Castle Corner: how Norwich Castle was at the heart of the revolt against William the Conqueror

11th century Norwich Castle under seige by William the Conqueror

At the time of the Revolt of the Earls, Norwich Castle was little more than a fortified building site, which withstood a siege by the King's army for three months. - Credit: Nick Arber

As Norwich Castle transforms under the Royal Palace Reborn Project, we take a peek at some of the pivotal moments in the castle’s timeline.

In a series of weekly interviews, we return to the roots of East Anglia, led by Lee Warden from Norwich Castle on a fascinating journey of discovery about how our fine city came to be.

This week we learn about the Revolt of the Earls and the fates of the lords that planned to overthrow King William. We also discover how, in its infancy, Norwich Castle withstood a siege for over three months, thanks to one woman’s determination and bravery.

Q: What was the Revolt of the Earls?

A: The Revolt of the Earls was a plot against King William I, to dethrone him and restore England to Anglo-Saxon rule. King William had been in power for over 10 years and had stripped most Anglo-Saxon leaders of their titles and lands, replacing them with Norman aristocracy.

The French earls had supported the Norman invasion and had asked in return, that once crowned King William give them lands and titles in England. 

Q: Who led the revolt?

A: Ralph de Guader, earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, was the first to suggest the treasonous plot. He was appointed constable of Norwich Castle, to oversee its construction while William the Conqueror was away.  

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At this time, no stone had been laid, but the groundworks for the castle were underway. The site had been fortified using timber logs and the mound for the castle built.

Norwich Castle under siege during the Revolt of the Earls in East Anglia

Medieval sieges were dangerous environments - metal headgear was a must! - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

Ralph had been an eager supporter and financier of King William’s plans, but relations soured when the King did not approve of the earl’s marriage to Emma Fitz-Osberne. Still, the young couple were wed, and it’s rumoured that it was at his wedding feast that Ralph first spoke of the revolt.

He shared his plans with Emma’s brother, Roger de Breteuil (the Earl of Hereford) and the last remaining Anglo-Saxon lord, Waltheof, the Earl of Northumberland.

Q: Why did the earls conspire against King William I?

A: The earls were angry that King William had stripped them of their influence to centralise his power. They felt little more than groundskeepers, there to care for his castles when he voyaged to France.

The plan was to take back control of England and split the country into three kingdoms, one for each earl.

Emma de Guader, the countess of Norwich, defended Norwich Castle against King William I

The actions of the countess of Norwich, Emma de Guader, were the only true success of the revolt. - Credit: Andy Peters

Waltheof used his connections to inspire the remaining Anglo-Saxons to rebel and to encourage Sweyn, the King of Sweden, to sail with his Viking fleet and assist in the takeover. The earls would use their armies to attack King William on multiple fronts, in Hereford, East Anglia and Northumberland. Ralph de Guader also rallied forces in Brittany, meaning that King William would face attack from all sides.

Q: Why did the Revolt of the Earls fail?

A: It seemed like a foolproof plan, until Waltheof betrayed Ralph and Roger, and informed the King’s bishop of the plot. The King had already pardoned Waltheof twice, and fearing what may happen if they were caught, the earl decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

William the Conqueror was known for his brutal punishments towards anyone that crossed him. Upon learning of the revolt, he ordered his forces to attack, swiftly ending the rebellion before it even emerged.

Q: What happened to the earls that led the revolt against William the Conqueror?

A: Ralph de Guader’s men were captured near Cambridge by warrior-bishop Odo of Bayeux. The rebels were imprisoned and had their right foot cut off as punishment for treason. Ralph escaped and fled to Brittany, leaving his wife Emma de Gauder behind at Norwich Castle.

Roger de Breteuil was captured, stripped of his powers, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He remained there until King William died in 1087 when guards removed him from his cell and beheaded him.

Waltheof went into hiding, fearing that Roger, or Ralph, would come after him. King William informed the earl of their defeat and declared it safe for him to return. However, unwilling to pardon him for a third time, Waltheof was soon apprehended and beheaded for his role in the conspiracy. He was the only Anglo-Saxon that King William beheaded. Though he killed many in battle, once the fight was over, he never executed any of them. He realised that if he did, then the Anglo-Saxons would never accept his rule.

Q: What became of the countess of Norwich, Emma de Guader? 

A: Abandoned by her husband Ralph, Emma de Guader was left at Norwich Castle when the King’s army came for her. Emma and her loyal soldiers successfully defended the castle, that was little more than a fortified building site, against them for over three months. This was an incredible feat achieved through sound military tactics and brave and effective leadership.

She was far better than the other earls at resisting the King, and her actions were the only genuine success of the Revolt of the Earls. After three months, when her husband failed to return with additional forces, she appealed for peace. In return for giving up Norwich Castle, she asked for safe passage back to Brittany. She was given 40 days to leave the country and was later reunited with her husband at their castle in France.

King William attempted an attack on the de Guader’s Castle in France but failed. Ralph had much support in Brittany from other allies that resented the Normans, seeing them only as ruffian Vikings. It forced King William to retreat to England and resign his campaign, leaving Emma and Ralph to live out the rest of their days in peace.

Emma’s actions are still remembered, and she is a truly fascinating character and integral part of Norwich Castle’s history.

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project is making great progress. - Credit: Norwich Castle

Q: How did the Revolt of the Earls help to solidify King William I’s rule?

A: During the rebellion, both Norman and Anglo-Saxon soldiers took up arms to end the rebellion. This legitimised William the Conqueror’s rule and showed that most of England were behind him.   

Though the Vikings sailed to England with over 200 ships, carrying 14,000 men (a greater force than The Great Heathen Army that first took over England), they realised they had arrived too late and did not wish to fight King William in open battle. Instead, they raided and ransacked York, burning it to the ground before leaving to return to Sweden.   

The Revolt of the Earls was the final opposition to King William’s rule. As the matter was dealt with so efficiently and mercilessly, it deterred anyone else from trying to challenge him again. Unopposed, William the Conqueror’s kingdom grew, leading Norwich to become one of his most thriving cities.  

Norwich Castle Royal Palace Reborn Project is supported by local businesses

Local businesses, trusts and supporters of the Royal Palace Reborn Project. - Credit: Heritage Fund / Norwich Castle

 

Work on Norwich Castle continued, and though the structure wasn’t completed until 1121, after King William’s death, it became a sparkling diamond in the King’s crown, and an essential part of his global trading market, wealth and success.   

To discover more about Norwich Castle’s vibrant history and Norman life in East Anglia, visit museums.norfolk.gov.uk/royalpalacereborn.   

Head to Norwich Castle's blog to learn more about the artist of the castle illustrations. 

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