obtain possession of them. Edwin secreted himself for some time, and then attempted to escape into Scotland. His secret was, however, betrayed by three of his vassals, and he fell, with twenty of his followers, fighting against his Norman pursuers. Morcar fled to Hereward, at whose disposal he placed his services, but the little rebellion was nipped in the bud, and Morcar, with the Bishop of Durham, was confined to a life-long imprisonment. The king's suspicions also fell on Gospatric, and he was banished from court. After many adventures, he found an asylum with the king of Scotland. His earldom of Northumbria was conferred upon Waltheof; but he too soon fell under the royal displeasure, through the perfidy of Judith, who had fixed her affections on a Norman nobleman, and was anxious to emancipate herself from her English husband. Waltheof was charged with conspiracy, and executed, being the first nobleman that suffered death in England by decapitation.