Hereward the Wake

Hereward fighting Normans, illustration from Cassell's History of England (1865)
Hereward fighting Normans, illustration from Cassell’s History of England (1865)

Hereward the Wake is a figure of Anglo-Saxon legend, and his story is part history and part fantasy.

He was born in the 11th century. Much of the information we have about him comes from an early 12th century translation of a (lost) Old English history, the Gesta Herewardi, supposedly written by the deacon Leofric, a priest of his household. The original text had been damaged by the time it was copied into Latin so the gaps were filled in by oral tradition. We’ll take a look here at the story as told in the Gesta Herewardi, which is at heart more fiction than fact.

The story begins in rousing fashion:

“Many very mighty men are recorded from among the English people, and the outlaw Hereward is reckoned the most distinguished of all — a notable warrior among the most notable.”

His father was Leofric of Bourne, nephew of Earl Ralph the Staller; and his mother was Eadgyth, descended from Oslac of York. Hereward was described as handsome, generous and bold. However, he was also inclined to get into trouble and as a result of his behaviour he was sent away by his father. He continued to cause trouble and eventually his father had him banished by the King, Edward the Confessor, supposedly when he was eighteen.

Fantastic adventures followed, until at last Hereward he began to regret his ways.

“He wished to visit his father’s house and his homeland, now subject to the rule of foreigners and almost ruined by the exactions of many men, wanting to help any friends or neighbours who perhaps might still be alive in the place.”

Arriving home he learned his younger brother had been killed the day before, having inherited the estate due to Hereward’s absence. The estate had been seized by permission of the king and Hereward’s brother killed by the Normans for defending his mother. His head was nailed up above the gates.

As he lay in bed that night he was disturbed by the Normans who were celebrating their good fortune in obtaining the rich estates of Hereward’s family. He armed himself, disguised under a cloak, and went to find the party. There he listened to the men abusing his people and himself until he could tolerate no more. Then he set about them all, most of them too drunk to fight, and killed fifteen men, putting their heads above the gate in place of his brother’s.

In the morning there was great consternation among the other Normans, and the local people were delighted to have their rightful lord back among them to bring them justice. Over the next days and weeks the number of men coming to serve him grew and grew. Hereward was more than willing to lead them but felt that he should receive his knighthood first. Accordingly he went to Peterborough Abbey and asked the Abbot Brand to knight him. This was done on Feast of the Nativity of the Apostles Peter and Paul, 29th June. This was itself an act of provocation, because the Normans had ruled that knighting by a monk or any cleric was not true knighthood.

His next actions resulted in him killing a man who was trying to capture him for the Normans, and so he left for Flanders while things calmed down, reuniting himself with his wife and joining in more military adventures while there.

After this he returned to England with his wife and two nephews, and gathered his men again. The Abbot of Ely, hearing he had returned, sent for his help in resisting William of Normandy who was trying to put a foreign monk in charge of the Abbey.   Avoiding various ambushes and attacks on the way, Hereward arrived at Ely to join the rebels. These included Edwin and Morcar.

William tried to take the Isle of Ely by building a causeway at a narrow point. In the rush across it the men were so greedy and reckless that most of them drowned. A nice detail is added in the story here:

“Thus in this way, with hardly anybody pursuing them, great numbers perished in the swamp and waters. And to this day many of them are dragged out of the depths of those waters in rotting armour.”

William meanwhile gave up the attack but left the Island guarded. However, one soldier had managed to get to the Isle and was treated courteously by the inhabitants. He was shown their level of preparation and then allowed to return to William. The soldier told William in great detail about how well prepared and ready the English were and eventually William was persuaded he should make peace. However his men disagreed and brought him round to their plan to continue fighting by bringing a witch to oppose the English.

Hereward meanwhile put on another disguise and went to William’s court to spy on their plans. He discovered the witch and heard the Normans discussing their plans in French, assuming he was a peasant who did not understand them. Being Hereward, he got into a fight in the kitchens, killed a number of guards and fled.

William brought his men to Ely again and started gathering materials to build ramparts. Disguised yet again, Hereward infiltrated the fishermen ferrying the wood and stone across the fen and as the work was finished that evening, set fire to it all and escaped. The building work continued nevertheless and the defenders resisted fiercely. At last the witch was brought to the ramparts where she was protected from the English and so she began her spells, at the end of which, the writer tells us, she bared her arse at them three times. At this point the English set fire to the plants along the marsh edge and the Normans fled.

At this time occurred the Earls’ Revolt against William. The Earls Edwin and Morcar left Ely to join it, while Hereward stayed to defend the Isle.

William decided to try another approach and decreed the lands of the church were to be divided among his followers. This resulted in the monks trying to agree a peace with him in return for their lands without Hereward’s knowledge. William was invited to the Isle while Hereward was away foraging. When Hereward returned he was persuaded to withdraw for his own safety.

Hereward was now in dire straits. He escaped to the forests of Northamptonshire, but William raised an army against him there too. As he evaded the Normans, he is said to have had the shoes of the horses put on backwards to confuse those tracking him. Various skirmishes resulted in the capture of some key leaders from the Norman side and the Normans broke off to ensure the safety of the hostages.

Hereward continued fighting for some time but was eventually reconciled with William according to the Gesta Herewardi. He parted from his faithful wife and married a second woman suggested by William, while his first wife retired to be a nun at Crowland Abbey. Another version of the story has him killed in a fight by some Normans led by Ralph of Dol, an old enemy.

The historical Hereward is hard to trace. There are references to him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript E (Peterborough) and even in the Domesday Book which records some estates around Bourne in his name and to a dispute over his entitlement to other land which was taken when he fled abroad (this would be his exile during Edward’s reign).

The term “the Wake” does not appear until the 14th century. His actual parentage is also open to question, despite the statements of the Gesta, and it may be more likely that his father was Aschil (Asketill), son of Toki, King Edward’s thegn and brother of Brand, the Abbot of Peterborough identified also as Hereward’s uncle. As for his eventual demise, a third possibility suggested by Peter Rex is that he went into exile, along with many other English nobles who left the country after the Norman invasion and failed Earls’ Revolt.