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How far do you agree that the building of castles was the main reason why the English were unable to mount a successful challenge to William’s rule?
I agree to a certain extent that the ‘building of castles’ was the main reason the English were unable to mount a successful challenge against William’s rule. Other factors which somewhat contributed as well would be: the lack of effective English leadership, uncoordinated rebellions and the ‘Harrying of the North’.
One way in which the Normans took control over an area to prevent the spread of rebellions was by building castles and fortifications. There is evidence of around 500 motte and bailey castles built during William’s reign to symbolise the Norman strength and wealth. To invade a fortified castle to regain control over land was a very hard task for the English locals. Compared to other techniques of keeping the English under control- castles appeared as political statements (geopolitical, much like the church), they always reminded the English locals of who was in charge and allowed the Normans to have many holdouts in an event of an uprising.
The castles were placed strategically at important points, mainly 15 miles apart, in the centre of towns or in locations which allowed the Normans to control the countryside or river crossings- this way, not only did William control a particular region for any opposing activity, he could also monitor what entered and left that area. Moreover, castles even acted as centres for diplomacy and were given to chosen nobles of William, so he could trust the control of an area. It also meant that William only needed a small number of Normans to control a castle, hence: control the English people. Since William and his men were vastly outnumbered by the English, castles became a major factor in William’s continuing success of holding on to his throne from 1066 to 1087.
An English weakness was the whole ‘lack of leadership’ which also meant that the English could not up rise a successful challenge against William. The English had never really fought many wars, preferring to mainly rely on politics. Therefore many of the Anglo-Saxon elite (including the earls) instead submitted to William: in the hope of keeping their lands, rather than fought him. Gospatric, earl of Northumbria (one of the leaders of a failed uprising in 1068), made terms with William in order to prevent exile and the loss of his earldom, so did Waltheof, the next earl of Northumbria in 1075. Edgar Atheling was expelled from the Scottish court in 1072 by King Malcolm. One by one, leaders of rebellions across England were giving up or being taken down to respect William’s reign. Without leaders: rebellions were hard to create and easy to destroy.
The widespread destruction in Northumbria became known as the Harrying of the North. As William rapidly marched North in 1069, responding to a recent revolt, he devastated the countryside by burning crops, looting villages, chopping the limbs off all adult males as well as slaughtering the children (so that they may not have revenge when they grow older) – this was a clear representation of his brutality but it was nothing compared to the devastated state William left York in: corpses rotting on the roads, famine and disease spreading, this certainly set an example towards the English locals: considering the fact that the land in Yorkshire was left deserted with farms empty for over 15 years! For obvious reasons: no other city or village wanted to intercept the same faith as York, therefore the rise of rebellions we’re minimised to an extent due to the fear factor that the ‘Harrying of the North’ had created. Most people were terrified by its outcomes, some of the English sided with the Normans and the rest of the English didn’t want to have to fight since they were not interested of having civil war.
Overall, I believe to certain extent that the building of castles was the main reason the English failed to mount a successful challenge against William I. Removing leaders of revolts only made it harder to create a rebellion, not ‘impossible’. Even though William pardoned a few leaders for their actions; some returned in later years with another uprising (Waltheof was eventually beheaded in 1076 due to treason). ‘Harrying of the North’ gave a clear warning to those who might oppose William’s rule, it only supressed the revolts for a short period, but they all returned in later years (East Anglia 1070, revolt of the English with the help of Norman earls in 1075 etc.).
William’s armed forces were a true symbol strength- they were superior to anything the rebels could gather, but with harsh methods came long term effects (i.e. more revolts). There were many reasons for the remaining Saxons to hate the Normans. They had been treated badly and harshly. The rebellions between 1066 and 1075 show how upset the Saxons were, Harrying of the North caused rebellions elsewhere and it destroyed the population and countryside.
However, the areas around the new castles became peaceful, since many of the risings arose from local grievances, rather than dissatisfaction with William’s rule, each castle provided work for the local Saxons and kept the areas, in which they were built in, stable. If a revolt were to rise; William’s men would have been able to move swiftly to put down trouble before it had a chance to develop whereas it could have taken days to march to an uprising (which would have risen in numbers by then). Castles were an effective method of keeping the English under control, they could last for years (some even to this day); which may have been why William had built hundreds of them around England during his reign from 1066 to 1087.
* Medieval England 1042-10228 – Toby Purser
* William the Conqueror- David Bates
* The English and the Norman conquest- Ann Williams
* Ruling England, 1042-1217- Richard Huscroft