A HISTORIAN has claimed William the Conqueror’s ruthless reputation for a genocidal campaign in northern England may be due to an accounting blunder.
Dr Rob Wright said scrutiny of the Domesday Book has revealed while The Harrying of The North – a series of campaigns led by the Norman king from 1069 to put down revolts – was violent, historic documents stating every village between York and Durham was crushed are wide of the mark.
The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote in the 12th Century that King William had made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty and that more than 100,000 people died of starvation.
Shortly afterwards, Durham Priory monk Simeon of Durham wrote: “It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets and the roads, swarming with worms.
‘For no-one was left to bury them in the earth, all being cut off either by the sword or by famine ... There was no village inhabited between York and Durham - they became lurking places to wild beasts and robbers.”
Dr Wright, who is set to debunk myths about the period in a series of lectures for the environmental charity Place, in York, said much of what is known about the Harrying campaigns comes from the Domesday Book, dating to 1086.
He said many of the Yorkshire landholdings were described in the volume as 'waste', and that the word has traditionally been interpreted as meaning the land was devastated.
Dr Wright said: “But it probably means the compliers couldn't put a value on the holding and there was simply nothing for the king to tax.
“It may also have been some kind of medieval tax break, or an admission by the commissioners that they couldn't establish relevant details for whatever reason.”
He also points to the logistical difficulty of the 20,000-strong Norman invasion, some of whom would have been left guarding castles in southern England, force being able to ravage vast areas of northern England.
During his lectures at York's 13th century Bedern Hall, Dr Wright will also focus on the more positive aspects of Norman rule, including the rejuvenation of monasticism which has left Yorkshire with some of Western Europe's greatest monuments, such as Rievaulx Abbey, near Helmsley.
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