Hereward the Wake

by Charles Kingsley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147

Hereward is the son of the powerful lord of Bourne, a Saxon nobleman of a family close to the throne. A high-spirited, rebellious youth, he is a source of constant worry to his mother, Lady Godiva. Hereward lacks a proper respect for the Church and its priests and lives a boisterous life with boon companions who give him their unquestioning loyalty.

One day, a friar comes to Lady Godiva and reveals that Hereward and his friends attacked him and robbed him of what the priest insists was money belonging to the Church. Lady Godiva is angry and hurt. When Hereward admits his crime to her, she says that there is no alternative but that he be declared a wake, or outlaw, for his own good. Upon Hereward’s promise not to harm his mother’s messenger—for Hereward really does not mind being outlawed, as he wishes to see more of the world—Lady Godiva sends Martin Lightfoot, a servant, to carry the news of Hereward’s deed to his father and to the king. Hereward is then declared an outlaw subject to imprisonment or death upon capture.

Before Hereward leaves his father’s house, he releases his friends from their oath of allegiance. Martin Lightfoot begs to be allowed to follow him, not as his servant but as his companion. Then Hereward sets out to live among the rude and barbarous Scottish tribes of the north. His first adventure occurs when he kills a huge bear that is threatening the life of Alftruda, ward of a knight named Gilbert of Ghent. He achieves much renown for this valorous deed. The knights of Gilbert’s household, however, are jealous of Hereward’s courage and his prowess, and they try to kill him. Although he escapes the snares laid for him, he decides that it would be best for him to leave Scotland.

He travels to Cornwall, where he is welcomed by the king. The king’s daughter is pledged to be married to a prince of Waterford, but a giant of the Cornish court has become so powerful that he has forced the king to agree to give his daughter in marriage to the giant. With the help of the princess and a friar, Hereward slays the giant, freeing the princess to marry the prince whom she loves.

After leaving Cornwall, Hereward and his companions are shipwrecked on the Flemish coast. Hereward stays there for a time in the service of Baldwin of Flanders and proves his valor by defeating the French in battle. Torfrida, a lady wrongly suspected of sorcery, schemes to win Hereward’s love, and they are wed after Hereward fights in a successful campaign against the Hollanders. A daughter is born of the marriage.

Meanwhile, King Edward has died, and Harold reigns in England. A messenger comes to Hereward with news that Duke William of Normandy has defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings and that King Harold has been killed. Hereward then decides to return to Bourne, his old home. There, accompanied by Martin Lightfoot, he finds the Norman raiders encamped. He finds too that his family has been despoiled of all its property and that his mother has been sent away. Without revealing their identities, he and Martin set about killing all the Normans in the area. Hereward swears that he will return with an army that will push the Norman invaders into the sea.

He goes to see his mother, who receives him happily. Lady Godiva accuses herself of having wronged her son and laments the day she proclaimed him an outlaw. Hereward takes her to a place of refuge in Croyland Abbey and then later goes to the monastery where his aged, infirm uncle, Abbot Brand, is spending his last days on earth. There Hereward is knighted by the monks, after the English fashion. He then goes secretly to Bourne and recruits a rebel army to fight against Duke William.

Although there are many men eager to fight the Normans, the English forces are disunited. Another king, an untried young man, has been proclaimed, but because of his youth he does not have the support of all the English factions. Hereward had been promised help from Denmark, but the Danish king sends a poor leader, and owing to his stupidity the Danes are easily defeated by the Normans at Dover and Norwich. Instead of coming to Hereward’s aid, the Danes then flee. Hereward is forced to confess the failure of his allies to his men, but they renew their pledge to him and promise to continue fighting. The situation seems hopeless when Hereward and his men take refuge on the island of Ely. With Torfrida’s wise advice, however, Hereward defeats Duke William’s attack on the beleaguered island. Hereward and his men retreat to another camp of refuge.

Shortly afterward, Torfrida learns that Hereward has been unfaithful to her with Alftruda, the ward of Gilbert of Ghent. She leaves Hereward and goes to Croyland Abbey, where she proposes to spend the last of her days ministering to the poor and to Hereward’s mother. Hereward goes to Duke William and submits to him. The conqueror declares that he has selected a husband for Hereward’s daughter. In order to free herself from Hereward, Torfrida falsely confesses that she is a sorceress, and her marriage to Hereward is annulled by the Church. Hereward then marries Alftruda and becomes lord of Bourne under Duke William. Hereward’s daughter, despite her entreaties, is married to a Norman knight.

Hereward, the last of the English, has many enemies among the French, who continually plot against him for the favor of Duke William. As a result, Hereward is imprisoned. The jailer is a good man who treats his noble prisoner as kindly as he can, although he is forced to keep Hereward in chains.

One day, while Hereward is being transported from one prison to another, he is rescued by his friends. Freed, he goes back to Alftruda at Bourne, but his life there is not a happy one. His enemies plot to kill him, and one day, taking advantage of the fact that his retainers are away escorting Alftruda on a journey, a group of Norman knights breaks into Bourne castle. Although Hereward fights valiantly, he is outnumbered. He is killed, and his head is exhibited in victory over the door of his own hall.

When she hears of his death, Torfrida comes from Croyland Abbey and demands Hereward’s body. All are so frightened, especially Alftruda, by Torfrida’s wild appearance and her reputation as a witch that Hereward’s first wife gets her way and the body is delivered to her. She carries it away to Croyland for burial. With Hereward, the last of the English, dead, William of Normandy becomes William the Conqueror and king of England.

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