Hereward the Wake

From Academic Kids

Hereward the Wake was an 11th century leader in England who led resistance to the Norman Conquest and was consequently labelled an outlaw. He may have been British, or Danish, or Anglo-Danish. According to legend, Hereward's base was the Isle of Ely and he roamed the surrounding fenlands of what is now Lincolnshire, leading popular opposition to William the Conqueror. The title the Wake was popularly assigned to him many years after his death and means the watchfull.



Due to the very sketchy evidence for his existence, his life has became a magnet for speculators and amateur scholars.

It is traditionally believed that he was be the son of an Anglo Saxon lord, Earl Leofric, and that the place he was born and grew up was in or near Bourne in Lincolnshire.

It is claimed that he was a tenant of Peterborough Abbey, from which he held lands in the parishes of Witham-on-the-Hill and Barholme with Stow in the south-western corner of Lincolnshire, and of Crowland Abbey near Rippingale in the neighbouring fenland. Since holdings of Abbeys could be widely dispersed across parishes (or even in adjacent parishes), the precise location of his personal holdings are uncertain, but were certainly somewhere in south-Lincolnshire. Some modern research suggests him to have been Anglo-Danish with a Danish father, Asketil. Whatever his lineage, his fight was part of the strategic regional struggle between the Danes and Normans for control of the eastern parts of England.

It is thought that he had already rebelled under Edward the Confessor, who he saw as already aligning England with the Normans, and been declared an outlaw as a result. It has been suggested that, at the time of the Norman invasion of England, he was in exile in Europe working as a successful mercenary for the Count of Flanders. He then returned to England to assert the Anglo Danish vision of its future.

In 1069 or 1070 the Danish king Swein Estrithson sent a small army to try to establish a camp on the Isle of Ely. They were joined by many, including Hereward.

His first authentic act was to storm and sack Peterborough Abbey in 1070, in company with local men and Swein's Danes. His justification appears to have been that he wished to save the Abbey's treasures and relics from the Normans. The next year he and many others made a desperate stand against the Conqueror's rule on the isle of Ely. Some say that the Normans made a full-frontal assault, aided by a huge mile-long timber causeway they built. But that this sank under the weight of armour and horses. It seems then that the priests of the island were bribed by the Normans, probably led by one of William's knights named Belasius (Belsar). Betrayal thus revealed a safe route across the marshes, resulting in Ely's capture. Hereward escaped with some of his followers into the wild fenland. It seems he continued his resistance.

The 15th century chronicle, Gesta Herewardi, by Ingulf of Croyland, says Hereward was eventually pardoned by William.

Tales and songs based on Hereward

Some of the legends about Hereward were incorporated into later legends about Robin Hood.

Charles Kingsley's novel of 1865 is a highly-romanticised account of Hereward's exploits, and makes him the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia.

Jack Trevor Story wrote a long dramatised life of Hereward for one of Tom Boardman boy's annuals.

There was a 16-episode TV series made in 1965, titled Hereward the Wake.

Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A novel of Hereward the Wake (2004) is novel by Laurence J Brown.

An Endless Exile (2004), by Mary Lancaster, is a historical novel based on Hereward's life.

The rock band Pink Floyd referred to Hereward in the track "Let There Be More Light" (1968); in which a psychedelic vision of Mildenhall reveals 'The living soul of Hereward the Wake'. He also appears in the lyrics of the 1968 track Darkness by Van der Graaf Generator. He is also the subject of the track "Rebel of the Marshlands" by rock band Forefather, on their 2005 album Ours is the Kingdom.

The Wakes of Bourne

There is a British family with the surname of Wake in which the baronetcy (hereditary knighthood) is passed from generation to generation. The family of Wake held Bourne Abbey in the 13th century. First-in-line to the baronetcy is traditionally called Hereward and is therefore known as Sir Hereward Wake. It is possible that the Wake family may have created a spurious connection to Hereward the Wake, in order to retain claim to his lands, but this cannot now be known.

The Hereward Way

There is a long-distance footpath through the Cambridgeshire fenland, called the The Hereward Way from Peterborough to Ely.


  • Hereward: The Last Englishman, by Peter Rex, Publisher: Tempus Books, ISBN 0752433180 , (2005)

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