Period Persona – Hereward the Wake

hereward the wake.l

Hereward the Wake

Born: c. 1035

Died: c. 1072

Also known as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile. was an 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman conquest of England.

Hereward is an Old English name, composed of the elements here “army” and weard “guard” (cognate with the Old High German name Heriwart). The epithet “the Wake” is recorded in the late 14th century, and may mean “the watchful”, or derive from the Anglo-Norman Wake family who later claimed descent from him.

The existence of Hereward is not generally disputed, though the story of his life, especially as recounted in the Gesta Herewardi almost certainly contains exaggerations of his deeds and some outright fictions. The Gesta Herewardi is a Middle Latin text, probably written around 1109-31.

The earliest references to his parentage make him the son of Edith, a descendent of Oslac of York, and Leofric of Bourne, nephew of Ralph the Staller. Alternatively, it has also been argued that Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva were Hereward’s real parents, however it is improbable that if Hereward were a member of this prominent family, his parentage would not be a matter of record.

According to the Gesta Herewardi, Hereward was exiled at the age of eighteen for disobedience to his father and disruptive behaviour, which caused problems among the local community. He was declared an outlaw by Edward the Confessor. At the time of the Norman invasion of England, he was still in exile in Europe, working as a successful mercenary for the Count of Flanders, Baldwin V.

Hereward returned to England in late 1069 or 1070. The Gesta says that he discovered that his family’s lands had been taken over by the Normans and his brother killed with his head then placed on a spike at the gate to his house. Hereward took revenge on the Normans who killed his brother while they were ridiculing the English at a drunken feast. He allegedly killed fifteen of them with the assistance of one helper. He then gathered followers and went to Peterborough Abbey to be knighted by his uncle Abbot Brand. He returned briefly to Flanders to allow the situation to cool down before returning to England.

In 1070 Hereward certainly participated in the anti-Norman insurrection centred on the Isle of Ely. In 1069 or 1070 the Danish king Sweyn Estrithson sent a small army to try to establish a camp on the Isle of Ely. Hereward appears to have joined them. Hereward stormed and sacked Peterborough Abbey in company with local men and Swein’s Danes. His justification is said to have been that he wished to save the Abbey’s treasures and relics from the rapacious Normans led by the new Norman abbot who had ousted his uncle Brand.

The epithet “the Wake” is first attested in the late fourteenth-century Peterborough Chronicle, ascribed by its first editor, Joseph Sparke, to the otherwise unknown John of Peterborough. There are two main theories as to the origin of the tag. The usual interpretation is that it means “the watchful”. A second theory claims that the name was given to him by the Wake family, the Norman landowners who gained Hereward’s land in Bourne, Lincolnshire, after his death, in order to imply a family connection and therefore legitimise their claim to the land. The family claimed descent from Hereward’s daughter by his second wife, Alftruda.

The existence of Hereward is not generally disputed, though the story of his life, especially as recounted in the Gesta almost certainly contains exaggerations of his deeds and some outright fictions. The fact of Hereward’s participation in the events at Ely is attested in early documents such as the annal for 1071 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Another text of the Chronicle also tells of his involvement in the looting. Early sources say nothing about him other than the fact that he was at Ely and that he led the last band of resisters. Hereward nevertheless remained a minor figure until the Victorian period, when the idea of native Anglo-Saxon heroism became popular.


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