1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

On this day in 1076, William the Conqueror had Northumbrian Earl Waltheof II beheaded for treachery — the only major noble executed by the Norman king.

Waltheof in the comics! (Or see him trade up to battle-axe here.) According to Reality Fiction, Waltheof had a colorful afterlife as a literary character whose reputed exploits grew more prolific with age; he was a popular saint in the next generations. Some also consider Waltheof a possible ancestor of Robin Hood.

When the Norman Conquest brought William the Conqueror to power, the nobles didn’t know the Normans would be able to keep what they’d won … and being nobles, they started plotting.

Multiple revolts shook the northern marches where Waltheof had his domain, and the burly Northumbrian, according to skald Thorkill Skallason, was a Norman-killing machine.

Waltheof burned a hundred
Of William’s Norman warriors
As the fiery flames raged;
What a burning there was that night!

Our day’s principal made nice with the Conqueror and even got dynastically wedded to William’s niece, Judith.

But his fame as a warrior and strategically positioned estates soon had conspirators wooing him for another run at rebellion — the Revolt of the Earls, which would turn out to be the last serious resistance to the last successful invasion of Britain.

Waltheof either (accounts are radically at odds) signed on and then got cold feet, or got entrapped into it, or didn’t join but also didn’t report it when he found out, or got shopped for political reasons by his Norman bride. (Judith, suspiciously, got to keep his huge tracts of land after Waltheof lost his head for the property-confiscating offense of treason.)

Whatever the case, he was soon obliged to throw himself on the mercy of the king. He got a royal wife as his first prize for a brush with treason. His second prize was, he was decapitated.

Waltheof is supposed to have made such a delay at the scaffold with the Lord’s Prayer that the headsman got impatient and lopped off his dome after the words “Lead us not into temptation.” Devotional legend says that the severed head completed the prayer.

Thorkill Skallason remembered the last English earl still keeping it real under William’s rule.

William crossed the cold channel
and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed
noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England
will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof
Will never be seen on earth.

Another quarter-millennium elapsed before another English earl — Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster — was put to death in the realm.

Waltheof’s story is told in detail in the context of The history of the Norman conquest of England, available free from Google books, and directly from the relevant primary documents here.

2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.