Who Was Hereward the Wake?
Hereward the Wake, (also known as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile, c. 1035 – c.1072) who lived in the latter part of the 11th Century was the great hero of Saxon resistance to the Norman occupation of England after the conquest of 1066.
Hereward is an Old English name, composed of the elements here “army” and ward “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.
Defeat at the Battle of Hastings ended the Saxons’ resistance as a kingdom. But from 1067 to 1071 there was constant guerrilla fighting. A group of resistance fighters, headed by Hereward in the fens of East Anglia, harried and taunted the Normans. In 1070 a Danish fleet in the Humber sent detachments of soldiers to the fens, and Hereward led them and his own men to Peterborough. After looting the town the Danes sailed away, but Hereward and his men remained at the Isle of Ely.
William the Conqueror blocked off every outlet on the east of the island and constructed a bridge, two miles long, on the western side. Most of the rebels surrendered, but Hereward escaped through the fens. Tradition has it that the king was merciful to the outlaws, and that later Hereward swore fealty to him of his own free will.
Partly because of the sketchiness of evidence for his existence, his life has become a magnet for speculators and amateur scholars. The earliest references to his parentage, in the Gesta, 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. There is no evidence for this, and Abbot Brand of Peterborough, stated to have been Hereward’s uncle, does not appear to have been related to either Leofric or Godiva.
It is improbable that − if Hereward were a member of this prominent family – his parentage would not be a matter of record. Some modern research suggests him to have been Anglo-Danish with a Danish father, Asketil; since Brand is also a Danish name, it makes sense that the Abbot may have been Asketil’s brother. Hereward’s apparent ability to call on Danish support may also support this theory.
Hereward’s birth is conventionally dated as 1035/6 because the Gesta Herewardi indicates that he was first exiled in 1054 in his 18th year. However, since the account in the Gesta of the early part of his exile (in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland) contains fantastic elements, it is hard to know if it is trustworthy.
Peter Rex, in his 2005 biography of Hereward, points out that the campaigns in which he is reported to have fought in the neighbourhood of Flanders seem to have begun around 1063 and suggests that, if he was 18 at the time of his exile, he was born in 1044/5. But this would be based on the assumption that the early part of the story is largely fictitious.
His place of birth is supposed to be in or near Bourne in Lincolnshire. The Domesday Book shows that a man named Hereward held lands in the parishes of Witham on the Hill and Barholm with Stow in the southwestern corner of Lincolnshire as a tenant of Peterborough Abbey, prior to his exile, Hereward had also held lands as a tenant of Croyland Abbey at Crowland, 8 miles (13 km) east of Market Deeping in the neighbouring fenland.
In those times it was a boggy and marshy area. Since the holdings of abbeys could be widely dispersed across parishes, the precise location of his personal holdings is uncertain but was certainly somewhere in south Lincolnshire.