How far was the failure of rebellions in England in the years 1068 to 1072, due to a lack of unity amongst the rebels?

After William Duke of Normandy became the first Norman King of England in 1066, there was still severe instability within the country.  Between 1068-1072 there was the threat of rebellion against William however there was no victory for the rebels.  Lack of unity among the rebel forces played an important part in the failure of the rebellions; however it acted only as an important emphasis upon the immensity of William’s military response.

In the Northern Rebellion of 1079 disunity among the massing rebel forces played a huge part in their defeat.  There were so many forces involved; Scots, Welsh, Danes and Anglo-Saxons that one true motive could not be defined.  The problem was that all of the forces other than the Anglo-Saxons were interested purely in land and treasures, and it was greed that fuelled their motivation to aid the rebels, which contrasted greatly with the Anglo-Saxon motive of wanting to rid England of the Norman influence.  The motive of the aiding forces is proven by Source A which states that “ William and Sweyn came to an agreement and the Danes left with all their treasure” which is a clear representation of the greed which fuelled the aiding forces, and a symbol of the disunification of the rebellion motives.  This is backed up by Source C which states that “rebels dispersed and the Danes retreated”; this shows to an extent that the sources are agreeing with each other in regards to the disunity of the rebels, as there was a clear lack of motivation and unity as the rebels dispersed.  However this disunity was not only apparent at the rebellion of the North in 1079, it was also clearly present during the earl’s revolt of 1075-1076.  There was a certain unity among the earls, as Ralph de Gael of East Anglia and Roger de Breuteil of Hertfordshire, shared a unity , which although they were Norman, was found in the fact that they detested the unfair distribution of power which William had installed, even after they had aided him in his victory at the Battle of Hastings, de Breuteil especially resented William because of the fact that “ he had the rank of an Earl without the substance of an Earl’s power” as stated by the historian Lewis.  The unity of the earls in this rebellion was comprised however by Earl Waltheof of Huntington, who although he was implicated in the Rebellion, reported the entire plan to William in the hope that he would escape penance, this failed and he was consequently beheaded in May 1076.  It was this disunity between Waltheof and the other Earls that subsequently lead to the failure of the rebellion of the Earls in 1075-1076.  It is clear to see that the lack of unity amongst the rebels played a huge part in the failure of the rebellions against William and his Norman influence; this is supported by the sources which clearly show the disunity of the rebel motives, with many of the aiding forces being lead by greed and having been easily paid off.  Contrastingly it is also important to note however that this disunity was emphasised by the lack of leadership in the rebel forces and also by the mighty military force with which William responded.

It was the lack of leadership which lead to the decisive defeat of the rebellion at Exeter, which was besieged by William and his forces for 18 days continuously.  Although the rebellion has a certain unity about it, in that the people were united in their motivation to depose William and the huge Norman influence which shadowed England (most likely as a response to recent tax increases) they were greatly weakened by the fact that there was no clear leader of the forces.  There had been plans to join the rebellion mounted by the sons of Harold Godwinson, lead by his eldest son Godwin Haroldson , this however did not happen most likely due to the lack of leadership and the inability to form a structured military response to William’s forces.  However, this is not supported by the sources as being an important reason for the failure of the rebellions.  All three of the sources mention numerous leaders, who aided the rebels in their organisation, gaining support, and while this may not have been true at the rebellion in Exeter, it was certainly true of the other rebellions which took place.  Source A details that “Roger of Hereford and Ralph of Norwich plotted rebellion, “supported by Source B which states that “Earl Roger and Ralph were leaders of the rebellion” and concluded by Source C which states that there was a “rebellion lead by Edwin and Morcar”.  All three of these sources show that there was clear leadership throughout the rebellions, excluding the rebellion at Exeter.  Furthermore it is known that a rebellion in the south west Marshlands at Ely, in which William had to employ new tactics, was lead by Hereward the Wake in 1070-1071, and while this rebellion was defeated it was by no means down to a lack of leadership.  Certainly it must therefore be argued that a lack of leadership was certainly not the most important reason for the failure of the rebellions from 1068, and this is supported to a great extent by the sources which are given.

The response of William to each of the rebellions with which he was faced, differed depending on their severity, but one thing that did not change was his unflinching determination, to stop those who opposed him and finally establish an integral and continuously stable Norman kingdom.   The sources by large support the idea that William’s military response was brutal, annihilating any chance of another uprising from occurring, and ensuring that the people were well and truly demoralised.  Source B especially depicts that William was “making no effort to restrain his fury and punishing the innocent along with the guilty”.  This is affirmed by the Domesday Book, which detailed that 80% of the land from Peterborough to York was classed as waste land, the year after the harrying of the north took place, which is a representation of the might and sheer brutality with which William responded to the rebellions.  This in itself would support the idea, that due to the militaristic brutality of William’s response, it would have been nigh on impossible for the rebel forces to withstand such an impact, upon their already disunited forces.  Source A however differs to quite a large extent regarding the brutality with which William responded.  It appears to be suggesting that William never once used unnecessary brute force, as it is stated that the rebels at Ely were “ given back his lands”, and that while the Danes allied themselves to the rebels “ William and Sweyn came to an agreement  and the Danes left with all their treasure”, however it is known that while the Danes were paid off with treasures, William firstly laid waste to much of the land which they were inhabiting within England, and pursued their forces with a demonic determination.  Source A does represent however that William was on occasion , although very rarely , lenient in his punishment of those who rebelled against him, which is true once again in the case of the Exeter, at which William did not massacre them, but imposed the presence of a castle within their city walls.  There is a certain agreement between the sources A and B that the response of William to the rebellions which he faced, was brutal and uncannily savage, which is supported by artefacts such as the Domesday Book which detail the aftermath of his Harrying of the North.  It must therefore be argued that William’s military response to the rebellions , was so brutal, so unforeseen, that the rebels had little chance of withstanding such force, and that it therefore played a role of great importance of the failure of the rebellions which rose against him.

To conclude, it is clear to see that the “lack of leadership “of the rebellions was in fact overstated, and that while this lack of leadership was present at Exeter, it was not in fact present at the other rebellions which took place, as is supported by many sources such as the Ecclesiastical History by Orderic Vitalis, which clearly show an abundance of leaders which attempted to form a structured rebellion against the Normans.  There was however a clear , and seemingly immense disunity among the rebel forces, which emphasised the sheer brutality of the Norman military response, and while the disunity of such forces as those at Exeter and the rebellion of the North played a huge part in the failure of the rebellions, and cannot therefore be understated, King William’s response to the rebellions , such as his harrying of the north, were unprecedented and unforeseen responses which lead to an immeasurable level of destruction in their wake.  It must therefore be argued that it was the militaristic determination and brutality of William which played the greatest part in the failure of the rebellions from 1068-1072.


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