The rich history of Crowland Abbey boasts enough legendary tales to whet the appetite of anyone remotely interested in the far away misty world of early medieval England. The monk St. Guthlac, in whose honour the original abbey was built, arrived by boat to 'this crude and muddy land' in the year 699 to live the life of a hermit. St. Etheldritha (Alfreda) fled to Crowland in 793 and lived as a recluse in the abbey after her father, King Offa of Mercia, had murdered her suitor. Then there is Earl Waltheof - the only English noble executed at the hands of William the Conqueror - buried and martyred at the abbey where he had been a chief benefactor. This once richly endowed abbey, still functioning as a parish church, tourist destination and site of pilgrimage; this hidden gem of the Fen's, is also said to be the last resting place of Hereward the Wake...
Among the precious few medieval texts that tell the Hereward tale is the Historia Croylandis, equally known as the Crowland Chronicle or Ingulph's Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland - Ingulph being the abbot of the abbey from c. 1075 to 1109, and a man amid much controversy. His chronicle gives a lengthy description of Hereward's early life in south Lincolnshire, describing him as..
'..a young man remarkable for his strength of body. He was tall in person and a youth of singular beauty, but too fond of warfare, and of a spirit fierce and uncontrolled beyond expression. In youthful sports and wrestling he also manifested such indomitable ardour,
that many a time 'his hand was against every man, and every man's hand was against him.'
The Historia goes on to tell us how Hereward was outlawed as a youth by the king at the request of his father, Leofric of Bourne. He ventured to Northumberland, Cornwall, Ireland and Europe, plying his trade as a mercenary soldier - 'everywhere behaving himself with the greatest bravery (and) in a short time acquiring a most glorious and illustrious name'. His fame abroad became so great, it says, that his friends and family frequently heard news of his exploits and the local girls sung songs about him in the streets. Hereward, it seems, left south Lincolnshire as a villain yet was regarded a hero long before he returned to lead the spirited fight against William the Conqueror at Ely.
The Gesta Herwardi an early 12th century text emanating out of Ely gives an indication of the date he returned from exile. Hereward, so says the Gesta, was by this time a 'magister militum' (military commander) in the army of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. After one particular war around the River Scheldt estuary, in what is now the Netherlands, Hereward got news that the Count had died. Concerned that the new Count would not pay him and his men for their services he decided to make his way back to England with the loot he had acquired from the defeated pagans who had been made to pay tribute.
'Hereward spent a few idle days in those places thinking such attitudes were disgraceful (non payment). Then he went away and set out for England with a strong desire to visit his father's and his country, which by then was subject to the rule of foreigners and almost ruined by the exactions of many.'
We know from historical record that Baldwin died on September 1st 1067, almost a year after the Battle of Hastings. Allowing for a few days rest and the acquisition of two horses, 'a mare of very great speed and a colt of conspicuous beauty', Hereward secretly fared his way back into England with his companion Martin Lightfoot some time around the first or second week of September 1067. What was to happen over the ensuing years was to make him one of the four most famous people involved in the Norman Conquest, alongside Duke William, King Harold and Harald Hardrada. Pretty good company for a tough south Lincolnshire lad to keep after 950 years.
One particularly significant passage in the Historia, reports how Hereward eventually made peace with King William and by consequence obtained his rightful inheritance of his late father's estate and lived a long and peaceful life. It then continues, 'he ended his days in peace and was very recently, by his especial choice, buried in our monastery by the side of his wife.' It is the only chronicle that claims Hereward is buried at Crowland, though no other burial place in any other text is suggested.
There is, however, a problem with the reliability of the text of the Historia. Although it reads as if written by Ingulph in the late 11th century it is in fact an elaborate forgery written in the 14th century by a hand we now call the 'Pseudo Ingulph'. This has raised question marks against the validity of the claim that Hereward was buried at Crowland. Was this an outlandish claim by a 14th century scribe to attract pilgrims to the abbey, or was he merely copying and compiling from 11th century sources that are now lost or destroyed? There is some light on the subject:
'They say that St. Guthlac's land, which Ogier holds in Rippingale, was the monks' demesne farm, and that abbot Ulfkil granted it to Hereweard at farm, as might be agreed between them each year but the abbot took possession of it again before Hereweard fled the country, because he had not kept the agreement.' (Domesday Book).
When we look in the Domesday Book we do find that Hereward rented land from Crowland Abbey for farming, directly from the abbot - suggesting a close association between the two, perhaps Hereward was running the security, particularly when we consider his reputation as a mercenary soldier and south Lincolnshire 'tough guy'. Unquestionably then, he was part of the fabric of the abbey and given his fame and personal relationship with the abbot it is wholly plausible that he could have been buried at the abbey.
Hereward and Torfrida laid to rest side by side at Crowland Abbey has all the mystical trappings of Glastonbury's claims with King Arthur and Guinevere. Torfrida had originally retired to Crowland while Hereward continued to wage war against the Conqueror and had passed away 'not four summers since' when Hereward was buried beside her. Curiously, the antiquarian William Stukely (1687-1765) writing in the 18th century says he located Hereward's shrine, and claims he is buried near the shrine of St. Neot in the chapel of St. Mary in the north transept of the abbey, further fueling this captivating legend.
Guided tours of the abbey are available, maybe you should take a look for yourself...?