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The Life of Hereward the Wake

The Life of Hereward the Wake

The Life of Hereward the Wake

Hereward the Wake, also known as Hereward the Outlaw, was an Anglo-Saxon hero who lived during the 11th century. He was a famous resistance fighter against the Norman Conquest of England and is often celebrated for his courage and valour.

Early Life of Hereward the Wake

There are many legends about Hereward’s early life, but very few facts. One of the accounts of his background has him born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, around 1035 and his father as Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his mother was Godiva. Godiva is remembered today for the legend that she rode naked through the streets of Coventry to gain remission from taxes for the tenants of her husband.

Records in the Domesday book show that a man named Hereward held lands a Witham on the Hill and Barholm with Stow in Lincolnshire.

Hereward was raised in a family of warriors and was trained in the art of combat from a young age. He was a tall and muscular man, with a fierce temper and a strong will.

The Norman Conquest of England

Hereward it seems had a somewhat troubled youth and was exiled by his father for disobedience and disruptive behaviour causing problems amongst local people. He was even declared an outlaw by Edward the Confessor and went on adventures in Cornwall, Ireland and Flanders where he completed various heroic deeds such as fighting a monstrous bear and rescuing a princess from an unwanted marriage.

In Flanders, Hereward is said to have joined the expedition launched in the Scheldt area by Baldwin V, Count of Flanders – Hereward was fighting in Flanders as a mercenary when the Normans invaded England. He even got married to wealthy Gallo-Germanic woman called Turfida, who is said to have fallen in love with the stories of his heroism before she had even met him. 

In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. William was crowned King of England, but many English nobles refused to accept his rule.

Hereward is said to have returned to England shortly after the death of his patron Baldwin, which occurred on 1st September 1067. When he got back to Lincolnshire however he was to find that his lands had been overtaken by Normans and his brother had been killed and his head placed on a spike at the gate to his house. Hereward found the Normans responsible and, when they were all drunk and mocking the English, with the help of some followers killed 15 of them in bloody revenge.

Hereward was among the Anglo-Saxon rebels who fought against the Normans. He led a guerrilla war against the invaders, raiding Norman-held territories and attacking their troops. He became known as the “Wake” because he was always alert and ready to fight.

In one account a Norman noble, Frederick, who was brother in law to William de Warenne (Earl of Surrey) had sworn to kill Hereward. However, Hereward outwitted and killed him instead. William later attempted to capture Hereward but failed when he unhorsed him with an arrow. 

Hereward’s Resistance

Hereward’s resistance was a thorn in the side of the Norman invaders. He operated from his base in the Isle of Ely, a marshy area in East Anglia, which was difficult for the Normans to penetrate. He took part in the anti-Norman insurrection which was supported by a small army sent to England by Danish King Sweyn Estrithson in 1070. 

Hereward with his forces and Danish allies stormed and sacked Peterborough Abbey, where the Normans had kicked out his uncle who had previously been the abbot. 

Hereward was supported by a band of loyal followers, including Anglo-Saxon nobles, mercenaries, and local peasants. He raided Norman-held towns and castles, disrupting their supply lines and causing havoc among their troops.

Hereward and his men also joined the revolt of Morcar, the Saxon former Earl of Northumbria who had been dispossessed by King William.

Capture and Escape

In 1071 or thereabouts, Hereward and Morcar had been defeated by a Norman army and forced back into the swamps of Ely where he and his forces held out. The Normans besieged the Saxons and attempted a frontal assault along a timber causeway but fortunately this sank under the weight of horses and armoured men. The Normans even brought in a witch, who they placed in a wooden tower, to curse the Saxons but Hereward led a raid setting the tower alight and knocking it over with the sorcerer inside. 

The Normans, after bribing local monks to reveal a safe and secret route in the marshes eventually managed to storm the Saxon holdout and Morcar was captured although the wily Hereward managed to escape. 

Hereward is said to have continued his resistance in the fenland with some followers but it is at this point in the story that, what was already somewhat sketchy in terms of details, legend and fact become even more blurred.

At some point Hereward was captured was imprisoned in the castle of William de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, but he managed to escape with the help of a sympathetic servant girl. He is also said to have attempted to negotiate peace with William but was provoked into a fight and then captured and imprisoned only to be freed again by his followers.

Other accounts have Hereward about to make peace when he is ambushed by Norman knights and killed and yet other stories have him escaping to Flanders or Scotland in exile and never heard from again. A different story has Hereward receiving a pardon from King William and living the rest of his life in peace in Normandy – sounds pretty unlikely!

Death and Legacy

Despite the uncertainty surrounding his fate, Hereward became a legendary figure in English folklore. He was celebrated as a symbol of resistance against foreign invaders and his story was passed down from generation to generation.

Hereward received the epithet ‘the Wake’ meaning ‘the watchful’ due to a story about him foiling an attempted assassination attempt by a group of knights who were jealous of his fame. In some accounts Hereward is not referred to as ‘the Wake’ but instead ‘the Outlaw’. 

Today, Hereward the Wake is remembered as a hero who stood up against the Norman Conquest of England and fought for his people’s freedom. His story has inspired countless writers and artists, and he remains an important figure in English history.


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