When Settle was a wasteland

Researching content for new pages on this website always results in some unexpected, sometimes fascinating, sometimes terrible, historical stories being dug up. Working on the Settle page was no exception.

The Yorkshire Dales, in the middle of which Settle nestles, is a National Park, a gem that attracts thousands of visitors to marvel at its geographical wonders. The hills of the Three Peaks are close by, the Settle to Carlisle railway is renowned for crossing some of the UK’s most breathtaking scenery, sheep dot the hillsides amid the drystone walls and limestone crags. The area has been settled for hundreds of years.

So I had not expected to find that Settle was dismissed as a “waste” in the Domesday book. Other places got a mention as tiny hamlets or burgeoning towns. What happened to Settle and the surrounding area? Why was it a wasteland in 1086?

What I discovered was a story of revenge, inhuman cruelty, brutal massacre and destruction lying within the now peaceful and idyllic fells.

1066 and all that

In 1066, William the Conqueror had wrested what he thought was rightfully his – England – from King Harold Godwinson. With Harold dead on a hill at Hastings, William took the crown and his Normans took the country. Peace reigned, surely? Well, not quite. Just because he had beaten Harold and been crowned in London didn’t mean the rest of the country just fell in line. And there were others who either thought they had just as good a claim on the throne, or felt some leverage could be gained over William.

William’s rivals

Where to start? There was the fearsomely named ‘Eadric the Wild’of Wales who did not take kindly to having his lands taken by a Norman. Then there were Harold’s sons, who began armed raids from Ireland in 1068. The people of Exeter rebelled. Malcolm III, King of Scotland, started to make incursions from the north. And, most dangerous of all, the Vikings hadn’t given up. Sweyn II of Denmark backed up his claim to the throne with a 200 ship invasion in 1068, occupying much of East Anglia and Northumbria, which included Yorkshire at the time. The city of York even had the audacity to open its gates to Sweyn, greeting him as a liberator.

So William had to keep fighting, dashing across the country to put out the fires, and he wasn’t pleased.

The Conqueror is coming, and he’s not happy

In 1069 he came north, backed by a huge army, to finish off the Vikings once and for all. He fell upon York and Yorkshire like a mad man, his army unleashed on a calculated and ruthless slash, burn and starve campaign that would devastate the countryside. Everything that stood or moved was burned or killed. Men, boys, animals, towns and villages perished. Bodies were deliberately left to rot in the fields and on the highways. Many of those who survived the massacre died of starvation or disease in the famine that followed. York was burned to the ground in retribution.

Yorkshire was, quite literally, laid waste.

There’s no doubt that his policy was successful. Northern England never again threatened King William in the same way. But the devastation was so complete that even 15 years later, when the Domesday survey was carried out in 1086, the area around Settle was still described as a ‘waste’.

So, when you visit the lovely town that is now Settle, and take in the beautiful countryside, tread gently and with respect. All that it is now has grown out of the carnage of a Norman, determined to make England his own, and brook no opposition.

Leave a Reply