Waltheof, Last Saxon Earl

From The Book Cassell's History Of England Volume I
From Cassell’s History Of England Volume I

Earl Waltheof’s foray into the history books was unlucky and unhappy. From beginning to end, it seems like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and never managed to live up to his destiny.

Waltheof was the younger son of Earl Siward, who died when Waltheof was only 10 years old.  His older brother Osbeorn was killed in the battle of Dunsinane, and his father died the following year.  Because of his extreme youth, the earldom was given instead to Tostig Godwineson, and it is possible that Waltheof  received a monastic education in the interim.  It wasn’t until the Northumbrian revolt of 1065 that Waltheof was granted the southern part of the earldom, or Middle Anglia, and he was given the title Earl of Huntingdon.

By all indications, Waltheof was not involved in the Battle of Hastings since he retained his earldom after 1066.  He may have briefly served as a hostage for William the Conqueror; perhaps this is where he met Eadgar Aetheling and chose to champion his cause in the last of four Northumbrian uprisings in 1069.  By then, Eadgar had fled to Malcolm III’s court in Scotland, and together Eadgar, Waltheof and a party of disgruntled thanes met with an invading force of Danes and destroyed the Norman garrison in York.  Waltheof’s exploits in beheading the fleeing Normans with his great axe have been recorded alongside his warlike ancestors.

Alas, the raiding party could not organize a defence against the wrathful King William, who Harried the North in a devastating scorched earth reprisal that scattered his enemies and forced Waltheof to submit to his mercy.  For the moment, Luck was with the earl, for William gave him a second chance and even married him to his own niece Judith (though perhaps Waltheof’s Norman wife was placed to keep an eye on him).  After two years Waltheof was made the first earl of Northumberland (not to be confused with Northumbria which was much larger) and reigned from 1072-1075.

Unfortunately, Waltheof managed to get himself involved with an ill-fated Revolt of the Earls, thought better of it and rushed to confess his role to William.   The Norman King seemed to forgive him in face of his timely confession, and William finished off the other Earls and made short work of the revolt.  However, an untimely appearance of another Danish fleet in the Humber must have given William pause, and he kept Waltheof in close confinement.  Alas for Waltheof, his wife Judith publicly accused him of complicity and after several months he was declared a traitor and sentenced to be beheaded.

The last Saxon earl was executed May 31, 1076 on St. Giles Hill, Winchester.  In an excess of piety and atonement, Waltheof threw himself on his knees and burst into prayer.  It was said that the executioner got tired of waiting for him to finish and struck off his head while in the midst of the last sentence.  Witnesses swear that his severed head finished with “but deliver us from evil. Amen” clearly and distinctly.  It wasn’t long before the unhappy Saxons started to treat him like a Saint.

But all did not end with Waltheof’s execution.  He was survived by a daughter Matilda, who eventually married David, King of Scotland and son of Malcolm III.  From this marriage came the Earls of Huntingdon, as well as her grandsons, Malcolm IV and William I of Scotland.

As for William the Conqueror, it is said that his good fortune ended with the wrongful execution of Earl Waltheof.  From then on, William conquered no more, and the last decade of his life proved to be unhappy and fruitless.



Harold Godwineson in Normandy 1064

Harold Swears an Oath, Colour-printed wood engraving by James Doyle. Source: Wikimedia

Harold’s ill-fated trip to Normandy has sparked much debate among historians. Why did he go? How much damage did it cause? One thing is certain: Harold and William were far from strangers by the time they met on the battlefield of Hastings.

It is thought by some that Harold was on a fishing trip in the English Channel when a sudden rain squall blew his boat all the way to Ponthieu in 1064. Count Guy, as was his right, took Harold hostage and was apparently quite put out when Duke William showed up shortly thereafter and demanded that he give Harold up.  A proverbial case of From the Frying Pan Into The Fire! Once Harold was the unwilling guest of Duke William, he knew he wasn’t going to get out of there without some painful concessions.

Norman chroniclers favor the story that King Edward sent Earl Harold to Normandy to confirm his choice of William as heir to the English throne.  The obvious argument against this legend is that King Edward had no legal right to appoint his successor.  Although the king’s last wishes were always considered, the final decision was with the Witan, the king’s council. I don’t think this alleged promise was common knowledge in England—if it happened at all. It is far from certain that William visited England in 1052 (while Godwine was in exile). If this didn’t happen in 1052 and William’s plans were not common knowledge, there is a possibility that Harold didn’t know about William’s aspirations to the crown until he visited the ducal court.

There are other explanations about Harold’s intentions. It has been theorized that he was sounding the opposition, so to speak, for his own bid to the throne. But in 1064 King Edward was in good health and Edgar Aetheling, the true heir, was being raised at the royal court. The motivation that makes the most sense to me is the possibility that he went to Normandy in an attempt to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, held hostage since around 1052. Alas, even this attempt failed (only Hakon was released) and ironically Wulfnoth’s isolation probably protected him from the same fate as his brothers.

William the Conqueror, British School c.1618-20, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Source: Wikipedia

Harold’s stay at William’s court was protracted and cordial – at least on the surface.  During this time, Duke William led a punitive expedition against Conan of Brittany, taking Harold with him and fighting side-by-side with the famous Saxon Earl.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene where Harold wades into quicksand to save two Norman soldiers from certain death.  After the siege of Dinan, William gave Harold arms and weapons and knighted him for his valor.

Nonetheless, once Harold became William’s man—so to speak—it was time for him to return home.  But one final concession had to happen first: the great oath.  In front of all the Norman barons, Harold was obliged to swear an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne (against his own interests, even then), swear to secure the castle of Dover for William (not likely!), to marry one of William’s daughters. Knowing this was his only way out, Harold duly swore the oath knowing that under duress, many an oath was often considered invalid.  However, William was too smart to be outwitted; just to make it stick, he secretly laid the bones of Normandy’s saints beneath a tablecloth on which stood the bible.  Once the pledge was sworn, the tablecloth was whisked off and Harold was aghast that he had just sworn a false oath on holy relics.

The consequences of Harold’s oathbreaking were grim indeed; William used this event to help win the pope’s approbation for his conquest of England.  When the Duke unfurled his banner at the Battle of Hastings, he placed the Pope’s banner alongside for all to see.  The Normans went so far as to declare that God had turned against Harold’s kingdom and shown his favor to the invaders. I would think that Harold still felt a sting of guilt, regardless. Even his brother Gyrth is said to have offered to lead the army at Hastings since he wasn’t bound by any oath, but Harold scornfully rejected the idea.

One thing is for sure; as a consequence of this ill-fated voyage, both Harold and William knew how their future opponent would conduct himself on the battlefield. Harold would have returned to England a much wiser man and better prepared for the future; too bad he couldn’t change the course of his destiny.


The Great Harrying of the North, 1069

Harrying of the North by Patrick Nicolle

After the trauma of Stamford Bridge, the northerners were remarkably absent (though expected) at the battle of Hastings.  To say the warriors were exhausted would surely be an understatement, but I wonder, also, if they thought events on the southern coast of England were just too far away to concern them.  After all, the populace was predominately Norse in origin, and many did not even speak a common language with the southerners.

And indeed, after Hastings maybe it seemed like life could go on as before.  William the Conqueror was certainly busy putting down any resistance in the south, and aside from a change in leadership not much happened for two years.  But peace wasn’t meant to be.  York and Durham were just too important to be ignored, and in 1068 Eadgar Aetheling, the last surviving heir to the Saxon crown, made his bid for the throne. He was joined by Edwin, Earl of Mercia, Morcar, former Earl of Northumbria, and Cospatric, current Earl of Northumbria who purchased the earldom from William. King William was quick to respond, and the rebellion was crushed immediately.

Eadgar Aetheling fled to Scotland with his family, and Malcolm III, King of the Scots eventually married his sister Margaret.  Given support from his new brother-in-law, Eadgar returned to England in response to a new Northumbrian uprising in early 1069. In January, Northumbrian rebels converged on Durham, killing William’s new appointee Robert de Comines and all but two of the Normans in the garrison.  Drunk with success, the combined forces continued south and captured York.

There’s a lot of disagreement as to the sequence of events, but ultimately much of York was burned to the ground and the Norman garrison destroyed. Eadgar Aetheling and his supporters joined a large fleet led by the sons of Svein Estrithson, King of Denmark; the Danes were apparently welcomed in the north and became a focus for more revolts in Dorset and Somerset.  Unfortunately for Eadgar, his army was an unruly force and he was more of a figurehead than a leader, so no attempt was made to force his claim or even declare Northumbria’s independence.

King William immediately marched north, causing the Danes to withdraw before him, and made his way to York, devastating the countryside in his path.  By Christmas 1069, he entered the ruined city and celebrated the Nativity in what was left of the cathedral.

What transpired next was on a scale so devastating that even contemporaries, not unused to a scorched earth policy, were shocked.  Deciding to make an example of Yorkshire, William systematically plundered, burned and murdered every living creature between York and Durham. It was said that the bodies of inhabitants lay scattered across the countryside, unburied and rotting, and that starving exiles made their way south, either to die on the road or to sell themselves into slavery for food.  Ten years later, there wasn’t a single inhabited town between York and Durham.

According to Orderic Vitalis, more than 100,000 perished of hunger that year. There were reports of cannibalism, and it was said that William salted the earth to destroy its productivity. This may or may not be true, but even 17 years later, the Domesday book is noted with page after page of the word “waste”, and it is estimated that in 1086 only 25% of the original population lived in Yorkshire.

Eadgar Aetheling fled to refuge in Scotland, and once again the Danes were paid off, just like in the days of Aethelred. King William burnt his way west to Chester before deciding that he had made his point, and spent Easter of 1070 in Winchester, convinced that there would be no more rebellion in Northumbria.  And indeed he was right.  He had bought peace at the cost of much future revenue – not to mention his reputation.