Britannia History: Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland
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Life & Times of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon & Northumberland
By Geoff Boxell
S T O L E N
G L O R Y
Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland

 

Unlike his contemporary and fellow resistance leader, Edric the Wild, the life of Waltheof is reasonably well documented. The youngest son of one of Canute’s Danish jarls, Siward, and Aefled, the daughter of the English Earl of Northumberland, he appears to have been prepared as a child for a life in the Church. This all changed when Siward, with the encouragement of King Edward the Confessor and the Witan, led an expeditionary force in 1054 to Scotland in support of Malcolm, son of Dunstan, King of Scots, against King Thorfinn Macbeth. In the resultant campaign Siward’s eldest son, Osbarn, was killed, thus leaving Waltheof at the likely age of 10, as Siward’s heir. Siward died from natural causes in 1055. The earldom was given to Tostig Godwinson as Waltheof was obviously too young to control a vital marcher region.

For a variety of reasons, Northumberland revolted against Tostig in 1065 and the thegns demanded that the earldom be given to Morcar, brother of the Earl of Mercia, Edwin. The lower part of the earldom, what had been Middle Anglia, was passed to Waltheof and his title is now given sometimes as Earl of Huntingdon and sometimes that of Northampton. Given that the earldoms in England at that time were awarded on a combination of family mana and personal ability, this granting of a minor earldom to the young and inexperienced Waltheof can be seen as a wise and shrewd move.

The young Earl’s involvement in the battles of 1066 is subject to much speculation. The reliable English sources are silent but various Icelandic sources contain garbled and, at times contradictory, story of him being involved in the battles of Fulford, Stamford Bridge and Hastings. Be that as it may, by late 1066 he had made his peace with William the Bastard and retained his earldom. This in itself suggests that he was not involved at Hastings, as William had proclaimed all who fought against him there traitors and their land confiscated. This presumptuous proclamation was made despite the fact that he had not being proclaimed King by the Witan until much later!

Waltheof was one of the hostages, including Edwin, Morcar and Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand, taken to Normandy in 1067 and kept there till mid 1068. The North of England at this time was still out of William’s grasp, though he had appointed Copsi, a henchman of Tostig Godwinson, to rule in the absence of the hostage, Morcar. This may have been a very cunning move as the North then seethed with disputes between the various thegns appointed by King Harold, Earl Morcar and William the Bastard. Another unsettling element was the presence of Edgar Aetheling who had, after King Harold’s death, been declared King by the Witan. Over this fermenting brew of self-interest there hovered the vinegar fly of Gospatric, a descendent of the old Northumbrian kings and a cousin of the King of Scots. At an opportune moment Gospatric bought the earldom of Northumberland from the money hungry William.

1068 saw the first uprising in Northumberland against the new Norman king, but the split leadership ensured it fizzled out before the flames of revolt could catch. 1069 and there were four uprisings in the area. Waltheof appears in the last and most important of them. The first uprising had been caused by the appointment of Robert of Comings as Earl of Northumberland to replace Gospatric, who had fled to Scotland when the previous year's risings had collapsed. The northerners had found it hard enough to accept a southerner such as Tostig as Earl, and they certainly didn’t want a Frenchman. They killed Robert and his whole force of 500-900 men (accounts vary) at Durham, allowing only one to escape and tell the tale. Encouraged by this the City of York revolted, slaying the Norman governor, but failing to take the newly erected castle. Eastertide and the whole North erupted, but William soon brought up an army and broke the Northumbrian force that was besieging York castle. However, it was the arrival of the Danish fleet in September 1069 that caused the Normans to suffer their heaviest defeat in the North.

King Swegyn Astrithson of Denmark had a strong claim on the English throne. An appeal to him by the English to pursue that claim, and revenge his cousin, King Harold, had been made during William’s absence in Normandy in 1067. Ever cautious, Swegyn did not make a move until two years later. Even then he sent his brother, Asbjorn, to lead the fleet. It was an act that, rather than uniting the English behind one war leader, as they might have behind Swegyn, just added yet another strand to the cloth of confused leadership.

Raiding the East Coast on their way North, the fleet of Danes and other elements met little success until they entered the River Humber. Here Waltheof and those who had fled earlier to Scotland, including Edgar Aetheling and Gospatric met them. The Anglo Danish force moved on York, which by this time now had two castles to keep it subservient to Norman wishes. On the arrival of the allies the Normans fired houses near the castles to clear their view and destroy any material that may have been used to fill the defensive ditches surrounding the castles. This act was done with the normal Norman delicacy, with the result that almost the entire city was burnt down! In the resultant fight the Norman garrisons left their castles to attack and then die at the hands of the allies. Waltheof’s exploits of beheading many of the Normans with his long axe as they came through the gates was recorded in sagas and remembered for years after.

William’s reaction was immediate and he personally hastened North with a large army. With York having been burnt and unable to provide sustenance, the allied army broke up; the Danes to the Humber where they wintered over and the English to more northern parts of the earldom. This revolt and its tying down of William and so many of his military resources led to an explosion of uprisings elsewhere. William took what was left of York and began pursuing the scattered elements of English and Danes but very quickly he was obliged to turn his attention elsewhere, leaving lieutenants to meanwhile contain the northern revolt. But they were not up to the job.

As a result of his men’s failure, William then had to move back North from his base at Nottingham, only to be blocked by the flooded River Aire. Despite this and constant harassment from the locals and the Danes, he continued to move North after one of his knights found a usable ford. York was still a devastation so, given his normal priorities, the first thing William did was rebuilt the castles. He then commenced to teach the Northumbrians what it meant to upset a Norman King by starting the harrowing of the North, killing anything animate and destroying anything not. Those who could fled. The wealthy fled to the North of the Earldom or Scotland, the rest to the Camp of Refuge at the Isle of Ely, where Hereward the Wake was defying the Normans. Few made it through the winter weather and their unburied corpses littered the countryside. Having lost their Northumbrian allies, the Danes allowed themselves to be bought off. Only Waltheof and a small number of followers fought on, holding out near Coatham on the coast. However, even they eventually saw the hopelessness of their situation and submitted to King William.

It was after this that William, possibly trying to buy loyalty, married Waltheof to his own niece, Judith, in 1070. After behaving himself for 2 years, Waltheof was granted the Earldom of Northumberland as a replacement for the disgraced Gospatric. He also retained those lands he had held as Earl of Huntingdon, though it would appear he transferred the ownership of his personal holdings in the area to Judith, in the English manner of providing a wife with land of her own.

A blot on Waltheof’s character now appeared in his renewing an old family feud that had its origins in 1016. Waltheof sent some of his huscarls to kill the brothers Carlson and their kin. He did this despite the fact that they, and Waltheof and his kin had earlier been fighting side by side against the Normans. Balancing this dark side of Waltheof’s character is his support of the Church, including the financing of several new foundations. He also played a part in the Church’s attempt to restore the northern lands that William had harrowed. Aldwin, Prior of Winchcombe, recruited two monks from Evesham, Elfwi and a former Norman knight, Reinfrid, to join him in establishing the Church’s presence in the harrowed land. They based themselves at Jarrow, and it was here that Waltheof granted them the Church at Tynemouth and all its lands. He also gave them his nephew Morcar, to be educated.

From his being made Earl of Northampton in 1072 to 1075 Waltheof spent his time ruling his earldom, giving to the Church, begetting children and serving on a royal commission looking into the losses suffered by the Church at Ely.

It was in 1075 that the half English - half Breton Ralf, Earl of East Anglia, married the sister of Roger Earl of Herefordshire and, at the wedding feast, began weaving the sticky web of intrigue that was to ensnare and prove fatal to Waltheof. Just what his involvement was will never be known. Some sources, such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Book of Hyde, indicate that he was intimately involved. Others, such as Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, claim that he refused to take part but had to swear an oath not to betray the plot.

The desirability of their wishing to involve Waltheof, in what became known as the Revolt of the Earls, is easy to see. His lands in the Midlands would provide a corridor between those of Roger in the West and Ralf in the East, effectively cutting England in half. Waltheof must have quickly had second thoughts about being involved as, the day after the Bridal Ale, he rushed to London and confessed his share of guilt to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc absolved him and advised him to go to Normandy and throw himself on William’s mercy. This Waltheof did, together with presenting some expensive gifts that he knew would appeal to William’s avarice.

William made light of the matter, but had his agents in England move against the other two Earls. An Anglo-Norman force crushed Roger who then spent his remaining years a prisoner. Another Anglo-Norman force defeated Ralf and then penned him up in Norwich. From here Ralf went to Denmark, to gather reinforcements, whilst his new bride held the city. After three months Norwich was compelled to surrender, just before the arrival of the Danish fleet. After sporadic raiding, the Danes returned home, leaving Ralf to join his wife in Brittany and thenceforth continue his war against William.

With the revolt now broken, William placed Waltheof under close arrest. The reason for this action is unknown, though some sources say that Waltheof was betrayed by his wife, Judith, William’s niece, who passed on information that she had been privy to. Waltheof was kept in close confinement for several months before he was sentenced by the King to be beheaded or treason.

The execution took place on 31 May 1076 on St. Giles Hill, Winchester. After giving away his clothes to the poor, Waltheof’s last moments were spent in prayer. Feeling he was taking too long, the executioner drew his sword and struck just as Waltheof got to:

"Lead us not into temptation." According to witnesses, the severed head was then heard in a clear voice to complete the prayer with: "but deliver us from evil. Amen"

After lying in unconsecrated ground for a fortnight, Abbot Ulfkettle of Crowland, a foundation that Waltheof had been a patron of, asked for and was granted permission to take the body away for reburying. To his dying day, Archbishop Lanfranc insisted Waltheof was guiltless of the crime he had been accused of. It is also recorded that the English and Normans alike at William’s court were horrified at the King’s actions.

One fate of traitors was the confiscation of all their possessions to the crown. In this case it didn’t happen. All of Waltheof’s personal holdings passed to his wife, Judith, who also continued to oversee the Earldom of Huntingdon. A consideration for a beloved niece? Or a reward for providing information on her husband that allowed William the Bastard to remove the last of the native English nobility from the scene?

It was not long before the English began to treat Waltheof as a martyr in the ilk of St Edmund King and Martyr and miracles were soon being reported at his tomb. Waltheof may only have been a pseudo-Saint, more a symbol of a people’s suffering and longing, but his grandson, also Waltheof, was later canonised.

Waltheof was a man who, in more peaceful times, would have been a national figure, and if needed, a powerful warrior. But he did not have the personality needed to lead the English resistance to the Norman Conquest. Often he failed to see the woods for the trees, and allowed his opportunities to be stolen from him.

Geoff Boxell is author of the novel: "Woden's Wolf" that deals with the English resistance to the Norman Conquest.



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