Hereward - 950 years later..
The many guises of folklore legend Hereward the Wake have blurred the fact that he is a historical figure – even the appellation ‘the Wake’ (the alert / the ever-watchful over his folk) is said to be a much later invention – yet we can identify his existence from entries in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and Domesday Book, the two most reliable sources of the age.
Hereward’s claim to fame came as a rebel leader when, armed with a multitude of dissidents, peasants and refugees, he made his stand at Ely against the might of William the Conqueror. The English crown may have fallen at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 but five years later the impenetrable Isle of Ely in the East Anglian Fenlands was refusing to yield to the Norman Yoke.
Before the drainage of the Fens began in the 17th Century Ely was an island and the surrounding fenland gave it a natural defensive network of flowing rivers, great meres, swamp and bog and vast swathes of reed beds. Not the kind of terrain that armour-clad warriors on horseback could comfortably traverse. The Gesta Herwardi, written in the early 12th Century, describes Hereward as a handsome, muscular yet troublesome youth who was exiled from England at the age of 18 and was from that time on known as ‘The Outlaw’.
Recent studies have shed light on his career as a mercenary soldier in Flanders from where it is said he returned around the late summer of 1067 to claim his inheritance after learning of his father’s death.Over the ensuing three years insurrection broke out across the country. Uprisings in Dover, Exeter, Hereford, Warwick, Durham, York, and Chester were, for the most part, savagely and mercilessly beaten-down and quashed - with thousands upon thousands slaughtered or left to perish in the devastation and ethnic-cleansing that came to be known as the ‘Harrying of the North’.
In 1070 the prelate Lanfranc of Bec came to England and William appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc immediately set about revamping the English Church. Many Monasteries and Abbeys experienced English clergy being replaced by French. William had imposed a new governing elite with new laws, a new language and a new Church. Very few English retained their title and land, most were in servitude. Hereward, it appears, took exception to this. He was one of many dispossessed landholders and had close ties with Crowland and Peterborough Abbeys.
‘And all the folk of the Fenlands came to them thinking they would win all
the land’. (Anglo Saxon Chronicle).
On June 2nd 1070, in response to the news that a Norman Abbot named Turold was about to take over, Hereward ‘and his band’ ransacked Peterborough with a Danish Viking host led by Earl Osborne and Bishop Christian of Aarhus. They stole Gold and Silver of great value from a monastery known as the ‘Golden borough’ because it rivalled Glastonbury and Ely in wealth. They then made their way to the Isle of Ely apparently on the invitation of Abbot Thurstan who feared the same fate for Ely.
‘they did all manner of evil things’ (The Peterborough Chronicle of Hugh Candidus).
All the participating rebels were subsequently excommunicated by the Church. To the fanatically pious English Churchmen of the time – where everything that happened, happened by God’s will – Hereward’s raid on Peterborough Abbey would be viewed as the work of the devil-incarnate.
The Danes however soon left with much of the loot, some say bought off by William. Hereward was then joined by a number of prominent English nobles. The Earls of the great northern provinces of Mercia and Northumberland, Edwin and Morcar - who had escaped house arrest under William and ‘fled through woods and fields’- were reinforced by the northern land magnate Siward Barn, with the powerful Bishop Athelwine of Durham and ‘many hundreds of men with them’, who fared into Ely by ship.
.A protracted guerrilla war was fought lasting about a year or so. Hereward is reported to have disguised himself as a fisherman and as a potter in order to spy on William and his army and led countless assaults and forays into the Norman camps that surrounded the Isle. William even employed the services of a witch to cast a spell upon the defendants of Ely, but Hereward and his men burned down the raised platform she stood upon and she fell and broke her neck. William then built a long causeway to try and gain access to the Isle but Hereward and his men fired the combustible peat fen destroying the wooden causeway and routing the heavily armoured Norman knights. Reports of Norman skeletons in their chain-mail being dug out of the surrounding fen were recorded over a hundred years later.
‘he bravely led them out’ (Anglo Saxon Chronicle).
Ely eventually capitulated sometime in the summer of 1071. The Gesta Herwardi states that Abbot Thurstan, who had lost much of Ely’s land to William as punishment, sought to come to terms. William’s army were led through a secret pathway by some monks and the game was up. Hereward and many of his followers are reported to have fled - and it is at this point that history becomes blurred and legend comes more sharply into focus.
‘Last of the English!’
800 years after the Battle of Hastings, in 1866, the novelist Charles Kingsley published the romantic epic, ‘Hereward the Wake’ – subtitled ‘Last of the English!’ The book about a patriotic hero was unleashed on a Victorian public weaned on the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and it immediately became staple diet for children of all ages. The popularity of this book, which has never been out of print, is the major reason why we remember Hereward today.
The Victorians, ever proud of their heritage and looking for their ‘island story’ held Hereward up as a prototype Englishman full of all those contemporary British virtues of patriotism, gallantry, selflessness and bravery - while the spirit of his famous last stand at Ely was seemingly mirrored in feats of Empire in such far-away places as Rorke’s Drift and Mafeking.
Arguments ensue about Hereward’s parentage, descent and his social standing. He has been represented as a champion and a patriot and in children’s books has even met the likes of Dr Who and Catweazle! Recent years have seen a ‘new wave’ of Herewardista’s rise up in the literary world. The works of Paul Kingsnorth, James Wilde, Stewart Binns, James Aitcheson and others has rekindled an interest in Hereward just as it began to fade from the lore of the local folk across the Fenlands - whilst historical research from Professor Elizabeth van Houts and others has uncovered much evidence to substantiate the writings of 12th Century monks which were once considered wholly unreliable.