14 October 2021

Why Britain’s north-south divide has more to do with William the Conqueror than Margaret Thatcher


On October 14, 1066, in a field near Hastings, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England may or may not have got an arrow in his eye. Bored schoolchildren since time immemorial have pored over the Bayeux Tapestry so you, dear reader, may vaguely remember the section entitled Harold Rex Interfectus Est. That’s ‘King Harold is killed’, for those of you who also slept through Latin. It features one helmeted chap appearing to have an accident with a very large toothpick, and another impaled on the ground next to a cavalryman. (Perhaps CapX will use it for this article’s picture. Nine and a half centuries is surely long enough for it be out of copyright.)

Anyway, the ins and outs of whether an arrow went in (but not out) of Harold Godwinson’s eye are less important the cross-channel crisis his death unleashed. The Normans triumphed and England was conquered. Despite the intervening 955 years, 1066 and all its associations still resonate more today with the average Englishman than the Reformation, Civil War, or the Glorious Revolution. That, according to historian George Garnett, is because the Norman Conquest brought a ‘change of a magnitude and at a speed unparalleled in English history’. The politics and economics of England today are still shaped by those pesky Gallic invaders. 

Garnett has described the Conquest as a ‘regime change’, and that reflects the profound changes to the governance, structure, and economy of England that the Norman invasion wrought. England’s old ruling class were devastated and everything from language to architecture, to how England looked and sounded was transformed.

Before 1066, the country had been governed by earls, ealdormen, and thegns whose rule dated back centuries. The Normans comprehensively replaced these Anglo-Saxon rulers. The Domesday Book – William’s comprehensive 1086 survey designed to determine who owned what, and who owed him what – highlights the extent of the changes. Of the 500 or so leading individuals identified by the Book as the King’s tenants, only 13 had English names, and of 7,000 or so subtenants, no more than 10% were natives.

Because of a combination of battles, forced exiles, or enforced subservience, those earls and thegns had given way to a not-so-noble Norman nobility. ‘England,’ 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury complained, ‘has become the dwelling place of foreigners…No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop or an abbot; new faces everywhere enjoy England’s riches and gnaw at her vitals’. William of Malmesbury: the Nigel Farage of the 1130s.

This takeover meant widespread land redistribution, and the replacement of English with Latin as the language of government documents and religious texts. It also ensured a privileged position for Normans and their descendants. Gregory Clark, from the University of California, Davis, finds that students with Norman surnames are still 25% over-represented at Oxbridge today compared to other indigenous English surnames. As Sahil Mahtani has pointed out, since the Sutton Trust estimates Oxbridge graduates earn on average £400,000 more over their lifetimes than others, this Norman predominance has present-day financial consequences. One does not have to agree with Mahtani’s (tongue-in-cheek) proposal for reparations to Anglo-Saxon descendants to acknowledge that Norman privilege is real. 

Admittedly, England was not wholly worse off for the Normans invading. As Marc Morris has highlighted, the Normans sought to end the slavery that had flourished under the Anglo-Saxons. Slaves had ‘no more status than the beasts that stood in the field’ and comprised at least 10% of England’s population in 1066. But slavery had been abolished in Normandy and William banned the trade in England after taking the throne. The Domesday Book shows a 25% drop in slave numbers in Essex between 1066 and 1086, and no evidence for its presence exists after the 12th century. Nevertheless, the Normans were responsible for introducing the nebulous concept of feudalism to England. This form of defined military service and tribute reduced the number of freemen in Bedfordshire from 700 to just 90 between 1066 and 1086. The Normans giveth and the Normans taketh away. 

The Norman Conquest also profoundly changed England’s landscape. Castles had previously hardly been seen, but at least 500 had been established by 1100. The stone towers that some of these incorporated were far larger than anything constructed under the Romans. Within a half century, every English cathedral had been demolished and rebuilt in the new Romanesque style. The scale of these was unprecedented. Winchester, for example, was the largest church north of the Alps. Though one can lament the loss of the centuries-old Anglo-Saxon churches – Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester complained, like an 11th century Roger Scruton, that ‘we wretches are destroying the work of the saints, thinking in our insolent pride we are improving them’ – it’s hardly the worst example of post-conflict rebuilding in English history. I’ll take cathedrals over Coventry any day. 

All of this came as part of a broader restructuring of England’s economy. The orientation of trade shifted away from Scandinavia and towards continental Europe. Cambridge University’s Edward Miller and John Hatcher have highlighted that English commerce expanded in size and value in the decades after 1066. This was especially with regards to wool. The Economist has labelled this ‘Brentry’ – Britain’s entry into European markets that coincided with something of an economic boom. The Domesday Book suggests the Norman Conquest had little affect on the aggregate wealth of England, and in 13 of the 26 counties for which there is decent data, the value of wealth increased. Over the following two hundred years, Britain’s economy went from strength to strength, with the number of markets more than quintupling by the end of the 12th century, and the population more than doubling to 6 million. 

Yet all this should not produce an unnecessarily Panglossian view of the Conquest. Despite the claims of your average Corbynista, the North-South divide of modern Britain has more to do with William the Conqueror than Margaret Thatcher. Parts of Northern England like Northumbria and York had ties as deep with Scandinavia and Scotland as with southern England. They were not going to accept Norman rule without a fight and soon rebelled. The brutal way in which William suppressed this revolt came to be known as the ‘harrying of the North’ – 100,000 people are thought to have died. The Domesday Book lists a third of the manors in northern counties as ‘waste’. York lost over half its population and wealth in Yorkshire fell by two-thirds. As The Economist highlighted, by 1086, no part of the country north of Birmingham had an above-average income per household. 

When the Cabinet next meets to work out what ‘levelling-up’ means, they could do worse than reflect on the historic nature of these deep divides. Though southern estates had been richer than northern ones in 1066, the former were four times as wealthy as the latter two decades later. In terms of average estate wealth, the richest county had been seven times as well off as the poorest in 1066, but this had widened to 18 times by 1086. 955 years later policymakers are still grappling with how to close this gap. William the Conqueror deserves his other sobriquet of William the Bastard for more than just his disputed paternity. 

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William Atkinson is a freelance writer

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX