Hereward the Wake – Original Robin Hood or Fictional Medieval Hero?
Famous legendary figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood have one foot planted in fact and one firmly planted in fiction. This is also true for Hereward the Wake, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who helped lead the resistance against the Norman conquest of England from his base camp in the treacherous wetlands of the English Fenlands. Hereward the Wake’s story may not be as well remembered today, but it is just as fascinating. We’re just not sure how true it is.
Hereward the Wake and Unreliable Sources
Anything said about Hereward the Wake should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are several primary sources we can use to study Hereward’s life including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the version written at Peterborough Abbey, also known as the Peterborough Chronicle), the Domesday Book, the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely), and the Gesta Herewardi.
The problem is these books have a nasty habit of contradicting each other. They put important events at different times and feature a large amount of partisan bias. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written in a monastery that Hereward the Wake supposedly sacked, so unsurprisingly the text doesn’t show him in a glowing light.
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On the other hand, the Gesta Herewardi, especially the first version, was very pro-Hereward, as much of the information within it was supplied by Hereward's allies and men who served with him. This all means that we have very little concrete information on the life of Hereward the Wake. This has attracted much speculation and amateur scholars seeking to make a name for themselves by filling in the gaps.
Hereward the Wake fighting off the Normans, from Cassell’s illustrated history of England. (Public domain)
The Family of Hereward the Wake
Conventional knowledge states that Hereward was born sometime between 1035 and 1036 AD. The G esta Herewardi states that 1054 was his 18th year, which gives us his year of birth. Yet the early part of this ancient text is largely seen as unreliable since it features many fantastic elements, so even this is up for debate.
Other scholars have used the battles he is said to have taken part in to put his year of birth closer to 1044 or 1045. His birthplace at least seems set. He is said to have been born in or near Bourne, Lincolnshire. This is supported by the Domesday Book which shows that a man by the name of Hereward held lands in the parishes of Witham on the Hill and Barholm with Stow, as a tenant of Peterborough Abbey. This would make sense, as Hereward’s uncle was supposedly the bishop there.
His parentage, however, is controversial. The Gesta claims he was the son of Edith, a descendant of Oslac of York (an ealdorman we know little about) and Leforfric of Bourne. It has also been claimed his father was Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his mother was Lady Godiva.
This second theory seems extremely unlikely, however. If he was truly the child of such high-profile parents, he would appear in the record books as such. A third theory has him as having had a Danish father, Asketil. This would explain Hereward's useful ability to be able to call in Danish support.
Hereward the Wake in Exile
The Gesta Herewardi states that Hereward was exiled at the age of 18. His crime? Being a rebellious child who annoyed the local community. Supposedly Hereward was made an outlaw by Edward the Confessor. According to the Gesta, Hereward made his way down to Cornwall where he had fantastic adventures. He supposedly wrestled a giant bear and won and even saved a damsel in distress, a Cornish princess fleeing an unwanted marriage. Today these tall tales are largely seen as fiction.
One event in his early life is probably true though. The Gesta claims that once in Flanders (northern Belgium), Hereward joined an expedition against Scaldermariland. This appears to line up with evidence concerning the expeditions of Robert the Frisian in the early 1060s.
When the Norman Conquest of England began, Hereward was still in exile. It is believed he was working in Europe as a mercenary for Baldwin V, father of Robert the Frisian. When not fighting Baldwin’s enemies, Hereward was supposedly taking part in, and winning, tournaments.
The Gesta claims news of his heroic exploits quickly swept across the continent. His reputation was such that when Turfida, a Gallo-Germanic woman from a wealthy family in Saint Palmer heard of his exploits she fell in love with him without even meeting him. She went on to become his wife.
Hereward the Wake and his second wife Alftruda. (Public domain)
Hereward Returns to England
So, if Hereward was enjoying his exile so much, why did he return to save England? According to the Gesta, Hereward’s patron, Baldwin V, died on 1st September 1067. Out of a job, Hereward chose to return home.
Upon his return, he discovered that his family’s lands had been taken by the Normans. They had killed Hereward’s brother and put his head on a spike outside the family home. Despite having been exiled by his family Hereward went to seek revenge.
He found the Normans who had killed his brother while they were enjoying a drunken feast. According to the Gesta, Hereward and a single helper easily dispatched 15 of the drunken Normans. Hereward then headed to Peterborough Abbey where he was knighted by Abbott Brand, his uncle.
He then headed back to Flanders to muster his strength and wait for the heat to die down. Supposedly news had spread of Hereward’s deeds and the Normans were looking for him to exact their own revenge.
The Gesta claims that one such high-profile Norman was Frederick, the brother-in-law of Willam de Warrenne’s, a Norman nobleman who fought under William the Conqueror. Frederick set out to hunt and kill Hereward but was outwitted and killed his target. The death of Frederick also appears in the Hyde Chronicle and so is likely true.
After slaying Frederick, Hereward joined the 1070 anti-Norman rebellion on the Isle of Ely, a treacherous area known for its marshy wetlands. It seems that he joined a small army that had been sent by the Danish king Sweyn Estrithson. Leading the Normans was none other than William de Warrenne. He had a personal score to settle with Hereward and hoped to seek revenge. This was cut short when he was unhorsed by an arrow let loose by Hereward.
During the 11th century, the landscape surrounding the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire was made up of marshy fenland swamp, impenetrable by those who were new to the area and ideal for a heroic local outlaw such as Hereward the Wake to hide out. (Andrew / Adobe Stock)
Hereward the Wake Looks for Revenge
Around this time Hereward is also reported to have raided Peterborough Abbey. Sources disagree on whether this was before or after the main battle at Ely. They also disagree as to his motivations for doing such a thing.
Most agree that it was partly a matter of revenge, his uncle Brand had been ousted and replaced with a Norman abbot. The Gesta claims that Hereward sacked the abbey in order to save its treasures from the greedy Normans. It states that after receiving a vision that told him it was once again safe to do so, he returned the treasures to the abbey.
On the other hand, the Peterborough Chronicle claims that Hereward’s attack on the abbey was a good old-fashioned Danish raid. Hereward had no intention of safeguarding the treasures. Straight after the attack everything of value was carried off as spoils of war to Denmark, never to be seen again.
Not long after, Hereward and his Danish allies met up with a small army led by Morcar, the Saxon former Earl of Northumbria who had been ousted by William the Conqueror. The armies united to form a larger rebel force. William responded by sending an army to deal with this new threat. Hereward and his allies were outnumbered and had no choice but to retreat back to their stronghold on Ely for one desperate last stand.
Both the Gelda and Liber Eliensis agree that the witch made a frontal assault on Hereward’s stronghold. They had built a huge, mile-long causeway so that their forces could make a beeline for the stronghold. It apparently sank under the weight of all the armor and horses.
Undeterred, it is said that Normans then attempted to intimidate the Saxon and Danish forces. They brought in a witch on a wooden tower who cursed the rebel forces. This second plan was put to ruin when Hereward set fire to the tower, toppling it and its witch.
The sources do not agree on everything, however. The Gesta makes several more fantastic claims as to Hereward’s deeds during the siege. Including donning a disguise to spy on William as well as escaping from captivity single-handedly.
It is believed that the siege came to an end when the Normans resorted to trickery. They supposedly bribed the monks of the island to show them a safe way through the marshes that surrounded the rebel base. This led to Ely’s capture and the imprisonment of Morcar. Sources agree that Hereward somehow escaped and fled into the wild fenland.
Hereward the Wake After Ely
No one really knows what happened to Hereward after he fled the loss of Ely. Some sources have him living out the rest of his days peacefully, some have him being murdered and some have him going into exile.
The Gesta Herewardi says that Hereward chose to negotiate a peace deal with William. The negotiations ended however when Hereward was dragged into a fight with a man named Ogger. The fight led to Hereward being captured and imprisoned. He was then rescued by his followers while being transferred to a different jail.
According to the Gesta Herewardi, Hereward’s tale ends with him being pardoned by William after his former jailer chose to speak on Hereward’s behalf. It is said that Hereward went on to live in peace, marrying a second wife known as Alftruda after Turfida left him to join a convent.
The Estoire des Engleis, written by Geoffrey Gaimar around 1140, states that Hereward lived as an outlaw in the Fens. According to this version, he attempted to make peace with William but was ambushed and killed by some Norman knights. Historians have posited that he most likely became an exile and disappeared. This was the fate of many high-profile Englishmen after the conquest.
Did Hereward the Wake inspire the story of Robin Hood? (danielegay / Adobe Stock)
Fact vs Fiction: Is There Any Truth to the Story of Hereward the Wake?
So much about Hereward the Wake is a mystery. We don’t even know for sure how he got his epithet. One popular theory is that it means “watchful” and that it was earned after Hereward foiled an assassination attempt on his life.
Another (less exciting) theory is that he was given the name by the Wake family. They were Norman landowners who seized Hereward’s ancestral land after his death. It is believed they posthumously gifted him the title in an effort to legitimize their claims on his land, attempting to imply a familiar connection between them and Hereward.
It’s widely thought that the Gesta gets the broad strokes of Hereward’s life right but is more interested in telling an exciting tale. It exaggerates his exploits and adds fantastical elements and seeks to tell a hero’s story of one man versus the Normans. Any less than heroic deeds, like his looting of the abbey, are glossed over and explained away.
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We also have sufficient sources to confidently state that he was definitely present at the Battle of Ely. It is also likely true that he was one of the holdouts who were at Ely when it fell. Other than that much of the rest of his life is up for debate. We have no concrete evidence as to what happened to him after the fall of Ely and no real idea as to his family genealogy.
Hereward the Wake may not be as well-known as Arthur or Robin Hood, but his story remains an impressive one. It is a shame that he has been largely forgotten today. If one looks at some of the claims made about Hereward in the Gesta, he appears to be a proto-Robin Hood. Some historians believe it is true that early stories of Hereward’s deeds mutated into tales about, or influenced the tales of, Robin Hood.
Ultimately, we’ll never know the truth about Hereward the Wake. The sources are too contradictory and unreliable. Hundreds of years of speculation certainly haven’t helped that matter. In the end, though does it really matter? The tales give us an interesting story and a proud hero to root for. Everyone loves a rebel taking down tyrants.
Top image: The little-known medieval hero known as Hereward the Wake. Source: Kathy / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Kingsley, C. 2005. “Hereward, The Last of the English” in Project Gutenberg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7815
Kingsley, C. 1954. Hereward the Wake. T. Nelson & Sons Ltd.
Roffe, D. 1994. “Hereward 'the Wake' and the Barony of Bourne: A Reassessment of a Fenland Legend” in Lincolnshire History and Archaeology. Available at: http://www.roffe.co.uk/articles/hereward.htm
Swanton, M., Knight, S. & Ohlgren, T. 1997. “Hereward the Wake - From Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales” in Rochester University Middle English Texts Series. Available at: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hereward-the-wake