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Hereward the Wake
by Charles Kingsley
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819 - 23 January 1875) from Holne in Devon, was a priest of the Church of England, a university teacher, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with the West Country and northeast Hampshire. He was a friend and correspondent with Charles Darwin, and one of the first public figures to praise The Origin of Species. Like Dickens before him, most of his novels contain an element of social campaigning.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Charles Kingsley, see The Index

Hereward the Wake

I. - Hereward Seeks His Fortune

In the year of Canute's death was born Hereward, second son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Godiva. At the age of eighteen he was a wild, headstrong, passionate lad, short in stature, but very broad, and his eyes were one blue and one grey. Always in trouble with authority, the climax came when he robbed Herluin, steward of Peterborough, of a sum of sixteen silver pennies collected for the use of the monastery, and for this exploit he was outlawed.

Accordingly, he left his home and went north, to Siward, who was engaged in war with Macbeth, and for aught we know he may have helped to bring great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill. However that may be, he stayed in Scotland with one Gilbert of Ghent, at whose house, among other doughty deeds, single-handed he slew a mighty white bear that escaped from captivity, incidentally saving the life of a pretty little maiden named Alftruda, and earning the hatred of the other men, who had not dared to face the bear.

Finding Scotland a little uncomfortable in consequence, he went to Cornwall, taking with him only his faithful servant Martin, and there at the court of Alef, a Danish kinglet, he had cause to kill a local celebrity, a giant named Ironhook, who was betrothed to Alef's daughter, though much against her will, she being in love with Sigtryg, son of Ranald, king of Waterford.

So Hereward went to Waterford with a ring and a message from the princess, returning later with Sigtryg, only to find that Alef had betrothed his daughter afresh to Hannibal of Marazion, and the wedding ceremony was actually proceeding when they arrived. An ambush was laid for the returning bridal party, Hannibal duly accounted for, and the princess carried off to Waterford, where they

    Prepared another wedding
    With all their hearts so full of glee.

Earl Leofric dead, Hereward determined to take the risk of returning home, to which end he begged two ships from Ranald and set sail. Thrown by a storm on the Flanders coast, he and all his men were like to have been knocked on the head, after the friendly custom of the times, but for the intervention of Arnoul, grandson of Baldwin of Flanders.

Entering his service, Hereward assisted Baldwin in an argument with Eustace of Guisnes, who differed with his lord on the question of payment of certain dues, and so keenly did he reason that the difference of opinion was satisfactorily composed - from Baldwin's point of view.

Anon a war with Holland claimed attention, but in the meantime Hereward had fallen in love with a most beautiful damsel named Torfrida, niece of the Abbot of St. Berlin, reputed a sorceress. Her favour he won in the lists from Sir Ascelin, to whom she had committed it, and upon him she bestowed it, together with her love and a suit of magic armour, through which no sword could pierce.

Then Hereward went off to Holland, and there he encountered Dirk Hammerhand, from whom to take a buffet was never to need another, and bought from him his famous mare Swallow, the price agreed on being the half of what Hereward had offered and a box on the ear.

"Villain!" groaned Dirk as he lay on the ground. "It was I who was to give the buffet, not thou!"

"Art mad?" said Hereward, as he coolly picked up the coins which Dirk had scattered in his fall. "It is the seller's business to take, and the buyer's to give."

In Holland Hereward remained a year, but as, under the terms of a wager made in a boastful mood, he went through the campaign without any armour and without changing his clothes, it was a disreputable looking man with many a wound who returned to Bruges, where, at the court of Adela, a jest was played on Torfrida by the countess, not without the privity of Hereward.

For before all her ladies Adela took her to task for having so long remained unmarried. Then, forming the assembly into a court of love, she asked the ladies what punishment should be meted out. One said one thing, one another.

"Marry her to a fool," said Richilda.

"Too common a misfortune," said the Lady of France. "No," said she. "We will marry her to the first man who enters the castle."

And from her sentence there was no appeal. Married poor Torfrida must be, and to the first man who happened in, be he who he might. And the first man was a ragged beggarman, with whom, when he was introduced into the presence, Torfrida was preparing to deal in her own way with a little knife, be the cost what it might, when she recognised the eye of grey and the eye of blue.

II. - Hereward Encounters Some Old Friends

In the spring it was hey for the war again, whence Hereward returned in November to find himself the father of a daughter and the recipient of letters from Harold of England and William of Normandy, both asking his assistance. Regarding Harold as a usurper, Hereward bluntly told him so. To William his reply was equally decisive, but less uncompromising. "When William is King of all England, Hereward will put his hands between his and be his man."

Whereat William laughed. "It is a fair challenge from a valiant man," he said to the messenger. "The day shall come when I shall claim it."

In Bruges one day Hereward found Gilbert of Ghent, who for reasons of his own had come thither with his ward Alftruda, and mightily disappointed was Gilbert to find him married; for he had a scheme whereby Hereward should marry Alftruda, and he should share her dowry, which was great. Alftruda, too, was mightily displeased, as she seemed one whom Hereward thought the most beautiful he had ever beheld; indeed, for one moment he even forgot Torfrida, and gazed at her spellbound. The only remark she vouchsafed to her former preserver was a whispered "So you could not wait for me," and then passed on to marry Dolfin, Gospatric's eldest son; and Gilbert pursued his way to France to join the Norman.

After that news came thick and fast.

News of Harold Hardraada sailing to England with a mighty host, of how the Gonfanon of St. Peter had come to Rouen, of William of Normandy's preparations at St. Pierre sur Dive, of the Norsemen landing in the Humber. Anon the news of Stamford Bridge and Hardraada's death, and lastly news of Senlac, and the death of the other Harold.

For well-nigh three years after these great happenings Hereward stayed in Flanders, grieving for the woes that had come upon his native land. Not that he sat moping all the time, for some deed of arms was ever on hand to afford distraction; but in the main his thoughts all turned on schemes for freeing England from the French tyrant. But not till Gyda, Harold's widowed mother, came to Baldwin for sanctuary did he take any overt action.

By skilful flattery, not unmixed with truth, she persuaded him that he was the man destined to free England once more; and so one morning he set out alone, accompanied only by Martin Lightfoot and a dozen house-carles, to spy out the land and see what might be done. Within a week he landed at Boston, only to find that Bourne, his home, had been bestowed upon the cook of Gilbert of Ghent, and that at that moment his younger brother's head was decorating the gable of the hall.

And so to Bourne went Hereward by night, and burst in upon the Frenchmen during a drunken carouse: in the morning there were fifteen heads upon the gable to replace the one that he had taken down overnight. Forthwith he returned to Flanders, having bestowed his mother in safety at Crowland Abbey, with a promise to his countrymen of the Fens that he would return to aid them shortly.

III. - Hereward in England

Having settled his affairs in Flanders, in due time he landed once more in the Wash with Torfrida and the child and two shiploads of stout fighters, with whom he went through Fenland raising an army. In the spring came Sweyn with his Danes, all eager for plunder; and Hereward had much ado to prevent them from plundering Crowland Abbey, only succeeding by promising them a richer booty in Peterborough.

So Peterborough they took and sacked, but at Peterborough Hereward found Alftruda, who had left her husband, and rescued her from the Danes during the sack of the minster. And, looking upon her extraordinary beauty, for the second time he forgot Torfrida; but for all that he sent her for safety to old Gilbert of Ghent, who had thrown in his lot with William, and was now at Lincoln. Having done with Peterborough, and later with Stamford, the army marched to Ely and there encamped.

And in Ely a great council was held, after which Sweyn and all his Danes returned home. For as Sweyn truly said, "While William the Frenchman is king by the sword, and Edgar the Englishman king by proclamation of earls and thanes, there seems no room here for Sweyn, nephew of Canute, king of kings." To which Hereward could advance no good reason to prove that there was. Anon came William of Ely, and built a floating bridge a full half-mile in length across the black abyss of mud and reeds that yawned between the island and the mainland. But the bridge was unable to bear the weight of all the French who crowded on to it; the fastenings at the shore-end broke, and the bridge itself overturned, so that all upon it were thrown into the mud and miserably drowned.

Whereon William withdrew his forces to Brandon for a space, and Hereward, being minded to find out for himself what next was purposed against the island, followed him thither, with shorn hair and beard, and disguised as a travelling potter. Anon he came to William's palace with his good mare Swallow, bearing on her back a load of crockery. At the palace he narrowly escaped recognition, being sent to the kitchen, where he got into a quarrel with the scullions. In consequence of which he was haled before William himself, who quickly detected that he was other than he pretended.

"Look you," said William, "you are no common churl - you have fought too well for that; show me your arm."

Hereward drew up his sleeve.

"Potters do not carry sword-scars like these, nor are they tattooed like English thanes. Hold up thy head, man, and let me see thy throat.

"Aha! so I suspected. There is fair ladies' work there. Is not this he who was said to be so like Hereward? Very good. Put him in ward till I come back from hunting, but do him no harm. For were he Hereward himself, I should be right glad to see Hereward safe and sound; my man at last, and earl of all between Humber and the Fens." Whereupon Hereward was clapped into an outhouse, whence he escaped forthwith by the simple device of cutting off the head of the man sent to fetter him, and the good mare Swallow bore him back to Ely in safety.

A little later William came again to Ely and built a stronger bridge, but this the English destroyed by fire, with many of the French on it, setting the reeds aflame on the windward side of it.

Some other scheme must now be thought out, and the one that pleased William most was to send to the monks a proclamation that, unless they submitted within a week, all their lands and manors outside the island would be confiscated. Furthermore, that if Hereward would submit he should have his lands in Bourne, and a free pardon for himself and all his comrades.

To which message Sir Ascelin and Ivo Taillebois, not being over desirous of having Hereward as a neighbour, saw fit to add a clause exempting Torfrida from the amnesty, but that she should be burnt on account of her abominable and notorious sorceries.

When the proclamation arrived, Hereward was away foraging. He came back in hot haste when he heard of it, but not fast enough; for ere they were in sight of the minster tower they were aware of a horse galloping violently towards them through the dusk, and on its back were Torfrida and her daughter. The monks had surrendered the island rather than lose their lands.

The French were already in Ely.

And now is Hereward to the greenwood gone, to be a bold outlaw, and the father of all outlaws, who held those forests for two hundred years from the Fens to the Scottish border, and with some four hundred men he ranged up the Bruneswald, dashing out to the war cry of "A Wake! A Wake!" and laying waste with fire and sword; that is, such towns as were in the hands of Frenchmen.

Now, Hereward had been faithful to Torfrida, a virtue most rare in those days, and he loved her with an overwhelming adoration - as all true men love. And for that very reason he was the more aware that his feeling for Alftruda was strangely like his feeling for Torfrida; and yet strangely different. Wherefore, when it befell that once on a day there came riding to Hereward in the Bruneswald a horseman who handed to him a letter, the sight of Alftruda's signature at the end sent a strange thrill through him. There was naught in it that he should not have read - it was but to tell him that the French were upon him, the posse comitatus of seven counties were rising, and so forth. Continuing, the letter told him that Dolfin had been slain on the Border, and William and Gilbert of Ghent were going to marry her to Ascelin, and that, having saved her twice, she feared that Hereward could not save her a third time; concluding with an entreaty to submit to William, hinting that an opportunity presented itself now which might never recur.

The messenger took back the answer. "Tell your lady that I kiss her hands and feet; that I cannot write, for outlaws carry no pen or ink. But that what she has commanded, that will I perform." Having showed the letter to Torfrida, they agreed that it were well to take precautions, and withdrew into the heart of the forest.

Alftruda's warning was both timely and true, for anon came Ivo Taillebois, who had taken to wife Hereward's niece Lucia, and Abbot Thorold, of Peterborough, who had an old score to wipe off in connection with Hereward's last visit to his abbey, and Sir Ascelin, his nephew, and many another. And they rode gaily through the greenwood, where presently they found Hereward, to their sorrow, for of their number some returned home only after payment of ransom, and others never returned at all. And of the former were Abbot Thorold and Ascelin; and the ransom that Hereward exacted for those two was thirty thousand silver marks. Whereby Hereward was enabled to put a spoke in Ascelin's wheel.

"Eh? How, most courteous victor?" said Sir Ascelin.

"Sir Ascelin is not a very wealthy gentleman?"

Ascelin laughed assent.

"Nudus intravi, nudus exeo - England; and I fear now this mortal life likewise."

"But he looked to his rich uncle the abbot to further a certain marriage project of his. And, of course, neither my friend, Gilbert of Ghent, nor my enemy, William of Normandy, are likely to give away so rich an heiress without some gratification in return."

IV. - The Last of the English

Thereafter they lived for two years in the forest, and neither Torfrida nor Hereward was the better for them. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, and a sick heart is but too apt to be a peevish one. So there were fits of despondency, jars, mutual recriminations. Furthermore, that first daughter was Torfrida's only child, and she knew almost as well as he how hard that weighed on Hereward. In him the race of Leofric, of Godiva, of Earl Oslac, would become extinct, and the girl would marry - whom? Who but some French conqueror, or at best some English outlaw? What wonder if he longed for a son to pass his name down to future generations?

And one day Martin Lightfoot came with another letter to Hereward, which he delivered to Torfrida, who learned from him that it came from Alftruda. She bade him deliver it to Hereward, to whom it was addressed, the which he did; but she noticed that this letter Hereward never mentioned to her, as he had done the former.

A month later Martin came again.

"There is another letter come; it came last night," said he.

"What is that to thee or me? My lord has his state secrets. Is it for us to pry into them? Go."

"I thought - I thought - "

"Go, I say!"

There was a noise of trampling horses outside. The men were arming and saddling, and Hereward went with them, saying that he would be back in three days.

After he had gone she found, close to where his armour had hung, a letter from Alftruda. It congratulated Hereward on having shaken himself free from the fascinations of "that sorceress." It said that all was settled with King William; Hereward was to come to Winchester. She had the king's writ for his safety ready to send to him; the king would receive him as his liegeman. Alftruda would receive him as her husband. Archbishop Lanfranc had made difficulties about the dissolution of his marriage with Torfrida, but gold would do all things at Rome; and so forth.

When this was read, after a night of frenzy, to Crowland Torfrida went under the guidance of Martin, and laid her head upon the knees of the Lady Godiva.

"I am come, as you always told me I should do. But it has been a long way hither, and I am very tired."

And at Crowland remained Martin, donning a lay brother's frock that he might the better serve his mistress. And to Crowland, after three days, came Leofric, the renegade priest, who had been with Hereward in the greenwood, and with him the child.

And so it came that when Hereward returned, as he had said, after three days, he found neither wife nor child, and to Crowland he too went, but came away even as he had gone. But with Torfrida he had no word, nor with Godiva, for both refused him audience.

So Hereward went to Winchester, and with him forty of his knights, and placed his hands between the hands of William, and swore to be his man.

And William walked out of the hall leaning on Hereward's shoulder, at which all the Normans gnashed their teeth with envy.

And thereafter Hereward married Alftruda, after the scruples of Holy Church had been duly set at rest.

Then Hereward lived again at Bourne, and tried to bring forgetfulness by drink - and drink brought boastfulness; for that he had no more the spirit left to do great deeds, he must needs babble of the great deeds which he had done, and hurl insult and defiance at his Norman neighbours. And in the space of three years he had become as intolerable to those same neighbours as they were intolerable to him, and he was fain to keep up at Bourne the same watch and ward that he had kept up in the forest.

And Judith came to Bourne, and besought Alftruda to accompany her to Crowland, where she would visit the tomb of Waltheof, her husband. And Alftruda went with her, taking a goodly company of knights to be her escort, while Hereward remained at Bourne with few to guard it.

And knowing this, to Bourne came Ascelin and Taillebois, Evermue, Raoul de Dol, and many another Norman, and burst in upon Hereward in some such fashion as he had done himself some ten years earlier. "Felons," he shouted, "your king has given me his truce! Is this your French law? Is this your French honour? Come on, traitors all, and get what you can of a naked man; you will buy it dear. Guard my back, Winter!"

And with his constant comrade at his back, he dashed right at the press of knights:

    And when his lance did break in hand
    Full fell enough he smote with brand.

And now he is all wounded, and Winter, who fought at his back, is fallen on his face, and Hereward stands alone within a ring of eleven corpses. A knight rushes in, to make a twelfth, cloven through the helm; but with the blow Hereward's blade snaps short, and he hurls it away as his foes rush in. With his shield he beat out the brains of two, but now Taillebois and Evermue are behind him, and with four lances through his back he falls, to rise no more.

So perished the last of the English.

You'll love the book... ISBN 978-1-326-80644-6

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