Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hereward the Wake


Hereward the Wake (his nickname meaning "the watchful one") was an obscure Lincolnshire squire at the time of William the Conqueror's invasion of England who sided with the Danes in a last ditch effort to keep the Normans from conquering the island. In order to keep a Norman abbot from taking over Peterborough Abbey and acquiring the monastic treasury there, in 1070 Hereward and his motley band burned the town and looted the Abbey. The Danes took the treasury and soon departed, leaving Hereward at the mercy of the Normans. By legend, the Anglo-Saxon fought back at Ely, employing a disguise to gain intelligence about the Norman plans and routing a Norman charge, but when the Normans finally managed to conquer the town, Hereward allegedly escaped to continue his rebel operations in and around the Fens.

His legend became a rallying point for what remained of the English resistance to the Normans, and as the Normans took hold, against the excesses of Norman rule. In anonymous tales which sprung up around his memory a few years after his death (collected in the Gesta, early 12th century), Hereward was portrayed as a quick-minded guerilla leader who went into exile, fighting a monstrous bear in Northumberland and rescuing a damsel in distress in Cornwall -- a hero who would someday return to England and battle the Normans again for what rightly belonged to the English.

In 1866, Charles Kingsley wrote a novel embellishing Hereward's happy-go-lucky exploits as an English freedom fighter. Documents unearthed in the 1970s finally suggest that Hereward was a petty criminal for whom the sacking of Peterborough Abbey was second-nature and who was not above kidnapping and extortion; that after fleeing the Normans at Ely, he returned to England from exile in Flanders in 1078; and that he was subsequently accused of the murder of a Cornish nobleman, tried and executed.

Were these documents simply a Norman whitewash to counter the English accounts of Hereward's heroism? Or was Hereward an opportunistic thief who capitalized on the uncertainty of the times for his own benefit? English tradition continues to see him as the last hope of a purer moment in time, even if he was a bit rough and roguish.

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