Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

Hereward the Wake

Through the mist of the far past of English history there looms up before our vision a notable figure, that of Hereward the Wake, the "last of the Saxons," as he has been appropriately called, a hero of romance perhaps more than of history, but in some respects the noblest warrior who fought for Saxon England against the Normans. His story is a fabric in which threads of fact and fancy seem equally interwoven; of much of his life, indeed, we are ignorant, and tradition has surrounded this part of his biography with tales of largely imaginary deeds; but he is a character of history as well as of folk lore, and his true story is full of the richest elements of romance. It is this noteworthy hero of old England with whom we have now to deal.

No one can be sure where Hereward was born, though most probably the county of Lincolnshire may claim the honor. We are told that he was heir to the lordship of Bourne, in that county. Tradition—for we have not yet reached the borders of fact—says that he was a wild and unruly youth, disrespectful to the clergy, disobedient to his parents, and so generally unmanageable that in the end his father banished him from his home.

Little was the truculent lad troubled by this. He had in him the spirit of a wanderer and outlaw, but was one fitted to make his mark wherever his feet should fall. In Scotland, while still a boy, he killed, single-handed, a great bear,—a feat highly considered in those days when all battles with man and beast were hand-to-hand. Next we hear of him in Cornwall, one of whose race of giants Hereward found reserved for his prowess. This was a fellow of mighty limb and boastful tongue, vast in strength and terrible in war, as his own tale ran. Hereward fought him, and the giant ceased to boast. Cornwall had a giant the less. Next he sought Ireland, and did yeoman service in the wars of that unquiet island. Taking ship thence, he made his way to Flanders, where legend credits him with wonderful deeds. Battle and bread were the nutriment of his existence, the one as necessary to him as the other, and a journey of a few hundreds of miles, with the hope of a hard fight at the end, was to him but a holiday.

Such is the Hereward to whom tradition introduces us, an idol of popular song and story, and doubtless a warrior of unwonted courage and skill, agile and strong, ready for every toil and danger, and so keenly alert and watchful that men called him the Wake. This vigorous and valiant man was born to be the hero and champion of the English, in their final struggle for freedom against their Norman foes.

A new passion entered Hereward's soul in Flanders, that of love. He met and wooed there a fair lady, Torfrida by name, who became his wife. A faithful helpmeet she proved, his good comrade in his wanderings, his wise counseller in warfare, and ever a softening influence in the fierce warrior's life. Hitherto the sword had been his mistress, his temper the turbulent and hasty one of the dweller in camp. Henceforth he owed a divided allegiance to love and the sword, and grew softer in mood, gentler and more merciful in disposition, as life went on.

To this wandering Englishman beyond the seas came tidings of sad disasters in his native land. Harold and his army had been overthrown at Hastings, and Norman William was on the throne; Norman earls had everywhere seized on English manors, Norman churls, ennobled on the field of battle, were robbing and enslaving the old owners of the land. The English had risen in the north, and William had harried whole counties, leaving a desert where he had found a fertile and flourishing land. The sufferings of the English at home touched the heart of this genuine Englishman abroad. Hereward the Wake gathered a band of stout warriors, took ship, and set sail for his native land.

And now, to a large extent, we leave the realm of legend, and enter the domain of fact. Hereward henceforth is a historical character, but a history his with shreds of romance still clinging to its skirts. First of all, story credits him with descending on his ancestral hall of Bourne, then in the possession of Normans, his father driven from his domain, and now in his grave. Hereward dealt with the Normans as Ulysses had done with the suitors, and when the hall was his there were few of them left to tell the tale. Thence, not caring to be cooped up by the enemy within stone walls, he marched merrily away, and sought a safer refuge elsewhere.

This descent upon Bourne we should like to accept as fact. It has in it the elements of righteous retribution. But we must admit that it is one of the shreds of romance of which we have spoken, one of those interesting stories which men believe to be true because they would like them to be true, possibly with a solid foundation, certainly with much embellishment.

Where we first surely find Hereward is in the heart of the fen country of eastern England. Here, at Ely in Cambridgeshire, a band of Englishmen bad formed what they called a "Camp of Refuge," whence they issued at intervals in excursions against the Normans. England had no safer haven of retreat for her patriot sons. Ely was practically an island, being surrounded by watery marshes on all sides. Lurking behind the reeds and rushes of these fens, and hidden by their misty exhalations, that faithful band had long defied its foes.

Hither came Hereward with his warlike followers, and quickly found himself at the head of the band of patriot refugees. History was repeating itself. Centuries before King Alfred had sought just such a shelter against the Danes, and had troubled his enemies as Hereward now began to trouble his.

The exiles of the Camp of Refuge found new blood in their organization when Hereward became their leader. Their feeble forays were quickly replaced by bold and daring ones. Issuing like hornets from their nests, Hereward and his valiant followers sharply stung the Norman invaders, hesitating not to attack them wherever found, cutting off armed bands, wresting from them the spoils of which they had robbed the Saxons, and flying back to their reedy shelter before their foes could gather in force.

Ely Cathedral


Of the exploits of this band of active warriors but one is told in full, and that one is worth repeating. The Abbey of Peterborough, not far removed from Ely, had submitted to Norman rule and gained a Norman abbot, Turold by name. This angered the English at Ely, and they made a descent upon the settlement. No great harm was intended. Food and some minor spoil would have satisfied the raiders. But the frightened monks, instead of throwing themselves on the clemency of their fellow countrymen, sent word in haste to Turold. This incensed the raiding band, composed in part of English, in part of Danes who had little regard for church privileges. Provoked to fury, they set fire to the monks' house and the town, and only one house escaped the flames. Then they assailed the monastery, the monks flying for their lives. The whole band of outlaws burst like wolves into the minter, which they rapidly cleared of its treasures. Here some climbed to the great rood, and carried of its golden ornaments. There others made their way to the steeple, where had been hidden the gold and silver pastoral staff. Shrines, roods, books, vestments, money, treasures of all sorts vanished, and when Abbot Turold appeared with a party of armed Normans, he found but the bare walls of the church and the ashes of the town, with only a sick monk to represent the lately prosperous monastery. Whether or not Hereward took part in this affair, history does not say.

King William had hitherto disregarded this patriot refuge, and the bold deeds of the valiant Hereward. All England besides had submitted to his authority, and he was too busy in the work of making a feudal kingdom of free England to trouble himself about one small centre of insurrection. But an event occurred that caused him to look upon Hereward with more hostile eyes.

Among those who had early sworn fealty to him, after the defeat of Harold at Hastings, were Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumberland. They were confirmed in the possession of their estates and dignities, and remained faithful to William during the general insurrection of northern England. As time went on, however, their position became unbearable. The king failed to give them his confidence, the courtiers envied them their wealth and titles, and maligned them to the king. Their dignity of position was lost at the court; their safety even was endangered; they resolved, when too late, to emulate their braver countryman, and strike a blow for home and liberty. Edwin sought his domain in the north, bent on insurrection. Morcar made his way to the Isle of Ely, where he took service with his followers, and with other noble Englishmen, under the brave Hereward, glad to find one spot on which a man of true English blood could still set foot in freedom.

His adhesion brought ruin instead of strength to Hereward. If William could afford to neglect a band of outlaws in the fens, he could not rest with these two great earls in arms against him. There were forces in the north to attend to Edwin; Mortar and Hereward must be looked after.

Gathering an army, William marched to the fen country and prepared to attack the last of the English in their almost inaccessible Camp of Refuge. He had already built himself a castle at Cambridge, and here he dwelt while directing his attack against the outlaws of the fens.

The task before him was not a light one, in the face of an opponent so skilful and vigilant as Hereward the Wake. The Normans of that region had found him so ubiquitous and so constantly victorious that they ascribed his success to enchantment; and even William, who was not free from the superstitions of his day, seemed to imagine that he had an enchanter for a foe. Enchanter or not, however, he must be dealt with as a soldier, and there was but one way in which he could be reached. The heavily armed Norman soldiers could not cross the marsh. From one side the Isle of Ely could be approached by vessels, but it was here so strongly defended that the king's ships failed to make progress against Hereward's works. Finding his attack by water a failure, William began the building of a causeway, two miles long, across the morasses from the dry land to the island.

This was no trifling labor. There was a considerable depth of mud and water to fill, and stones and trunks of trees were brought for the purpose from all the surrounding country, the trees being covered with hides as a protection against fire. The work did not proceed in peace. Hereward and his men contested its progress at every point, attacked the workmen with darts and arrows from the light boats in which they navigated the waters of the fens, and, despite the hides, succeeded in setting fire to the woodwork of the causeway. More than once it had to be rebuilt; more than once it broke down under the weight of the Norman knights and men-at-arms, who crowded upon it in their efforts to reach the island, and many of these eager warriors, weighed down by the burden of their armor, met a dismal death in the mud and water of the marshes.

Hereward fought with his accustomed courage, warlike skill, and incessant vigilance, and gave King William no easy task, despite the strength of his army and the abundance of his resources. But such a contest, against so skilled an enemy as William the Conqueror, and with such disparity of numbers, could have but one termination. Hereward struck so valiant a last blow for England that he won the admiration of his great opponent; but William was not the man to rest content with aught short of victory, and every successful act of defence on the part of the English was met by a new movement of assault. Despite all Hereward's efforts, the causeway slowly but surely moved forward across the fens.

But Hereward's chief danger lay behind rather than before; in the island rather than on the main land. His accessions of nobles and commons had placed a strong body of men under his command, with whom he might have been able to meet William's approaches by ship and causeway, had not treason laid intrenched in the island itself. With war in his front and treachery in his rear the gallant Wake had a double danger to contend with.

This brings us to a picturesque scene, deftly painted by the old chroniclers. Ely had its abbey; a counterpart of that of Peterborough. Thurston, the abbot, was English-born, as were the monks under his pastoral charge; and long the cowled inmates of the abbey and the armed patriots of the Camp of Refuge dwelt in sweet accord. In the refectory of the abbey monks and warriors sat side by side at table, their converse at meals being doubt less divided between affairs spiritual and affairs temporal, while from walls and roof hung the arms of the warriors, harmoniously mingled with the emblems of the church. It was a picture of the marriage of church and state well-worthy of reproduction on canvas.

Yet King William knew how to deal with Abbot Thurston. Lands belonging to the monastery lay beyond the fens, and on these the king laid the rough hand of royal right, as an earnest of what would happen when the monastery itself should fall into his hands. A flutter of terror shook the hearts of the abbot and his family of monks. To them it seemed that the skies were about to fall, and that they would be wise to stand from under.

While the monks of Ely were revolving this threat of disaster in their souls, the tide of assault and defence rolled on. William's causeway pushed its slow length forward through the fens. Hereward assailed it with fire and sword, and harried the king's lands outside by sudden raids. It is said that, like King Alfred before him, he more than once visited the camp of the Normans in disguise, and spied out their ways and means of warfare.

There is a story connected with this warlike enterprise so significant of the times that it must be told. Whether or not William believed Hereward to be an enchanter, he took steps to defeat enchantment, if any existed. An old woman, who had the reputation of being a sorceress, was brought to the royal camp, and her services engaged in the king's cause. A wooden tower was built, and pushed along the causeway in front of the troops, the old woman within it actively dispensing her incantations and calling down the powers of witchcraft upon Hereward's head. Unfortunately for her, Hereward tried against her sorcery of the broomstick the enchantment of the brand, setting fire to the tower and burning it and the sorceress within it. We could scarcely go back to a later date than the eleventh-century to find such an absurdity as this possible, but in those days of superstition even such a man as William the Conqueror was capable of it.

How the contest would have ended had treason been absent it is not easy to say. As it was, Abbot Thurston and his monks brought the siege to a sudden and disastrous end. They showed the king a secret way of approach to the island, and William's warriors took the camp of Hereward by surprise. What followed scarcely needs the telling. A fierce and sharp struggle, men falling and dying in scores, William's heavy-armed warriors pressing heavily upon the ranks of the more lightly clad Englishmen, and final defeat and surrender, complete the story of the assault upon Ely.

William had won, but Hereward still defied him. Striking his last blow in defence, the gallant leader, with a small band of chosen followers, cut a lane of blood through the Norman ranks and made his way to a small fleet of ships which he had kept armed and guarded for such an emergency. Sail was set, and down the stream they sped to the open sea, still setting at defiance the power of Norman William.

We have two further lines of story to follow, one of history, the other of romance; one that of the reward of the monks for their treachery, the other that of the later story of Hereward the Wake. Abbot Thurston hastened to make his submission to the king. He and the inmates of the monastery sought the court, then at Warwick, and humbly begged the royal favor and protection. The story goes that William repaid their visit by a journey to Ely, where he entered the minster while the monks, all unconscious of the royal visit, were at their meal in the refectory. The king stood humbly at a distance from the shrine, as not worthy to approach it, but sent a mark of gold to be offered as his tribute upon the altar.

Meanwhile, one Gilbert of Clare entered the refectory, and asked the feasting monks whether they should not dine at some other time, and if it were not wise to repress their hunger while King William was in the church. Like a flock of startled pigeons the monks rose, their appetites quite gone, and flocked tumultuously towards the church. They were too late. William was gone. But in his short visit he had left them a most unwelcome legacy by marking out the site of a castle within the precincts of the monastery, and giving orders for its immediate building by forced labor

Abbot Thurston finally purchased peace from the king at a high rate, paying him three hundred marks of silver for his one mark of gold. Nor was this the end. The silver marks proved to be light in weight. To appease the king's anger at this, another three hundred silver marks were offered, and King William graciously suffered them to say their prayers thenceforward in peace. Their treachery to Hereward had not proved profitable to the traitors.

If now we return to the story of Hereward the Wake, we must once more leave the realm of history for that of legend, for what further is told of him, though doubtless based on fact, is strictly legendary in structure. Landing on the coast of Lincolnshire, the fugitives abandoned their light ships for the wide-spreading forests of that region, and long lived the life of outlaws in the dense woodland adjoining Hereward's ancestral home of Bourne. Like an earlier Robin Hood, the valiant Wake made the greenwood his home and the Normans his prey, covering nine shires in his bold excursions, which extended as far as the distant town of Warwick. The Abbey of Peterborough, with its Norman abbot, was an object of his special detestation, and more than once Turold and his monks were put to flight, while the abbey yielded up a share of its treasures to the bold assailants.

How long Hereward and his men dwelt in the greenwood we are not able to say. They defied there the utmost efforts of their foes, and King William, whose admiration for his defiant enemy had not decreased, despairing of reducing him by force, made him overtures of peace. Hereward was ready for them. He saw clearly by this time that the Norman yoke was fastened too firmly on England's neck to be thrown off. He had fought as long as fighting was of use. Surrender only remained. A day came at length in which he rode from the forest with forty stout warriors at his back, made his way to the royal seat of Winchester, and Docked at the city gates, bidding the guards to carry the news to the conqueror that Hereward the Wake had come.

William gladly received him. He knew the value of a valiant soul, and was thereafter a warm friend of Hereward, who, on his part, remained as loyal and true to the king as he had been strong and earnest against him. And so years passed on, Hereward in favor at court, and he and Torfrida, his Flemish wife, living happily in the castle which William's bounty had provided them.

There is more than one story of Hereward's final fate. One account says that he ended his days in peace. The other, more in accordance with the spirit of the times and the hatred and jealousy felt by many of the Norman nobles against this English protégé of the king, is so stirring in its details that it serves as a fitting termination to the Hereward romance.

The story goes that he kept close watch and ward in his house against his many enemies. But on one occasion his chaplain, Ethelward, then on lookout duty, fell asleep on his post. A band of Normans was approaching, who broke into the house without warning being given, and attacked Hereward alone in his hall.

He had barely time to throw on his armor when his enemies burst in upon him and assailed him with sword and spear. The fight that ensued was one that would have gladdened the soul of a Viking of old. Hereward laid about him with such savage energy that the floor was soon strewn with the dead bodies of his foes, and crimsoned with their blood. Finally the spear broke in the hero's hand. Next he grasped his sword and did with it mighty deeds of valor. This, too, was broken in the stress of fight. His shield was the only weapon left him, and this he used with such vigor and skill that before he had done fifteen Normans lay dead upon the floor.

Four of his enemies now got behind him and smote him in the back. The great warrior was brought to his knees. A Breton knight, Ralph of Del, rushed upon him, but found the wounded lion dangerous still. With a last desperate effort Hereward struck him a deadly blow with his buckler, and Breton and Saxon fell dead together to the floor. Another of the assailants, Asselin by name, now cut off the head of this last defender of Saxon England, and holding it in the air, swore by God and his might that he had never before seen a man of such valor and strength, and that if there had been three more like him in the land the French would have been driven out of England, or been slain on its soil.

And so ends the stirring story of Hereward the Wake, that mighty man of old.