Sir Hereward Wake passed away peacefully, with his family beside him, at his home in Courteenhall, Northamptonshire on 11th December aged 101.
Born in 1916 the 14th Baronet Wake of Clevedon, Somerset, lived all his life with the debate about whether the folk-hero Hereward was a direct ancestor of the Wake family. Certainly that was the claim of the novelist Charles Kingsley in 1866 when he published the historical novel Hereward the Wake - Last of the English! to a Victorian public imbibed with the glories of Empire.
The popularity of the book was so great that thirty years later the question was still being fielded. The historian Horace Round condemned the use of the 'Wake' patronym by Kingsley and, by then, much of the population in Britain and abroad. Most thought it just meant 'the watchful' as Hereward became a folk-hero of 'star-like' status, rubbing shoulders with Robin and Arthur as 'England's Patriot'. The question of 'the Wake' or 'Le Wake' was a regular feature in the more upmarket national newspapers of the age and Round thoroughly dismissed the Wake family claims:
'Here we see how the legendary name and legendary position of Hereward were evolved. The Wakes, Lords of Bourne, (from 1166) held among their lands some, not far from Bourne, which had once been held by Hereward. Thus arose the story that Hereward had been Lord of Bourne and it was but a step further to connect him directly with the Wakes, by giving him a daughter and heir married to Hugh Envermou, whose lands had similarly passed to the Lords of Bourne. The pedigree-maker's crowning stroke was to make Hereward himself a Wake.'
A spurious pedigree, it seems, had been created. Domesday witnesses Earl Morcar as the Lord of Bourne at the time of the Norman Conquest not Hereward or his father Leofric of Bourne, who is referenced as such in the 12th century Gesta Herwardi and Ingulph's Chronicle. Moreover, at the time of Round's revelation, Ingulph's Chronicle had proven to be a forgery written two to three centuries after Ingulph's death and had become unceremoniously known as the 'Pseudo Ingulph'. Hereward's story fell deeper into legend as a consequence.
Such academic argument had little impact upon the popular imagination in late 19th century Britain, but it did much damage to the historical Hereward's credibility with historians; 'Hereward', Charles Plummer noted, 'has a brief life in history and a long one in romance.'
By the 1960's the story had reached a wider public and during the course of the BBC television series 'Hereward the Wake' (1965) the question of the Wake hereditary claim was an anecdote in some print media. This could not have come without a little embarrassment for Sir Hereward and his family, having accusations thrown around the family name about spurious pedigrees from centuries ago concerning a national icon they believed they were so proudly descended from must have been quite heart-rendering.
This set-back appears not to have deterred Sir Hereward from traversing the Hereward trail, as in 1980 he wrote the preface to a Trevor Bevis book that included a translation of a 12th century manuscript commonly known as the Gesta Herwardi. Therein he states 'the purpose of this book is to prove that Hereward did exist'. It is a statement that exemplifies how the Hereward history had descended into myth, despite contemporary evidence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Domesday Book supporting his existence.
But Sir Hereward's aim reached its goal, Trevor Bevis' book made the Gesta Herwardi available in print in English and a whole new era of Hereward study was ushered in, along with a host of novels - all getting their hands on Bevis and realising the magnitude of the legend. Mr Bevis' book carried the message, but it was Sir Hereward's preface that signalled the importance of the text therein.
Nowadays revisionist historians have helped to elucidate the career of 'the renown soldier Hereward', one such is Professor David Roffe with his work 'Hereward the Wake and the Barony of Bourne'. Within his text Professor Roffe demonstrates how the Wake's connection to the Barony of Bourne was formed, clearly underpinned by a Hereward patrimony. In other words the Wake's acquired Bourne and other land around Bourne because it had previously belonged to Hereward and that it is plausible that the connection between Hereward and the Wake's, somehow, descended through the female line from a daughter of Hereward's.
It would not make Hereward a 'Wake' in his own time, yet there is compelling evidence in the near contemporary Gesta Herwardi that points tantalisingly towards the possibility that he was . The last paragraph of Chapter X reads:
'The same night, in the guest house, quite unawares Hereward encountered a foe, one of the attendants of his rival. In the silence of the night this man went to attack Hereward with an axe while he was asleep. As it happened he turned round from his bed wide awake and struck the assailant on to the bedclothes. All his companions were aroused and seized the man. When they had discovered where he had come from and of his master, they cut off his right hand. From that time, Hereward rested near his own bed, or else to lie in the bed of one of his men situated in a different place.'
Is this the real story about how he obtained the name 'the Wake'? Perhaps not, but the whole passage points to a remarkable coincidence. While it may be correct to say that Hereward was known as 'the Outlaw' in his own time, that comes from the English accounts. The incident described above takes place when Hereward was working as a mercenary soldier in Flanders. Could it be that 'Le Wake' was his nickname among the Flemish and Norman knights who were on the receiving end of the incident and his actions in and around Flanders? Did this story become so widespread as legend among the French-speaking that the Wake family sought out his lands in Lincolnshire simply because such a great and renown soldier had a name that matched theirs?
Whatever the answer is, the point is often overlooked that in tradition the Wake family have proudly carried Hereward's name for the best part of a millennium and should be, and are, regarded as worthy and honourable guardians. The acquisition of their land in 12th century south Lincolnshire by Hugh Wake clearly devolved from Hereward 'the Outlaw' through some connection of some kind, most probably the female line, something the late Sir Hereward had every right to be proud about.
Our thoughts are with Lady Wake and the Wake family.
Major Sir Hereward Wake, 14th Baronet, MC (7th October 1916 - 11th December 2017).