HEREWARD THE WAKE
Hereward was the son of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and his mother was Lady Godiva. He was the uncle of Edwin and Morcar who were the last surviving members of the English royal house and he was born at Bourne in Lincolnshire where the Domesday Book confirms that he held lands there and also in Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
Earl Leofric was very harsh and the people of Coventry suffered greatly because of him. His wife, Lady Godiva was very different, she was a gentle, pious, loving woman who had already won an almost saintly reputation for sympathy and pity by her sacrifice to save her husbands oppressed citizens at Coventry, where her pleading won relief for them from the harsh earl on the pitiless condition of her never-forgotten ride. Happily her gentle self-suppression awoke a nobler spirit in her husband and enabled him to play a worthier part in England’s history.
Lady Godiva wanted Hereward to become a monk, but Hereward would have none of it and refused to study. He was a wild wayward lad, with long golden curls, eyes of different colours, one grey, and one blue. He had great breadth and strength of limb, and a wild and ungovernable temper, which made him difficult to control. He spent his time wrestling, boxing, fighting, and all manly exercises. Despairing of making an ecclesiastic of him, his mother set herself to inspire him with a noble ideal of Knighthood. When he reached the age of sixteen or seventeen he became the terror of the Fen Country, and at his fathers Hall of Bourne he gathered a band of youths as wild and reckless as himself, who accepted him as their leader and obeyed him implicitly, however outrageous were his commands.
In all of Hereward’s lawless deeds, however there was no meanness or crafty malice. He took his punishment when it came with equable cheerfulness. He robbed merchants with a high hand, but made reparation liberally counting himself well satisfied with the fun of a fight or the skill of a clever trick. His band of youths met and fought other bands, but they bore no malice when the struggle was over. The only flaw Hereward had in his character was he would not admit anyone was stronger than he, or more handsome, but credit due, he had both attributes in abundance.
Hereward’s father could do nothing to control his son, so Leofric begged an audience with the king (Edward the Confessor), and formally asked for a writ of outlawry against his own son. This done Hereward rode away, followed into exile by Martin Lightfoot, who left Leofric’s service for that of his outlawed son. Though the king’s writ of outlawry might run in Mercia, it did not carry more than nominal weight in Northumbria, where Earl Siward (note the connection for Siward was the father of Waltheof) ruled almost as an independent lord. In Northumbria lived his godfather Gilbert of Ghent, and his castle was known as an excellent training school for young aspirants to the knighthood. Sailing from Dover, Hereward landed at Whitby (this is near Robin Hood's Bay) and made his way to Gilbert’s castle, where he was well received, since the cunning Fleming knew that an outlawry could be reversed at any time, and Leofric’s son might yet come to rule England. (This was before the Norman invasion.) He soon showed himself to be a brave warrior, an unequalled wrestler, and a wary fighter, who outdid them in all manly sports. Gilbet kept in his castle a large white Polar bear which was feared by all for its enormous strength, it was called the Fairy Bear, but it was no fairy. They said it bore some kinship to Earl Siward who had a bear on his crest and he was reputed to be as fierce as one. The bear was kept in a cage and for added security one leg was chained, but this particular day when Hereward was returning with Martin from his morning ride they heard a commotion. Inside the courtyard stood the escaped bear with the broken chain dangling, and with no way of escape stood a petrified girl called Alftruda. The bear made a rush toward the girl and Hereward sprang forward with his battleaxe in his hand. He swung it round his head and split the skull of the furious beast, which fell dead. A romantic love story follows which results in Hereward leaving for the continent where he fought in the armies of foreign princes. While in Flanders he learned how his aged mother was suffering insults at the hands of the Normans. His father was already dead and the estates had become the property of a Norman. On his return to England he found that the new Norman owners had not only taken the land, but also slain his brother, whose head was set above the door of the house. He revealed himself to some of his relatives and friends collected an armed band and like an avenging thunderbolt, he descended upon the killers and slew them all with his famous sword Brainbiter. Next day fourteen Norman heads had replaced that of his brother above the door. News of Hereward’s exploits spread making him the hero of the countryside. Soon other armed bands joined him and he became the leader of a mixed band of English and Danish warriors, who flocked to join him at his new base at the great Abbey of Ely.(Remember, it was to Ely where the wealthy fled after the Harrowing of the North.)
Visiting the monastery at Peterborough he received from the hands of the Saxon Abbot the military belt and sword, which constituted a kind of knighthood. The Normans used to say that he whose sword had been girt on by a clerk in a long gown was not a true knight but a citizen without prowess, but they soon came to respect him when they measured swords with him. After the abbot of Peterborough died the Normans put one of their own warlike men called Turbold in his place with the intent of subduing the “Saxon rabble” around Peterborough. Hereward feeling no doubt that the treasures of Peterborough Abbey would be better in English hands than those of the hated Norman acted quickly and when Turbold finally rode into Peterborough at the head of an armed force he found that the town had been reduced to ashes and the church stripped of every valuable object it had ever contained.
Hereward made many raids against the Normans and greatly harassed them for four or five years. At last in 1072 William felt it was necessary to take vigorous measures against the English leader. Hereward had established a camp of refuge in the Isle of Ely in the midst of the Fens where it was very difficult to reach him. The ground was treacherous, affording no footing for an army, and yet there was not enough water for the warriors to approach the camp by boat. Archers could find no suitable standing place and the mailed knights dare not take their horses among the soft soil and reedy pools. What could be done? William who was always a man of action decided to construct a causeway across the Fens at their narrowest point from Aldreth to Ely and engaged a large number of workmen to cut trenches so that the water might be drained off. Then he raised a bank of stone and turf, but all the time Hereward was on the alert and constantly stopped the operations. He raided here there and everywhere and for months and the Normans could do nothing more than blockade the English rebels. During Williams third attempt at building a causeway, he camped at Brandon. Hereward rode there on his horse, a noble beast called Swallow and on his way met a potter, who agreed to exchange clothes with him and lend him his wares. In this disguise Hereward got into William’s camp and overheard his plans. When William ordered his men to attack Ely the third time Hereward’s men hidden in the reeds set fire to the vegetation and the wind did the rest. The flames rapidly engulfed the Normans and those who tried to escape were either drowned in the marsh or picked off by English arrows. Then some treacherous monks of Ely, growing weary of the privations they had to suffer, went in secret to the king and offered to show him a way across the Fens. William agreed and a band of Normans was led across the Fens. Hereward and his men were surprised and a thousand of them were killed and their camp captured. Hereward and five of his comrades fought on and crossed the marshes at a place where the enemy did not dare follow. Thus they escaped into Lincolnshire and were hidden by some Saxon fisherman. Still the disaffected English rallied to Hereward and he made constant raids upon the Normans greatly harassing them, killing many, putting the rest to flight and seizing their horses. Then one day he took prisoner his old enemy Ivo Taillebois and promised to give him his liberty on condition that he went to William carrying proposals of peace. The king was only too glad, for he had come to respect Hereward and preferred to have the brave English leader as a friend rather than as a foe. Hereward went to Winchester where he swore allegiance to William and gained the king’s favour who restored his lands. This is confirmed by the Domesday book. One night however he was set upon by a band of envious Normans and although he managed to kill fifteen of them with his famous sword Brainbiter he was stabed in the back and fell dying, a hero to the end.
The author of the Gesta, writing no more than fifty years after William’s assault on Ely, tells us that he remembers seeing fishermen dredging Norman skeletons, still in their rusty armour, out of the fen. Songs were being sung about Hereward in taverns a hundred years after his death; and in the thirteenth century people still visited a ruined wooden castle in the Fens which was known as Hereward’s Castle. But later he was supplanted by another outlaw-hero, Robin Hood, as a symbol of resistance to oppression.