Delving into the past is fraught with difficulty; the more so the further back one delves. The events recorded in Cold Heart, Cruel Hand are drawn almost exclusively from De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis, ("the exploits of Hereward the Saxon") an account of the life of Hereward the Wake researched and compiled in the 12th Century by monastic scholars. As no contemporary account of his life exists one must question the authenticity of some of the wilder claims made and where such doubt exists I have attempted to corroborate the facts from other sources including the Domesday Book. That Hereward the Wake lived at the time of the Conquest and that he gave The Conqueror the toughest and most intractable problems of the early years of his reign there is, however, no doubt.
Born of wealthy parents, said to be Lord Leofric of Bourne and his wife in around 1032, Hereward would have been about thirty-eight years of age at the time of the events recorded in the novel. Intelligent, well over six feet tall, with blonde hair and striking grey eyes, the right slightly darker than the left, he must have cut an imposing figure. De Gestisrecords that as a teenager he was sent abroad by his father to avoid the wrath of the King of England at that time, Edward the Confessor, who could stand his trouble making no longer. Whilst abroad he became skilled in the art of warfare, lending his sword and his followers for mercenary pay to whichever employer could afford him.
Abroad in Flanders during the calamitous events of 1066 he returned to England in 1068 or thereabouts to find that William the Bastard had seized the Throne and that his father's lands and estates had been distributed to his supporters; notably his son-in law Fitzalan Fergant of Brittany ("Alan the Red") and a lesser noble, Ivo Taillebois, said to have been a base-born soldier from Calvados, subsequently appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire. His brother, objecting to the loss of the family land had been killed by, or at least at the hand of, Ivo Taillebois and Hereward took his revenge killing, it is said fourteen of Taillebois' men with his own hands. Such a claim must be open to doubt. Whatever the truth of that, his next act, the sacking and plunder of Peterborough Cathedral (known as "Gildenburgh" in those days, meaning, literally, "Golden Borough") ostensibly with the intention of preserving its gold and jewels from the avarice of the newly installed Norman Bishop Turold brought the wrath of the Conqueror down upon him. The enterprise was a disaster. Saxons became caught up in the fighting, some died and Sven Erithson, the King of Denmark enlisted by Hereward to assist him, made off with the plunder, bribed, it is said, by the Conqueror himself.
The Isle of Ely in those days was a formidable fortress, surrounded by swamp and shifting marsh and was almost impassable on foot. Hereward's knowledge of the land gave him a decisive advantage over the Norman oppressors and many were the occasions when he would appear from nowhere to launch sanguinary attacks upon the unsuspecting enemy. Joined by his nephew, Earl Morcar, (Edwin already being dead, killed by his own men) and by a number of leading Saxon Churchmen, the Isle of Ely became the focus for the last and bitterest rebellion against the Norman rule.
De Gestisrecords that the Conqueror's first attempt to storm the Isle was by way of a causeway built "at Alrehede," the site of the present day village of Aldreth. In recent years ancient timbers, rusted swords and torn chain mail have been excavated, demonstrating that in this, at least, De Gestisis almost certainly correct. Three thousand men are said to have perished when the causeway sank under the weight of men and armour when a floating sow, anchoring the causeway was cut away from the land by Hereward, a fact which, if true, amounted to the greatest disaster of William's reign in England. In Cold Heart, Cruel Handblame for the disaster has been placed firmly at the door of the Conqueror'sseneschaland closest ally, William Fitz Osbern. He was indeed sent by the Conqueror to help subdue the rebellion in Flanders but there is no evidence that this was in any way a punishment for the disaster at Aldreth. Fitz Osbern died in battle on the 22nd February 1071 at Ravenchoven near Cassel doing his master's bidding, loyal to the end. An apology is due.
It is an incredible, but almost certain, fact that the Conqueror chose to build a second causeway just a few hundred yards from the first upon the advice of his closest commanders. Here, the blame must be shared between the King and his son-in-law, Fitzalan Fergant, the Wake (meaning, probably the "wakeful one," or "the watcher") sending hundreds more to their deaths when he fired the tinder-dry reeds through which the causeway had been built.
The rebellion was finally ended in 1071 when the Saxon monks, tiring of the fight and probably seeing the futility of further resistance, showed the Normans a secret path onto the Isle through the Wicken fen that lay to the east. Abbott Thurstan of Crowland is widely credited with the betrayal. He died in 1072, in his own bed, perhaps of a broken heart.
Evidence for what happened to the Wake following the storming of the Isle is anecdotal. Some accounts, De Gestisincluded, maintain that Hereward was pardoned by the King on account of his "noble and determined resistance" to the King's rule and given the return of his estates. Other accounts have it that he was indeed pardoned but that a vengeful Taillebois, stripped of those same lands led him into a trap and had him killed. Yet further accounts say that he escaped with a handful of men and continued to lead a guerrilla campaign from the Bruneswald forest south of Peterborough. This last account has parallels with another, possibly more famous character from fiction, and may have been the inspiration for the story of Robin Hood: There are striking similarities. Both were nobly born and stripped of their lands; the Wake by the Conqueror, Robin Hood by King John. In both cases the hero was Saxon, dealt an injustice by a Norman monarch. Both were known as "The Outlaw". Both used the bow as their main weapon and both conducted a guerrilla campaign from the sanctuary of a forest. Whatever the truth there is little doubt that Hereward was a redoubtable and courageous opponent that tested the Conqueror to the limit.
The evidence for the desertion of Hereward's wife Torfrida to Crowland Abbey (where she is said to have been buried) again comes from De Gestisas does his infatuation with a "beautiful dark haired woman" that joined the rebels soon after the siege began. Such pearls are scarce to be overlooked by the writers of fiction.
The names of Hereward's comrades, Wynter, Lightfoot, the Heron et al, are drawn from De Gestisbut hardly sound Anglo-Saxon. The names ending incusorus(Hurchillus, Villicus, Osbernus) have a distinctly Latin flavour - a language that the scholars of the time would have both spoken and written. Nevertheless they have been employed in the novel for authenticity.
Hereward's nephew, Earl Morcar certainly did exist and played a prominent part in the rebellion. His fate was a particularly tragic one. Following his capture he was imprisoned by the Conqueror in one of his castles in Normandy, spending his days there until pardoned by William on his deathbed in 1087. It is said that following his release he was immediately re-arrested by William's successor, William Rufus, dying in captivity in 1092.
Today, almost a thousand years after Hereward's death the fen area still resonates with names from the past. Belsar's Hill can still be found close to the Cambridgeshire village of Willingham, an ancient fort (probably from the Iron Age) even when the events depicted in the novel were taking place. Belsar's Close is just around the corner. Travel to Aldreth and follow Hereward Way to the point where it disappears into a sea of mud, now used for motor bike scrambling and walking dogs. Pause there and stare south towards the Ouse and imagine the struggle that the Conqueror would have had to span that sea of black mud. It is a desolate place even today.
In Peterborough traffic roars around the busy offices of
Radio Hereward and the Hereward Centre, but if one heads
south, towards Ely, one will find the most eloquent reminder
of the past. Dominating the landscape for miles around is the
magnificent and imposing Cathedral built by the Conqueror to
place his stamp on the Isle forever, to demonstrate once and
for all that the land was his. It is a symbol of the power,
the enduring quality, of the Norman dynasty that shaped the
Country we know today but it is surely also a sign of the
tremendous struggle that he had to overcome the man known to
history as Hereward the Wake.
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