Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

We’ll get to Hereward toward in the end. We need some background first, so let’s start at a key point in English history: 1066, host year for the Battle of Hastings. It cost less than London’s 2012 Olympics and had a more significant impact, even once you allow for the Olympics’ legacy of gentrification.

What happened? The Normans–descendants of the Vikings who’d settled in Normandy, which shared a name with them, however reluctantly–invaded and defeated the English king, and along with him all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. 

Anglo-Saxon England (which for our purposes, however illogically, includes the heavily Scandinavian parts of England; I want us to remember that they’re there) now had a new proto-king (he hadn’t been crowned yet), William, who hung around Hastings for a while, picking bits of eggshell off the beach where King Humpty had shattered while waiting for the English nobility to come bow before him.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: A red hot poker. Not an actual one, you understand. A flower called that.

So far, so familiar to anyone who read a history textbook as a kid–or at least one that covered British history. The ones in my school never got around to 1066. It all happened so long ago and on the other side of a big damn ocean. They figured they could skip it and devote more space to–.


I’ve forgotten what they gave the space to. Something memorable. But never mind. What I want to talk about is what happened next, which wasn’t the Domesday (pronounced Doomsday) Book–that inch by inch and cow by sheep record of everything William was now the king of–but a series of rebellions. Which you’re  not likely to hear about unless you get interested enough to do some reading on your own.

I’m working here largely from David Horspool’s The English Rebel, which opens with English resistance to the Norman conquest, and also from a small but unwieldy stack of other books on English and British history. That means we’ll go linkless today. It’s the blogger equivalent of dreaming you’re on the bus naked: No harm’s done but it is disturbing.

What Horspool argues is that the rebellions shaped the conquest. It’s an interesting way to think about it. The rebels didn’t manage to get rid of William, but that doesn’t mean they had no impact. Even if it wasn’t the impact they wanted.

The first rebellion came together before William got to the capital. Its plan was to put Edgar the Aetheling on the throne, edging William out. Planting yourself on the throne and going through the ceremonies of being crowned were nothing more than symbolism, but that didn’t make they any less powerful. People believed in them.

Edgar the Aeth was the nephew of Edward the Confessor (that’s the king whose death set this mess in motion). He hadn’t been considered as a successor because of his age. He was born in 1051 or thereabouts, making him fifteenish in 1066. Or in John O’Farrell’s version (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), he was thirteen. You noticed the “thereabouts” when I gave the year he was born, right?

Either way, he was young. On the other hand, it was strongly in his favor that he was still alive. And not a Norman.

The rebels gathered in London and waited for William. They included the archbishops and York and Canterbury; a couple of earls named Morcar and Edwin, and if that sounds like a BBC sitcom, it isn’t; “the citizens of London”; and a crowd of warriors so large that London couldn’t accommodate them.

Or so said a contemporary source, the Gesta Guillelmi. Detail and fussbudgetty stuff like accurate numbers weren’t the strong points of of medieval writers. Take it for what it’s worth. 

William encircled London and sat there till the rebels gave up and swore their loyalty to him. End of the first rebellion.

Two months after the Battle of Hastings, William was in firm enough control to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and he just happened to surround it with his men. In a break with tradition, the crowd inside was asked, in English and French, if they acknowledged his right to be king. Everyone shouted their approval (it wouldn’t have been wise not to), and the shouting convinced the men outside that a rebellion had broken out. They did the only reasonable thing they could think of and set fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Who wouldn’t?

The fire spread and pretty much everyone fled the ceremony except for the terrified handful of people who had to finish consecrating and crowning. William stayed–no ceremony, no kingship–but was said to be shaking badly. A contemporary chronicle cites the event as the reason the English never again trusted the Normans.

Let’s assume from this that William and his men had reason to be on edge. As they spread their rule across their new country, they built castles, which worked as pegs to hold down the tarp they’d spread over the land. When Will went back to Normandy in 1067, he took the primary former rebels with him to make sure they didn’t get up to anything while he was gone. 

Will’s initial strategy was to rule the north of England–which he hadn’t conquered yet–through English appointees, but they tried raising taxes for him and that set off rebellions. In Northumbria alone, two of Will’s English proxies were killed and one changed sides. 

End of strategy. 

In his first five years, rebellions broke out in Dover, Essex, Hereford, Nottingham, York, Peterborough, and Essex, and most of them had the Aetheling (it means prince) as their focus, although a few focused on Danish royals or Eustace of Boulogne. 

No, I never heard of him either. 

Interestingly enough, Will didn’t have the Aetheling killed. He seems to have been far more forgiving of rebels from the nobility than from the everybody-else class. Take the Edwin of Edwin and Morcar. After his first rebellion, he was given “authority over his brother and almost a third of England.” But he was also promised a marriage to Will’s daughter and it didn’t materialize, which led him and Morcar to rebel again.

Horspool argues that a lot of the rebellions were a result of private discontents rather than what he calls patriotic ones, by which (I think, and I could easily be wrong here) he means more widespread discontents that might have united the rebels. He figures that the lack of unity cost the rebels their fight. O’Farrell, on the other hand, argues that England was still a fragmented place, with divided loyalties, which would have made a united resistance impossible.

That leads me to say that I have no idea what Morcar’s motives might have been and that I don’t know if his involvement in the next rebellion was a case of a couple of earls rallying people to rise up or a couple of earls riding on an uprising they did nothing to create. When Ed and Morcar gave up, though, Will accepted back into the fold again.

Having given up on sending English proxies into the north, he sent a Norman into Northumbria. On his first night in Durham, he and his retinue (somewhere between 500 and 900 men, according to contemporary sources, but I’d treat the numbers with caution) were killed. Then the rebels besieged the castle at York and killed Norman who’d been put in charge of it, along with many of his men. 

This was the turning point. 

“Swift was the king’s coming; he fell on the besiegers and spared no man,” according to the English monk Orderic Vitalis. 

At this point, the Danish king sent his sons, with a fleet made up of Danes, English, Poles, Frisians, Saxons (the kind from Saxony, not the English kind), and Lithuanians. They worked their way up the eastern coastline, eventually joining forces with some of the rebel groups, but after some initial success they retreated when William showed up in person. 

Horspool attributes that to a fear of facing down an annointed king. Annointing was the ceremony in which the church gave its oil-based blessing to a king, and people took it seriously. A king wasn’t just a pawn who’d gotten to the far side of the board and said, “King me.” He was church-approved and -tested. That’s where he got his divine right.

On the other hand, kings had been overthrown before and had slaughtered each other cheerily. Why that should have been an issue now I don’t know.

I can’t help wondering if the rebels were simply refusing to meet William on his ground, but that’s speculation. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not like I have some hidden stash of information about this. 

Whatever the reason, they retreated, and when Will couldn’t find any Danes to fight in York, he lost it and “utterly laid waste and ravaged the shire,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He burned crops, killed livestock, destroyed villages and farms, and broke farm implements. Basically, he destroyed everything people needed to farm the land. Some sources reported that starvation drove people to cannibalism or to sell themselves into slavery just so they could eat. There was death on a massive scale. It was ten years before the north even began to recover.

It’s known as the harrying of the north.

And William again pardoned some of the leading rebels. You know–the ones with titles. 

That brings us to 1071, when Edwin and Morcar, the earls who never got a BBC sitcom named after them, joined a minor Anglo-Saxon noble (or gentleman in some versions), Hereward, in one of the last rebellions against Will. 

At roughly this same time, Will was reading through a printout of senior clergymen, crossing out the Anglo-Saxon names and penciling in Norman ones. It didn’t matter that printouts hadn’t been invented yet, or pencils: Will couldn’t read. You could hand him a piece of blank vellum and he’d get just as much out of it.

The point is that he sent a Norman to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough, and we can safely guess that the new abbot came expecting trouble, because he brought 160 of his closest friends with him, and all of them were armed. Presumably he brought a prayer or two, but maybe I’m falling for a stereotype there.

Before he got there, though, Hereward joined forces with the Danes to sack Peterborough Abbey (probably–contemporary sources are hazy, remember). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the rebels claimed they were doing out of loyalty to the minster, to deny it to the Normans.

Hereward used the fens–boggy, nearly impenetrable marshland–as his base and fought a guerrilla war. Then William paid off the Danes and they dropped out of the story, leaving Hereward on his own. He fought for over a year. 

Will eventually bribed some monks to betray (according to O’Farrell’s version of the tale) the route through the fens to Hereward’s stronghold, leaving us with one defeat and conflicting versions of what happened to Edwin and Morcar, although all the versions end with one betrayed and killed by his men and the other imprisoned for the rest of this life. 

Hereward disappeared, as any good legend should. Get slaughtered and you can become a saint. Disappear and you get a shot at legendhood.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says next to nothing about Hereward’s rebellion and doesn’t mention him by name at all. We could argue about how significant the rebellion was or wasn’t, but let’s not. We weren’t there. We can agree (see how neatly I slip you the opinion you’re supposed to take?) that it took on importance as legend–the bold Anglo-Saxon holdouts, using the land itself as a weapon against the invaders.

Hereward became known as the Wake only later, in one version because a family of that name wanted to claim him as an ancestor and in another version because it means the watchful

Hereward wasn’t, in Horspool’s telling, William’s most powerful opponent, but his legend is the one that took hold, and it cycles through English literature from the twelfth century on. He wrestles bears. He sacks abbeys. (Okay, one abbey, and hey, we all have our faults.) He disappears instead of dying. He doesn’t have a happy ending, but he has a habit of embodying whatever qualities the country wants to believe in at the moment.

Horspool’s interpretation of all those rebellions is that they broke any trust Will might have put put in the existing English aristocracy, leaving him no choice but to replace them with Normans. He doesn’t explain–or ask, if the information that’s available doesn’t allow for an answer–what drove this cycle of rebellion, so I’ll raise the question. When you get a pattern like this, selfish motives and bad temper don’t cut it as an explanation. Something was going on that didn’t allow everyone to settle down, plow the land, gather the rents, and do whatever it was people had been doing  before William landed. Because most people, given the chance to stay home and do what they’re used to, will do that.

Horspool considers it a legend that pre-Norman England was a land of freedom, but that belief fueled many a rebellion in the coming centuries. The shorthand for it is “the Norman yoke,” and if he’s not impressed with it as fact, he does pay tribute to its power as legend. 

The other historians in my small stack of books are more convinced. Women were freer, they say. Local courts were made up of small landowners, creating a grass-roots kind of justice. You didn’t end up bringing a dispute with the local lord to that same local lord, hoping for justice, as people would have had to under the Normans if they’d been silly enough to try.

On the Horspool side of the scales, however, the Anglo-Saxons did have slavery, and tenant farmers don’t sound, at least as I read it, like they were entirely free. Compared to the feudalism the Normans imposed, though, it might have looked like heaven, and not just to those who were higher up the social ladder. 


My thanks to John Russell for suggesting Hereward as a topic. Sorry I went on so long. I couldn’t find a place to split it in two.

86 thoughts on “Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

  1. Thanks for the history. It includes information I had never seem before. It is hard to fake over a country, the people running it were happy running it. The story I was used to had it that William immediately stole – acquired – all the land and installed his supporters as lords and new owners, to whom everyone owed rent, loyalty and obedience. That type behavior could cause bad feelings and revolt.
    The English just did not have a good process of change/transition of power, especially when the king died without a son ready to take his place. Cousins and sometimes brothers tended to disagree on sho would be the next king, and find supporters willing to fight for them in exchange for promises if titles and land.

    We are much more civilized now, in some countries, but not world wide. Some still settle transfers of power with automatic weapons and bombs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The way Anglo-Saxons chose their king is–and this is based on a minute or two’s reading–a bit hazy. For the most part, the crown went to the eldest son, but a council of the country’s nobles etc.did / may have elected the king from the extended royal family. The strength of that system is that you don’t necessarily get saddled with a complete incompetent–or at least if you do, you chose him. The weakness is that it opens the country up to fighting over who gets the goodies. Both systems can be disastrous.

      Liked by 4 people

      • THanks for a very entertaining bit of history there! Made me go look up Edgar the Aetheling — very interesting man, finger in lots of pies it seems.

        According to my Husband (who studied the Anglo-saxons and Normans at university), the term aetheling apperently isn’t just a prince, but meant a contender for the throne. William was possbly an aetheling too, due to his cousinship to Edward the Confessor — which may well be a reason why resistance to William was patchy. That and the example of the harrying (or harrowing) of the north. :)

        Liked by 1 person

        • That strikes me as a better translation, and one that goes deeper into the way kings were selected. I’d seen aeth translated as noble (no idea where I found that) and felt like I was short-changing the whole issue, but it was late and I let it go, grabbing onto a translation that was–or sounded–clear. Thanks.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I’m flattered. And I hope it engages them. As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up around books about what was then recent history (oddly enough, it’s now much less recent), and they presented it in ways that held my interest. My school history books were deadly, but the ones at home rescued history for me.

      Liked by 3 people

        • Thanks so much for letting me know that. How old are they and do they have any requests about things they’d like to read about? I can’t promise to follow up on them–some posts that I start just don’t work out–but I’m always open for suggestions.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s my two eldest boys (almost 14 and 12) who are studying their history – they are absolutely thrilled to read your comment and are giving it lots of thought – I’ll get back to you ASAP 😃 How kind of you to offer, thank you very much.

            Very much understand re posts … it often happens to me. And then the photos that were just snapped out of a moving car window tend to end up getting used more than the ones I laboured over setting up! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • As long as they understand that I can’t promise results on this, only an effort, then we’re good. And I do understand about the photos. In your blog, it’s important that they have some connection to the subject. Mine, though? After the first one or two posts, I gave up and started posting anything that struck me as photographable. It made my life so much easier.

              Liked by 1 person

              • My boys say they understand completely – and have asked me to forward the following 🙂

                My eldest says he likes the Great Fire of London, and anything to do with the events around 1066 (we took him up to the beaches where Harold Hadrada landed as a treat). And how Henry VII worked to bring warring sides together. ⚔️

                My 12year old likes Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars – as well as the stories of King Alfred and the Saxons. 👑

                Liked by 1 person

  2. For anyone who likes Historical Fiction there’s a great series of books starring Hereward, the author is James Wilde, which covers all the history you’ve mentioned here, plus what I presume is speculation as to where he went after he disappeared. They’re well written and I’m surprised they haven’t done a TV series à la Cornwell’s Last Kingdom. The last one I’ve yet to read so thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think the feeling was that they needed a king who was old enough to hold his own from his first day on the job, even before he’d figured out what time everyone took a coffee break and where the extra paper was stored. Having him in place for a long time was a bonus, but not the deciding factor. So a young kid–and even then, a fifteen-year-old was a fifteen-year-old? Not a great gamble.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As luck would have it, I was listening to What’s Become of the Brokenhearted? when I finished your piece today and felt it strangely appropriate for this comprehensive account of William the Conqueror and how tough it was to be a Conqueror, or did I skip something here?
    Regardless, you made me laugh out loud at your definition of “linkless” for bloggers. Now I’m scared linkless.
    Thanks so much for the Enlightenment. Have a fun-filled weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect I’m a little too out there to get past the school censors. Oops, sorry, they’re not called that, but you know what I mean. The filtration systems they have to keep anything unwholesome (or interesting) from polluting the kids’ minds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sadly this is true. When I worked with youth at risk and taught them life skills, one young man said, “Thanks for actually teaching me something for the first time in my life.” I didn’t teach them anything new but I made it interesting and fun.

        Liked by 1 person

        • What an amazing, touching, heartbreaking comment. And what a compliment. How is it that universal education–that wondrous goal of so many smart, uneducated or self-educated working people–has been turned into something that so resolutely makes education unappealing or inaccessible to so many kids?

          Liked by 2 people

          • Heartbreaking to be sure. I think it is because it tends to be a cookie-cutter education and only works for some, and definitely not for the creative mind. Education cannot be one size fits all. A clever teacher, and there are some out there, will pick up on that and tailor the class to include all types of learners. My grade three teacher was like that and made learning fun. We all did well in her class.

            Liked by 2 people

            • My hunch is that the more they standardize education (in the name of making it excellent for everyone) the more good, creative teachers they drive out, because they can’t work in a cookie-cutter system, and so the less it works for anyone. Even the kids who do well in it are failed by it because it doesn’t expose them to the joy and excitement that they could find in learning.

              Hmm, I’m not being even remotely funny about this. It infuriates me.

              Liked by 2 people

              • We are on the same page about this and there is nothing funny about it. Robin Williams once said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” For a funny man, he was being very serious.

                Liked by 1 person

    • I’m starting to realize that the events that take on huge significance after the fact, and become powerful because of their ability to inspire, frighten, instruct, etc, aren’t necessarily the ones that were most significant at the time. History’s a funny old thing, and much more malleable than I thought when I was younger and took it at face value. Which is leading up to saying that it’s all about what captures your imagination. Hereward had a heavy presence in English fiction, and I wonder if that wasn’t what influenced him.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I always enjoy your history posts. I feel like all we ever learned about England was that things were so bad people moved to the US and set up equally bad systems of church / government and named every city “new” plus some English city. If they were brazen, they just left the “new” off and maybe just spelled the name wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed reading this, Ellen. It delves much further into the history around the Battle of Hastings than I have before. I didn’t realise that things were quite as unstable as all that, and I was amazed to read the account of William’s coronation. Thank you for sharing with the Hearth and Sol Link Party.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thank you for everything you do to keep the link party going.

      I think in hindsight everything that happened can look inevitable. It’s good to remember how easily things could have turned out differently.


    • Are they? I’ve never been to the area, but I thought they’d been at least partially drained. Although the fields in Cornwall are pretty boggy themselves right now. It’s been one wet winter.


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