The view from Wensleydale: old paths, dry-stone walls and Norman subjugation | Will Hutton
ONWhen I parked the car a stone’s throw from Middleham Castle in Wensleydale for a week’s walking holiday, it never occurred to me that this would be an introduction to the terrible nature of the widespread subjugation of England to William the Conqueror, and its implications so shaped and shaped the country as before. The grand castles, criss-crossing dry stone walls, ancient pathways, and vast country estates may define this bewilderingly beautiful valley, but they pay homage to violence, oppression, and top-down colonization on an epic scale. The past is never dead; it’s not even over yet. The Normans’ political structures of rule still determine how Britain is governed today.
It was not as if Saxon England – surprisingly wealthy but too politically disorganized to defend itself – was alien to foreign ideas. It had suffered Viking raids and forced settlement by Danish fleets and armies for centuries. In Yorkshire these intruders lived with native Saxons, and the three Yorkshire Ridings sent delegations to Parliament in York. However, nothing had prepared England for what happened after the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066.
William recreated a country of about 2 million people in his Norman image – he replaced his elite, reformed his religion and centralized his government in his sole person as king. When the extent of this enforced feudalism became apparent, a revolt broke out that was particularly violent in Yorkshire. His reaction was grueling: up to three-quarters of the population of Wensleydale – as in all of Yorkshire – were slaughtered from 1069 to 1070, which decades later horrified even Williams’ Norman apologist chroniclers. The valley was either converted into royal hunting forests or the land was given to French-speaking, loyal Norman barons. Colonization could hardly have been more brutal.
Wooden forts, followed by practically impregnable stone castles, were signs of the armed occupation and warned that the Normans might slaughter again when the occasion arises and then retreat to entrenchments like Middleham. When I stopped at Thornton Steward’s to eat sandwiches, I learned that the village got its name from a steward to one of Williams’ loyal barons. The Normans were now seriously embedded in Wensleydale.
Threatening castles, land confiscation and the abolition of Saxon laws and parliaments were not everything. The Normans did not trust Christianity as practiced by the Saxons; it was not controlled by them, was insufficiently integrated into Rome’s orthodoxy, and was considered too likely to spark insurrections. In the 12th century, Cistercians resident in France were encouraged to establish monasteries: the orders aimed to provide for themselves and raise livestock, grow and mine grain, and produce salt. They led effective land use and brought a Christianity that was subordinate to the new feudal order. Strolling through the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey will give you a sense of the extent of what religious plantations and ranches were really like.
Some Saxon nobles, if they survived the onslaught and had the brains to bury the hatchet, might marry into the new Norman baronies. So the Nevilles became one of the largest landowners in the north of England and were based in Middleham, where Richard III. trained in the art of knightly warfare and married Anne Neville before he was killed in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, which marked the end of the War of the Roses.
As Chancellor, Sunak can behave just like the Normans
Fifteen miles down the valley at Castle Bolton, a self-contained military factory, the Scrope family began a dynasty that indirectly continues to this day as Lords Bolton. Scropes was willing feudal lords – one even appears in Shakespeare – and fought at Crécy (1346), Agincourt (1415) and against the Scots at Flodden (1513). They even survived open collusion with the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, a Catholic uprising in the north against the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
More than a century later, the Scropes, valiant defenders of the feudal cause who had served them well for centuries, defended Bolton Castle as a royalist stronghold during the Civil War. After the siege, Parliament ordered its demolition.
In the meantime, the land was robbed for enclosure, sparking the era of the great wall construction and an increase in agricultural productivity. The accompanying financial surpluses helped fuel the industrial revolution that soon unfolded in Yorkshire’s West Riding as one of the main centers of British manufacturing.
But despite the dawn of modernity – a railway meandered up the valley to connect with the famous breathtaking line from Settle to Carlisle – the feudal character of the Normans lives on. Many locals would like the line deleted in the wake of the Beeching cuts in 1963 to be restored to stimulate the economy, but a woman I spoke to turned down the idea. Today’s Lord Bolton would disagree, she observed, like a peasant loyalist of the 15th century. He owns the land that the pipeline would run through and damage the bog business on which much of the local economy depends.
It is hardly surprising that Yorkshire, a vast English county with a population similar to Scotland, should play such a central role in English history and culture. What is striking is the long shadow of feudalism and its reach in today’s politics. The local MP is Rishi Sunak, a prominent proponent of how today’s Tory Party is shaping our political structures with their feudal Norman roots to their advantage. The establishment of the £ 3.6 billion fund to compensate for disadvantaged cities and the approach to spending money are essentially Norman. Wensleydale, where one of the few obvious signs of disadvantage is gaps in 4G coverage, is a priority area while Hull, while in dire social need, is not.
As Chancellor, Sunak can behave just like the Normans by granting privileges to friends and excluding Labor “Saxon” natives, however fair their claims may be. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s proposed curtailment of judicial review and gifting of public office only to Tories has echoes from Williams’ playbook. And everything is legitimized by the social status bestowed by the allies of the apparently “natural” owners of the land, which have been passed down over centuries. I was enchanted by Wensleydale’s beauty, but I still long for an England less fascinated by its past. The past may never die, but we can and must do better to leave more of it behind.
Will Hutton is an Observer columnist