Medieval Yorkshire

Norman Yorkshire

With William of Normandy’s victory over King Harold in 1066, the whole country came under Norman Rule. 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, 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 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 the invader and William the Conqueror kept him in custody and took him to Normandy. From there, Edwin escaped and fled to Scotland with his mother and sisters and took refuge with Malcolm III of the Scots. Edwin’s followers linked up with Danes led by King Swein II of Denmark and northern rebels. Together they overwhelmed the Normans at York. For over five years the English violently rebelled against the invading Normans, murdering the enemy and their collaborators, burning towns and destroying cathedrals. However, William’s army regained control, paying off the Vikings to return home. He then took cruel retribution on the people of the north for daring to oppose him.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate northern England in punishment for their rebellion against him. 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 lay waste 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. 

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

In 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 defenseless 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 in

Tens of thousands died at the hands of William’s soldiers and many more tens of thousands are said to have died in the wake of the famine that followed. Those who had fled and succeeded in hiding from William’s wrath, were now struggling to feed themselves and their families. There were no longer enough healthy men to tend the land and many more died of famine or disease when William’s men salted the ground so that nothing would grow. The total death toll from slaughter, disease and hunger is believed to be over 150,000. There had been death and destruction across the north, but in no other county had the devastation been as great as in Yorkshire.

Feudal System

Feudalism had existed for several hundred years in Europe. Even before the Norman Conquest, peasants in England had worked the land for their lords. 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 and feudalism was the most effective way.

William now carried out a complete replacement of Anglo-Saxon leaders with Norman ones in the North. The families who had previously held land were either deprived of their holdings altogether, or demoted to sub-tenants. He divided England into large areas or parcels of land, which were redistributed to those noblemen who had fought bravely for him in battle. They 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 if they were told to do so. Everybody had to pay their tax to the king. This meant that no lord or other nobleman 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 barons divided up the land further and gave the plots to Norman knights who had 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. This allowed some Anglo-Saxon culture to survive alongside Norman rule; in spite of the complete Norman take-over of the land, the common folk retained their own 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 
  • 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 they found in Yorkshire was that the county had been decimated. Many villages were now totally deserted and the land going to waste. In those villages still inhabited, the number of inhabitants 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:


  • 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 £0.5.
  • 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.


  • 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 in 1066 £60.
  • Value to lord 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:

  • 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 in 1066 £0.5.
  • Value to lord in 1086 £0.5.
  • Households: 6 villagers. 2 smallholders. 1 priest.
  • Ploughland: 2 ploughlands. 4 men’s plough teams

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. In the whole of an area which included Ossett, Earlsheaton, Horbury, Stanley, Crigglestone, West Bretton, Shitlington, Emley, Cartworth, Kirkburton, Shepley, Shelley, Upper Cumberworth and North Crosland  there were fifteen men remaining in total, of whom 7 lived in Ossett and 8 divided between Horbury and Crigglestone. The remaining villages had been totally laid waste and the inhabitants killed, fled or dead.

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.

Recovery was slow, but gradually West Yorkshire’s population began to grow again; new towns were founded, including Leeds, Doncaster, Barnsley, Doncaster and Pontefract.

However, there was still worse to come in the 1300s as harvests failed and the great famine took hold.

The Great Famine

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%. Mark Ormrod, co-editor of “The Black Death in England”, says that medieval society was more resilient to natural disasters like famine and plague than would be the case today. 

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, as it was later called, struck the whole of Europe and was the worst of several such famines to strike in 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: The whole of this document is downloadable from Stephen Wilson’s site and 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 a useful 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 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.

The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence (10th August) it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply the immediate household. The famine began in the month of May and continued until the feast of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8th). The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen. It could scarcely be gathered and baked into bread for the said feast day unless it was first put in containers to dry.

Toward the end of autumn, the famine was mitigated in part, but around the feast of the nativity of the Lord, it returned completely. There can be no doubt that the poor were wasting away from hunger since 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 meats were exceedingly scarce; horse meat was precious; fat dogs were stolen. And, many claimed that in many places men and women secretly ate their own and even other peoples’ children.

Johannes de Trokelowe

A pessimistic estimate is 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. See full 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.

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. However, many small medieval villages, isolated farms and hamlets had been abandoned.

Wool Trade

Yorkshire families were engaged in the production of woollen cloth, which they could combine, as a domestic industry, with the working of a smallholding. In 1400, York merchants handled half of the wool and cloth exports through Hull. But gradually things began to change, with strong competition coming from the West Riding clothiers. As cloth making declined in the Vale of York, the towns of Halifax and Bradford began to come to prominence, exporting “kerseys” to be made into clothing, all over Western Europe. Wakefield and nearby towns and villages became known for their broadcloths.

Wakefeld apon Calder ys a very quik market toune, and meately large; wel servid of flesch and fische both from the se and by ryvers, whereof dyvers be theraboute at hande. So that al vitail is very good chepe there. A right honest man shal fare wel for 2 pens a meale…Al the hole profite of the toun stondith by course drapery…It standith now al by clothyng.

John Leland, mid 1500s

To be continued

© Christine Widdall. Updated April 2018.

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