The story of the myth of Hereward...

April 4, 2016

 

The engaging aura that emanates from the first encounter with the Anglo-Saxon warrior we know as Hereward the Wake can leave one smitten, desiring to know more about an extraordinary character who, after nine hundred and fifty years, still has the magnetism to give any one of us goose-bumps and heart-pangs in that ‘one that got away’ kind of feeling which most people have experienced in their life.

 

Hereward, in fact, was the one that got away. He is the perennial elusive rebel. Through the turmoil, devastation and reconstitution of England during the first five years after the Battle of Hastings he is the only Englishman outside of Crown or Church that we really know anything about. Yet there is so little we can say with absolute certainty. We know for certain that he led a revolt on the Isle of Ely in 1071 which required the attention of the King himself, and we can quite safely reconcile the character described in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle with the man named Hereward in the Domesday Book who held parcels of land in south Lincolnshire in 1066. Anything else however is trusting on the balance of contradictory accounts, secondary-source material, folklore and legend – with a whole lot of supposition, conjecture, guesswork and hope, thrown into the proverbial mix.

 

His escape from the clutches of William the Conqueror at Ely is the stuff legends are made of - gallantry, selflessness and bravery - prerequisites of any hero. Yet today, inspired by a comment recently made on Twitter, I am going to tell you about the myth behind this mysterious, shadowy figure and about the day I first encountered Hereward. Just for fun…

 

 

I have this picture indelibly stamped in my imagination, and it has been there since the first week of September 1965. A long time ago now. Looking back and with the benefit of research, I figure that it must have been the weekend before the BBC aired the first episode of the thirteen part television series Hereward the Wake, on Sunday 12th September 1965. I am about three weeks from my seventh birthday, standing in my nan’s living room and she is telling me the story of Hereward. How the King’s men ‘came up from London’ and ‘Hereward and his men saved us all’. ‘He wouldn’t let them in’. The ‘all’ she spoke of, were the people of the Fenlands. It was an engaging story...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember at the time feeling such a sense of unity and pride, after all I had been weaned on that great folklore hero and ‘lively infant’ pacifier Robin Hood. Almost every Saturday afternoon I would be ‘round nan’s watching the wrestling on 'tellie' and she would be thumping the armchair with her left fore-arm, fist clenched, grinding her molars with her chin stuck out shouting at the black and white screen for her favourite in that gentle Norfolk ‘coo’ - she loved Les Kellet and loathed Mick McManus. I’m not sure if she ever went to a wrestling match in a live environment but if she had she would be one of the ‘old dears’ sloshing the likes of McManus with her handbag as soon as they fell through the ropes at the end of a well choreographed move.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the wrestling came the football results. Was it World of Sport or Grandstand..? I can't remember. Nan and my Uncle Michael would get their 'Pools' coupons out and another Saturday of disappointment at not getting eight score-draws to ‘win the pools’ soon evaporated in to the actor Richard Greene dressed in Lincoln Green (apparently), ‘that’ bow-shot, twang-thudding into the Oak Tree and, of course, that famous Robin Hood theme tune.

 

                        ‘Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the Glen

                        Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men

                        Feared by the bad – loved by the good

                        Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, this six year old (‘coming-up seven’) was already well-versed in the morals and ethics of what constitutes a folklore hero. As far as I was concerned Robin was ‘the kiddie’. Until the day I encountered Hereward that is…

 

‘Next week, Hereward the Wake is on tellie’, or words to that effect must have been the starter that drew my attention. I quite obviously asked who he was because I can remember my nan's answer - so will all the Robin Hood fans sit down now, please. ‘He’s the real Robin Hood!’

 

Thinking back through the mists of time on this conversation about a character hundreds of years further back through the mists of time - what struck me the most was when she said, ‘and what’s more, he’s still out there..., watching… waiting… ever at the ready to rise up and protect the folk of the Fenlands.’ That was the goose-bump moment that unlocked the door to my imagination...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could see him. He was looking at me and I was looking at him. It was night time - cold, windy, rainy. He was silhouetted against the backdrop of a full moon that sunk into the flat fenland horizon. He sat strong, thick-set on a horse, a solid rock of a man, like a bear - with a long spear in his right hand stubbed in the ground, pointing vertically. It had a ribbon of some kind attached near the top that flickered furiously in the wind. It quite intrigued me and I watched it flicker for some time before I understood that for some reason it was important for him to know which way the wind was blowing.

 

Through this dark stormy night, as the imagination can, I saw minute detail – from the sweeping fen landscape that engulfed him to his horse’s reins, his huge rough hands, deep chest and broad shoulders. He was covered with a leather cape/coat and flappy-brimmed hat, protecting him from the elements - his face lit by the flaming golden glow of the fierce-burning torch in his left hand that must have been the one he used to burn down Peterborough, ‘to steal the gold to buy food and weapons for his men and folk.’ This was a hard man, with a hard, weathered, but not disagreeable-looking face. He was staring straight at me. I felt the fear, I felt the power, I knew we were safe…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following weekend, flush with the benefits of an Edwardian nan that could spin a good folk tale, I sat down to watch the first episode of Hereward the Wake and the only thing I remember now is the thump of feet on the BBC stage sets. Most disappointing! Unlike ITV’s Hollywood-backed production of Robin Hood, Hereward’s exploits were mostly filmed in the studio. Years later when I saw some photographs of Alfred Lynch who played the role of Hereward, I couldn’t remember him. What I could remember is that solitary, lone figure in my imagination, sitting high up on his horse, watching… waiting…

 

He’s still out there y’know…

 

 

 

 

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