On “Villains” and true villainy – The Harrying of The North

Hi folks I wrote this post, originally to the Facebook page a few days before Waitangi day, some time back. To my overseas readers, Waitangi day is New Zealand’s national day. 6th February is the anniversary of the 1840 signing of an agreement between most of the Maori tribes of New Zealand (no Tuhoe ever signed it), and the British crown. In the following decades, in spite of the treaty, Maori got screwed. Land wars and confiscations, the systematic destruction of their culture, systemic racism. The undermining of their lifestyle combined with new, European illnesses – Let’s just say European colonization did not go well for Maori. In recent decades, government have made some amends via Waitangi treaty settlements. Being a little worried certain social media ‘friends’ may say “well there you go, we paid them billions – the whole thing is a big old gravy train” I did point out the loss of one’s sovreignty, of 96.5% of your land, of invasions and confiscations, being barred from public facilities – being forced to speak in another language and forget your old ways… seeing your population dwindle; decades of being treated as second class citizens.
All for payments totalling an equivalent of 3 months government spending on superannuation – well, to me it hardly seems a gravy train really. Fearing a lose-lose at the time if I ran a New Zealand story I ran with a tale of one group of white folk colonizing another, and invited folk to draw the parallels themselves… much to my shame I must say. All the same, the tale of the Harrying of the North is history worth remembering, parallels (and there definitely are some) or not. Simone (2020 edit).

“They built castles widely throughout this nation, and oppressed the wretched people. And afterwards it continually grew very much worse. When God wills, may the end be good” – Translated from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

On 14th October 1066, two armies clashed in a field in one of the most decisive battles in English history. On one side William, Duke of Normandy – a man who claimed lineage from the Viking warrior Rollo; reared as French aristocracy, and like many Frankish adventurers without his own direct line to a throne -on the lookout out for opportunities (by the end of the 11th century 12 of the 15 nations which made up medieval European Christendom would be ruled by Frankish aristocrats). He had around 8,000 troops backing him up. On the other side, King Harold Godwinson, still catching his breath having defeated Harald Hardrada hundreds of miles north at the battle of Stanford Bridge. The ensuing battle was bloody by the standards of the day, with approximately 6,000 casualties. In the end William, henceforth William the conqueror won, owing to having cavalry and archers on his side, where Harold did not.

Initially life for most of England’s population, around 2 million at the time, would not seem too different; however soon after William’s coronation, his thousands of followers, bolstered by several thousand newly arrived Normans, began to demand their own piece of the pie. The Normans began building castles across the country and taking what they saw fit to take from the local population. By 1068 revolutionary movements, tired of being oppressed, arose in Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. When York was sacked by angry locals William, now with a political excuse to let his people pillage to their hearts’ content, ordered a counter attack; a scorched earth massacre known as The Harrying of the North, 1069 – 70. Modern historians increasingly class the Harrying as a genocide, though even close to his own time chroniclers saw it as a remarkably vicious act. Orderic Vitalis writing 50 years later… translated to modern English…

“The king stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent, with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.”

Using the sacking of York as justification, the Normans seized most of the land, and wealth in the country. Whole villages perished, still desolate generations later. There had been several thousand major English landowners prior to the Harrying; months after only four large native land owners remained. Approximately 5,000 nobles were stripped of their titles. Many English widows were forced to marry Norman invaders.
Within a generation a landowning nation, built largely on consensus had become an oligarchy ruled by 250 Normans, with William’s own family retaining control of 20 percent of the land.

What happened to English culture? Though a Christian nation their churches were razed, and replaced by large, Romanesque buildings. For hundreds of years their saints banned, and reliquaries destroyed. Their clergy replaced by French and Italian prelates. Their written language all but disappeared, replaced in official works by Latin. French became the official spoken language of those in power.
Some may have heard the term the Golem effect. In short we too often become that which others define us as, and if a people are systemicly treated as an underclass… well, some of thoe people will oblige their oppressors. The word “Villain” has always seemed a little case in point for me. In 2020 a villian is the antagonist in a tale, a moustache twirling bad guy. This owes much to the dehumanizing of those the Harrying of the North dispossessed. The word Villain originally described what we now call villagers. Post the Harrying of the North, the villages overfilled with fugitives, renting whatever accommodation was available to them- according to the numbers recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 (England’s first comprehensive census) England had 109,000 Villains – to the Norman conquerers an underclass of 109,000 scum; rebellious, coarse in manners – the kind of criminals who would trash a town like York given half a chance. A sizable underclass, who a generation ago were the respectable landowners.

But things got better right? We speak English now. Well yes, to a degree. Like many European countries, the bubonic plague of the 1340s made native Labour more costly. The peasants revolt of 1381 did not end serfdom, but it was one of a number of tipping points which led to a gradual English renaissance. A class system, however, favouring those of Norman lineage has largely survived. Thomas Paine commented on it, Karl Marx wrote of it. Even the 19th Century Tory Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli commented on England being two nations, “one of the rich and one of the poor”. A 2011 survey, according to Historian (and, yes, smug Brexiteer) Robert Tombs showed a noticable disparity of wealth exists to this day between those with Norman surnames like Lacey and Glanville, over the English Smiths and Shepherds. These things leave deep wounds when two groups start the race on different starting lines. We tend to carry the stamp of our ancestors heavy disadvantages.

Yes I did dodge Waitangi day when I wrote this, please take this post as intended – I’m not claiming we all have faced oppression so one group should get over it… quite the opposite. My goal was to state oppression is multi-generational, and leaves one group heavily disadvantaged. As I did when originally writing this post in 2019, I invite all readers to delve into the works of our legit historians, be that Keith Sinclair, Claudia Orange, James Belich, Michael King or a host of other writers. It can be downright dystopian, but you will be better off for knowing what happened.

Thomas Gore Brown, New Zealand’s former Governor.

Originally posted Waitangi day 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited in 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T Whitlow.

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