31 May 1076 – Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ was never truer than in the case of our next execution. The severed head of Waltheof II is said to have completed the Lord’s Prayer, because his execution was so premature.

Out of the Norms

The fact that this Earl of Northumbria was mentioned in the ‘Domesday Book’ was very apt, for he was the last and only aristo to meet his doom formally during William I’s reign. For Britain was steeped the throes of a new era – out with the Anglo-Saxons and in with the Normans.

That makes Waltheof II one of our earliest English executions. He was famed for being the last remaining Anglo-Saxon noble alive, following their defeat by the Normans headed up by William, in the Conquest of 1066, but not for long.

Just 10 years later, Waltheof II got it in the neck for treason, having gotten off to a promising start at the beginning of Norman rule. Despite being involved in an uprising in York early on, he’d been forgiven and even had his earldom bequeathed back to him. William had him married off to his niece, although maybe that was to keep his would-be enemies close.

Early uprising

Things ticked along, but Waltheof II had made enemies in the north and when he ambushed the family and had the two eldest sons killed, some say he was stitched up in retribution. However, there is very little evidence or information to go on.

For sure, in 1075, there was an earls’ uprising and whether he was involved or not is unclear. Nevertheless he was advised to hotfoot it over to Normandy, where William was, to apologise, so maybe there was something to feel guilty about. William pretended to accept, but actually he had instructed his men to take Waltheof II in as soon as they landed back on English soil.

A head of his time

He stayed in custody for a year before being executed on St Giles Hill in Winchester. He is said to have donated his clothes to the poor before praying ahead of his beheading. As the legend goes the swordsman reckoned Waltheof was taking way too much time, so he drew his blade and took the condemned man’s head off with a clean slice. It was so quick that the head apparently kept praying even after it had been detached, so his last words were ‘…but deliver us from evil. Amen’.

It is also said that he was then chucked in a ditch before finally his body was quietly transferred to Croyland Abbey. Sadly there was a fire and the coffin was removed – and when the coffin was opened, the head had miraculously reattached itself to the rest of the corpse. Nothing short of a miracle, Waltheof II became somewhat of a cult hero in death – a martyr to his cause.

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