Northumbria was not a peaceful location in 1069. For a start Edgar the Athling and Gospatric were over the border in Scotland awaiting an opportunity to make William the Conqueror’s life difficult. Gospatric was descended from Aethelred the Unready and was made Earl of Northumbria by William the Conqueror after a string of earls beginning with Copsi in 1067 were killed. A large sum of money changed hands for the title but Gospatric rebelled against William in 1068 and was forced into exile.
William the Conqueror decided that it was better to appoint someone who was not homegrown to the job and to this end Robert Cumin or de Comines was now made Earl of Northumbria. He is thought to have come to England at the time of the Conquest with a party of Flemings but beyond that not much is known about Cumin. The new earl set off to claim his territory with between 500 and 900 men according to Morris.
Simeon of Durham chronicles the resulting mayhem. Cumin and his men seem to have been intent on rape, pillage and destruction. They had under estimated the northerners.
The inhabitants beyond the Tyne prepared to flee when they heard news of Cumin’s activities but were prevented by severe snow falls. At which point they decided that since they couldn’t flee they would kill Cumin. The Bishop of Durham who hadn’t been above a spot of plotting himself now hurried off and warned Cumin of his intended fate. It is said that Cumin was warned not to go to Durham but ignored the advice. Cumin took himself to Durham where his men continued their campaign to win hearts and minds with a spot of looting and murder.
Inevitably the Northumbrians got into the city and killed Cumin’s men presumably assisted by the disgruntled locals. Cumin who was staying in the bishop’s house was trapped but well defended by his men. The Northumbrians dealt with this conundrum by setting the house on fire. And so ended 31st January 1069 with the death yet another Earl of Northumbria. The Orderic Vitallis now wrote that the English “gained confidence in resisting the Normans, whom they saw as oppressors of their friends and allies.”
Once the north had risen in rebellion it wasn’t long before it spread south in the general direction of Yorkshire. The governor of York castle and his men were put to the sword – presumably they were away from home -and the exiles in the Scottish court now took their opportunity to return. The sheriff in York managed to get a message to William telling him of the rebellion and stating that unless he received reinforcements he would have to surrender. The Orderic Vitallis and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle agree that William virtually destroyed York amidst the ensuing slaughter and after that sent men into Northumbria to exact vengeance for the death of Robert Cumin.
Meanwhile many of the magnates who had taken shelter in Scotland had managed to evade capture or death. These earls and powerful men sent envoys to Denmark and King Swein – who saw an opportunity. The summer of 1069 was not pleasant. A Danish fleet that may have numbered up to 300 vessels arrived in the Humber. William packed his wife off to Normandy and decided what to do next. He ultimately bought off the Danes and set upon the harrying of the North. Simeon of Durham described people eating cats and dogs. The Orderic Vitallis was “moved to pity” the people.
Morris, Marc. (2013) The Norman Conquest. London: Windmill Books