Monday, 23 February 2015

The first Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake

The fight against William the Conqueror does not end with the famous defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Instead many Anglo-Saxons continue to rebel rather than accept defeat and a lifetime of subjugation. 

The most famous of these rebels is Hereward the Wake (also known as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile), a brave Anglo-Saxon leader who some say was the influence behind the stories of Robin Hood. Contemporary chroniclers describe him as someone who belongs to a band of men ‘who lived in tents, disdaining to sleep in houses lest they should become soft’. The Normans call them ‘wildmen’.

Hereward seems to have long courted trouble. He was seen as a trouble maker even under Edward the Confessor and after William the Conqueror takes over England the land belonging to Hereward is given to Oger the Breton. Hereward is so outraged he leads a band of men in open rebellion against the new King.

Help comes from unexpected quarters in the form of the Danish king Swein Estrithson who aides him in his endeavour in either 1069 or 1070 with an army large enough to fill 240 ships. He establishes a camp on the Isle of Ely and is soon joined by many, including Hereward. Swein’s first act is to storm and sack Peterborough Abbey in 1070 with local assistance.

William acknowledges this big threat. The opposing combined army is a tough match for him and he knows it will encourage others to rebel against him throughout England. The immensity of the challenge is put into the spotlight when this new army fight the Normans in York and manage to kill over 3,000 soldiers.

In the light of this William’s next move is both prudent and brilliant. He hands Swein enough money to encourage him to leave which Swein then proceeds to do so. This makes it possible for him to attack Hereward the Outlaw and bring his full army to bear down upon him.

Eventually William catches up with Hereward at the Isle of Ely in 1071. It is here that Hereward feels he will be safe hiding in a monastery inaccessible to non-locals unfamiliar with the marshes. These damp lands also offer him many places to hide until it is safe once again to resume his guerrilla tactics. In addition the plentiful water makes it impossible to burn the refuge down as has happened at other sites of rebellion.

To tackle this challenge the Norman army build a mile long causeway but this is destroyed by the sheer weight of the armour and the horses. This leaves the Normans at a loss as they can not find a way to the monastery. However one thing Hereward has not counted on is the avariciousness and greed of the monks themselves. Before the siege the monks had been used to a good standard of living indulging themselves with fine white bread, venison and good French wine. They simply can not cope with any further deprivation so encouraged by a Norman bribe they betray Hereward and show the Normans a secret way to the monastery through the largely inaccessible marshes. Once there they launch a surprise attack and decimate Hereward’s fellow band of men.

The events afterward are disputed. Some say he yields to William as the Conqueror or continues his resistance but whatever happens he will be remembered as a heroic fighter for England.

If you liked that story then you will also enjoy reading about The Amazing Real Life English Robin Hood - Roger Godberd.