On 14 October 1066 Harold the last king of the English died fighting, battle -axe in hand, beneath his standards on Senlac Hill. A tragic but heroic end to a golden age. In a day, William ‘the Bastard’, Duke of Normandy, had won a kingdom. Or so it seemed. For the English were far from tamed! Resistance burnt on for years, while resentment lingered for centuries. One name shines out from these years -a name that would swell the pride of generations of Englishmen – the name, Hereward ‘the Wake’.

After the Battle of Hastings, William slowly circled London. However his caution, at that stage, was not well founded. The flower of English manhood had fallen in three battles held in quick succession: Fulford and Stanford Bridge against the Vikings near York; and then most dramatically at Hastings, where many of the best fighting men chose to fall by their king. Furthermore there was no leader of stature and virtue to unite the nation. Harold’s family had been decimated. Edgar Atheling, the last of the ancient royal Wessex House of Cerdic was but a boy of 15 years. The most powerful surviving nobles, the brothers Edwin and Morcar, were notoriously indecisive. In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “Always when some initiative should have been shown there was delay from day to day until matters went from bad to worse”.

Despite pledging their loyalty to Edgar who was proclaimed (but never crowned) as king in London, one by one the magnates made their peace with William and his approaching army. The final act of submission came when Edgar surrendered at Berkhampstead, north of London in Hertfordshire, followed by William’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster.

In the New Year, William returned to Normandy. In his absence all hell broke loose. It was not long before there was a recovery of English morale. The realities of conquest by a rigid autocratic culture over the free Nordic spirit were beginning to bite. A hint of the trouble to come came when the men of Kent unsuccessfully besieged Dover castle. More serious strife followed when a local thegn, aptly named Eadric ‘the Wild’ led an assault on Hereford castle. In August 1067 Eadric was joined by the north Welsh kings Bleddyn and Rhiwallon and all western Mercia was aflame. Meanwhile in Exeter, Harold’s sons by his beautiful paramour, Eadgyth ‘of the swan neck’, led a rising of the local fyrd.

William returned and quickly took stock of the situation. Early in 1068 he swept westwards, capturing Exeter after a costly siege. Harold’s sons escaped to Dublin, only to return in the summer in alliance with the Ostmen (the Irish Vikings) to raid the Bristol Channel.

With William’s back turned, Edwin and Morcar joined the Mercian rebels, while Edgar fled to the court of Malcolm Canmore, the King of Scotland. Edgar linked up with various English exiles and invaded Northumbria. Dispossessed Saxons were scattered across northern Europe plotting a return. Many other joined the famed Varangian Guard in far off Constantinople, where their descendants continued to fight later Norman ‘crusaders’.

William turned north. The faint hearted Edwin and Morcar soon came to terms, while Edgar retreated to Scotland.

The next year, 1069, was to be more dangerous for William than the inept risings of the previous years. In January, the Norman Robert of Comines was installed as Earl of Northumberland, being welcomed in Durham by Bishop Aethelwine. The next day was Robert’s last, for he and his 900 Frenchmen were butchered. This signalled a northern revolt on Edgar’s behalf. However, the new York castle held long enough for William to arrive and once again scatter his enemies.

It must be remembered that the castles which were beginning to sprout up every few miles across the countryside were symbols of military occupation and repression. They were not built to defend the peasantry from outside attack but to protect the foreign overlords from attack by their tenants. What are now pleasant Sunday afternoon curiosities to visit were once for our people very obvious manifestations of their slavery.

William’s relief of York castle was only a temporary respite for the invaders. Soon another apparent English hero rallied the Saxon cause, Earl Waltheof. Waltheof was the son of Siward the Dane, the strong Earl of Northumbria who features in Macbeth and was appointed by Canute to calm that unruly province. However Waltheof was one of those who flattered to deceive. In appearance he was the epitome of virtue – tall and strong and personally brave. But in character he was weak and indecisive.

In August 1069 the English rebels offered the crown to King Svein of Denmark, as successor to the great King Canute. Svein reacted by sending a vast fleet of 300 ships to join Waltheof. At the Humber an immense host gathered and swept up to York. This time the castle did not hold and the Norman garrison was massacred. The English axe-men made good their ancient and dreaded reputation. Waltheof played a prominent role “hewing their heads off one and one as they came out by the wicket” according to a contemporary ballad.

Like a bush fire revolt swept England. Castles were besieged in Wessex, the Ostmen raided again, and Eadric ‘the Wild’ attacked Shrewsbury. But once again William pacified the south, primarily by defeating Eadric at Stafford.

William’s wrath was reserved for the north. At the approach of his efficient military force, as so often the rebel army dissolved. Waltheof surrendered, others fled to safe havens. The 12th century chronicler Orderic Vitalis described what followed: “Never had William showed so great a cruelty. He gave way shamefully to this vice, and did not trouble to restrain his resentment, striking down innocent and guilty alike with an equal fury… In this manner all sources of life north of the Humber were destroyed.”

When the Doomesday Book was compiled in 1086, recording the agricultural wealth of England, the north was still a comparative wasteland.

When all seemed lost, out of the mists came a redeeming hero. Under a humble Lincolnshire thegn the English rallied for one last hurrah! Centred on the Fenland, this revolt was led by Hereward ‘the Wake’.

Hereward’s story has been handed down to us by 12th century minstrels whose ballads idolised him as the ideal Englishman. He must have possessed greatness to become the popular champion of the English cause. The Hereward legend, interwoven between fact and fable is also in many ways a pre-Christian memory of pagan Britain. Hereward’s celebrity status is evidenced by passing references to him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which seem to take for granted that the audience was familiar with his exploits and greatness.

Of his early years little is known. He was reputedly the illegitimate son of a powerful earl – and if so a relative of Edwin and Morcar. Outlawed for over-boisterous adolescent behaviour by his own father, Hereward adventured in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Flanders. Here he married Torfrida, a wise, strong-willed and beautiful woman who gave good fortune to Hereward. Hereward is described as a typical Teutonic warrior: agile, high spirited and resourceful. While in exile he gained a reputation for gallantry, guile and fearlessness. His sword – Brainbiter – was feared across northern Europe. Due to family quarrels with the House of Godwin, Hereward refused to serve under King Harold and stayed aloof from the fighting in 1066.

Hereward only returned to England when he learnt that the Normans had usurped the family estates in the area of Bourne in south Lincolnshire. When Hereward found that his brother’s head had been severed from its body and placed above to door to his hall, he took immediate revenge and by the next day his brother’s head was replaced with those of fourteen Normans. Scourging the Fenlands of his enemies, he made his base on the impregnable Isle of Ely and joined up with the bands of Danish raiders who concentrated in this area after the failure of king Svein’s northern attack. To deal with him, William appointed a new abbot to Peterborough called Turold. Norman clerics were little more than warlords and Turold was an extreme example.

William was closely allied to the Pope so he endeavoured to bring the semi-independent English church into line. The Normans imposed strict Christianity with all the passion usual to recent converts. Continental clergymen were imposed and English priests were often dismissed, religious treasures were stolen and old customs were abolished. Indeed in Glastonbury twenty one monks were shot down around their altar for protesting against these changes.

Hereward was determined that Peterborough’s treasures would not fall into French hands. Therefore before Turold could arrive the monastery was stripped bare. For this Hereward was excommunicated. Saxon patriots were unconcerned by this indignity and they flocked to Ely, including Bishop Aethelwine and Morcar. That Morcar was willing to serve under Hereward suggests that the tales giving Hereward noble lineage were probably true and also gives credence to the tradition that he was the son of Leofric of Mercia and Lady Godiva (yes that Lady Godiva, and thus uncle to Morcar).

William finally acted and in 1071 Ely was surrounded by a powerful Norman army, but all attempts to storm this last English bastion failed. The Normans tried to build wooden causeways across marshes but three times they were defeated. Fifty years afterwards chroniclers reported that Norman skeletons still wearing their chain mail were being dredged up from the marshes. Once Hereward entered the Norman camp disguised as a humble potter and overheard William’s plans. In desperation William even employed a witch to encourage his men. Finally a treacherous monk keen to curry favour led the Normans across a secret path and Ely fell.

Hereward was not taken. With a few followers he fought his way out and raised his standard anew at Bruneswald. For a few more months he defied William’s might. On one occasion his band attacked Stamford. Some say that while on the run he re-married. The years of hardship had blunted Torfrida’s beauty. Reputedly this was the cause of Hereward’s downfall, for without Torfrida’s advice success evaded him. Eventually Hereward bowed to the inevitable and accepted honourable peace terms.

In the stories Hereward is hot headed and noted for his quick temper. This was how he got banished as a youth. But he is a human and human heroes always have faults.

So ended the last serious challenge to William, although there were more ripples. In 1072 William invaded Scotland to compel Malcolm Canmore to end his support for Edgar. Malcolm was reluctant as he had married Edgar’s sister Margaret. In 1074 Edgar surrendered himself to William but Scotland continued to be a thorn in his side. As late as 1137 there was a plot to massacre all Normans and proclaim David I king of a united kingdom. David I was Malcolm and Margaret’s son and so a direct descendent of Alfred the Great. Indeed one factor that stands out is the underlying unity of the British Isles prior to 1066. The Saxon rebels were aided by the Irish, Welsh and Scots. The Norman Conquest divided these islands. When unity came it resulted from Norman aggression and this unfortunately left the false impression of English domination.

The Danes also possessed the potential to cause trouble for the Normans. Their last proper raid occurred in 1075, a watershed year between the Saxon revolts of the past and the Baronial wars of the future.

The trouble in 1075 was fermented by two ambitious Norman barons. They enticed Waltheof into their circle to gain popular support. Danish help also came. The revolt collapsed when Waltheof backed out, saying that there were no good songs sung about traitors. Waltheof had earlier submitted to William and was a man of his word. This contrasts with the Norman view, described by a contemporary chronicler as to “weigh treachery by its chance of success and change their sentiments for money”.

Although of good stock, the Normans were culturally divorced from their roots. Their culture was that of the Latin world. From being essentially a Nordic state, the Norman Conquest threw England’s and ultimately Britain’s destiny down a quite different path.

William was not impressed by Waltheof’s loyalty. While he lived he was a threat. In 1076, Waltheof was executed. This treacherous deed was done secretly, early in the morning to prevent rescue. To the superstitious, from this day on, William was unsuccessful in all his ventures.

Like the cult that grew around him, the noble Waltheof’s bloodline flourished. David I married his daughter and subsequently their heirs succeeded to the English throne.

It would be churlish to go into mourning over events which occurred so long ago and which have irrevocably altered our nation’s destiny. There is no space here to argue the pros and cons of the Norman Conquest. Suffice it to say the Normans had their strengths as was evident by their victory, dependant as it was on a degree of acquiescence. The Normans offered firm leadership, a factor drastically lacking among the Saxon rebels.

But what of Hereward? Some said he died fighting pirates. Others that he joined the Varangians or lived quietly to old age. Perhaps like Arthur he is awaiting his rebirth to save Britain in her greatest hour of need
Source: http://www.BritishPride.org/?p=189