Earl of Huntingdon (1065-1076)
Earl of Northumbria (1072-1076)
Born c1046 died 1076
Waltheof was the youngest son of Sigurd Bjornson, one of king Cnut's Danish jarls, whose name was anglicised into Siward or sometimes Syward, and who held the earldoms of Northumbria and Huntingdon. His mother was Aelfled Elfleda, great-grandaughter of Waltheof who held the Lordship of Bamburgh in the tenth century, and after whom our Waltheof was presumably named.1
He seems to have been marked out for a monastic career until his older brother Osbarn was killed in the year 1054 fighting in Scotland in support of Malcolm II. When Sigurd himself died from natural causes in the following year this left Waltheof as heir to Sigurd's land and titles, but as he was only around ten years old at the time, the earldom passed to Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold Godwinson the future king Harold.
Tostig however proved unpopular in the north and was replaced in 1065 by one Morcar, at which time Waltheof now of age, became earl of Huntingdon and Northampton. It is unclear what role if any he played in the events of the year 1066 but Waltheof certainly submitted to William I shortly after the latter's victory at Senlac Hill and was one of the hostages taken back to Normandy in 1067. He was allowed to return to England in the middle of the following year, and appears to be one of the few pre-conquest nobles to hold on to his land and titles.
This did not prevent him becoming an active supporter of the Danish invasion of 1069 when king Swegyn Astrithson of Denmark sought to promote his own claim to the crown of England. Waltheof was one of the leaders of the great rebellion in the north and led the assault on York where the rebels suceeded in wiping out the Norman garrison. The rebellion was brutally suppressed by William I and the Danes decided to go home leaving Waltheof to struggle on alone. He soon came to the conclusion that his cause was hopeless and submitted to William once more.
Rather surprisingly perhaps, Waltheof receieved no punishment for his flagrant treason. Quite the contrary, William married him off his niece, Judith and two years later made him Earl of Northumbria as a replacement for the now disgraced Gospatric. This was probably a concious effort by William to buy Waltheof's support ; in the circumstances, picking an Anglo-Danish earl with a Norman wife to in order to maintain order in the north of England might well have seemed the obvious choice.
Then in 1075 Waltheof somehow got himself entangled in the Revolt of the Earls although quite what his involvment was is unclear. Whilst the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes him a co-conspirator, Orderic Vitalis suggests that he was an unwilling participant. Whatever was the case he was soon confessing his guilt to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, and then to William, who was back in Normandy.
On his return to England with William he was promptly arrested, taken before the courts, convicted of treason and sentenced to death. On the 31st of May 1076 he was beheaded on St Giles's Hill, near Winchester. Many including Archbishop Lanfranc were dismayed at this action, believing him to be innocent. (Well of this particular charge maybe.) William however, seems to have come to the conclusion that he could not trust Waltheof and that he was therefore best rid of him. Waltheof's wife Judith does not seem have helped as it is suggested that she betrayed his secrets to her uncle.
Waltheof was buried at Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, and after his death began to gather a reputation as a martyr to the cause of English liberty and he became treated as something of a pseudo-saint, with various miracles attributed by those who made the pilgrimage to his tomb. Later commentators dubbed him the the 'last English Eorl', and further mythologised him as one of the leaders of the English resistance to the Norman takeover. His father however was Danish and what resisting he did was in support of Swegyn Astrithson of Denmark. His main loyalties appear to have been with the 1016 Danish conquerors of England rather than the 1066 Norman version and it brings home the point that the north of England at that time was as much Danish as it was Anglo-Saxon in culture.
There are also three moderately interesting things that can be added regarding Waltheof:
First the story was told that Waltheof was reciting the Lord's Prayer out loud as he knelt at the execution block in Winchester and had just reached the line "Lead us not into temptation" when the axe fell, at which point his severed head proceeded to complete the prayer with the final words "but deliver us from evil. Amen"
Secondly, it has been suggested that he was the father of one Robin of Loxley better known under the name of Robin Hood.2
Finally, despite being executed as a traitor his property was not seized by the crown, his wife Judith was allowed to retain control of his lands; their eldest daughter, Matilda (also known as Maud) brought the earldom of Huntingdon as dowry when she married her second husband David, the son of Malcolm Cranmore, king of Scotland. (Which is how we ended up with a king of Scotland in David I who was also the earl of Huntingdon in England.) David and Matilda's grandson was named William , better known as William the Lion who became king of Scotland himself in due course, being obviously Waltheof's great-grandson.
1 Waltheof the first, was the father of Uhtred, who was the father of Aldred of Bernicia who had a daughter Aelfled Elfleda.
Waltheof Siwardson is also known as Waltheof II in order to distinguish him from the first Waltheof .
2 An hypothesis advanced by Graham Kirkby who believes that Robin Hood was Waltheof's illegitimate son. Since Waltheof's marriage with Judith of Lens produced only daughters an illegitimate son may well have seen himself as the 'true' to the earldom. See http://myweb.ecomplanet.com/KIRK6479/
3 Sourced from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, bits of Orderic Vitalis and an article entitled Life and Times of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland by Geoff Boxell found at www.britannia.com.