Medieval Yorkshire

Norman Yorkshire

With William of Normandy’s victory over King Harold in 1066, the whole country would eventually come under Norman Rule.

From his first established base in the south-east, King William set about imposing Norman Rule, first in the South, then the Midlands and the Welsh Marches, where castles were being built to defend his territory. However, as the Norman armies rode north, they came up against more and more opposition.

Uprising of the North

Edgar the Atheling, a young boy, was still the rightful Saxon claimant to the English throne, being the last male heir of the Royal House of Wessex, a grandson of King Edmund Ironside. Harold Godwinson (King Harold), who had the confidence of the Witan (the powerful noblemen), had seized the throne from Edgar on the death of King Edward (the Confessor). So now, with Harold’s defeat and death at Hastings, Edgar was proclaimed King by the Witan, who recognised Edgar Atheling’s claim over the claim of the Norman invader.

However, eventually the Witan turned Edgar over to William the Conqueror, who kept him in custody and took him to Normandy. From Normandy Edwin escaped and fled to Scotland with his mother and sisters and took refuge with Malcolm III of the Scots. In Scotland, Edwin’s followers linked up with the northern rebels and Danes, led by King Swein II of Denmark. Together these forces met and overwhelmed the Normans at York. For three years the northern English violently rebelled against the invaders, murdering the Normans and their collaborators, burning towns and destroying cathedrals. As William the Conqueror gradually gained supremacy, his armies undertook a ruthless campaign known today as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of “scorched earth” campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate northern England in punishment for their rebellion against him. His armies laid waste Yorkshire and the north-east of England. Yorkshire, at the time, was a land of many free farmers and people of Saxon and Viking descent. The objective of the harrying was to destroy the settlements of the northern shires and eliminate the possibility of further revolts.

Men, women and children were massacred by William’s soldiers; the stored crops, the ploughs and carts were burned, farms and homes were destroyed and the livestock was killed. Tens of thousands died at the hands of William’s soldiers and many more tens of thousands died in the wake of the famine and disease that followed, as William’s men salted the ground so that nothing would grow. 

Throughout the winter they slaughtered the people – it was horrible to observe in houses, streets and roads, human corpses rotting, for no one survived to cover them with earth, all having perished by the sword and starvation, or left the land of their fathers because of hunger. 

Simeon of Durham

Consequences of the Harrying of the North

The areas shaded on the map below show the extent of land that had been laid waste and depopulated by the Harrying of the North. (The map can be enlarged on click).

Shaded areas devastated by the Harrying of the North

Of 1069, the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, had written:

Nowhere else had William shown so much cruelty. Shamefully he succumbed to this vice, for he made no effort to restrain his fury and punished the innocent with the guilty. In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance.

In consequence, so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger. The survivors were reduced to cannibalism, with one report stating that the skulls of the dead were cracked open so that the brains could be eaten. Bodies were left to rot as there was no-one left to bury them and this eventually lead to a plague.

Orderic Vitalis

Afterwards, there were no longer enough healthy men to tend the land. The total death toll from slaughter, disease and hunger is now believed to be more than 150,000. There had been death and destruction across the whole of the north east from the Humber northwards, but in no other county had the devastation been as great as in Yorkshire.

William’s army gradually regained control, paying off the Vikings to return home and forcing Malcolm III of the Scots to sign the Treaty of Abernethy, in 1072, and to swear fealty to William.

When King William I first commissioned the Domesday survey in 1085, (see below), very little of this area had recovered and much was still depopulated.

Feudal System

William I by unknown artist, painting, circa 1620
(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Feudalism had existed for several hundred years in Europe. Even before the Norman Conquest, peasants in England had worked the land for their lords in a feudal system known as thegnage.

In Anglo-Saxon England, England, a thegne (pronounced “thain”) was a lord, ranked immediately below the nobility, who held his land directly from the king in return for providing military service. Thegns might inherit, or be awarded, title to their land.

By a law of King Ethelred II, the twelve most senior thegns of any given hundred (an area of land between a village and a shire in size) served on juries to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspected felon.

After William gained control over the whole country, he needed a way to govern the country and he also had lands in Normandy to govern. Feudalism was still the most effective way. William divided England into large areas or parcels of land, which were redistributed to the Norman noblemen, completing his replacement of Anglo-Saxon leaders with Norman ones, who had shown William great service at the Battle of Hastings.

The families who had previously held land were either deprived of their holdings altogether, or demoted to sub-tenants. The power and wealth of the thegns declined, although a few retained their position to a degree, sometimes by marrying the daughters of the new Norman overlords.

The landholders had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and had to collect taxes in their area and they had to provide the king with soldiers when required. Everybody had to pay their tax to the king. This meant that no lord could build up enough money to raise a private army to challenge the King’s authority.

The men who acquired these parcels of land would have been barons, earls and dukes and became known as the tenants-in-chief. These tenants-in-chief divided up the land further and apportioned the plots to Norman knights who had also served the King in battle. These knights had the duty to maintain law and order in their districts and keep the people under the control of the Normans.

Soon, many new motte and bailey castles were built, to enable the new overlords to rule over their territories, like the one at Mirfield, the mound of which can still be seen behind the parish church. However, many of the Norman overlords ruled from a distance and did not settle in Yorkshire.

Some Anglo-Saxon culture was allowed to survive alongside Norman rule; in spite of the complete Norman take-over of the land, the common folk retained their Anglo-Saxon language, whilst the Normans spoke French.

Domesday Book

Twenty years after the conquest of England by the Normans, King William ordered a great survey of his realm. The book would record who owed him taxes and once it was recorded, the decision would be final.

While spending the Christmas time of 1085 in Gloucester, William had deep speech with his counsellors and sent men all over England to each shire to find out what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The survey took less than a year and is a remarkable record of England in the late 11th Century. It is called the Domesday Book. The questions asked in each hamlet, village or town were:

  • How many ploughs are there in the manor ?
  • How many mills and fishponds ?
  • How many freemen, villagers and slaves are there in the manor ?
  • How much woodland, pasture, meadow ?
  • What does each freeman owe in the manor ?
  • How much is the manor worth now (1086)?
  • How much it was worth before the invasion of 1066, under King Edward?
  • How much it was worth now under King William?

…so very thoroughly did William have the enquiry carried out, that there was not a single piece of land, not even an ox, cow or pig which escaped the notice of the survey.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

What the King’s men found in Yorkshire was that the county had been decimated and the population had not recovered since the harrying 17 years before. Many villages, which had existed in 1066, were still totally deserted and the land gone to waste, with no men to work the land. In those villages that were still inhabited, the number of people was greatly depleted and the value of the area to the crown was a fraction of what it had been in 1066 under King Edward.

For example:

In villages near Wakefield, Ossett had 3.5 carucates of arable land, four villeins and three bordars, a total of seven men along with their families. Along with Horbury and Crigglestone, the three villages had a total of 8 carucates of arable land and four ploughs and a total of fifteen men.

In the whole adjacent area, which included (Earls)heaton, Horbury, Stanley, West Bretton, Shitlington, Emley, Cartworth, Kirkburton, Shepley, Shelley, Upper Cumberworth and North Crosland, all these villages had been totally laid waste and all the inhabitants killed, fled or dead from disease or starvation. The townships of Almondbury, Bradford, Bramley, Elland, Flockton, Huddersfield, Kirkheaton, Morley, Pudsey, Tong, Shipley and Southowram were also all described as ‘waste’.


Wakefield entry in the Domesday Book – Creative Commons License CC-BY-SA © Professor John Palmer & George Slater
  • Total population: 1.7 household (very small).
  • Total tax assessed: 3.4 geld units (medium).
  • Taxable units: Taxable value 92.4 geld units.
  • Value: Value to lord (King Edward) in 1066 £60.
  • Value to lord (King William) in 1086 £15.
  • Households: 9 villagers. 22 smallholders. 11 freemen. 3 priests.
  • Ploughland: 51 ploughlands (can plough). 13 men’s plough teams.
  • Other resources: Woodland 3 * 3 furlongs & 6 * 4 leagues mixed measures. 2 churches

Dewsbury was slightly larger in population but its taxable value was less than Wakefield’s:

  • Total population: 9 households (still quite small).
  • Total tax assessed: 3 geld units (medium).
  • Taxable units: Taxable value 3 geld units.
  • Value: Value to lord (King Edward) in 1066: 10 shillings (£0.50).
  • Value to lord in 1086 (King William): 10 shillings (£0.50).
  • Households: 6 villagers. 2 smallholders. 1 priest.
  • Ploughland: 2 ploughlands. 4 men’s plough teams
Dewsbury’s entry in the Domesday Book – Creative Commons License CC-BY-SA © Professor John Palmer & George Slater


  • Total population: 9 households (quite small).
  • Total tax assessed: 6 geld units (quite large).
  • Taxable units: Taxable value 6 geld units.
  • Value: Value to lord in 1066 = £3.
  • Value to lord in 1086 = 10 shillings (£0.50)
  • Households: 6 villagers. 3 smallholders.
  • Ploughland: 3 ploughlands (ploughs possible). 2 lord’s plough teams. 2 men’s plough teams.
  • Other resources: Woodland 0.5 -1 leagues.

It seems that the wasting of the north played heavily on William’s conscience, as he is reported to have confessed, on his deathbed:

I caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire. In a mad fury I descended on the English of the North like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops and all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old.

King William I

By William I’s death in 1087, the vast majority of pre-conquest landowners had been replaced by Norman overlords and their property absorbed within the new larger complexes of land, controlled by a vast network of barons, knights and castles.

Population Recovery and Life of the Peasants

Threshing – from the Luttrell Psalter – British Library [CC0]

The recovery of the population of West Yorkshire was very slow at first, but gradually it began to grow again; new towns were founded, including Leeds, Barnsley, Doncaster and Pontefract. However, the plight of the peasants remained largely unchanged, as the elite and the commoners had dramatically different rights and freedoms and the peasants, at the bottom of the hierarchy, had no means to change their circumstances…born a peasant, you died a peasant and just feeding the family was a perennial struggle.

The peasants ate mostly black rye bread and vegetables, with a little meat when it could be got. Bees would provide honey as a sweetener. In season, nuts and berries could be gathered. The women and girls would rise at dawn to milk the animals, look after vegetable plots, spin and weave to provide rough cloth for the family’s needs. Work also began at dawn for men and boys…ploughing, sowing or harvesting with the seasons, chopping wood for the fire and looking after the animals until work finished at dusk. A poor harvest meant the risk of starvation over the winter.

If they were lucky, the peasants could stay out of the battles fought by their masters and there were plenty battles in the tumultuous years of medieval England.

Stephen and Matilda

The beginning of the 12th Century was dominated by “the Anarchy”, a Royal struggle for power between King Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William I by William’s daughter…and the Empress Matilda, grand-daughter of King William I by his 4th son, King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland. Most of the battles were fought in the south but King David I of Scotland invaded the north to defend his niece’s claim to the throne. Stephen’s army, along with soldiers from Yorkshire, defeated the more numerous Scots at Northallerton.

Plantagenet (Angevin) Kings

The middle years of the 12th Century were occupied by the reign of the Plantagenet King Henry II, son of the Empress Matilda. During this time, the basics of English Common Law were introduced. In the later years of the century, Henry’s second son, Richard became king but was often absent from England at the Crusades. His youngest brother, John, became king after Richard’s death.

Although John’s reputation is almost uniformly bad, he was the first King of England since 1066 to speak English and his reign brought better administration of justice, taxation and military organisation. He also introduced chartered privileges to towns e.g. in trade and the establishment of guilds.

Among the wealthy, English now took the place of Norman French as the dominant language.

Population, Health and Societal Change

Throughout those years of turmoil, the peasantry toiled on in the same old way, but somehow more survived than died as, during the 12th and 13th Centuries, the population of England more than doubled, perhaps helped by warmer temperatures and certainly by good harvests.

Blood-letting occurred for more than 2000 years up to the 19th Century.

In Yorkshire’s West Riding, the wool trade began to grow and commerce developed. In 1185, Temple Newsam, just outside the town of Leeds, had the first fulling mill in England. Domestic woollen production was revolutionised by the spinning wheel at the end of the 1200s and the cottage industry was born.

In spite of the increase in population, life expectancy was still only 30-35 years. One in five children died before their first birthday and death of the mother in childbirth was common.

Almshouses and hospitals were founded, to take care of the sick and the poor. However, there was little knowledge about what caused disease…so it was easy to put the blame on God, luck, sin, bad smells, witches or the Jews. In spite of this lack of basic understanding, some treatments had been found to be efficacious. The application of wine was found to help the healing of wounds, opium could ease pain, bones could be splinted and some surgery existed, including amputation of limbs and trepanning the skull for madness (see article on madness). Blood-letting, to fight illness, was a practice that existed for two millennia until the 19th Century.

At the end of the 13th century, harvests began to fail and a great famine took hold in the early 14th century.

The Great Famine 1315-17

Famine and starvation were regular occurrences, as were diseases related to malnutrition. The country had already suffered a famine during the early years of the 14th century, which had reduced the population by between 10% and 15% but the years 1315 -17 brought a natural disaster greater than before.

The conditions for farming in the early 1300’s were often desperate and perhaps this was one of the reasons for the changes and for prosecutions and fines of the earlier 14th Century. The Great Famine of 1315 – 1317, struck the whole of Europe and was the worst of several such famines to strike during the 14th century.

It began with poor weather conditions in spring 1315 and continued for more than two years with devastating effect. Not surprisingly, because the harvests had been largely decimated, there was little to eat and starvation on a massive scale with life expectancy dropping to an even lower level than its norm. Between 1301 and 1325 people were fortunate to reach the age of thirty.

In the History of Sowood Farm, by Alan Howe: downloadable from It gives a fascinating and detailed history of an Ossett manor and farm throughout the centuries.

Johannes de Trokelowe wrote his Annales, including the period 1259 to 1296 and also an account of the reign of the Plantagenet King Edward II, from 1307 to 1323. He wrote:

In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land…. Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings [In 1313 a quarter of wheat sold for five shillings.], barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was quite unheard of. The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence [August 10] it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household….

The dearth began in the month of May and lasted until the feast of the nativity of the Virgin [September 8]. The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen. It could hardly be gathered and used to bake bread down to the said feast day unless it was first put in vessels to dry. Around the end of autumn the dearth was mitigated in part, but toward Christmas it became as bad as before. Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine. Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while. There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry….

…Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day. The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children…. In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land. Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder.

A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings (in 1313 a quarter of wheat sold for 5 shillings), barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was unheard of.

Father Johannes de Trokelowe “Annals”

It has been estimated that 25% of the population died from the effects of famine between 1315 and 1317. The harvest failed again in 1321, just as families were beginning to recover from the effects of the great famine…and the tax returns for 1334 indicate the relative poverty of the West Riding compared to the North and East.

The Great Pestilence or Black Death

The Black Death swept across Europe was responsible for the death of more than a third of the whole population. The plague entered England in 1348. Spreading rapidly across counties, it reached the West Riding in 1349 where it would kill up to half of the population, bringing numbers down again to not much more than existed at the time of the Domesday Book. This period is described in more detail in my article on the Plague here.

The Poll Tax

The poll tax was a tax per head, rather than on goods. It was levied just three times, in 1377, 1379 and 1381. Each time the basis was slightly different. In 1377, everyone over the age of 14 and not exempt had to pay a groat (2p) to the Crown. By 1379 that had been graded by social class, with the lower limit raised to 16, (and 15 two years later). Exemption of the poor means that about 40% of inhabitants of any village or town were not counted. Because they were poor, they would not be recorded as making wills either. Perhaps Manor Court records might pick up a few errant poor people, but on the whole, unless a family had a certain level of means, they do not appear in records from this period.

The Peasants’ Revolt

The Poll Tax of 1381 was the final straw for many peasants. Richard II’s government imposed a poll tax where everyone over the age of 15 had to pay one shilling, regardless of rank or wealth, to help pay for the war with France (the Hundred Years’ War). Meanwhile wage rises were severely limited. The better off had no problem paying a shilling, but the poor peasants, tied to working on the land, were unable to raise the tax. If they couldn’t pay in money, they could pay in goods or implements, such as seeds, tools etc., but these were vital to the survival of a farmer and his family for the coming year.

Death of Wat Tyler (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Non-payment invoked harsh punishment and eventually the peasants were driven to revolt. Uprisings began in the south and spread all over the country, soon spreading to cities like York. The peasants destroyed tax records and registers, and removed the heads from several tax officials, along with burning buildings and targeting priests and lawyers, whom they blamed for their plight.

Revolting peasants were led by Wat Tyler and his Kentish rebels. At a tense meeting in London between peasants and King, just outside London’s city walls, the King is reputed to have cried “I am your King…I will be your leader. Follow me into the fields”…he promised that the estates of the church would be confiscated, all lordships except the King’s would be abolished, and all the rebels would be pardoned. With this, Richard persuaded the mob to break up. However, the leaders were rounded up and most were eventually executed, including Wat Tyler whose “head was removed, just above the shoulders” and displayed on London Bridge.

Afterwards the King declined to keep the promises made, arguing that they were not valid as they had been extracted under duress. However, the Poll Tax was withdrawn and life returned to normal.

The Peasants’ Revolt may not have immediately liberated the people of West Riding towns, but it was, in some respects, a defining moment, the beginning of the end of the Feudal System.

Fifteenth Century

During the 15th Century, as a result of the decline in the population, more land had become available for those who were able to take it on and farm it. Consequently, there was a rise in the number of wealthy farming families with sub-tenants and the economic situation of the rural population generally improved.

Population change in Yorkshire

Taxation and other records provide a “best estimate” of the population of Yorkshire at a given year. The population of Yorkshire’s West Riding:
Year: Number
1290 : 127,371
1377 : 87,049 ( 1347 Black death )
1600 : 197,498 (Rise of the Wool Trade)

In contrast, the East Riding’s population almost halved between 1290-1600 and the North Riding shrunk by a third.

Where to now?

There’s lots of choice for to browse next…from plague and Civil War to the history of wool and cola mining in the area. There are easy links below…or re-visit the main menu for family sories and social history. It’s up to you!

© Christine Widdall. Updated Jan 2022.