In the early morning of 2nd June 1070 Hereward the Wake and his 'Band of Men' in cahoots with a sizeable force of Vikings, ransacked the monastery at Peterborough. Attacking by ship the raiders, with Hereward at the helm, appealed to the monks to allow them access but the monks refused and began firing missiles and throwing down objects. Undeterred the armed force burned down the huge wooden gate and a battle ensued. The monks were all taken captive, the village of Peterborough was burned down and the raiders made off with so much gold and silver 'that no man could reckon it to the other'.
The monastery had been pre-warned, and one particular monk, Ivar (Ywar) the sacristan, managed to get away with 'all that he could carry' and on horseback, he made his way up Ermine Street across the Welland and into Stamford. At Stamford he met up with a man who was to become one of Hereward's chief adversaries, Turold the new Norman Abbot. A harsh man whose reputation preceded him Turold was much more warrior than clergy and had arrived at Stamford after leaving Glastonbury where he had ruled 'violently' and caused great suffering to the monks of the Abbey. It's said that King William had said, 'if Hereward wants someone to fight, I will give him someone to fight' and thereby released Glastonbury's monks from tyranny, while giving Hereward a direct man to man challenge.
It is easy to imagine this scene as we often see on the movies. While the raiders are banging on the front door a frail old monk slips out the back with a couple of bags of gold, stumbles onto his broken donkey and limps away. This I believe, is the wrong assumption. Peterborough Monastery was a huge consecrated fortress, sitting on the edge of the fenland with the river Nene splaying around it as a natural moat and marsh area. It had an infirmary, a hostel, and stables and a great courtyard with two towers. When William built a north to south line of castles in 1068 from Lincoln to Cambridge he included Stamford and Huntingdon but left out Peterborough as it was already a fortress and of palatine status with its links to the House of Mercia.
When King Harold fought against the Conqueror there was a contingent of men from Peterborough who fought with him including Abbot Leofric, who died some weeks later from wounds received at Hastings. A monastery fortress and the abbot fighting in the Battle of Hastings suggests that there was some degree of a military set-up in Peterborough. Its geographical location, facing out across the fenland and marshland to the bay of the Wash and on to the North Sea, suggests that in an age of coastal raiding an adept response would be necessary to repel attackers.
During the 1050's Abbot Leofric presided over such a phenomenal rise in fortunes for the monastery that Peterborough became known as Gylldenburgh - the Golden Borough. Through endowments, pilgrims drawn to the arm of St. Oswald or through trade in the likes of mede and wool, Peterborough rose to become the wealthiest ecclesiastical house in the country.
The role of the sacristan in the church is to look after the contents, so Ivar may well have been a frail old silver-haired monk, who was an efficient administrator, but in this new golden-age, somehow I do not think so. In the Gesta Herwardi we read of a number of military men linked closely to the church. Rahenald, Steward of Ramsey, 'standard bearer in Hereward's army', is one. Another of Hereward's men is Leofric the Deacon 'his priest at Bourne', who, it is said, wrote the original book on the deeds of Hereward. The role in such an environment suggests Ivar was a big, tough strong bodyguard type of figure, proficient militarily, as his responsibility was gate, security and contents of the most richly endowed monastery in the land.
Later that day on June 2nd 1070 Turold arrived at Peterborough with 160 knights on horseback. By then Hereward was quite likely in Ely celebrating his ill-gotten gains with a few mugs of ale. For me June 2nd 2016, as well as June 3rd, I walk the Hereward Way between Peterborough and Ely in an effort to raise funds towards public noticeboards for Hereward so that people can come to these places and have a moment to read and pause for thought and experience the wonders of our past culture and the engaging stories in the Hereward legend.
Catch me on twitter across the Fenlands on 2nd & 3rd June @DavidACMaile
David AC Maile.