The Earl Who Never Learned His Lesson

Samuel Sullivan
Panel from the Bayeux TapestryWikimedia Commons

On October 14, 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman forces won the bloody Battle of Hastings over King Harold II’s army, killing the King in the process. King Harold II was fresh off a victory over another challenger to the throne, Harald Hardrada of Norway, but William proved too strong.

During the Battle of Hastings, William, who would soon after be crowned King William I, famously rode his horse through the ranks of his troops, exposing his face to defy rumors that he had been slain. His tactic worked, and morale rose, leading his forces to victory.

William the Conqueror earned his nickname for his heroics at the Battle of Hastings, and over the next decade would cement his Kingship over many revolts and potential challengers. King William was an inclusive leader. He installed many Normans as earls and nobles but allowed Englishmen to keep their land and hold power as long as they stayed loyal.

The power struggle for control of England was tumultuous in the 11th century, and our protagonist Earl Waltheof could not keep himself out of trouble. In the end, just like on the battlefield of Hastings, King William showed Waltheof who he was.

Waltheof’s Path to Favor

Waltheof was a fascinating character. According to an entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Waltheof was devout and charitable, likely educated for monastic life. Of course, events would change his path, but his background helps explain his future decision-making.

As the second son of his father, Earl Siward of Northumbria, Waltheof never expected to inherit his father’s land and title. However, his older brother died in battle in 1054, and his father died the following year, so his lot in life changed quickly. When his father died, Waltheof was only a teenager and too young to become the Earl of Northumbria, but his time would come, and he ultimately became an Earl in 1065.

As William the Conqueror came to power, Earls, who controlled small land areas within England, had to decide how to approach the new King. Earl Waltheof, a man now in his mid-twenties, chose to submit to William as an act of good faith.

However, Woltheof did not stay submissive for long. In 1069, when the Danes invaded England, he decided to go back on his loyalty to King William I and support them. Unfortunately, they proved a lousy bet. When winter came, they traveled home, and when they returned the following spring, William was ready and paid them to leave England be.

Waltheof, for a second time, submitted to William, and William, balancing ruling Normandy and England, decided to let Waltheof off the hook. It was a political move for King William to stabilize the power structure in England.

King William also doubled down on his forgiveness for Waltheof. He married off his niece Judith to him. But, perhaps for William, it was not forgiveness but the embodiment of the old saying, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

The Revolt of the Earls

Waltheof eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and became the Earl of Northumbria. He was powerful, married to a relative of the King, and seemingly had submitted his way into the King’s favor. If you think Earl Waltheof was the last person in all of England to want to participate in another revolt, you would be wrong.

In 1075, Earl Waltheof, now a man in his mid-thirties, organized another revolt with Normans. At an illegal wedding, two other Earls recruited Waltheof to join them. He agreed and thought he could use his connections with the Danes to help gain victory.

With King William I back in Normandy, the plan kicked off. But Earl Waltheof had a change of heart and confessed the plot to the Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc. Lanfranc, the acting regent, was able to slow the revolt with the information Waltheof provided, giving King William time to return to England.

The revolt was unsuccessful, and Waltheof fled to mainland Europe, fearing King William’s wrath. King William offered to forgive Waltheof for his betrayal yet again, and the devout and charitable Waltheof returned. But, King William had no intention of ignoring Waltheof’s disloyalty and threw him in jail.

Waltheof’s End

Waltheof was sentenced to death, and according to an entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, on May 31, 1076, he was beheaded on St Giles’s Hill, near Winchester. Waltheof was the last English aristocrat to be killed by King William.

Waltheof was disloyal and weak-minded, and it cost him in the end. King William gave him multiple chances, but he never learned his lesson. He seemed to think he could always ask for forgiveness and everything would be fine, but he revolted one too many times.

I bet as King William was coaxing Waltheof back to England after his last revolt, he was thinking, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

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