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The Fall of Ely - 27th October 1071

The 27th of October is a significant date in English history that is never officially recognised, though many lament over. Our history books tell us that the English Army was defeated in one day at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 but it took another five years before William 'the Conqueror' took complete control of the country and that came at Ely on this day in 1071. It is a passage of our history that fell into legend as it happened and centred around a charismatic leader then known as Hereward 'the Exile', today we call him Hereward 'the Wake'. The Liber Eliensis, written in the latter half of the twelfth century some 100 years after the event, goes into great detail about the collapse of the stout English resistance that had held out for so long.

'the king's fellow-countrymen were slaughtered at the river through the trickery of Hereward'

'When the king learnt of this he expressed admiration for the courage of the most invincible Hereward'

Before the drainage of the Fenlands of eastern England in the 17th Century Ely was an island that was surrounded by marshland, bogs, and unfordable rivers. Through pilgrimage and trade its monastery had become one of the wealthiest in England and combined with Peterborough, Ramsey, Crowland and Thorney constituted what was to become known as the 'Holy Land of the English' - houses of God that sat atop the water under that 'great arc of heaven'.

'Now the king had given instructions for absolutely all boats to be gathered together with their boatmen to make a rendezvous with him at Cotingelade (Cottenham) on his arrival, so that they could transport in the direction of Aldreth a pile of wood and stone which had been collected there'

Uprisings across England had been rife during the early years of William's reign. Eadric the Wild and the Welsh had posed a serious threat in the West Midlands. Count Eustace of Boulogne with the Thegns of Kent had attacked Dover Castle. King Harold's sons aided by the Irish had made two attempts to establish themselves in the West Country and in the north a number of revolts centred around Edgar the Atheling and the Danes. All had been beaten-down and quashed and by 1071 only the island monastery at Ely was still standing firm.

'Hereward arrived in a very small skiff.. and set fire to the heap'

'at a given signal he approached the mass ranks of the enemy with strong young men and filled the camp with extreme fear and confusion, throwing fire-brands'

According to the early 12th Centuiry text the Gesta Herwardi, Hereward had returned from fighting abroad as a mercenary soldier in September of 1067 and at some point was called to defend Ely by Abbot Thurstan. Hereward's allies on the isle included the prominent northern earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar, though Edwin was soon murdered by his own men when journeying north to seek help from Scotland. An alliance with the Danes had led to the ransacking of Peterborough Monastery in June 1070, but the Danish Army soon returned home.

'At the same time. people who up till then had remained somewhat covertly in arms were now ashamed not to follow their friends and neighbours. They went out every day in boats and along narrow tracks, slaughtered Englishmen and Frenchmen indiscriminately, seized horses and arms throughout the neighbourhood and were continually piling up a vast quantity of goods found in the monastery as spoils of war.

For indeed they were fortified by optimism. They knew about eight thousand soldiers of their own people who were in exile among the Danes were to return, accompanied by Danes in the near future, and they knew that the place itself was the most convenient hide-out in all England for rebels. Moreover, they had no fear that it could be assailed successfully by anyone.'

William had made previous attempts to gain access to the Isle, including the building of a causeway at Aldreth which was burned by Hereward and his men, inflicting great loss of life on the Normans. The king withdrew his army to Brampton. One of his knights, Deda, was captured and released un harmed by Hereward. On his return to camp Deda told William about the conditions on the isle. How relaxed Hereward and his men were and about the abundance of food available to them.

'Well then, it is generally agreed the Isle is seven miles long and four miles wide. And all the time I stayed there, I used to dine every day with the monks in their refectory, plenteously enough, in the manner of the English. A knight always took refreshment with a monk at luncheon and dinner and, next to each one, shields and lances hung, attached to the wall, and, in the middle of the house, over their seats, there were placed close at hand, cuirasses, helmets and other suitable pieces of armour, from the head down, so that, should the need arise, they would be able very rapidly to carry out the chance requirements of war. But at the highest table, the aged abbot, that most devout man, reclined with the three earls previously mentioned (presumably Edwin, Morcar and Siward Barn) and those two most distinguished men, Hereward and Thurcytel, along with him, one on the right and the other on his left'

While Deda gives a picture of life on the Isle being sanguine, the conditions apparently deteriorated. The Liber Eliensis not only describes the abundance of food in fish, wildfowl and livestock but also talks of the famine and plague that followed the Harrying of the North. The downfall of Ely centred around the expulsion of the monks from the monastery at Eynesbury which belonged to the church at Ely. Coupled with depleted food supplies - the corn stolen on raids deep into the East Anglian countryside by Hereward and his men was impermissible for the monks to feed on, as it was stolen or forcibly requisitioned - Abbot Thurstan, aware that the morale of the insurgents on the isle was running low, and for what must have been humanitarian reasons, sought clemency from King William at Warwick 'promising faithful obedience in all things from henceforth.'

According to the Liber Eliensis the rebels were holding-out for the return of the Danes and 8,000 exiled English who had fled abroad. The cavalry never arrived. Accordingly, the Norman army crossed the vast watery expanse at Cottenham and descended upon Aldreth, a small hamlet on the southern tip of the Isle of Ely. The Norman armed fleet also took control of the rivers, likely overcoming rebel forces at Wisbech and Upwell, strategic points in the defence of Ely. After previous failed attempts to gain access to the Isle William ordered a pontoon bridge to be built to cross onto Aldreth. Supported by the use of trebuchets the Normans bombarded the defences at Aldreth and eventually gained a foothold on solid ground as the defendants became overwhelmed.

'Apart from the marshlands, numerous standing waters and fast-flowing streams formed a barrier and the king himself was not ashamed, in order to give courage to the fearful, to lead the way through some river by which he was submerged almost to the top of his helmet. He came eventually into the neighbourhood of the Isle, to a marsh of horrific appearance, of infinite depth, festering all around to the depths of its hollow bed. The enemy troops on the bank opposite having assembled peat blocks as a means of defending themselves, prepared to bar their crossing with stones and missiles. The Normans were greatly discountenanced by the double obstacle. The king, pressing his undertakings on to their conclusion, had little boats transported there through the fen, by an amazing feat of engineering, and simulatneously, at the cost of huge effort, he caused siege-engines to be erected, with which to bombard their opponents. The unstable ground shook, threatening everyone supported by it with drowning. The thousand French knights in body armour and helmets who had gone across towards those men, joined battle..'

Hereward was elsewhere at this point, out foraging for more food supplies, and William's army still had to be guided along the crooked fen-paths to get to Ely. Eventually they surrounded Morcar and the insurgents and sentenced some to imprisonment and some to the loss of eyes, hands or feet. Hereward and a few followers fled and continued their rebellion from the cover of the ancient tract of forest known as the Brunneswald.

The Liber Eliensis informs that the day in question was 27th October 1071 and in English history the fall of Ely is recognised as the moment the Conqueror finally gained complete control of all England.


All quotes are from the Liber Eliensis.

The Liber Eliensis as a source for Hereward is said to be difficult to rely upon. While it derives from the same source as the Gesta Herwardi (also written at Ely), it is in places self-contradictory and at odds with the Gesta. It does state that William came back to Aldreth 'a second time', referring to a causeway he had built in an earlier unsuccessful attempt to gain access to the Isle, presumably this is the causeway Hereward burned along with the witch, as reported in the Gesta.

Further reading: 'Liber Eliensis - A History of the Isle of Ely' translated by Janet Fairweather. The Boydell Press 2005.

Image: The magnificent Ely Cathedral in winter - a monument to the Norman subjugation of the English.

Liber Eliensis - A History of the Isle of Ely

To help give an idea of the topographic layout of the Isle of Ely and the Fenlands at the time of Hereward, before the drainage of the Fens began in the 17th Century, click on the button below and zoom into Ely. The shape of the isle will become apparent and the land-level gives an impression of the distinction between dry-land, marsh or fenland and open-water.

Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, Thorney and Crowland housed monasteries. Note how Bourne, said to be Hereward's home, is on the very edge of the Fenlands, yet connected by waterways; the River Glen and the Carr Dyke, as well as being built on a natural spring. Yaxley and Sawtry were inland ports. Wisbech (at that time a coastal port) and Upwell were strategic points for the defence of Ely by river and at Earith, Aldreth and Stuntney there were causeways. March was a demarcation line between East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland. The Fenlands was the axis-mundi of England where trade flowed along the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Ouse into the Midlands. Follow the Nene Valley, for example, from Peterborough to Northampton. In understanding the topographical layout of the Fenlands we can better understand the Hereward story.

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