William, certainly, seems to have thought that Swein’s departure marked the end of the matter. At some point towards the end of the summer or in the early autumn, the king left England and sailed to Normandy. On the Continent, trouble was brewing: in particular, there was disturbing news from neighbouring Flanders, his wife’s homeland, where a succession dispute was threatening to descend into civil war. On the other side of the Channel, by contrast, all seemed quiet. ‘At this time,’ say Orderic Vitalis, ‘by the grace of God, peace reigned over England, and a degree of serenity returned to its inhabitants now that the brigands had been driven off … No one dared to pillage, and everyone cultivated his own fields in safety and lived contentedly with his neighbour.’
‘But’, adds Orderic, ‘not for long.’ He was obliged to qualify his remarks because, once again, a new revolt was fanned from the ashes of the old. William seems to have assumed that, with the departure of the Danes, their English supporters would melt away, or be easily mopped up by local commanders like the redoubtable Abbot Turold. But the English resistance in the Fens proved extremely difficult to eradicate. It was no accident that the Danes had chosen to establish their camp at Ely, for in the eleventh century (and for many centuries thereafter) the town was an island, surrounded on all sides by marshes and accessible only by boat. With the Danes gone, Ely’s inhabitants were left feeling nervous, imagining that their collaboration would be punished with violent repression. According to the Gesta Herewardi (a far from reliable witness, but the only source that attempts to explain the genesis of the revolt), the abbot of Ely feared that he would soon join the growing list of English churchmen ousted in favour of Normans. Naturally, the monks looked to Hereward himself for help, and he in due course came to their assistance. But, as subsequent events show, it was not only the local hero and his band who responded to Ely’s call. From all across the kingdom, other desperate men began to converge on the Fens. ‘Fearing subjection to foreigners’, says the Gesta, ‘the monks of that place risked endangering themselves rather than be reduced to servitude, and, gathering to themselves outlaws, the condemned, the disinherited, those who had lost parents, and suchlike, they put their place and the island in something of a state of defence.’
The Ely revolt might still not have amounted to much had it not been for the simultaneous action taken by earls Eadwine and Morcar. The two brothers had played no part in the English rebellions since their speedy submission in the summer of 1068. Indeed, they had played no discernible part in politics of any kind, all but vanishing from the subsequent historical record. A royal charter, probably drawn up in the spring of 1069, shows they were still at court and being accorded their titles. But to have called Eadwine ‘earl of Mercia’ or Morcar ‘earl of Northumbria’ must have been tantamount to mockery, for they plainly exercised no real power at all in their respective provinces. Rule in the north was now split between the Norman castellans of York and the recently rehabilitated Gospatric. Mercia, meanwhile, was governed by its new Norman sheriffs, supported by the garrisons of new castles at Warwick, Nottingham, Shrewsbury and Stafford. As early as 1068 Eadwine’s authority had been seriously compromised by the establishment of rival earldoms centred on Hereford and Shrewsbury for William fitz Osbern and Roger of Montgomery; since the start of 1070 it had been dealt a further and probably fatal blow with the creation of another new earldom based on Chester and given to Gerbod, one of the Conqueror’s Flemish followers. A comment by Orderic Vitalis that the two brothers had received the king’s forgiveness in 1068 only ‘in outward appearance’ rings true; one suspects that thereafter they may once again have had some form of restriction imposed on their freedom. Whether William’s return to Normandy in 1070 heralded some temporary weakening of such constraints, or whether because, as John of Worcester has it, they feared being placed in stricter custody, Eadwine and Morcar decided to make a break. At some point during the winter of 1070–1 they stole away in secret from the king’s household and set about trying to raise rebellion.
It soon became apparent, however, just how far their fortunes had sunk, for it seems that no one rallied to their cause. Since the Norman takeover the brothers had failed in that most fundamental of a lord’s tasks, namely protecting their own men. Where had Eadwine been when the Conqueror’s armies had ravaged the Midlands, or Morcar when the north was harried? In this respect their behaviour compares unfavourably with that of Earl Godwine, who refused a royal order to sack his own town of Dover in 1051, or with King Harold, who rushed to Hastings in 1066 partly because his own tenants were being terrorized. During the years 1068–70 the two earls had left their followers to face either death or dispossession at Norman hands. The fact that the brothers probably had little freedom of action in this time might engage our sympathy, but can have been no consolation to those who had lost their lands or their relatives.
The failure of the earls’ rebellion reduced them to the status of fugitives; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says evocatively that the brothers ‘travelled aimlessly in woods and moors’, and at length, says John of Worcester, they elected to go their separate ways. Eadwine went north, intending to reach Scotland and the other English exiles; Morcar went east to join the rebellion at Ely. It seems very likely, judging from the proximity of their lands in Lincolnshire, that Morcar counted Hereward among his commended men. If so, the outlaw was one of the few men on whom the earl could still count.
The flight of Eadwine and Morcar and the latter’s arrival at Ely were probably the crucial factors that decided William to return to England in 1071 in order to deal with the revolt personally. Sadly we are extremely poorly informed about the king’s movements during this particular year, so we cannot say precisely when this happened. Nor do we have any precise account of the military action that ensued. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, followed closely by John of Worcester, says that William called out both naval and land forces in order to mount an attack from all directions: ships were used to blockade the island on its eastern, seaward side, while to the west his army constructed a causeway or pontoon bridge to enable an assault across the marshes. When it comes to the details of the assault, however, our reliable sources are unforthcoming. According to the Gesta Herewardi, the Normans made several attempts to storm the island but on each occasion were driven back by the superior military skill of Hereward and his followers. By way of total contrast, another twelfth-century source, the Liber Eliensis, would have us believe that the Normans, led by William himself, mounted an entirely successful attack across the bridge and put the defenders to flight. There is little to be said for either of these two accounts: the Gesta is compromised by its determination to entertain its audience and to cast Hereward in a favourable light, while the Liber is simply a horrendous Frankenstein’s monster of a text, stitched together from bits and pieces of other chronicles wrenched out of their original context. Its account of the storming of Ely is interesting only because it seems to draw on the lost ending of William of Poitiers. (Who else would start their account by seeking to assure us that Eadwine and Morcar had never enjoyed greater favour and honour than they had received at William’s court?) It may be, therefore, that there is something to be said for the story that the Normans mounted a successful attack.
The Liber apart, however, our sources agree that the siege was ended by an English surrender. ‘The king took their ships and weapons and plenty of money’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and did as he pleased with the men.’ Bishop Æthelwine was placed in custody at the abbey of Abingdon, where he died the following winter. Earl Morcar was also held in captivity for the rest of his life, a sentence that lasted far longer. As for the others who submitted to William, says John of Worcester, ‘some he imprisoned, some he allowed to go free – after their hands had been cut off and their eyes gouged out’. The only figure of note to escape these punishments was Hereward, who refused to surrender, and contrived a remarkable escape, stealing away undetected through the Fens with those who wished to go with him. ‘He led them out valiantly’, says the contemporary D Chronicle, demonstrating that Hereward’s heroism was not merely the product of later legend.
Orderic Vitalis, when he read William of Poitiers’ account of the fall of Ely, rejected it entirely. Morcar, he maintains, had been doing no harm to the king, who had tricked him into surrendering with false promises of peace and friendship. Orderic goes on to tell us that Earl Eadwine, when he heard the news of Ely’s fall, vowed to continue the fight, and spent six months touring England, Wales and Scotland in search of the support that would help him free his brother. But here Orderic is almost certainly wrong, relating a legendary pro-Mercian version of the story that may have been circulating for some time. Other more closely contemporary sources, such as the Chronicle, suggest that even before the siege of Ely had started, Eadwine was dead. The theme common to all accounts is treachery. ‘Three brothers who were his most intimate servants betrayed him to the Normans’, says Orderic, in what sounds like a passage borrowed from an epic poem. The earl, we are told, was caught beside a rising tidal stream which prevented his escape, and killed along with his small band of followers, ‘all fighting desperately to the last’. So ended the house of Leofric, brought down by those they had failed to protect, who could see no further hope in resisting the Normans.