Tuesday 31 May 2011

On Waltheof

Crowland Abbey

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumbria, the most high-profile English victim of the turbulent decades which followed the Norman Conquest. In 1066 Waltheof was already an earl but he does not seem to have fought at Hastings (he may have been too young), and after the Conquest he made peace with William; he rebelled three years later, made peace again and married the king's niece, but rebelled again five years after that, and finally got himself executed in 1076 for being a traitor. Which he was, in Norman eyes. But one man's traitor is another man's martyred freedom-fighter, and so Waltheof, despite manifesting no especially saintly qualities in life, was honoured as a saint in death - at least at the abbey where he was buried, Crowland in Lincolnshire (Crowland the courteous, as the rhyme has it).  This is the account of his execution:

Earl Waltheof, being accused of treason by Judith his wife, was kept for a year in prison at Winchester, where he confessed his sins to priests, weeping in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart and reciting the psalter which in childhood he had learned to sing every day, turning his whole mind towards the worship of the Lord God.

But then the Normans, who were his enemies and coveted his estates and privileges, sought the judgement of his death in the king’s court, and he was sentenced to be executed on a hill outside the city of Winchester on 31st May, early in the morning: his head was cut off and his body thrown into a ditch and covered with green turf. At this execution a miracle took place worthy of being remembered: when on bended knee, raising up his eyes and hands to heaven, he began to say the Lord’s Prayer, but was not able to complete it because his voice was interrupted by tears. After his head was cut off a clear and audible voice completed it in the hearing of all who were present, saying, ‘But deliver us from evil, Amen’.

After 15 days, his wife Judith requested the permission of the king that Ulfketel abbot of Crowland should have the body of the holy earl, still intact and bloody as on the day that the man of God was killed, carried to Crowland; and the chapter of the monks reverently buried him, and upon his tomb, according to some, Judith laid a silken cloth after some time had passed, which by divine power was pulled away, as if by a violent wind.
Waltheof was the only Englishman executed under William the Conqueror (though plenty were killed in battle).  No wonder the monks of Crowland were prepared to call him a martyr!

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