Written by Richard Darch, Join the conversation here
I’m starting the resurrection of my “Biographica Incognita” by revising the entry on Hereward the Wake that I wrote a couple of years ago. In my original writing I never explained why I found this character so intriguing so I thought I would offer a preface to this reviewed version.
I did well at school, not brilliantly but my marks were well above average. I did feel my education in history was particularly limited. The curriculum my school followed focused almost exclusively on World War Two and the subsequent Cold War. However I was acutely aware there were several thousand years of recorded human history prior to the 1939 epoch my textbooks seemed adamant marked the beginning of time.
So I started reading and this inevitably led to my personal favourite dynasty in British history. The “French Kings of England”(The houses of Normandy, Blois and Anjou). If you ever find yourself missing Game of Thrones now it had ended, try reading about the death of William Rufus and the Sinking of the White Ship. The introduction of these dynasties in England centred around the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 with a chap called William “The Bastard” Duke of Normandy, who through skill, determination and more than a little luck became King of England.
Whilst the popular history of this period makes it clear it wasn’t an entirely smooth transition for the peoples of England I am embarrassed to say that the level of resistance was entirely unclear to me until my early thirties when, listening to a podcast, the presenters made a passing reference to “Hereward the Wake”. There was no further explanation or detail, just the name and the assumption that everyone had heard of him. I had not. However having done some cursory research(googling) at the time I discovered that he was featured on a number of GCSE history syllabuses(…syllabusses…. syllabi?) and that in the Fens (the area of England from which Hereward led his resistance) he is nothing short of legend. This piqued my curiosity and led to more formal research(lots of books with very few pictures). This is a summary of my findings however it by no means a complete history, I would encourage anyone interested to take a look at my recommended reading list at the end.
Rumours abound around Hereward’s parentage. However given the renown and influence he wields and what little we know suggests he was educated this would suggest he was born into some level of nobility. However the lack of very clear record argues against this. As a rule nobility at the time were very keen to announce the continuation of their line through the birth of a son. Whilst not all anglo-saxon nobles were literate there were a number of contemporary sources, not least the Anglo Saxon Chronicles which would make greater reference to the life and deeds of Hereward prior to his leading an uprising if he were the legitimate son of a noble.
Peter Rex offers the most intriguing theory in his work Herewardi: The last Englishman. He suggests that Hereward was the half Danish son of Asketil. The support of this theory is that the Gesta Herewardi(an almost contemporary biography of Hereward) reports that Hereward is the nephew of Abbot Brand of Peterborough, Brand also being a Danish name(…. yeah the full text doesn’t make this many more convincing). He also suggests this was how Hereward was able to rally so much Danish support in his later life. Please note I said this theory was intriguing, not compelling. Rex relies heavily on a number of sources written long after Hereward’s death to form this theory.
My personal theory, baring in mind I am not a professional historian and my aim here is to weave a narrative with the few facts we actually have. Is that Hereward was illegitimate. With the exception of our antagonist Big Billy the Bastard, it is unusual for Bastards to achieve the same standing in historical record as their legitimate counterparts. They are generally however “kept” (housed and educated by their father).
So now we understand that we have no idea who Hereward’s parents were I can also reveal we have no idea when he was born. Conventionally his birth is dated around 1035 however there is a possible range of 1035 to about 1045 depending on which stories you choose to believe. The Gesta Herewardi suggests he was “in his eighteenth year” when he was exiled and his exile is dated to around 1054. I will get into my issue with the established sources later however, to believe one source you largely have to discount all others, frankly the Gesta Herewardi is the only source that gives me a date I can work with.
Oh and given the records are so vague its not possible to identify where Hereward was born either. However given he based his later rebellion out of the Fens a good guess would be Lincolnshire or Cambridgeshire. Alternatively the lack of established record could indicate he was born out of England. Although I have literally nothing on which to base that.
Hereward’s Youth and Exile
You may be asking “So how do we know this guy even existed”? The answer to this is simple, at around the age of eighteen he started to piss a lot of important people off. This is the kind of thing that does make the historical record. He is reported as having been a disruptive influence to his community and disobedient to his father. No other credible detail exists however it was enough that Edward the Confessor(King of England at the time) declared him Outlaw and sentenced him to exile.
I have a hard time believing what the Gesta Herewardi next hasn’t been turned into some family friendly, Saturday afternoon TV series by the BBC. In his exile he goes full on heroing. He wrestles an enormous bear with his bare hands, he rescues a princess and battles a number of minor warlords before getting bored and leaving the British Isle for Flanders where he enters the service of Count Baldwin of Flanders as a mercenary.
His time as a mercenary its fairly well recorded, he did well for himself and proved a skilled and charismatic leader. Between his prowess in battle and his ability in tournaments he cultivated a very impressive reputation. His future wife Turfida was even said to have fallen in love with him based on his reputation alone.
It was whilst Hereward was in exile that Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson assumed the throne however Harold Hardrada also had some tenuous claim to the throne and importantly Billy the Bastard, Duke of Normandy also reported the throne had been promised to him.
Whilst globalisation wasn’t a thing in the Eleventh Century I suspect it is likely that Europe had a pretty decent way of communicating current affairs, the dependence on trade and the intermarrying of so many of Europe’s royal houses probably allowed news of this succession conflict to spread very quickly. Raising and mobilising an army is also slow work and hardly a clandestine activity, and finally Hereward was a mercenary in Flanders. It is not a stretch to believe that word reached him that Hardrada was invading England and that William was waiting with an army at Callais.
Hereward did not return to England for almost year after the Battle of Hastings. The Gesta Herewardi reports that he returned to find his family slaughtered and dispossessed and his brothers head on a spike outside their home. Enraged and with the help of a single aide he slew fifteen men and made an escape back to Flanders.
Hereward returned to England and made camp at the Isle of Ely, where he met and joined forces with a Danish army led by Sweyn Estrithson. They then proceeded to sack the Abbey at Peterborough in order to “protect the treasures from the Normans”. This appears to have been code for giving said treasures to Sweyn who felt he was best able to protect them and left England.
Shortly after this in 1070 Hereward joined forces with a former Saxon noble, they irritated William enough that he sent the bulk of his army against them. In the face of such overwhelming odds Hereward and Morcar withdrew to their base in Ely, which was an island.
The events of “the siege of Ely” are unfortunately almost certainly fiction. Its reported that the Normans built a bridge of wood which buckled under the weight of the armoured men and horses. Having failed to actually get to their enemy the Normans hoisted a witch up a wooden tower, she then proceeded to curse, insult and generally harass the rebels until Hereward took a flaming arrow and burned the tower down, witch and all.
However their forces being encircled it was reported that Hereward disguised as either a potter or a crone snuck through the Norman lines and off to freedom. I love the idea that a man who had spent most of his life in combat, probably quite muscular and bearded convincingly snuck past an army whilst in drag.
Morcar was captured and imprisoned. Hereward and a few rebels slipped from the pages of history. Some of the more sketchy sources suggest he continued the resistance however William doesn’t appear to have committed any more forces against him.
That probably feels like an anti-climactic ending however my love for this character comes from everything before. His bad-boy renegade start leading him to exile, he then trotted around Europe hitting things with his sword before returning home. In this time he pissed off two Kings, the first exiled him, the second ranged an army against him.
His return home and the events the followed must have laid some kind of basis for the Robin Hood legends. The fact he was willing to let Peterborough Abbeys treasures go rather than falling into Norman hands wreaks of a seething hatred of the Normans, one that I would equate to Boudica who I have frequently described as “blind with rage and armed to the tits”. His actions don’t entirely speak of a drive for freedom for the English as they do more Death to the Normans.
The sources are all extremely weak. The area of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles that refer to Hereward come from “The Peterborough Manuscripts” and I suspect they acquired a fairly biased view on Hereward after he “protected” their treasures. Given William was the King at the time of writing it was also in their best interests to put a pro-Norman spin on the events the recorded. The other source The Gesta Hereward….. If I had a book named the Gesta Richardi I would probably be wrestling bears in it too. The Current copy of a copy of a copy of the Gesta Herewardi is a latin translation written about two hundred years later, combining an original Saxon text, a dying oral tradition and I have no doubt a little creativity from the latin translator.
Finally I should note that the epithet “The Wake” is taken from Saxon and thought to mean “The Watchful” it was given the Hereward some two hundred years after his death.
I know I have slammed a few modern historians in this article for weaving a narrative with no real evidence. However that is exactly what I have done. There is so little literary evidence about Hereward that its impossible to form a picture without filling in some of the blanks with narrative. I highly recommend the following if you want more detail on the possible events of Hereward’s life.
Peter Rex – Hereward: The Last Englishman(2005).
Elisabeth van Houts – Hereward in Flanders(1999).
 This is certainly the most times I’ve used the word “Bastard” in a work claiming to be marginally academic.
 I sincerely hope that my legacy will be similar.
 I use the full term Gesta Herewardi rather than the commonly abbreviated “Gesta” for no better reason than Gesta Herewardi is just so much fun to say.
 A name I suspect even Shakespeare would struggle to write a sonnet about.
 Kevin Coster should play Hereward.
 I wonder how that excuse would fly in court today “I wasn’t stealing the money, I was protecting it from people that might spend it”