Hereward the Wake: The Last Saxon Hero

On 28 September 1066, Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex with 20,000 men but the man he was seeking to depose as King of England Harold Godewineson was still in Yorkshire having just destroyed the Viking Army of his brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald Hadrada. Upon hearing news of the invasion however, he immediately set his army about and marched south.

The two armies clashed near the town of Hastings on 14 October, and after a bloody encounter that was to last the best part of an entire day the Saxon shield wall was at last breached, Harold killed, and the English Army routed.

William was victorious but the Saxons did not surrender as he had expected instead the Witan, their Ruling Council, elected Edgar Atheling as its King even though he was just a boy, and so resistance to William’s rule continued.

William was furious that the Witan had not only refused to accept the outcome of the Battle of Hastings but by doing so had denied God’s Will and he vented his anger on the local people burning farms, destroying crops slaughtering livestock, and putting those who resisted to the sword.

The Witan, which was divided and unable to act effectively to stop the bloodshed agreed to William’s demands and on 25 December 1066, he was formally crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey – the Witan may have yielded to the Norman yolk but the country had not.

In February 1067, a Saxon Army led by the late Harold’s mother, Gytha, was defeated at Exeter. Later that same year a rebellion led by Earl Gospatrick broke out in Northumbria. Ealdric the Wild also raised an army opposed to Norman rule in Wales, and Harold’s sons regularly raided the West Country from their base in Ireland but as William continued his policy of pillage and destruction, built castles, and stationed garrisons in every part of the country he occupied effective resistance began to diminish and by 1070, it seemed as if William had pacified the country at last.

But one man had other ideas.

hereward with moth x

Hereward the Wake was born in Lincolnshire in 1035, the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva, she of the naked procession through the streets of Coventry. They were powerful and influential landowners who had access to the Royal Court but Hereward was a reckless and hot-tempered youth who had the temerity to argue so furiously with King Edward the Confessor that, aged just fourteen, he was sent into exile.

Whilst on the Continent he learned the skills of the warrior and fought in many campaigns but it wasn’t until he learned that his father had died that he returned to England to claim his inheritance only to find that following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William had been busy dispossessing the Saxons of their land and giving it to his Norman nobility.

And so it was for Hereward arriving home to find the house abandoned and his brother’s decapitated head nailed to the door. Hereward was quick to exact revenge and over the next few weeks he killed 14 Normans nailing their heads in turn to the very same door but there was nothing he could do about the seizure of his lands other than rebel – he chose to rebel.

Already a wanted man he fled to the Fens a place he knew well, a vast area of heavily forested wetlands that covered much of eastern England. Indeed, so wet was it that its occupants were rumoured to have webbed-feet.

Hereward was initially given sanctuary by Bishop Thurston of Ely and it was during this period of seclusion that he set about garnering support and raising an army and using the connections he had made during his exile in Europe he persuaded the Danish King Sweyn Estrithson, to send a small number of troops. He was also joined by Earl Morcar of Mercia.

hereward on horse bw x

By late 1070, he was ready to raise the flag of rebellion and the Wetlands were perfect territory for guerrilla warfare. Perilous to those who did not know its topography it was almost impossible to use cavalry and to wear heavy armour was to run the very real risk of drowning. So even with limited forces Hereward was able to stoutly resist any attempts to crush him, and there were to be many attempts.

Hereward had cut off all the available land routes to Ely which had virtually become as Island and the only way to traverse the marshes and deep water was to build causeways, and the Normans began the construction of three at Stuntney, Aldreth, and Little Thetford, but Hereward ambushed the Normans and destroyed all three before they could be completed. Defeated, they were forced to withdraw.

It seemed as if there was no way the Normans could penetrate the Fens.

William began to fear that the success of Hereward’s rebellion would spread to the rest of the country but his fortunes revived when Bishop Thurston, perhaps fearing for the survival of his Abbey or indeed his own life, approached William and revealed to him a secret land route to Ely. William was quick to take advantage getting as many troops into the town as he possibly could.

Hereward continued to resist where he could but he was unable to confront the Norman Army in any kind of pitched battle and Ely was to fall without a fight. The Earl Morcar was captured soon after and executed but Hereward and a handful of followers managed to disappear into the forests where they continued to resist the Normans for some years, attacking outposts, raiding baggage trains, and murdering tax collectors.

It is possible that the legend of Robin Hood began with the exploits of Hereward and his band of brothers for nobody knows what became of Hereward the Wake.

Certainly he was neither captured nor killed by the Normans and it is possible that he fled back to Europe but with the disappearance of Hereward the Wake the last effective resistance in England to Norman rule came to an end.

He was – the Last Saxon Hero.

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