The view from Wensleydale: old paths, dry-stone walls and Norman subjugation | Will Hutton

As I parked the car a stone’s throw from Middleham Castle in Wensleydale to begin a week’s walking holiday, it never crossed my mind that this would be an introduction to the terrifying nature of England’s wholesale subjugation by William the Conqueror, whose impact has so shaped and still shapes the country. The great castles, the criss-crossing dry-stone walls, ancient paths and vast estates may define this bewilderingly lovely dale, but they are tribute to violence, oppression and top-down colonization on an epic scale. The past is never dead; it’s not even past. The political structures of domination put in place by the Normans still define how Britain is governed today.

It was not as though Saxon England – startlingly prosperous but too politically disorganized to defend itself – was any stranger to foreign incursions. It had suffered Viking raids and enforced settlement by Danish fleets and armies for centuries. In Yorkshire, these invaders lived alongside native Saxons, the three Yorkshire Ridings sending delegations to the parliament in York. However, nothing had prepared England for what happened after the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066.

William remade a country of some 2 million people in his own Norman image – he replaced its elite, recast its religion and centralized its government in his sole person as king. When the scale of this enforced feudalism became obvious there was revolt, particularly violent in Yorkshire. His response was murderous: up to three-quarters of the population of Wensleydale – as across Yorkshire – was slaughtered from 1069 to 1070, appalling even William’s Norman apologist chronicler decades later. The dale was either turned into royal hunting forests or the land was given to French-speaking, loyal Norman barons. The colonization could scarcely have been more brutal.

Timber forts, followed by virtually impregnable stone castles, were signifiers of armed occupation and stood as a warning that the Normans could slaughter once again, if given cause, then retreat to redoubts such as at Middleham. Stopping to eat sandwiches at Thornton Steward, I learned the village gained its name from a steward to one of William’s loyal barons. The Normans were now embedded in Wensleydale in earnest.

The threatening castles, land confiscation and elimination of Saxon law and parliaments were not all. The Normans did not trust Christianity as practiced by the Saxons; it was not controlled by them, insufficiently tied into Rome’s orthodoxy, and was considered too likely to incubate revolt. During the 12th century, French-based Cistercians were encouraged to set up monasteries: the orders aimed to be self sufficient and raised livestock, crops grew, mined and produced salt. They spearheaded effective land use and brought a Christianity more subservient to the new feudal order. Wandering around the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey you get a sense of the scale of what were in effect religious plantations-cum-ranches.

Some Saxon nobility, if they survived the onslaught and had the wit to bury the hatchet, could marry into the new Norman baronies. So the Nevilles became one of the biggest landowners in the north of England and were based in Middleham, where Richard III was schooled in the art of knightly warfare and married Anne Neville before being killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, which is seen as the end of the War of the Roses.

As chancellor, Sunak can behave just as the Normans did

Fifteen miles up the dale at Castle Bolton, a self-contained military factory, the Scrope family began a dynasty that indirectly lasts to this day as the Lords Bolton. Scropes were willing feudal barons – one even features in Shakespeare – and fought at Crécy (1346), Agincourt (1415) and against the Scots at Flodden (1513). They even survived overt collusion with the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, a Catholic uprising in the north against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

More than a century later, the Scropes, doughty advocates of the feudal cause, that had served them well over centuries, defended Bolton Castle as a royalist stronghold in the civil war. After the victories, Parliament ordered its destruction.

Meanwhile, the land was being snapped up for enclosure, triggering the great wall-building era and a surge in agricultural productivity. The accompanying financial surpluses helped foster the Industrial Revolution, soon to unfold in Yorkshire’s West Riding as one of the prime centers of British manufacturing.

Yet for all the onset of modernity – a railway snaked up the dale to connect with the famously stunning Settle to Carlisle line – the feudal imprint of the Normans lives on. Many locals would like the line, which was axed as part of the Beeching cuts in 1963, restored to invigorate the economy, but one woman I spoke to dismissed the idea out of hand. Today’s Lord Bolton would object, she observed, like a 15th-century peasant loyalist. He owns the land through which the line would run and damage the grouse moor business on which so much of the local economy depends.

It’s hardly surprising that Yorkshire, a vast English county with a population similar to Scotland’s, should be so central in English history and culture. What is striking is the long shadow of feudalism and its reach into today’s politics. The local MP is Rishi Sunak, a striking representative of how today’s Tory party works our political structures with their feudal Norman roots to its advantage. The establishment of the £3.6bn fund to level up disadvantaged towns and the approach to dispensing its cash are, in essence, Norman. Wensleydale, where one of the few overt signs of disadvantage is gaps in 4G coverage, is a priority area, while Hull, though in desperate social need, is not.

As chancellor, Sunak may behave just as the Normans did, conferring privileges to friends and excluding Labor “Saxon” natives, however just their claim may be. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s planned diminution of judicial review and the gifting of public offices only to Tories have echoes from William’s playbook. And all is legitimized by the social standing conferred by being allies of the apparent “natural” owners of the land, handed down over centuries. I was bewitched by Wensleydale’s beauty, but still yearn for an England less in thrall to its past. The past may never die, but we can and must do better at leaving more of it behind.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist

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