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Looming over the land from her perch atop Norman siegeworks, a witch chanted an evil spell. Employed by supporters of William the Conqueror, she had been charged with helping to smoke out a band of rebels secreted nearby on the Isle of Ely – at the time, a spit of land surrounded by swampy fens in what’s now Cambridgeshire – in an attempt to quell an English uprising.

Cursing the inhabitants of the isle, she turned her back before repeating her incantation twice more. Suddenly a deafening crack rang out – not, though, the result of the witch’s spell taking effect but instead the sound of a fire set by the rebels, hidden in the marshes surrounding the Norman troops. As the heat and noise intensified, panic spread among the besiegers and the witch tumbled to her death: “smitten by fear as if by a whirlwind, she fell from on high”, reported a 12th-century English chronicle, the Liber Eliensis. “And thus she who had come for the infliction of death upon other people, herself perished first, dead from a broken neck.”

The Liber Eliensis’s version of this particular episode in the English rebellion of 1070–71 is, no doubt, heavily embellished. But there’s one fact that’s beyond dispute: such a setback was an unfamiliar experience for William the Conqueror. Just a few years earlier, the Norman duke had won the crown of England in battle. He had then brutally put down a revolt in the north, scarring the region for generations. “Never,” complained the monk Orderic Vitalis, “did William commit so much cruelty; to his lasting disgrace, he yielded to his worst impulse, and set no bounds to his fury, condemning the innocent and the guilty to a common fate.”

Despite several rebellions, the Conqueror seemed unstoppable. Yet here was an uprising successfully defying the new king, led by an effective and belligerent opponent. As William rode away from the siege of Ely in frustration, one man must have haunted his thoughts: Hereward.

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Why was Hereward called 'the Wake'?

Hereward is most popularly known as “the Wake”, an epithet that emerged in the 13th century. “Wake” might have meant “the Watchful”, or it may be a mark of attempts by the Wake family of Lincolnshire to claim Hereward as a figure in their family history.

Hereward appears in several sources, including the Crowland Chronicle (hailing from the abbey of Crowland in Lincolnshire), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. There’s also a biography, the Gesta Herewardi (The Exploits of Hereward), believed to date from the 12th century and probably compiled from various sources.

Why was Hereward deemed worthy of a biography? Why might the Wake family have been so eager to tether their name to his? The answer is that he was a rebel, an exile, an outlaw – and a thorn in the side of King William. His is an astonishing tale of a young man who would defy the Norman conquerors of England. These acts of defiance in the face of a determined and ruthless enemy made Hereward an Anglo-Saxon hero, celebrated by generations of medieval chroniclers as a fierce warrior, a gifted tactician, the archetypal English freedom fighter.

Sometimes the tale is a little too astonishing – and attempting to tease the fact from the fiction in the various sources that relate his escapades is an exercise in frustration. After all, such chronicles often include flights of artistic (and, indeed, diplomatic and political) licence. However, the fact that Hereward existed, and that he played a role in one of the most celebrated acts of resistance against William the Conqueror, is in little doubt.

Rebel nation: The battles and uprisings that defined and defied the Norman conquest

14 October 1066 | At the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror defeats King Harold II to win the throne of England.

1067 | Eadric the Wild, an Anglo-Saxon magnate of Shropshire and Herefordshire, launches a rebellion in Herefordshire aided by the Welsh prince of Gwynedd and Powys. They attack the Norman base at Hereford but, defeated, retreat to Wales to plot further unrest.

1068 | Exeter rebels against William’s rule. Gytha, mother of King Harold II, was present and may have inspired the resistance. After an 18-day siege, the king takes the city and builds a new castle there.

1068 | Hereward the Wake returns to England from exile to find his father and brother dead (probably in Lincolnshire) and his lands taken by Normans. He kills those within his house and flees to the Isle of Ely as an outlaw.

1068 | Edwin, Earl of Mercia and his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumbria spark rebellion. William quickly marches into Mercia and pacifies the area before moving into Northumbria.

1069 | Eadric the Wild returns and burns Shrewsbury but is defeated in battle by William’s forces at Stafford, submitting to the king the following year.

1069 | Godwin and Edmund, two sons of King Harold II, raid the south-west coast from their base in Ireland. At the battle of Northam in Devon they are defeated by Brian of Brittany, Earl of Cornwall. Refused more support in Ireland, the brothers sail to Denmark but disappear from history.

1069–70 | Edgar Ætheling, the last male heir of the House of Wessex, heads a rebellion in northern England, backed by sons of King Sweyn II of Denmark and their forces. The rebels take York, and their actions provoke a vicious Norman response known as the Harrying of the North.

1070 | King Sweyn II arrives in England on the Humber estuary. Recognising the threat, William pays Sweyn to leave England in peace.

1070 | Hereward plunders Peterborough Abbey, burning the town. His uncle, Abbot Brand, had died and been replaced by the Norman Thorold. Hereward claims he is protecting the abbey’s treasures from Norman plundering.

1071 | The Siege of Ely ends as Hereward is betrayed by the monks and forced to flee. William makes two attempts to assault the Isle of Ely, both hampered by the treacherous marshes and Hereward’s cunning.

1075 | Ralph, Earl of East Anglia, Roger, Earl of Hereford, and Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland try to co-ordinate a revolt but fail. Ralph’s countess holds Norwich Castle long enough to obtain terms that save the lives of her and the garrison. The Revolt of the Earls is the last major insurrection against William the Conqueror.

Hereward was in exile when the Conquest of 1066 took place, as the result of a bust-up with his own father. Hereward was, we’re told, a poor loser in local wrestling matches and, as the Crowland Chronicle grumbles, would “very often obtain with the sword that which by the mere strength of his arm he was unable”. By the time he was 18, Hereward’s father was fed up with his son’s “acts of excessive violence against his neighbours”. So he took the drastic step of asking Edward the Confessor to banish Hereward – and the king obliged.

The Gesta Herewardi details the young man’s exploits as an exile in some detail. It tells us how Hereward travelled to Cornwall, where he saved a princess from a forced marriage to the local tyrant, Ulcus Ferreus – “Iron Sore” – and killed the would-be groom in a duel. Fleeing to Ireland, he joined the king’s forces in a war against a rival the Gesta named only as the Duke of Munster.

“Hereward drew up the lines and led them”, ploughing into “the midst of the enemy’s wedges, killing to the right and left”, finally dispatching the Duke of Munster and effectively winning the battle. He then, the Gesta tells us, again saved the Cornish princess from a local lord, disguising himself by dying his blond hair black and his beard red to sneak into the lord’s lair, free the princess and carry her to the prince to whom she was betrothed.

Hereward’s escapades continued when, blown off course while attempting to sail back to Cornwall, he was shipwrecked in Flanders where, according to the Gesta, he became embroiled in yet another local conflict. Joining the army of Robert, son of the Count of Flanders, he took part in an assault on a place named as Scaldemariland (the exact location of which is unknown), whose inhabitants refused to pay the tribute they owed to Flanders.

As “the master of the soldiers” in Robert’s army, according to the Gesta, Hereward turned the tide of the clash, leading 300 men into the enemy camp, slaughtering those he found there and securing double tribute from Scaldemariland. His tactics were, the Gesta writes, “a complete surprise and as far as the enemy was concerned, beyond all their experience in warfare”.

Hereward the Wake's rebellion

Around 1068, soon after his Scaldemariland triumph, Hereward returned to England. It was not a happy homecoming. In his absence the country, the Gesta complains, had become “subject to the rule of foreigners and almost ruined by the exactions of many” – and his family had suffered from these exactions. Hereward’s father was dead, and his brother had been killed the day before his return. Normans had taken the family lands. Stung by guilt and rage, Hereward crept into his home under cover of darkness and slaughtered all the Normans within.

Soon, says the Gesta, Hereward was leading ranks of “fugitives, and condemned men as well as those that had been disinherited”. He went to his uncle Brand, the abbot of Peterborough, to be knighted. Even
this was positioned as an act of defiance, because Normans believed knighting by a clergyman was improper.

Worse still for the Normans, they were now assailed by a Danish invasion army led by the sons of King Sweyn II (who sponsored the invasion). The Danes, we’re told, made plans to join forces with Hereward’s rebels – a threat that was only averted by William the Conqueror’s decision to buy off the invaders.

By this time, Hereward’s outlaws were based on the Isle of Ely, surrounded by an impenetrable marshland. From there they struck out at Norman authority, vanishing into the mist after each sortie. The Liber Eliensis records Hereward and his band “carrying out pillaging-raids and depredations far and wide, a hundred men at a time, or more than that, being often killed by them”. One of their targets was Peterborough – in an attempt, so Hereward claimed, to protect the abbey’s treasures from the Normans’ greed.

An early 20th-century depiction of Hereward the Wake during his attack on Peterborough
An early 20th-century depiction of Hereward the Wake during his attack on Peterborough. His escapades enchanted generations of English writers and artists (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

William was advised by some to make peace, on the basis that it was “for the sake of the heritage bequeathed to them by their fathers that they have been making these attacks on us”. Others, though, counselled the king not to give in to rebels. William, it seems, found the latter advice more persuasive. In 1071, the king went on the attack.

Assembling an army, William found the narrowest point of the marshes around Ely and ordered the construction of a causeway. Trees were felled and lashed together to form a series of platforms. Sheepskins were sewn up and inflated to provide buoyancy. Their work complete, the enthusiastic Normans charged across the causeway – only for it to collapse beneath them, drowning most of the army. Only one knight, named Dada, made it across; he was captured, but well treated. Hereward, we’re told, showed him his rebels’ impressive defences and then released him so he could warn William of the futility of trying to attack them.

As William mulled over his options, Hereward is recorded as pulling off another extraordinary escapade – sneaking off the isle disguised as a potter, infiltrating the Norman camp and obtaining intelligence that ultimately led to the failure of the plan to defeat him using witchcraft. Still in disguise, Hereward lodged with a widow at Brampton (William had moved the royal court to the town after the failed assault on Ely), where the Norman nobleman Ivo Taillebois was hatching a plot with the witch he had recruited. Sitting anonymously in a corner, Hereward overheard the whole plan.

Later, while he wandered through the town pretending to sell pots, an observer identified him as Hereward. Taken to the king’s hall, he was relieved when those gathered came to agree that, though the likeness was striking, this man was significantly shorter than the mighty Hereward. He was sent to the kitchens where the royal servants made fun of him; scattering his pots around the floor, they tried to blindfold him, hoping he would smash his wares as he stumbled about. When the potter resisted, one man punched him – and Hereward’s temper snapped, knocking out the man and grabbing a fire iron to fend off the others. A guard rushed in but Hereward disarmed him, making his escape as soldiers pursued him into the night. News of this incident reached King William who told his men, perhaps unconvincingly, that he admired the rebel as “a man of noble soul and a most distinguished warrior”.

William soon returned to Ely, ordering palisades to be built and a new, sturdier causeway to be constructed. The king called in local fishermen to transport supplies, and Hereward slipped in among them, having shaved his head and beard. He watched the work throughout the day, pretending to help. When evening fell, though, he set fire to it all and crept back to Ely. When the Normans finally managed to complete their construction, Ivo Taillebois set his witch to work. As recounted at the start of this article, she completed her incantation – just at the moment when Hereward’s men, hidden in the waters of the marsh, set fire to the willows and brushwood and burned the Norman siegeworks.

Once again confounded by this elusive foe, William had no choice but to change tactics. Aiming at another target, he seized all of the lands held by the monastery at Ely. At this the monks panicked, offering to show the Normans a safe route onto the isle and to hand over the town. However, one monk, Alwinus, was disgusted at his brothers’ behaviour and warned Hereward; the rebel and his men were thus able to escape, reversing their horses’ shoes to disguise the direction of their retreat. Hereward then took up residence in the Brunneswald, an ancient forest in Northamptonshire. When William sent a huge Norman army against them, Hereward used the cover of the trees to strike at the attackers’ flanks and vanish until the terrified and demoralised army withdrew.

Hereward the Wake makes peace

Suddenly, and for reasons that the sources do not make clear, Hereward decided to seek peace with the king. He visited the court, but frustrated Norman knights had other ideas, orchestrating a fight between him and a man named Ogger. Hereward defeated the Normans’ champion, only to be arrested for breaching the king’s peace.

Months after the cat-and-mouse contest with his Norman pursuers had begun, Hereward found himself in the custody of Robert de Horpool at Bedford Castle. Here he remained for a year before the king ordered him transferred to less sympathetic jailers. Over the previous few months, though, Robert had grown fond of his captive and alerted Hereward’s men. The handover was ambushed, and Hereward was freed. When Robert went to King William to explain himself, he delivered a message from Hereward: he would pay homage to William if his father’s lands were returned. William agreed, stipulating only that “henceforth he must be willing to cultivate peace, not folly, if he wished hereafter to retain the king’s friendship”.

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The famous rebel lived in peace for years afterwards, enjoying his family’s inheritance and the respect of William the Conqueror. Over the centuries that followed, Hereward became a figure of heroic English resistance to the weight of the Norman yoke. Yet all was not quite as it has been recalled. It is clear from Hereward’s homage to William that his rebellion wasn’t entirely fuelled by altruism or patriotism. He did not, it seems, seek to overturn the Conquest, or to free others from the tyranny of the king. He wanted his own lands back, and when he got them, he submitted peacefully.

Nor, the evidence suggests, was Hereward exactly an Englishman. Charles Kingsley’s 1866 novel Hereward the Wake: Last of the English raised Hereward up as a nationalist hero, but Hereward – considered for centuries a quintessentially English protagonist – was probably of Danish extraction, a man of possibly mixed heritage absorbed into the complex web of English society in the 11th century.

Yet, whatever his aims and however his name was used in later centuries, Hereward’s lasting legacy is a thrilling story of daring adventures in defiance of a king.

Who was Hereward the Wake?

The “Wake” was, it’s been suggested by some later writers searching for his true identity, the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Godgifu, better known as Lady Godiva. That couple did have a wayward son named Ælfgar, who was exiled in 1055 and returned to harass Edward the Confessor until he was pardoned.

Ælfgar may have provided a model for the adventures of Hereward, leading to confusion over his parentage. Others have claimed that he was the son of one Leofric of Bourne, but this potential father cannot be traced in any source.

The most helpful clue to Hereward’s background comes from the Crowland Chronicle, which describes Abbot Brand of Peterborough as Hereward’s patruus – paternal uncle. Brand is sufficiently well recorded for his four brothers to be documented: Asketil, Siric, Siworth and Godric. The likely ages of these brothers, as well as the fact that Hereward was considered heir to the family’s lands, suggest that the eldest, Asketil, was Hereward’s father.

Brand and his brothers were the sons of Toki of Lincoln, son of Auti, a wealthy man also from Lincoln. This family, as perhaps demonstrated by their names, were of Danish descent, part of an Anglo-Danish community that settled in the north and east after various Viking incursions. Only the youngest, Godric, has a name that sounds English, hinting either that the family was by then firmly established in the local community or that Toki had taken an English wife.

The writer of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is confident that Hereward was allied to the Danish army of King Sweyn II, and that the attachment was part of the reason William was so keen to buy off the Danes. Asketil, according to Domesday Book, held 26 carucates, the Danelaw equivalent of a hide – the measure of land deemed sufficient to support one family. His holdings were, therefore, large enough to be worth fighting to regain – which ultimately may have been Hereward’s aim all along.

Matt Lewis is a historian with a particular interest in medieval England. His latest book, Rebellion in the Middle Ages: Fight Against the Crown, was published by Pen & Sword in October


This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine