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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1652: Captain James Hind, royalist highwayman

1 comment September 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1652, James Hind, a highwayman who preyed on Roundheads, was drawn and quartered for treason.

Famed throughout the realm for his dashing heists on the roads, Hind was the subject of no less than 16 printed pamphlets of the nascent popular press in the early 1650’s, which magnified brigand’s feats, oratory and persona into a sort of populist Cavalier superhero: Marvel Comics for the woodcut age.

The highlights of Hind’s adventures receive rapturous attention from the Newgate Chronicles:

  • Setting upon Oliver Cromwell shortly after the execution of Charles I, his partner Thomas Allen being taken in the affray;
  • An amusing duel of Biblical citations while robbing regicide Hugh Peters, resolved in the characteristic manner of such impasses by reference to which disputant holds the gun.

    “Pray, sir, make no reflections on my profession; for Solomon plainly says, ‘Do not despise a thief’; but it is to little purpose for us to dispute. The substance of what I have to say is this: deliver thy money presently, or else I shall send thee out of the world to thy master in an instant.”

  • Any number of pleasing episodes with lesser personages suitable for the gallant highwayman — ladies charmed but un-pillaged, paupers subsidized, and always, wicked Parliamentarians chastened. Several excellent Hind anecdotes are gathered by Gillian Spraggs here.

As to the veracity of this stuff, the Captain himself suggests a pinch of caution.

A Gentleman or two, desired so much favour of [the gaoler], as to aske Mr. Hind a civil question; which was granted. So pulling two books out of his pocket, the one entituled, Hind’s Ramble, The other Hind’s Exploits, asked him whether he had ever seen them or not: He answered, yes; And said upon the word of a Christian, they were fictions: But some merry Pranks and Revels I have plaid, that I deny not.

But Hind’s adherence to the Stuart cause was real enough, or at any rate something he had the 17th century media savvy to play up. At his execution, he professed pleasure in having targeted Roundheads for most of his crimes, and it was not theft that saw him to the scaffold, but treason. He made free royalist talk upon his arrest, proposing a toast to the exiled king that otherwise sympathetic guests were too cautious to take up.

Hind fits symbolically into the tradition of the romantic outlaw of Robin Hood stock, and anticipates the 18th century rogues’ gallery of noble brigands fighting a doomed rearguard against capitalism. Hind’s acts, criminal by any standard, are justified by the illegitimacy of the society he preys upon; he embodies at once a social and political rejection of the nascent mercantile England, and a biographical realization of its actuating mythos — personal aptitude and acquisition,* with a cover story for why his victims had it coming.

Neither did I ever wrong any poor man of the worth of a penny: but I must confess, I have (when I have been necessitated thereto) made bold with a rich Bompkin, or a lying Lawyer, whose full-fed fees from the rich Farmer, doth too too much impoverish the poor cottage-keeper: And truly I could wish, that thing were as little used in England amongst Lawyers, as the eating of Swines-flesh was amongst the Jews.

A dead-end position — just like James Hind himself.

* In a supposed rhapsody over gold forced from the hand of John Bradshaw — yet another regicide; Hind seemingly met them at every turn — our robber rather has his cake and eats it too in extolling and condemning lucre.

Ay, marry, sir, this is the metal that wins my heart for ever. Oh! precious gold, I admire thee as much as Bradshaw, Prynne or other such villains, who would for the sake of it sell our Redeemer again, were He now upon earth.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Notable for their Victims,Outlaws,Public Executions,Treason

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