Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Waltheof (d.1076)

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WALTHEOF, or Lat. Waldevus or Guallevus (d. 1076), Earl of Northumberland, was the only surviving son of Siward [q. v.], earl of Northumbria, by his first wife, Elfleda, Ælflaed, or Æthelflaed, one of three daughters of Earl Ealdred or Aldred, son of Earl Uhtred [q. v.] Waltheof was a mere boy at his father's death in 1055. From the fact that he had learned the psalter in his youth it may be conjectured that he was intended for the monastic life, that the death of his elder brother [see under Siward] caused this intention to be abandoned, and that his early training was not without some influence on his life. At a later time he was Earl of Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, the most probable date for his appointment being that of the downfall of Tostig [q. v.] in 1065 (Freeman, Norman Conquest, ii. 559–60). That he took part in the battle of Fulford against the Danes is unlikely (it is asserted only by Snorro, Laing, iii. 84, where there seems a confusion between him and Edwin the brother of Morcar [q. v.]), and there is no trustworthy evidence that he was at the battle of Hastings (ib. p. 95; Freeman, u.s. iii. 352, 426, 526). Along with other great Englishmen, he was taken by the Conqueror to Normandy in 1067.

When the Danish fleet was in the Humber in September 1069, Waltheof joined it with some ships, and in the fight at York with the garrison of the castle took his stand at one of the gates, and as the French fugitives issued forth from the burning city cut them down one by one, for he was of immense strength; his prowess on this occasion is celebrated by a contemporary Norse poet, who says that ‘he burnt in the hot fire a hundred of the king's henchmen’ (Corpus Poeticum Boreale, ii. 227). After the Danes had left England he went to meet the king, who was encamped by the Tees in January 1070, submitted to him, took an oath of fealty, and was restored to his earldom (Orderic, p. 515). William gave him to wife his niece Judith, a daughter of his sister Adelaide, by Enguerrand, count of Ponthieu, and in 1072 appointed him to succeed Gospatric [q. v.] as earl of Northumberland. He was friendly with Walcher [q. v.], bishop of Durham, and was always ready to enforce the bishop's decrees.

Through his mother Waltheof inherited the blood feud which had been begun by the murder of his great-grandfather, Earl Uhtred, and, hearing in 1073 that the sons of Carl, the murderer of his grandfather Ealdred, were met together with their sons to feast at the house of their eldest brother at Settrington in the East Riding, he sent a strong band of men, who fell upon them unawares, slew them all except two of Carl's sons—Canute, who was extremely popular, and Sumorled, who chanced not to be there—and returned to their lord laden with spoil of all kinds. In 1075 he was present at the wedding feast of Ralph Guader [q. v.] or Wader, earl of Norfolk; and he was invited to join in the conspiracy, that was made on that occasion, to divide the whole country between him and the Earl of Norfolk and Hereford, one of them to be the king and the other two earls. He appears to have been entrapped against his will into giving his consent (Flor. Wig. an. 1074; Orderic, pp. 534–5, represents him as refusing his consent, but swearing secrecy). He repented, and as soon as he could went to Lanfranc [q. v.] and confessed to him the unlawful oath that he had taken. The archbishop prescribed him a penance, and counselled him to go to the king, who was then in Normandy, and lay the whole matter before him. He went to William, told him what he had done, offered him treasure, and implored his forgiveness. The king took the matter lightly, and Waltheof remained with him until his return to England, when the rebellion was over. Before long, however, the Danish fleet, which had been invited over by the rebels, appeared in the Humber, and the king caused Waltheof to be arrested and imprisoned.

At Christmas he was brought to trial before the king at Winchester, on the charge of having been privy to, and having abetted, the late rebellion, his wife Judith informing against him. He allowed that he knew of the conspiracy, but flatly denied that he had in any way abetted it. Sentence was deferred, and he was committed to stricter custody at Winchester than before. In prison he passed his time in seeking to make his peace with God by prayers, watchings, fastings, and alms-giving, often weeping bitterly, and daily, it is said, reciting the whole psalter, which he had learned in his youth (ib. p. 536; For. Wig.) He is also said to have besought the king to allow him to become a monk (Liber de Hyda, p. 294).

Lanfranc expressed his conviction that the earl was innocent of treason and that his penitence was sincere (For. Wig.) That he did take the oath of conspiracy seems as certain as that he speedily repented of doing so. It is probable that the other conspirators, with or without his assent, used his name to induce the Danes, with whom it would have great influence, to invade England; that he did not tell this to the king, and possibly was not aware of it; and that when William found that the Danish fleet had come, he thought far more seriously of Waltheof's part in the conspiracy than before, and was led by his niece, the earl's wife, to believe, truly or falsely, that her husband was the cause of their coming.

On 15 May 1076 his case was considered in the king's court; he was condemned to death for having consented when men were plotting against the life of his lord, for not having resisted them, and for having forborne publicly to denounce their conspiracy. The order for his execution was soon sent down to Winchester, and early on the morning of the 31st he was led forth from prison before the citizens had risen from their beds, for his guards feared that a rescue might be attempted, and was taken to St. Giles's Hill, which overlooks the city. He wore the robes of his rank as earl, and when he came to the place where he was to be beheaded distributed them among the clergy and the few poor men who happened to be present. He asked that he might say the Lord's prayer. When he had said ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ his voice was choked with tears. The headsman would wait no longer; he drew his sword, and with one blow cut off the earl's head. The bystanders declared that they heard the severed head clearly pronounce the last words of the prayer, ‘but deliver us from evil, Amen.’

Waltheof was tall, well made, and extra-ordinarily strong. Matchless as a warrior, he was weak and unstable in character; he seems to have been made a tool of by the conspirators in 1075, and was probably so deficient in insight as to interpret the Conqueror's clemency to him in 1070 as a sign of weakness, and the subsequent favour that he showed him as a proof that his importance was far greater than it really was. In spite of his vengeance on the family of Carl, which must be viewed in connection with the barbarous state of the north and with the doings of his immediate ancestors, he was a religious man, a constant and devout attendant on divine services, and very liberal to the clergy, monks, and poor. He enriched the abbey of Crowland in South Lincolnshire, bestowing on it the lordship of Barnack in Northamptonshire, to help Abbot Ulfcytel in building his new church, and placed his cousin Morkere, the younger son of Ligulf [see under Walcher] by Waltheof's mother's sister, at Jarrow to be educated as a monk, giving the convent with him the church and lordship of Tynemouth (Symeon, Historia Regum, c. 166; Monasticon, i. 236). Nevertheless he unjustly kept possession of two estates in Northamptonshire that had been given to Peterborough by his stepmother, and had after her death been held, with the consent of the convent, by his father Siward for his life. He entered into an agreement with the abbot Leofric, in the presence of Edward the Confessor, by which he received five marcs of gold in consideration of at once giving up one of the estates, keeping the other for his life, but broke the agreement and kept both. During the reign of Harold he repented, and, going to Peterborough, assured the convent that both should come to it on his death (Codex Diplomaticus, iv. No. 927); they were, however, both held by the widow (Norman Conquest, iv. 257).

Waltheof's execution was an unprecedented event, and the Conqueror, who, though terrible in his punishments, never condemned any one else to death, must have been influenced in his case by some special consideration such as would be afforded by the belief that he was the main cause of a foreign invasion. The act of severity has been regarded as the turning point in William's reign, and was believed to have been connected with his subsequent troubles and ill-success (Freeman, u.s. p. 605; Orderic, p. 544). Though his father was a Dane by birth, Waltheof was regarded as a champion of English freedom and a national hero, and his penitence and death caused him to be venerated by the English as a saint and martyr. His body was first buried hastily at the place of execution; a fortnight later the Conqueror, at Judith's request, allowed Abbot Ulfcytel to remove it to Crowland, where it was buried in the chapter-house of the abbey. Ten years later Ulfcytel was deposed, possibly because he encouraged the reverence paid to the earl's memory at Crowland (Freeman). His successor, Ingulf [q. v.], caused Waltheof's body to be translated and laid in the church in 1092, when, on the coffin being opened, it was found to be undecayed and to have the head united to it, a red line only marking the place of severance. Miracles began to be worked in great number at the martyr's new tomb (Orderic; Will. Malm.; Miracula S. Waldevi). The next abbot, Geoffrey (d. 1124), though he was a Frenchman, would not allow a word to be spoken in disparagement of the earl, and was rewarded with a vision of Waltheof in company with St. Bartholomew and St. Guthlac, when the apostle and the hermit made up by their alternate remarks an hexameter line to the effect that Waltheof was no longer headless, and, though he had been an earl, was then a king (Orderic). Under the next abbot, Waltheof, the son of Gospatric, the monks sent to the English-born Orderic, who had beforetime visited their house, to write an epitaph for the earl, which he did and inserted in his ‘History.’

Waltheof left three daughters. The eldest, Matilda, married, first, Simon de Senlis, who was in consequence made earl of Northampton [q. v.]; by him she was mother of Waltheof (d. 1159) [q. v.]; she married, secondly, David I [q. v.] king of Scotland. The second, Judith, married Ralph of Toesny, the younger; and the third married Robert FitzRichard [see under Clare, Richard de, (d. 1090?)] (William of Jumièges, viii. 37). His widow Judith founded a house of Benedictine nuns at Elstow, near Bedford (Monasticon, iii. 411).

[Flor. Wig. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); A.-S. Chron. ed. Plummer; Orderic, Will. of Jumièges (both ed. Duchesne); Sym. Dunelm., Will. of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum, Liber de Hyda (all Rolls Ser.); Will. of Poit. ed. Giles; Vita et Passio Wadevi, Miracula S. Waldevi ap. Chron. Angl.-Norm. vol. ii. ed. Michel, of no historical value except as regards the cult; Corp. Poet. Bor.; Freeman's Norm. Conq.]

W. H.