Hereward ‘the Wake’ and the Barony of Bourne: a Reassessment of a Fenland Legend
Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 29 (1994)
Hereward, generally known as ‘the Wake’, is second only to Robin Hood in the pantheon of English heroes. From at least the early twelfth century his deeds were celebrated in Anglo-Norman aristocratic circles, and he was no doubt the subject of many a popular tale and song from an early period. But throughout the Middle Ages Hereward’s fame was local, being confined to the East Midlands and East Anglia. It was only in the nineteenth century that the rebel became a truly national icon with the publication of Charles Kingsley novel Hereward the Wake. The transformation was particularly Victorian: Hereward is portrayed as a prototype John Bull, a champion of the English nation. The assessment of historians has generally been more sober. Racial overtones have persisted in many accounts, but it has been tacitly accepted that Hereward expressed the fears and frustrations of a landed community under threat. Paradoxically, however, in the light of the nature of that community, the high social standing that the tradition has accorded him has been denied.
The earliest recorded notice of Hereward is the almost contemporary annal for 1071 in the D version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Northern recension probably produced at York, its account of the events in the fenland are terse. It records the plunder of Peterborough in 1070 ‘by the men that Bishop Æthelric [late of Durham] had excommunicated because they had taken there all that he had’, and the rebellion of Earls Edwin and Morcar in the following year. Edwin was killed and Morcar retreated into the fen with various Englishmen. In reply King William dispatched a fleet and land force and besieged the Isle of Ely where the rebels had resorted. They were all forced to surrender ‘except Hereward alone and those who could escape with him, and he led them out valiantly’. This is the only notice of Hereward, and it would appear that his escape was already such a well-known story as to require no further explanation. The E version, in an interpolation composed at Peterborough c.1121, casts no light on the episode but introduces Hereward into the story at an earlier point. It recounts that a Danish army went to Ely and all the fenland people went to them in the expectation that they would conquer England. Meanwhile, with the appointment of the Norman Torald as abbot of Peterborough by King William, Hereward and his band in an apparently related incident plundered the monastery and took all the treasure to Ely from where the Danes, bought off by the king, took it to Denmark. The siege of Ely is then recounted in the same terms as those of the D version. Hereward is simply identified as one of the abbey’s men.