Hereward the Wake, Cambridgeshire
Hereward's story is part legend, part myth. That there was a Hereward who resisted the Normans after William took the English crown is not disputed, gaining the suffix 'the wake' to show he was always on the alert against his enemies. But the details of his life and campaigns are so wrapped in imaginative episodes that it is not possible to really know what is true, and what created by the oppressed English to build a saviour and hero figure to comfort them.
It is said that Hereward was born in the little town of Bourne in Lincolnshire , and that he was a rebellious and unruly youth, supposed in some versions of the tale to have been outlawed at the behest of his own father, and seeking safety and employment in Flanders under its king, Baldwin.
When the Normans seized England Saxon landholders were stripped of their estates, and Hereward's father was no exception. His brother resisted the loss, and was beheaded for his efforts. When Hereward returned to his father's former estate just after this, he slaughtered 14 Norman fighters personally, replacing his brother's severed head above the door to the manor house with theirs.
Although Hereward is an heroic figure, some of his exploits take major manipulation to make them worthy of a hero. He is said to have been involved in the sack of Peterborough Abbey with Danish help, for example.
The way Hereward lives in our collective imagination now is as a resistance fighter, hiding out in the fenlands that in his time were not only almost impassable marshes, but were heavily wooded too, making them ideal territory for what we would now call a guerrilla campaign. He cannot have been a mere annoyance either, for William himself had to lead a campaign against him. Hereward and his allies took refuge on the Isle of Ely, easily defended because of the very limited paths to it. The Norman army built a causeway over a mile long to try and take Ely , but it either sank into the mud, taking many fighters with it, or was burned by the crafty Hereward, those on it drowning, incinerated, or picked off with English arrows if they looked like escaping. Some versions of this period of his history have Hereward disguised as a common potter entering the Norman camp, and overhearing the plans to build a causeway. In the end the Normans are said to have bribed monks from the area who knew its secret ways, taking the island in a surprise attack, though Hereward and his band got away and took to fighting even deeper in the boggy fens.
Hereward's end is confused. In some tellings William made peace with him, and Hereward left to seek another life in France; in others he was betrayed by Norman knights with whom he was hunting, killing vast numbers of them until one managed to down him; and in another version of the betrayal his death came when a priest supposed to have been watching over the fighter gave him away to the Normans, who (naturally enough) after losing soldiers in droves eventually managed to kill Hereward.
At times Hereward's story blends into that of Robin Hood , another outlaw fighting for justice. Myth and legend, what is certain from Hereward's story is that he became a symbol of resistance to the brutal Norman regime, and the church which with all its senior Saxon figures replaced supported it.
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