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1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

May 31st, 2009 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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2 thoughts on “1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria”

  1. It is believed Waltheof is buried in Crowland Abbey. He gave the village of Barnack, including the quarry to the Abbots of Crowland Abbey. The stone was used to build the monastery(also Ely Cathedral) We have found mason’s marks on a wall built about 1140, one of which could be Waltheof’s coat of arms. A recognition that he provided the stone? Has anyone his coat of arms because the wall is badly eroded?

  2. My belief is that Walthleof was the real Robin Hood. I’ve been researching for years now, and he checks out. He has so much in common with hood and if your interested to learn more, look for yourself. I’m sure you will feel the same.

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