Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 22 September 2017

Hereward returns

A piece I wrote recently for  The History Geeks, a popular Facebook history forum. The subject is Hereward the Wake, the English legendary hero of the 11th century, and a new project at his hometown of Bourne, Lincolnshire to restore his fame and name.


“Shall Hereward die like a wolf in a cave? Forward, all the Wake men! A Wake! A Wake!”

- Charles Kingsley, Hereward the Wake
Hereward was an 11th century English thegn, mercenary and outlaw, destined to live forever in legend as Hereward ‘the Wake’, a heroic leader of native resistance against William the Conqueror. Elements of his story inspired tales of similar medieval outlaw figures such as Fulk Fitzwarin, Eustace the Monk and of course Robin Hood, who replaced Hereward in the English popular imagination.   

In reality Hereward seems to have been a local thegn or landholder, holding various estates in Lincolnshire from the abbeys of Peterborough and Crowland. Two sources, the Gesta Herewardi and Historia Croylandis, claim Hereward was the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia, while the Victorian novelist tried to pass him off as the son of Leofric of Bourne and Lady Godiva (she of the famous nude ride through Coventry). However the historian Peter Rex has recently suggested that his father was really one Asketil, a local thegn of Danish descent. The details of Hereward’s tenancy, preserved in Domesday Book, suggest he was more than a mere man of the abbey. In contrast to lower-ranking thegns, whose rents were largely dependent on their ecclesiastical lords, Hereward negotiated his with the abbot. This might elevate Hereward to the status of a king’s thegn, one who attended upon the king in person and led troops in time of war.

Contemporary references to Hereward, sparse as they are, tend to support the legend. Domesday Book records that he ‘fled the country’ shortly after 1062, which accords with his first period of outlawry and exile in the tales. According to the Gesta Herewardi, one of the earliest versions of the legend, Hereward was shipwrecked off the coast of Guines and served for a time as a mercenary in Flanders. Remarkably, one ‘miles Herivvardi’ - ‘Hereward the soldier’ - appears on a charter at Cambrai, dated 1065. This is the only surviving instance of the name in the area from this time, and could well be a passing reference to the Englishman in exile. Shortly afterwards, the Gesta tells us, Hereward travelled to St Omer and there met Torfrida, who became his wife. Sadly, there are no certain references to Torfrida, though there is nothing unlikely about Hereward getting married.

The Gesta tells other stories of Hereward’s adventures in exile, some more plausible than others. He is said to have travelled to Cornwall and Ireland as well as Flanders, fought and slew an enormous bear, and rescued a Cornish princess from an unwanted marriage. In Flanders he supposedly joined an expedition against ‘Scaldemarilad’ (probably a series of islands in the Scheldt estuary); this tale may be consistent with the campaigns of Robert the Frisian on behalf of his father Baldwin, Count of Flanders, in the early 1060s. Again, there is nothing unlikely about a wandering exile and sword-for-hire taking military service with a local nobleman.

After 1066, and William of Normandy’s successful invasion of England, Hereward returned to his native land. The Gesta tells us he came home to discover his father’s lands had been taken over by the Normans, who had killed his brother and nailed the boy’s head over the doorway of the hall. Hereward went berserk, stormed into the hall and slaughtered every Norman he found inside. He then went to Peterborough Abbey, where he was knighted ‘in the English fashion’. He briefly returned to Flanders to cool his heels, before returning again to England in September 1067 to lead a revolt against the Normans.

A few of Hereward’s exploits against the Normans can be pieced together. The Gesta, the Liber Eliensis (another early version of his legend), and the Hyde or Warenne Chronicle record his killing one Frederick, brother-in-law to William de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey. Hereward is said to have ambushed Frederick in his house and killed him on the spot; it may be that Frederick was serving in the Norman army against the Ely rebels, and Hereward slew him in what could be termed a medieval commando raid. Thanks to this deed, a breach was opened between Hereward and de Warenne that nothing could mend. Hereward is also supposed to have shot an arrow at the earl himself, who was saved when the missile ricoheted off the nose-bar of his helmet.

By 1071 the Isle of Ely had become the last bastion of native resistance to the Conqueror. Hereward and his band, probably local men, chose to plunder Peterborough Abbey and take away the‘red gold’ stored there. This, they claimed, was to prevent the new Norman abbot from having the treasure, and use it to pay off Danish troops sent to help the English by Sweyn II, King of Denmark. The Danes promptly betrayed Hereward and sailed home with the gold; justice was done when a storm blew up at sea and sent their entire fleet to the bottom. Hereward’s failed effort to recruit Danish aid may hint at Danish ancestry, and perhaps his desire to see a King of Denmark on the English throne in place of William or the Godwinssons.

Eventually William himself came with an army to besiege Ely and build a fortress on the edges of the fens. Matthew Paris says the remains of this structure could still be seen in the early 13th century and was known as Hereward’s stronghold. At one point William is said to have procured the services of a witch to curse the defenders from the top of a wooden tower; this came to naught when Hereward set fire to the tower, witch and all. On another occasion William sent his army in a frontal attack on the isle, and an entire column of soldiers was drowned when their pontoon bridge overturned and tipped them into the black waters. It was said their skeletons were still being dredged from the fens sixty years later.

Whatever the truth of all these heroic tales, William had his way in the end. The isle was stormed, apparently after the monks of Crowland had betrayed their countrymen and showed the Normans a secret path to the rebel camp. Most of the defenders surrendered, to be imprisoned or mutilated, with the exception of Hereward: the Anglo-Saxon chronicle records that he refused to submit and ‘led his men out valiantly.’ His fate afterwards is a mystery. Some accounts claim he made his peace with William, like many others, and died of a peaceful old age. Others say he was betrayed and murdered by a band of Normans. By the time of Domesday Book in 1085, he was certainly no longer in Lincolnshire, for his lands were in possession of Ogier the Breton. It may be Hereward had died, or was murdered as the tales claim, or perhaps he joined the exodus of Englishmen who chose to leave Norman-ruled England and seek a new life in the East. According to the Historia Croylandis, he was buried at Crowland Abbey.

Happily, the Wake lives again. In recent times a local society has been formed, the Wake Hereward Project, devoted to restoring the memory of Lincolnshire’s great folk hero and inspiring further research into his life and times. For those interested in joining the quest, a link to the website and Twitter account can be seen below:


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

King's Knight reissue

One of my older stories from 2013, King's Knight, has just been reissued with slightly tweaked text, book and author information. The Kindle version is now available on Amazon.


In the last days of King Arthur's reign, the elderly Sir Kay recites the tale of his life before darkness falls. Hated by his fellow knights for his arrogance and bullying, Kay reveals the harsh truths behind Arthur's glorious reign. 

Kay is the most loyal of Arthur's followers. From the moment Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, through savage wars against rebel lords and invading barbarians, Kay has remained loyal to his foster-brother, and struggled to keep order among the Knights of the Round Table.

In this, the first of his tales, Kay describes the beginning of the war against the Saxons, his passionate love for a Northumbrian princess, and his adventures in the distant northern land of Thule, home to bloodthirsty warriors, insane witches and a monstrous man-eating cat…

Based on Welsh traditions as well as English and French versions of Arthurian legend, the King’s Knight stories are a fantastical version of the age-old story, told from the perspective of a complex and neglected character.





Sunday, 17 September 2017

Medraut review

A goody-good review for Leader of Battles (V): Medraut from Amazon:
'David Pilling`s books for me are sublime having read all his work, this series has a as much brilliance as Bernard Cornwall`s Arthur Trilogy and come highly recommended to fans of `Arthuriana` that respect legend, history and theorum, there is certainly much knowledge and respect of the period gone in here.
Having enjoyed the development of all the characters in the previous books, this is still able to be read as a stand alone if this is your first without backtracking too much.'

Thank you, HS Tibbs!