Hereward's debt to a Fenland Historian.

July 28, 2016

In recent media interviews I have spoken about the origin of my interest in the Fenlands' own folklore hero, Hereward the Wake. It was on returning to England at the turn of the millennium, after a number of years living and working in Scandinavia, that I began to take more than just a passing interest in this veritable man of mystery. 

 

 

On a hot sunny Sunday in August 2004 I decided to take a drive across the Fen's from my hometown of Wisbech to Ely, where Hereward had made his famous stand against the might of William the Conqueror in the years following the Battle of Hastings - for his is a tale of '1066 and all that'. Having become well-versed in Viking history and mythology during a ten year tenure in Scandinavia that saw me living and working in Sweden, Norway and Denmark it was with more than just curiosity that I was visiting Ely, I really felt compelled to find out why this great hero in our midst seemed to be under-represented in his homeland. In the four years that I had been back in England I had barely heard a mention of him and quite to my astonishment much of the younger generation I had spoken to had never heard of him at all.

 

I was quietly hoping that I would walk into Ely market square and be greeted by a four metre high statue of Hereward leaping forth with sword in hand, but on inspection and quietly disappointed, there was no such character. I then took a walk around the beautiful Cathedral, that great 'ship of the Fens' that had been built by the Normans as a monument to the subjugation of the English after Hereward's long stout resistance had collapsed, again, nothing. Around the grounds I wandered and down to the waterfront, still nothing to be seen. If no monument, surely there must be something written about this man, I thought, and headed to the tourist information centre.

 

Browsing through the many tourist brochures of the area I became a little despondent. I expected to find some kind of double-page feature in such literature, but yet again there was nothing. I felt a sense of injustice to such a degree that I now did not want to inquire about Hereward at the desk because I would have felt slightly embarrassed to do so. Was there something I didn't know? Maybe I had got the story wrong, I thought, was it possible that I should be looking elsewhere? Maybe Peterborough or Chatteris even?

 

I began to look through the books that were for sale in the hope of finding something. I had almost given up when, on the bottom shelf tucked away in the right hand corner, the last place anyone would naturally arrive at, I spotted a small thin A5 sized booklet. Just the one mind! I bent at the knees to reach down and when I looked at the cover, to my delight, in bold red type, there he was, my childhood hero; 'Hereward of the Fens'.  I glanced at the front cover, then noticed the reasonable price of £3.60 on the back and immediately walked to the counter, purchased and headed home with my solitary piece of evidence of Hereward's existence in Ely, or seemingly anywhere else across the Fenlands for that matter. When I got home and began to read this little booklet I was quite taken aback.

 

 

 

The book has been at my side ever since. It has travelled across most of Europe, been to Scandinavia on several occasions, and up and down the country; Wales, Cornwall, Scotland - it is always in that little rucksack on my back. It tells the story of a man known primarily in his time as 'The Outlaw'. (According to many the patronym 'the Wake' is said to be a much later addition). The Outlaw, says the book, got his name after being exiled from England at the age of 18 at the behest of his father, Leofric of Bourne - who had to get the king's official involvement to get rid of him. That king was non other than Edward the Confessor whose death saw King Harold take the Crown of England, much to the chagrin of William the Conqueror who came over from Normandy and snatched it from Harold at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. 

 

The official title of the book, written in Latin and added some time later is; 'De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis', the English translation being; 'The Exploits of Hereward the Saxon'. What took me by surprise was the wealth of information in this thin little book of some 25,000 words. Hereward, it informs, was a troublesome boy, always getting involved in fights with other children. As he grew so did his craft in warfare and he constantly challenged much older boys and youths to fights and soundly defeated them. By the time he reached his later teens he had gathered around him a number of youths and they terrorised the community around south Lincolnshire and became a force so powerful and threatening that even the local militia could not contain him. He had developed a warband, a 'Band of Men' that was to go on and become a legendary fighting force.

 

The 'Gesta Herwardi', as it has become known, tells how he was exiled and left the Fen's with one man-servant, Martin Lightfoot. In the north of the country he becomes a knight-errant and is famed for killing a bear that had escaped captivity and was about to attack the locals. He then travels to Cornwall and rescues a princess from forced-marriage to a giant of a man, who he kills in combat. He then travels to Ireland where he delivers the princess to the Prince of Ireland and they duly marry. After fighting in the army of the King of Ireland he journeys by ship to Flanders where he fights in the army of the Duke of Flanders under the command of Count Robert 'the Frisian'.

 

It is here in Flanders where he meets and marries Torfrida of St.Omer and after the fall of the English crown at Hastings he returns to defend the people of the Fenlands against the might of William the Conqueror. This fascinating story, said to be a mixture of legend and history is an engaging epic and I became hooked.

 

It set me out on a path of education and I attended university in Cambridge to learn how to research and write history with the sole intention of using that knowledge to raise the profile of Hereward across the Fen's and beyond. So here I am today, visiting relevant people across the Fen's, asking opinion and generating support. Come hell or high water I decided at the start of this year to dedicate the next five years of my life to putting Hereward the Wake in his rightful place at the forefront of Fenland history. After all, since I went on my sojourn to Ely in search of Hereward, several writers have since written gripping novels about him, generating thousands of eager fans - surely they have the right to visit the Fenlands and be greeted by information and monuments that celebrate the story of this great man of our history?

 

But the point of this blog today was for me to project to you the importance of one man in the Hereward story who has influenced a whole generation of historians, authors and interested parties. He is a man who Hereward himself owes a debt of gratitude, for without his work it is very likely that my childhood interest would not have been rekindled on that day twelve years ago when I visited Ely, and that there would have been no immediate reference available for the many writers of Hereward novels over the ensuing years since that visit. I am talking about the local Historian from the town of March, here in the Fenlands, Mr Trevor Bevis.

 

It was Trevor Bevis' book that I purchased that day, as there was nothing else available, and it has had a profound influence on me ever since. It triggered a catalogue of events that made me determined to spread the word about Hereward at every given opportunity and I am only at the beginning of that journey. Let me briefly explain why Trevor's book became so important.

 

In short, the significance of Trevor's book comes in the timing of its publication and I have to go back in time to further explain why. The benchmark for the Hereward story is the 1866 publication Hereward the Wake - Last of the English by the novelist Charles Kingsley. It was from this historical novel that Hereward's fame in modern-times was built. In a short space of time Hereward became a national hero, rivaling Robin Hood and King Arthur in fame across the land. From there they named trains and boats and a squadron of 'planes after the great man. Theatre productions and a flood of books followed, as well as cartoons, and comic strips. Historians has public arguments over his authenticity, aristocratic families claimed they descended from him, the name Hereward itself began to appear on birth registers, and there can be no doubt that the story of his indomitable spirit was mirrored in so-called great feats of Empire in places as far away as Rorkes Drift and Mafeking. He was as popular in Victorian and Edwardian England as David Beckham is in today's society. Compared to him William Wallace was an also-ran in British history. Though unlike Wallace, no statue was ever built.

 

But that fame began to dwindle after the Second World War and there is a logical reason for that. Hereward's reputation had been wrongly aligned to the feats of Empire. His service to his country had been promoted as an example of a prototype Englishman who had laid the foundations for a great empire. With the dismantling of the British Empire in the 1950's came the gradual disinterest in one of its great representative figures, Hereward the Wake. During the 60's he was still a comic-strip hero but the novels began to dry up and by the 1970's, when the British Empire was finally laid to rest, so Hereward was all but forgotten. His final hurrah was the BBC Tv series Hereward the Wake that ran through the Autumn season of 1965. After that an odd book here an odd mention there - his tale fell out of popular folk knowledge and almost died and that is where Trevor Bevis came in. 

 

Crucially, in 1981, Mr Bevis' reworking and revision of Sweeting and Miller's 1895 translation breathed new life into our hero and influenced a whole new generation. Gone were the trappings of Empire that had been placed heavily on Hereward's shoulders, now, he became to be recognised as a historical figure rather than a literary fictional figure. Without that book, the chances are that you would not be reading this right now. Trevor Bevis had kept the Hereward flame flickering and like moths some, including myself, were drawn to it. The new generation of Herewardistas that then came to write about Hereward did so without the Victorian link to empire - setting him free for fresher, new adventures with a less bombastic nationalist edge to their story. Those authors brought Hereward into the modern world and killed off the ego of empire that had tainted his image.

 

To support my theory I contacted the most successful author of the Hereward story in modern times, the BBC scriptwriter Mark Chadbourn, who writes his Hereward series under the pen-name of James Wilde. As today marks the publication date of the 6th installment of his Hereward series under the name of 'The Bloody Crown' I thought it quite appropriate to ask Mark from where he got his impetus to write his Hereward epic. Satisfyingly, yet not surprisingly, this was Mark's response:

 

'Serendipity plays a big part in the creation of any story. I first became aware of Hereward when I was a boy, leafing through a pile of old British comics given to me by a relative. In one of them - Valiant, I think, though I could be mistaken - there was a series set in the Fenlands about the reincarnation of Hereward. It was the first time I’d heard of him, but I stored up that knowledge and it disappeared into the vast cave of my unconscious. Like just about anyone with any sense, I enjoy browsing in bookshops, and always dip into any store in a town in which I find myself. I was researching one of my contemporary fantasy novels a few years back and had rolled up in Cambridge, reading up on the local myths and legends. In a second hand bookshop - I can’t remember which one - I came across Trevor Bevis’ book on Hereward and his translation of the Gesta Herwardi and began to read. That connection with childhood is a potent thing, and suddenly Hereward leapt back into my conscious mind. I started wondering why such a great hero of English history was, at the time, almost forgotten, at least rarely mentioned. For me, he seemed up there with the legendary King Arthur and Robin Hood, while having the benefit of having actually existed.This time, Hereward stayed with me. When it came time to write my historical novels, he seemed a perfect candidate. It seems clear that I wouldn’t have written them if not for Trevor Bevis keeping the history, and the legend, alive, and I presume he may well have done the same for a great many other people.'

 

 

 

The importance of March Historian Trevor Bevis in the renaissance of the Hereward story should not be underestimated. Because of him, Mark Chadbourn, myself and many others were able to purchase the most important work on the history of Hereward at a time when there was nothing else in sight, and do something with it to enhance the profile of this great historical and folklore figure. For that we all owe Mr Bevis a debt of gratitude, not least of all Hereward himself.

 

Both The Bloody Crown and the Gesta Herwardi are available for purchase on Amazon and in all good book stores.

 

Hereward is coming....

 

 

David AC Maile.

 

* Special thank's to Mark Chadbourn for his swift 'no problem' contribution. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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