History of Europe

Hereward "The Wake", precursor to Robin Hood

Entry taken from the book The Plantagenets

The story of Robin Hood and his Saxon archers harassing the dominant Norman forces of John Landless and the Sheriff of Nottingham from Sherwood Forest has been the subject of repeated attention by literature and cinema and is well known. Also in the background of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe character is the struggle between Saxons and Normans in late 12th century England. What is less well known, however, is the opposition that other Saxons held against Norman rule for more than a century before the events narrated in the legend of Robin Hood and in the novel by Walter Scott.

In another blog article we have talked about the year in which England was able to change its history in a few days between Saxons, Norwegians and Normans (see the article about the year 1066). At the end of that convulsive year, the Normans ended up imposing their law and the Duke of Normandy William The Conqueror he became the first Norman king of England.

However, after William defeated the Saxon King Harold at Hastings and was crowned King of England at Westminster, not the whole country accepted this fact peacefully and William had to impose himself by forces various groups of Saxon rebels, so it took him several years to consolidate his hold on the newly conquered kingdom.

The resistance was especially strong in the north of the country, where the presence and influence of the Danes was still very much in force. So much so, that Guillermo undertook a brutal campaign to subdue the rebel northern territories; this campaign is known as "The harrowing of the North" and in it El Conquistador he had no mercy either with the population (it is estimated that about 100,000 people were killed by the Normans), neither with the cattle nor with the crops (he ravaged all the fertile land that was put within his reach). The impact of this terrible campaign lives on in the memory of the English; even the contemporary sources I have consulted bitterly lament William's cruelty, accusing him of behaving more like an invading warlord than an English monarch crowned at Westminster.

Among the Saxons who refused to accept William's rule, the figure of Hereward "The Wake" stands out in English popular culture. Hereward was the son of a Saxon nobleman who was killed along with his brother by the Normans. After avenging the death of his relatives, Hereward became an outlaw and had to flee from his family estates.

He and his men took refuge in the densely forested marshes near Ely. Like Sherwood Forest, Hereward Men (curiously known as Woodmen) took refuge in a terrain that was difficult to access and that it was necessary to know like the back of your hand; In this way, hidden in the thickest of the wooded and swampy lands of Ely, they avoided the harassment of William's Norman troops.

This group of outlaws, joined by some Danes (Hereward had Danish ancestors), dedicated themselves to attacking and raiding parties of Norman soldiers patrolling the area. The most famous of their escapades led them to raid Peterborough Abbey in order to save its treasures from Norman plunder.

Finally, and apparently with the intervention of the monks of Ely who showed the Normans a secret way to reach Hereward's camp, Hereward and his men were evicted from said camp and Hereward had to flee out of England. Apparently, years later he obtained the royal pardon and recovered his properties, since they appear in his name in the land count carried out by William and known as "The Doomsday Book". This herculean task of documentation of owners, land and assets of the kingdom carried out by the Normans is worth narrating, but it will have to wait for another blog entry.

There were other Saxons such as Gytha, mother of King Harold defeated at Hastings, or Waltheof, Lord of Northumbria, who also opposed the Norman domination militarily, but it was Hereward who passed into the English imaginary as a hero of the Saxon resistance against the Norman invasion, to the point that some of the traits attributed to Robin Hood are considered to correspond to Hereward.

I became aware of the Hereward figure in David Starkey's "Monarchy" DVD series already discussed on this blog. Peter Ackroyd's also discussed "History of England" briefly refers to Hereward and the Saxon rebellions against William, especially "The harrowing of the North". There is also a series of novels about Hereward "The Wake" by James Wilde that I have yet to read.

Image| Hereward The Wake