British history is often presented as one of unbroken stability and continuity. This the land that never had a revolution, the home to the mother of all parliaments, the country that dates its political history back to the Magna Carta of 1215. Sure, there was a civil war, but it was 400 years ago and didn’t we end up with a king at the end anyway?
While the United Kingdom might well be able to boast that they have never endured a revolution in the moulds of France, America or Russia, they have hardly been immune from upheavals: the English Civil War was as much a successful revolution and societal reordering as any of those that took place in 1777, 1789 or 1917. Similarly, the Brits might like to think that their civil wars have tended to avoid the mass slaughter and anarchy of other countries’ conflicts, but the popular conception is not born out by the truth: close to 4% of the English population was killed in less than a decade in the mid-17th century as the country tore itself apart over a combination of religion, politics and economics.
The themes of God, Kings and Money have been the major causes of civil conflicts in the United Kingdom and its dominions over the years, from the earliest days of what we now know as England, when the succession of royals was often met with competing claims, through the Reformation and the power struggles between Catholics and Protestants and all the way up to Industrial Age and the cleavages between workers and bosses over the distribution of wealth and power.
There is a perception that war are what have made Great Britain great, whether the heroic defence against barbarism in the Second World War, the senseless slaughter of the First World War or the colonial conquests that created the Empire on which the sun never set, but the internal wars that Brits have fought against each other have marked the modern United Kingdom as much as any of them. Let us discuss the formative civil wars that the British population know hardly anything about.
1 – Harrying of the North, 1069-70
The Harrying of the North came in a proto-England, an England that bore little resemblance to that that we know today. There is, even in the modern era, a cultural divide between the north and the south of the country, but back in the 11st century, the two major regions were in essence two different realms. The south had recently been conquered by, well, William the Conqueror, who had gained himself the sobriquet at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when he defeated (and killed) Harold Godwinson, King of the Anglo-Saxons, on the south coast. The victory had been sweet for William, and not just because his previous name was William the Bastard, a reference to his disputed parentage.
Conqueror by name and nature, William set his sights on the whole island. England in 1066 was reeling from the death of Edward the Confessor, who left no successor. His brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson had previously defeated Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, twice in September 1066 and emerged as the most likely King, only for William to land from his ancestral homeland of Normandy, in modern day France, and stake his own claim. Though Harold had been vanquished and William crowned king, the new man on the throne still had plenty to do to exercise effective control, and that was mostly to take place in the north.
The north of England – roughly corresponding to the modern counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria and Cumbria – was vastly different to the south. They had a predominantly Scandinavian background, having been previously conquered by the Vikings, and their language was all but unintelligible to southerners. For a hundred years, they had enjoyed a different set of laws, administered from York and enjoyed considerable autonomy and many of the leaders in the north had kin back in Norway and Denmark who considered England to be their domains.
Almost as soon as William was crowned on Christmas Day 1066, rebellions began in the North. All but one of the nobles who had submitted to his army after the defeat of Harold reneged on their oaths, the most prominent of whom was Edgar Ætheling. He had been elected king by the Witengamot, the council of nobles, after the defeat of Harold, but submitted to William and was taken to Normandy. When he was released he resurfaced in the court of Malcolm I of Scotland, plotting a revolt. He got the Danes and the native Northumbrians onside and forced William to act.
The King did not mess around. He headed north and took control of York, killing anyone in his way. The Danish fleet that was supposed to leave to assist Edgar Ætheling never arrived and suddenly the pretender to the throne found himself with increasingly few options. William was in no mood for mercy. He intended strike fear into his new subjects and began laying waste to the whole region. Whole villages were wiped off the map and thousands killed, with many more again perishing due to cold and hunger over the winter of 1069. Historians today have debated whether William’s actions would have fallen under the modern day definition of genocide, such was the ferocity with which he harried the North. Orderic Vitalis, who lived just a generation after the events, wrote in his history of the Norman conquest:
The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. 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. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.
The brutal treatment meted out on the North of England would serve the purpose of pacifying the region and cementing the rule of William – but once he was gone, there would be hell to pay all over again…