Hereward the Outlaw Hero – Fact or Fiction?   Leave a comment

001Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1867 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

Hereward in Fact and Fiction – Chroniclers & Legendary Narratives:

What most people know about Hereward is derived from a hazy recollection of stories drawn from Charles Kingsley’s novel of 1867, Hereward the Wake, or from the comments of historians and writers who briefly round off their accounts of the opening stage of the Norman Conquest with a summary of the rebellions against King William  between 1067 and 1072, as shown on the map below. They mention the capture of Ely only as an afterthought.

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In fact, there is a considerable amount of evidence not only about the various rebellions and King William’s response to them but also about Hereward himself. This can be gleaned from the writings of medieval chroniclers, the pages of the Domesday Book, and very many other sources of evidence such as royal writs and charters. Despite this, most major histories of the period and even the biographical studies of King William say little about the rebellions and even less about Hereward, unless it is to dismiss his exploits as some kind of sideshow. However, in more recent years scholars have investigated various aspects of the Hereward saga. For example, Cyril Hart has explored the Fenland background and looked at the identity of some of Hereward’s men, ‘the Companions’. Elisabeth van Houts has investigated the continental background to Hereward’s exploits in Scaldermariland and shown that they are not easily dismissed as pure fiction. Others have looked at Hereward from a variety of angles, considering that the impact of an understanding of his place in history depends on recognising what sort of literature has survived and considering the motives of the writers who produced it. Not all of them were writing or intending to write straightforward histories. Also, as Peter Rex pointed out:

It sometimes is the case that where evidence is lacking, historians can only make conjectures based on outward appearances, or perhaps from their own, often subconscious, prejudices.

Some historians, too, allow the preconceptions of their own times to affect their judgements. E A Freeman, writing in the nineteenth century, in his mammoth study of the Norman Conquest, for example, presents Hereward as representative of patriotic, almost democratic, eleventh-century Englishmen very like the Victorian parliamentarians with whom he was familiar. The medieval stories about Hereward fall into three main traditions, emanating from the Fenland monasteries of Peterborough, Ely and Crowland. Each of these had a different tale to tell and differing priorities which affect the way in which Hereward is depicted.

Then there are the novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hereward is a leading figure in Kingsley’s work in particular. In this, he was following in a literary trend begun by Bulwer Lytton with his Harold, Last of the Saxons, 1848, when it became fashionable to write ‘end of the line’ novels. It has been suggested that it was also part of a great Victorian love affair with the Danelaw. There was a burst of writing about the stories of the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse Sagas. Beowulf was published and in 1884, in a bid to reclaim the Fens culturally, Rev. G. S. Streatfield wrote Lincolnshire and the Danes. To this can be added Lt-Gen. Harward’s strange confection, Hereward the Saxon Patriot of 1896. One view of Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake is to see it as a romance or saga, the narrative dressed in saga motifs, including supernatural elements, with Hereward being given magical armour, for example. There are berserker Vikings and even an appearance by Robin Hood, in disguise, although the legends about the Nottinghamshire outlaw date from more than a century later. Kingsley seems to have had the purpose of giving a regional identity to England in the same way as Sir Walter Scott’s writings had given a national identity to Scotland within the Union of Great Britain.

Charles Kingsley was not only a novelist but also Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and therefore provides a bridge between the historians and the novelists. Kingsley claims that Hereward was son to Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva of Mercia and there is much useful historical matter among the usual Victorian prejudices that Edward the Confessor was pro-Norman, as were many of the clergy, yet much of his what he writes is marred by his tendency to accept evidence uncritically, such as when he suggests that the fifteenth-century genealogy was no doubt taken from previously existing records in the old tradition of the family. He does, however, correctly identify Hereward’s family as Anglo-Danish in origin, the first writer to do so, despite his contradictory assertion that he was also the son of Earl Leofric. The novel follows the outline of Hereward’s story as given in the Gesta Herewardi and described him as the last of the English.

From Kingsley’s work onwards, a number of other versions of the story were written, but none get anywhere near the historical Hereward so that the work remains the most acceptable version of the legendary events. Only Kingsley inserts the primary source evidence from the Peterborough Chronicle and Hugh Candidus about the attack on Peterborough.

Primary & Secondary Sources – The Abbeys, the Man & the Myth:

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers.

Only Kingsley gets anywhere near the primary accounts contained in these texts, though even his version is marred by his own preconceptions about his hero. There are other writers who give what they claim is a more factual account of Hereward, but they are not histories. John Hayward in Hereward the Outlaw (1988) seeks to establish what these sources contribute to an understanding of post-Conquest English consciousness and identity. He attributes the Gesta Herewardi to Richard of Ely, reviewing all the evidence from that work as well as from the other sources mentioned above. He notes that general histories dismiss the events at Ely in a single line based on the hypothesis that Hastings was William’s decisive battle, although contemporary commentators did not see it like that. Hereward was not seen as a major political figure but as an able military leader. He also rejects the idea that the intention of those at Ely had been to drive the Normans out of England and suggests that Hereward was that he was English and became and became an emblem of resistance to a foreign oppressor. Much of the material of his legend found its way into the myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’ and the later legends of Robin Hood. His story was written at a time when there was a need for English popular heroes.

Hugh Thomas, in his book The English and their Conquerors (1998), acknowledges that the Gesta Herewardi is the fullest account there is of an important leader of the English resistance, despite the many fantastic elements that clutter up the story. He claims that Richard of Ely was writing a pseudo-history in order to rebut charges of English inferiority in warfare, of men who were ignorant of the laws and usages of war. So Hereward became a figure of romance and chivalry, representing English success as warriors. The Ely campaign was a series of military disasters for the Normans. So it presents the deeds of the magnificent Hereward of the English people, a knight fighting with sword and lance. He and his companions were of noble ancestry.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Despite this story of Anglo-Danish ‘guerilla’ success against the superior Norman military machine and although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, with some of its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons in acting with restraint. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester.

By ‘Domesday’, Ely Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriére (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with William de Goulafriére (named as Gulafre in Domesday), was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard Fitzgibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely. The epithet was not used before the fifteenth century, and the Wakes are doubtful claimants to Hereward’s lineage. The chronicles from that time tell of Hereward’s return from exile and his taking revenge for the loss of his lands, his conflict with King William and with Abbot Turold. One of them, a French text, refers to Hereward as ‘Le Wake’ and the castle mound at Peterborough, ‘Mount Turold’ is said to be Abbot Turold’s work and he is said to have given sixty-two hides of abbey lands to his hired knights for protecting him against Hereward. ‘The Wake’ is credited with capturing the abbot and securing a handsome ransom. Turold dies in 1098. These ‘facts’ can be verified by reference to the Gesta Herewardi and Hugh Candidus’ Peterborough chronicle.

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The Hero, the Villeins and the Conquerors:

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he certainly inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The way in which his story has been presented by novelists, historians and others shows that there are many ways of viewing the man, his history and his myth.

At the time, and gradually thereafter, as the Norman conquerors tightened their grip on the former Saxon kingdoms, the Danelaw, and the English counties, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Source:

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 Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing (2005, 2007, 2013),

http://www.amberleybooks.com

 

 

 

 

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