1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

2 comments 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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