To what extent is the ‘Harrying of the North’ responsible for the contemporary economic disparity between the North and South?

James – Year 13 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 13 student James submitted this fascinating essay on William the Conqueror‘s Harrying of the North to the Peterhouse College, Cambridge, annual Vellacott History Prize essay competition. James’s essay was a competition winner: as the judges noted, “[t]he standard of entries was high, but the judges felt that your essay stood out for its clarity of argument, stylish prose, level of research, and originality of thought.” This competition requires entrants to first propose their own question, avoiding subject content previously or currently being studied as part of any history curriculum that they have been following. As stated in the competition guidelines, “[t]he strongest essays will analyse critically a wide range of sources to address the chosen question and reach a substantiated conclusion. There will be clear evidence of independent research and the application and evaluation of relevant theories and concepts.” This is James’s fifth essay published in The GSAL Journal: read more from James here. CPD

To what extent is the ‘Harrying of the North’ responsible for the contemporary economic disparity between the North and South?

‘Up North’, medieval technology couldn’t cut it; literally or figuratively. A hilly relief, which, other than the Vale of York, was not conducive to intensive agriculture; a dearth of navigable rivers on which to ply commercial trade; and considerable physical distance to the European markets, all materially hampered economic growth. Beset by such disadvantages, the economic potential of the North of England was stymied long before William I took the throne. The origins of the economic divide between it and the South were long established.

Those same obstacles would suppress economic development in the North until the new technologies of furnace and factory ignited the Industrial Revolution. Only then did economic inequality between the regions begin to reduce. But such respite was temporary with de-industrialisation in the late 20th century opening up old economic wounds with the North failing to match the runaway financial success of London and its hinterland.

The ‘Harrying’ is an important historical footnote; a short, sharp and very bloody shock but one which has little bearing upon the presence or seriousness of the contemporary economic divide between north and south in 21st century Britain.

Military might and political expediency

The hard hitting military campaigns orchestrated by William the Conqueror between 1069-70, collectively known as the ‘Harrying’, were designed to subdue opposition to Norman rule, north of the Humber. By the autumn of 1069, it was clear that disrespect for Norman rule in Northern England was accelerating (Morris).

A concerted uprising in 1068 led by the Earls Eadwine and Morcar, King Bleddyn of Wales, Eadric the Wild, Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar Aetheling (who gave the uprising legitimacy on account of his kinship to Edward the Confessor) caused William to respond violently.

This was followed by the murder of Earl Cumin in Durham during the anarchy on 31st January 1969, a man given control of land beyond the River Tyne and who was killed after ‘the Northumbrians who had banded together burst in through all gates, and rushed through the whole town killing the earl’s companions’ (Simeon of Durham). This incited yet another uprising, York was besieged and William was forced to quell the revolt in battle.

Seizing his chance, King Swein relaunched Viking involvement in England and a fleet of 240-300 ships commanded by his brother Asbjorn reached the Humber in August 1069. The Northern rebels could at last see a substantial challenge mounted to Norman rule.

York was destroyed on 21st September 1069 with 3,000 Normans slain and William, ‘filled with sorrow and anger’ (Orderic Vitalis) raised an army to confront this threat. The Danes frustrated William repeatedly. To settle the matter, William ‘secretly promised a large sum of money’ (Orderic Vitalis) to Asbjorn in exchange for the departure of his fleet, allowing him to focus on his domestic enemies in the North.


Having faced three uprisings within two years, William sought to exterminate Northern opposition and ‘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’. This was to ensure that no army could support itself. So fierce was the destruction caused by the policy of ‘slash and burn’ that a terrible ‘famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger’ (Orderic Vitalis).

The North was devastated; it was ‘plundered and utterly laid waste’ according to Orderic Vitalis and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The campaign was an orchestrated sabotage of resources; labour, land and capital, in order to prevent the North from rising against Norman control ever again.

The Domesday Book records that nowhere north of Birmingham had an income per household higher than the national average. Damage wasn’t uniform across the North but it was profound; 36-7% of vills in the West Riding were wholly or partially waste, 57-8% in the North Riding and 37-8% in the East Riding. Pre-conquest, Northallerton was valued at £80 but reduced to ‘waste’; Hutton Rudby declined from £24 to £1 6s 8d, and Howden from £40 to £12 (The Economist, 2016).

Economic struggles continue

The Pipe Rolls of Henry II hold Yorkshire (£440), Northumberland (£240) and Cumberland (£114) to account for £794 out of a total of £11,553; they contributed 6.8% of the total revenue notwithstanding that they made up over 20% of the country geographically (Jewell).

By the 1330s, the North remained impoverished with northern counties containing assessed wealth under £10 per 1,000 acres, compared to the rest of the England (excepting Cornwall) where wealth exceeded £10 per 1,000 acres in all parts and in excess of £18.50 per 1,000 acres in most (Jewell).

The 1524-5 taxation indicates that the North paid significantly less tax than the South. Most of the North paid under 9s per square mile. South and east of the Severn-Wash line, most areas paid over 20s per square mile (J. Sheail as referenced in Jewell).

Later still, the ship money assessments of 1636 reveal that from a total of £186,000, Yorkshire contributed £12,000, Lancashire £4,000, Northumberland £2,100, Durham £2,000 and Cumberland and Westmorland combined £1,400. In total, the North provided just 11% of the total amount raised. There is no doubt that the North was markedly less wealthy than the South throughout the entirety of the Medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods (Jewell).

Was the ‘Harrying’ to blame?

Was William I responsible for the economic gulf between North and South which emerged? In short, no, because such a theory fails to understand the relatively swift recovery of the North from the ransacking and the London-centric dynamic of the contemporary economy.

Loss of life across the North was massive but 100,000 deaths were quickly offset by rapid population growth of 2.1% between 1086 and 1377 in the northern counties.

London accelerates

In the later medieval period, London established itself as the entrepot of England, aided by proximity to Baltic and Mediterranean markets. In particular, the Hanse Trading League established a steelyard upstream of London Bridge in 1320. London’s meteoric rise catapulted the South to great wealth and prosperity, directly at the expense of northern towns.

By 1300, London handled over a third of all English trade and no other port could rival it. Resources were drawn from the wider hinterland. Henley, Oxfordshire and Faversham, Kent bloomed as grain depots for domestic merchants whilst commercial meadows on the Lea expanded to sustain the plethora of draught animals in the city. The cycle of prosperity, abetted by a first-mover and pre-existent population advantage, drew ever more people to the synergistic mercantile markets of the capital.

Unlike the wider, slower moving rivers in the South, faster flowing rivers in the North confined trading activity to coastal regions of the Tees, Tyne and Humber. Greater distance from the Mediterranean and Low Countries continued to render northern ports peripheral.

There was some modest wealth generation during this time period with Newcastle and East Riding averaging an assessed wealth of £10-19 per square mile due to their coastal ports. York and Beverley reached £30 but these were notable exceptions (Jewell).

Even subsequent northern growth was often parasitic upon London demand with Newcastle’s coal exports to London doubling every fifteen years between 1565 and 1625. Government did not intervene or redistribute London’s wealth. Dominance of the capital became so great that in 1655 merchants from Leeds, York and Hull attempted to establish a direct mercantile relationship with Hamburg, for ‘London had almost engrossed all the trade of the nation into its own hands.’ (Jewell)

Factory and furnace

The North was to benefit massively from the Industrial Revolution; great prosperity in cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Bradford came from coal, steel and textiles. By 1750, the North was the focal point of heavy industry. Mechanisation brought a rapid increase in industrial output to the West Riding and Lancashire and ports at Hull, Liverpool and Newcastle.

In 1750, 2.5 million pounds of cotton were imported into England, most of which was handled by cottage industries in Lancashire. By 1787, 22 million pounds was cleaned, carded and spun on machines; mechanised cotton spinning increased worker output by a factor of 500, creating a greater demand for the raw product. Manchester became ‘Cottonopolis’ (‘Cotton Town’, Blackburn with Darwen).

Likewise, coal became a second cornerstone of northern prosperity, with output increasing across the major coalfields of County Durham, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire. Output from the south Lancashire coalfields rose from 78,000 tons in 1740 to 680,000 tons in 1800 (Jewell). Concentrated labour resulted in greater population density and high rates of natural increase. Between 1700 and 1800, the population of Lancashire grew from 238,000 to 694,000.

Industrialisation in the North significantly increased Britain’s prosperity both in terms of GDP and GDP PC. Real wages doubled between 1819 and 1851. Over the next century, the North depended almost entirely on industry for employment, with whole towns directly or indirectly employed in a single industry.

Suffering returns

De-industrialisation and globalisation resulted in massive reductions in industrial employment across the country. In 1966, 40.15% of the population were employed in the secondary sector but by 1996 this was just 22.42% (ONS, April 2019). This decline resulted from a combination of out-dated technology, high labour costs, uneconomical business models and poor demand. Between 1960 and 1990, employment in the coal industry fell from 607,000 to 49,000 ( and Barnsley MBC). In the steel industry it fell from 323,000 in 1971 to under 100,000 by the 1990s (ONS, January 2016). Exposed as it was, the North took the brunt of the hardship (New Statesman, January 2013).

London and the ‘knowledge economy’

London and the South didn’t rely on heavy industry and benefitted from a more concerted policy of regeneration. By far the most successful Enterprise Zone was Canary Wharf. Following the ‘Big Bang’ in 1986, the financial markets of London ‘exploded’ with major global banking and financial institutions moving to exploit  new opportunities presented by financial deregulation (

London’s ‘knowledge economy’ attracted the best workforce; draining talent from all over the country including the North (Rustat Conference Report). High wages supported a London lifestyle that incentivised in-migration. The London Stock Exchange, global banking, professional services and surging house prices propelled London and its hinterland to the status of a truly global city. Nowhere in the North could compete.


The ‘Harrying’ of the North had no bearing upon the Industrial Revolution, consequential economic development nor the decline which followed. It was the advancement of technology which enabled the North to be exploited in a way that was not possible in the medieval period. Savage though it may have been, the ‘Harrying’ did not prevent innovation and heavy industry.

Ultimately, the ‘Harrying’ was a symptom of a pre-existing North-South divide, geographical and political rather than a new cause of economic disparity. Regardless, London became the economic powerhouse in a definitive shift that was at the expense of northern cities.

Medieval technology couldn’t tame the North. Victorian industrial technology enabled a renaissance during the Industrial Revolution but ultimately, the impacts of de-industrialisation were too harsh and the locational and economic disadvantages of the North too great to keep pace with London and its hinterland. William I may have terrorised the North for political reasons but his infliction of a brutal ‘slash and burn’ policy a thousand years ago doesn’t explain the economic gulf that we see today.

James 740167


1.         The North-South Divide: The Origins of Northern Consciousness in England: (Jewell)

2.         Ecclesiastical History: (Orderic Vitalis)

3.         Ecclesiastical History: (Simeon of Durham)

4.        The Norman Conquest: Marc Morris


5.         2015 Rustat Conference Report, Jesus College, Cambridge




9.         Kingfisher Historical Atlas of Britain





14.       Cotton Town: Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council

15.       Barnsley MBC Report 04/04/06


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