Wargaming: 1066 and after that – Rebellions in England Against William the Conqueror


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06 October 2022
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Words by Chris Swan. Photos by The Editor

Ten sixty six is of course one of the most memorable dates in the whole of British History – the year in which Harold Godwinson died under the blades of Norman Knights (most scholars now accept that it wasn’t an arrow in the eye which killed him) and Britain turned from a culture rooted in Germanic/Norse traditions to one of Norman/French with its feudal laws.

Most histories gloss over what came next, except to say that the transition of power was achieved in a relatively peaceful manner. In fact everything was not peaceful and over an eight year period from 1067 to 1075 there were eight rebellions in England against William’s rule with another breaking out in 1080.

Given that these revolts involved not only rebellious Anglo Saxons but also Norse and Welsh forces against the Norman as well as Normans against Normans they provide a great basis for some interesting games.

 

THE FIRST FLAMES OF REVOLTS

The first revolt occurred in 1067 and was not really against William but against his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux who had been given the Earldom of Kent. In March 1067 William returned to Normandy leaving Bishop Odo and William FitzOsbern to govern in his absence. Odo is described as both greedy and tyrannical and after only a few months his actions drove the county into revolt. This was focused around Dover and the rebels appealed to Eustace of Boulogne for help. Given that Eustace had previously been expelled from Dover by its citizens, the rebels’ appeal to him suggests just how desperate they were to be freed from Odo’s rule. The details of what happened are scarce but apparently Eustace arrived with troops and he and the rebels launched a joint attack on Dover castle while Odo was occupied elsewhere. However, Eustace soon realised that the castle was too heavily fortified for him to take and the revolt fizzled out with Eustace escaping back to Boulogne.

During the same year several Norman Earls took advantage of William’s absence to extend their lands in Shropshire and Herefordshire. Their actions caused discontent amongst the Anglo-Saxon thegns who held the land, especially one called Edric. Under his leadership Anglo-Saxon forces allied with the Welsh princes, Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, attacked and ransacked Hereford before retreating into Wales. The rebellion petered out by 1069 and Edric surrendered in 1070 and was pardoned.

Then in 1068 there were two more failed revolts. The first involved Harold Godwinson’s sons who sailed with their men from Ireland and attacked Bristol but were defeated and forced to sail off. That same year Harold’s mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, encouraged the citizens of Exeter to rebel. William promptly marched west and besieged the city. After 18 days, William accepted the city’s surrender, swearing an oath not to harm it or increase its tribute to him. The following year Harold’s sons returned, this time reputedly accompanied by 60 shiploads of men, and attacked Exeter. The Norman garrison from Exeter Castle defeated them and forced them to return to Ireland.

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THE FLAMES SPREAD

In 1069 the Norman leaders in York and Durham were killed by rebels who then allied with the Kings of Scotland and Denmark. William quickly marched north, won back control of the area and built two castles in York. Subsequently, the Danish King Swein sent a large Danish army to join the rebels for a planned attack on York but William bribed the Danes to leave. As the remaining rebels refused to face him in battle he decided to starve them out by laying waste to the northern shires using scorched earth tactics so that no further revolts could break out.

Contemporary chronicles record the savagery of the campaign and state that the scale of the destruction led to widespread famine. Records from the Doomsday Book show that 75% of the area’s population died or never returned. William’s ruthless actions became known as The Harrying of the North.

In 1070 some small scale rebellions broke out in Cheshire and Staffordshire and were quickly suppressed but in that same year Swien sent more Danish ships to England, this time to East Anglia to support the rebellion led by Hereward the Wake but they left after looting the surrounding area. Hereward was an English thegn who became involved in disputes with the Norman barons who had been given land in Lincolnshire and fought a guerrilla war against them until William captured his base on the Isle of Ely. Allegedly Hereward disappeared from history and may have been pardoned by William but Earl Morcar, who came to support Hereward, was imprisoned for life. (See my article in issue 437 of Miniature Wargames Magazine for more Information about Hereward and his revolt.)

FINAL FLAMES: REVOLT OF THE EARLS

Finally, in 1075 came the last serious act of resistance against William. Known as the Revolt of the Earls this time it was Norman nobles who challenged his rule.

Ralph de Guader, Earl of East Anglia sought permission from William who was in Normandy to marry Emma, the daughter of 1st Earl of Hereford. William refused but the couple married anyway. Subsequently Earl Ralph together with Roger de Breteuil, who was now 2nd Earl of Hereford and Waltheof, 1st Earl of Northumberland, plotted to overthrow William. Unfortunately for the plotters, Waltheof got cold feet and confessed all to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged Earl Roger to return to his allegiance and, when he refused, excommunicated him and his followers and sent details of the plot to William in Normandy. Earl Roger’s attempt to join forces with Earl Ralph’s men was stopped at the River Severn by Bishop Wulfstan leading the Worcestershire Fyrd. Meanwhile, Earl Ralph’s force encountered a much larger royal army near Cambridge led by Bishops Odo and de Montbrai and hurriedly retreated to Norwich pursued by the royalist force.

Leaving his wife Emma to defend Norwich Castle, Ralph sailed to Denmark seeking help. Countess Emma held Norwich Castle until she obtained terms for herself and her followers, who were deprived of their lands and were given forty days to leave England. She then left for her estates in Brittany. Earl Ralph did eventually return to England with a fleet of 200 ships under Cnut and Hakon but they failed to achieve anything and he fled to Brittany to join Emma from where he continued to defy William.

As punishment William deprived Ralph of all his English lands including his earldom. Roger was also deprived of his lands and earldom but unlike Ralph was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment and was beheaded after William’s death in 1087. Ironically, as a reward for exposing the plot Waltheof was also arrested and beheaded and became the only Anglo Saxon lord to be executed during William’s reign.

DYING EMBERS

In 1079 William suffered a defeat in Normandy at the hands of his son, Robert, and this encouraged King Malcolm of Scotland to launch a raid into England that lasted almost a month during which time his army devastated the land between the River Tees and the Tweed. The lack of any immediate Norman response to the raid led the Northumbrians to rebel against the rule of the Bishop of Durham who was also the Earl of Northumbria. In the spring of 1080 the Bishop was killed and William dispatched Bishop Odo to crush the rebellion and restore order.

This was the final revolt in England and as William faced a growing number of problems in Normandy he was forced to spend more of his time absent from his new kingdom. He died in Normandy at the Priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen on 9th September 1087.

 

ARMS & ARMOUR

I am sure that most readers will be very familiar with images of Norman Knights in their coats of mail and kite shaped shields and the Anglo Saxons in mail with circular shields from many publications.

The Bayeux Tapestry is, of course, the go to for period depictions of many of the combatants given that it was probably commission by Bishop Odo (not William’s wife Matilda as had originally been assumed) and was completed around 1077, so just 11 years after the conquest. This clearly shows Norman knights using their lances or spears over arm and not crouched as was usual for later knights. It also shows Huscarls with their two handed axes and less armoured Fyrd and other less well armoured Norman soldiers. The reality seems to be that most arms and armour was interchangeable, with some Anglo Saxons using kite shaped Shields and wearing helmets with nasal guards.

The Norse, of course, are usually depicted with long hair, mail coats and circular shields, waving axes (unless they depicted as unarmoured or partially naked mad men; after all one interpretation of the term Berserk means ‘without a mail shirt’). However, most were professional raiders who made their living from raids or from work as mercenaries and were highly professional warriors who would have worn the best armour and carried the best arms available.

GAMING THE REVOLTS

So there you have it, an opportunity for readers of this magazine to play games with their Norman, Anglo Saxon, Norse and Welsh armies post 1066. As the revolts were the length and breadth of England there is plenty of scope for setting them in your local area. As I live in Kent only a few miles from Rochester with its Cathedral and Castle both of which were planned and built be Bishop Odo, I decided to set my game during the first revolt of 1067 on the basis that the Kentish rebels may have inspired others outside of the Dover area to revolt. I set the game on the Hoo peninsula which juts out into the Thames estuary and is bordered on one side by the river Thames and on the other side by the River Medway. The peninsula was a known stopping place for Norse raiders and was once the location of a shrine to the Saxon Princess St Werburgh after whom a local village is named.

 

THE PREMISE

Bishop Odo has given a local Norman Lord permission to seize more land on the peninsula and having done so he has instructed his leading Knight to begin the construction of a fortification in a small town to dominate the local area and show the Anglo Saxons who’s in charge. The dispossessed Anglo Saxon Lord has had enough and raising his followers he is marching on the small town with its partially built fort and its small garrison to take back his land. To boost his forces he has hired a shipload of Norse mercenaries to join him with the promise of loot. Meanwhile the Norman Lord having been alerted to the presence of Vikings off the coast is rushing to the aid of his men in the town but will he arrive on time?

Thus we have the setting for a four player game, but it could easily be played by two or even three players, with two players controlling the Normans and one the combined Anglo Saxon and Norse forces.

The table needs to have the town with the semi constructed fort in one corner and a river running the length of the table opposite it. Other scenery can be placed as player’s desire but basically the area should be mostly good going. One possible set up is shown above.

The Forces are as follows:

  • Norman Garrison: 1 unit of dismounted Knights without horses; 1 unit of Unarmoured Spearmen; 1 unit of Crossbowmen.
  • Relief Force: 2 units of mounted; 1 unit of Armoured; 1 unit of Unarmoured Spearmen
  • Anglo Saxons: 1 unit of Huscarls; 1 unit of Thegns and Coerls (armoured Spearmen); 1 unit of Archers; 1 Unit of General Fyrd (locals with improvised weapons).
  • Norse:1 unit of Huscarls; 1 unit of Hirdmen (armoured warriors with swords, axes and spears); 1 unit of Berserkers.

OBJECTIVES

The Normans want to hold on to the village and drive off the attackers. The Anglo Saxons and their allies want to recapture the village and drive off the Normans.

 

SPECIAL RULES

The fortification is only partially built, can hold a single unit and provides no more than soft cover: It is also crossable but counts as bad going so units lose ½ of their move going over or through it.

The Norman defenders of the village are unprepared for the attack and the Unarmoured Spearmen and Crossbowmen are busy constructing the fort. So on the first move they must test to see how they react: Roll 1D6

The Relief Force: This must test to see when it arrives and in what order. Thus, on the first move Roll 1D6:

The Norse Mercenaries/Raiders: They must test to see when their longboat lands and how they disembark. Thus, on the first move Roll 1D6:

RULES FOR THE GAME

We used my own rules for the game but any suitable rules can be used. I have set out information for all of the forces using both Lion Rampant and Hail Caesar. Stats for Lion Rampant are included below and the stats for Hail Caesar can be downloaded from the TTG website.

 

LION RAMPANT

The Norman Force Defenders


 

The Norman Relief Force

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anglo Saxon Rebels


 

Norse Allies

 

HOW DID IT PLAY?

Well, it was a close run thing. The player controlling the Norman force which was defending the village decided that his mixed force of swordsmen, feudal unarmoured spearmen and crossbow men would be better off trying to defend a local church which had some low stone walls rather than partially built fortification but then thought better of it and tried to get them to leave it and failed a succession of dice rolls so they stayed there for most of the game.

The Relief force arrived piecemeal due to poor dice rolls but the warlord and his first unit of knights pressed forward and charged into the Anglo Saxon Huscarls who were advancing on the village but having taken casualties evaded back to rally. The second unit of knights wanted to charge the Norse who had just landed but refused to move before being charged in turn by the Norse Berserkers who broke them and then pursued and charged into a unit of Norman spearmen breaking them as well before running out of steam. However, the casualties they had already taken meant that when other unit of spearmen in the Relief force attacked them they were wiped out – but they had done their job having turned two of Norman units into shaken mobs meaning they would have to rally before taking any more offensive action.

With this the Anglo Saxons pressed forward together with their Norse allies and entered the village and although the Norman Warlord had managed to rally two of his battered units and the Norman defenders of the village finally left the church, it was a too late and we decided that the Anglo-Saxons had regained the village whilst the Normans were forced to withdraw and perhaps return on another day.

WARBAND FIGURES

The figures we used for our game were 40mm figures mainly Sash and Sabre sold through Old Glory UK and some 40mm figures from Colonel Bill’s but these figures no longer seem to be available. Some time ago I was lucky enough to be given some pre-painted plastic 40mm Viking and Saxon figures which simply needed a “wash” to add tone and depth to the painting. I believe that the two packs, each of which contained nine foot and a single mounted figure, originate in Hong Kong but I cannot now find who manufactures them.

The buildings were scratch built using paper scenery downloaded from the internet and adapted to size and glued over foam core structures, whilst the fortification was made using bamboo skewers and odd scraps, whilst the wattle fences were made from cheap garden fencing bought at a pound shop.

The game can, of course, be played in 28mm or smaller scales and many companies sell suitable Norman, Anglo Saxons and Norse figures including Gripping Beast, Crusader, Conquest Miniatures, Victrix Miniatures, Wargames Foundry and Footsore Miniatures to name just a few. There are also plenty of dark ages buildings in 28mm out there.

ALTERNATIVE SETTINGS

The scenario can be played out across a number of other similar settings. For example:

  • The Norman Conquest of Sicily with the Anglo Saxons and the Norse being replaced with locals and Byzantine forces.
  • Late Roman Britain, with the Normans replaced by Late Roman Forces, the Anglo Saxons with local Britons and the Norse with Saxon or Irish Sea Raiders.
  • Outremer with the Normans replaced by Saracens and the Anglo Saxons with Latin/Christian settlers and the Norse with Genoese and crusader forces or vice versa.

So, will the Anglo Saxons reclaim their lands, will the Norse get a chance to loot and pillage or will the Normans triumph over their enemies? Only the game and the Gods of the Dice will tell: happy gaming! 

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The front cover of Miniature Wargames Magazine

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One Day, One Whole Army... 

A feature from Miniature Wargames Magazine, entitled How to Paint an Entire Army in a Single Day

If you have a stack of miniatures in need of painting, preventing you from bringing anything new to the table, check out this article, where we hear from a contributor who managed to paint an entire army in a single day!

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