Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

Hereward the Saxon

Hereward was a Saxon patriot, and above all things the Saxons loved a hero. When the barons and their ladies were seated at banquet in the great castle halls, it was their wont to call for a minstrel and bid him sing to them a hero song. When the common people came together at the village green on festival or market days, there a minstrel would be found, and the people would flock to him and ask him for a song.

"Of whom shall I sing?" the minstrel would ask. "Of whom but Hereward, our Saxon hero?" would be the answer.

Then the minstrel would sing of Hereward and his exploits,—first of his life in the fastnesses of Ely and of his fight with William the Conqueror, which is all written down in sober form in the pages of history; and then, when the people clamored for more, of his boyhood, and of how he came to be an out-law, and of the fair ladies who loved him and whom he loved. Sometimes, when it came to be one hundred years or more since he lived, they would forget, and tell stories of him which belonged to some one else. So to-day when we search the old writings to learn about Hereward, we find some history and some of these songs which were written down just as the minstrels sang them; and this story, as I am going to tell it to you, is made up from all these accounts,—mostly from history, of the brave Saxon patriot whom all Anglo-Saxons honor, but sometimes from old English songs, of the wonderful hero who was the darling of the English people in the twelfth and thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The minstrels tell us most about his boyhood. They say that he was the son of Leofric, Lord of Bourne, and of the Lady Godiva. He was graceful of form and handsome of face, with beautiful flaxen-colored hair and large, blue-gray eyes. He was large of frame and might have been clumsy, had he not been so agile and graceful in his movements. Even in his youth he showed himself remarkably strong and powerful of limb. Though he was gentle to the weak, with his fellows he was rough in play and bold in planning perilous adventures, so that he was the leader of them all.

Being of noble family, Hereward received in his boyhood training as a page and an esquire. He was taught to wrestle, to tilt with the spear, to run, to shoot with bow and arrow, and to vault a horse when clad in heavy armor. Sometime during Hereward's boyhood Earl Leofric was called to court, and thither he took his family. Here Hereward did not get on so well. Edward the Confessor was king at that time. He had spent twenty-seven years across the Channel in France at the Norman court, and had brought back with him Norman lords and Norman pages and esquires and more foreign ways than were pleasing to the men of England. He was, besides, a scholar and cared nothing for manly sports and exercises of arms: Young Hereward was always getting into trouble with the Norman boys or inventing some adventure which brought all the esquires into disgrace. They were only boyish pranks, but they tried King Edward and Earl Leofric, who was the same kind of man, beyond measure. The worst story we hear of Hereward is that when he was wrestling with a French page on the roof of one of the low Saxon houses, the French boy angered him and he let him roll off, upon which the page went with a doleful tale to the king. The king and Earl Leofric took counsel together and decided to banish Hereward from the court, or, as they put it, "to send him to travel in foreign countries for an indefinite period."

So Hereward left England when he was nineteen years old. After his father had expelled him from his presence, he went for advice to his godfather, Gilbert of Ghent, and Earl Gilbert gave him letters to his friends in Ireland and Flanders. Of these years of his banishment the minstrels loved to tell wonderful tales, like those about Jack the Giant Killer,—how he went forth and meeting a giant in the way, slew him; how he killed a magic wild boar which attacked him; and many more legendary adventures.

History comes in to tell us of what happened in England during those years. The Normans, descendants of Rollo and his Vikings, had become a very great and powerful people dwelling in the north of France; in many ways they had come into relations with the Anglo-Saxons across the Channel, so that people were constantly going back and forth, and the men of one court, as you have seen with King Edward, lived first in one place and then in the other. The common people did not like it, but they could not help it. England was not strong enough in those days to make a separate nation that could defend itself against all other nations. King Edward died and Harold came to the English throne, and he too had had close relations with the Normans, so that William, their king, even said that Harold had sworn to him, while he was yet a duke over in Normandy, that if he became king of England William might come over and share his realm. However that was, William of Normandy looked with longing eyes upon the counties of England, and meant to add them to his domain. Harold stood out firmly when he came to be really king, and said that whatever promise William had got out of him when he was his subject did not hold now that he was the king of England, for the English crown belonged to the people and was not his to give. But William was not to be daunted. If he could not have England peacefully, he would take it by war. So he gathered an army of sixty thousand men and set sail for England. That was the last time a whole nation moved its home, the very last scene in the long Wandering of the Peoples of which you have read in "Barbarian and Noble." William came over, as you know, in the year 1066, and conquered the Saxons in the Battle of Hastings and was crowned in London.

All this time Hereward was over in Flanders. He heard of the coming of William the Conqueror to his land, and he heard too of the way the Normans were oppressing his people, taking their homes and fields and turning them out as if they were beggars. Then word came to him that his father was dead and his own home had been taken by a Norman chief, who was living in it and had driven out his mother Godiva, its lawful owner. Hereward waited no longer. Banished though he was, outlaw even, as some called him, he would return to his own land and his own people. But if he was outlaw from the court of the peace-loving Edward, how much more would he be in danger from the conqueror William!

Hereward went straight to his own county and gathered a band of his former friends and playmates, who welcomed him joyfully. The Normans were feasting in Hereward's hall, listening, so the minstrels say, to a false song of Saxon cowardice, and laughing at the Saxon ways, when Hereward and his men came upon them, and drove them out of the hall and out of the county,—that is, so many as escaped with their lives.

After that exploit there was no safety in England for Hereward. He stayed at his home only long enough to restore his mother to her rightful heritage, and retired to the marshes of Ely; and it is with his fight for liberty at Ely that history is most concerned. If, when you have read this tale, you want to know more of Hereward and of English life in the eleventh century, you must read Kingsley's book, "Hereward the Wake."

The Fenland in the east of England, of which the island of Ely is the center, is the most barren part of England. Here there is a great tract of country, none of it a hundred feet above sea level, dotted by an occasional island a little higher than the rest, and cut by narrow channels of sluggish water which divide the great swampy marshes. To this wild waste of land and water Hereward and his band retired, and on the island of Ely established a Camp of Refuge, to which flocked all the brave Saxons of England who had been driven from their homes by the Normans. Men slipped away even from William's court in his absence, to make, plans with the outlaws, and were back in their places before the king returned. From this shelter Hereward and his men "harried the Normans of nine counties," attacking their castles after a march of thirty or forty miles through the night, and returning before day-light to their fastnesses.

William the Conqueror

Meanwhile William was trying to govern England, with uprisings going on in the north and west and this nest of outlaws to the east. "This William was a very wise and great man," writes the Saxon chronicler, "but also was he a very stern and wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will. Amongst other things the good order that he established is not to be forgotten. But truly there was much trouble in his times, and very great distress. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he reeked not of the hatred of them all; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or keep their lands, or be maintained in their rights."

Even while he was bringing order to their land, the Saxons hated their Norman king beyond all words, as all freedom-loving men must hate a foreign conqueror. More and more Saxon earls and lords slipped away to Hereward's Camp of Refuge, until there were gathered four thousand of the most daring spirits in England. William had heard of Hereward's attacks on the country round about. He had even come to have a grim sort of respect for this brave fighter who so easily overtook his Norman barons. When one of his own abbots had proved warlike and rebellious, he had said, "I'll find him his match! He shall go to Peterborough, where Hereward will give him enough fighting."

Now when William heard that Hereward and his men planned to winter together in Ely, he prepared to attack them. He moved his court to Cambridge, which was the nearest town; he sent his ships and sailors round by water to fight from the sea; and he brought with him all his army to besiege these Saxon rebels. By one means and another he tried to take them, but in vain. He attempted to starve them out, but Hereward had laid in a good store of wheat and grain, there were always fish and wild fowl to be caught, and, watch as the Normans would, the fishermen and country folk, who stood to a man with the patriots, would manage to take sheep and cattle at night by secret ways through the marshes to the besieged outlaws. He built approaches, and Hereward destroyed them. He planned surprises, and men from Hereward's supporters would get wind of them through servants of the king.

The minstrels tell how Hereward himself went over in disguise to the king's court. One time he went as a fisherman to sell fish, and another time he was dressed as a potter and walked into the camp crying, "Pots! pots! good pots and pitchers! Earthenware dishes, all of the very best! "This time he was in real danger, for he was brought by the cook, who wished to buy dishes, into the kitchen, and then, for his pleasing appearance and wit, taken up among the soldiers and courtiers. If it had not been for his swift mare Swallow, he would never have escaped that day, for among the soldiers was one who recognized him and gave the alarm.

King William sat in the Castle of Cambridge and looked out across the wastes of marsh to the camp of Ely and pondered how he should take Hereward and his men. At last he had a great causeway, two miles long, of stones and trees and earth, laid across the marshes, so that his army could march safely to the attack. He blocked up every outlet from the marshes to the sea with boats. So he shut in Hereward and his men, and still they did not yield, until a traitor from the monks of the abbey of Ely came and told the king of a secret way through the marshes, by which his men might safely reach the island. That made it possible for him to surprise the Saxons and take many of them; but even then he did not get Hereward.

A fisherman hid Hereward in his boat, which had been kept in waiting in case he should be obliged to make his escape, and there he lay under the straw until a party of Normans came to buy fish. As their leader, a Norman knight, bartered with the Saxon about the price of his fish, Hereward leaped from his place of hiding and, seizing the horse from which the Norman had dismounted, rode away to safety.

With his followers Hereward retired to the forests of his own estate, and there, in the midst of the forest, they lived for many a month. Berries and acorns grew there which were fit for food, and red deer and wild cattle and pigs ran in herds. With his bow a man might live there without lack, and in the depths of that wild forest he might evade a foe forever. Moving from one place to another each week, they dwelt in the forest in safety, and that was the beginning of the greenwood life of England, in which Robin Hood and Adam Bell and many another persecuted and friendless outlaw escaped, to live happily in the forest.

Hereward was not to end his days in the greenwood. He and his men were so fortunate as to capture a Norman knight, Duke Ivo, and thus the chance came to him to make peace with William, who had by this time made himself so strong in the land that it was useless to resist him. King William showed himself an honorable foe. He offered to restore Hereward's land and castle, and to let him dwell in peace on the estates of his fathers, if he would promise never to take up arms against him again. Hereward was true to his promise, and that was the way it happened all over England. The Normans saw that they could not make the Saxons a subject people, and the Saxons saw that the Normans had come to stay. So the two races came together, as English and Danes had come together in the days of King Alfred, and as the Saxons themselves had joined with the former inhabitants of the land when they sailed across from their Saxon homes in Germany five hundred years before. While they loved the story of Hereward,

"Who year by year did fight so well

The rhymers all his praises tell,"

the Saxons learned also the wonderful stories of the Normans; and took up the civilization of Europe which the Normans brought, until now

"Scot and Celt and Norman and Dane,

With the Northman's sinew and heart and brain,

And the Northman's courage for blessing or bane,

Are England's heroes too."

[Illustration] from Patriots and Tyrants by Marion Lansing