Friday Royal Read: Hereward by Peter Rex

The Norman Conquest did not end with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. There was an older vision of England that remained stubbornly persistent in the decade following the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey. During the reign of King Canute (1016-1035), England was part of a vast Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, ruled by the same monarch as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. There was an Anglo-Danish elite with a vested interest in the connections between Saxon England and Scandinavia rather than a new Norman regime. In Hereward, the late Peter Rex, author of William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, The English Resistance and Edward the Confessor reconstructs the life and rebellion of Hereward, who led the best known rebellion against William the Conqueror.

Source material for Hereward’s life beyond the revolt on the Isle of Ely in 1071 is fragmentary. The first line of the book is, “While it is not possible to produce a full biography of the Lincolnshire thegn called Hereward, the main threads of his career can be recovered, at least in outline.” Nevertheless, Rex reaches informed conclusions about who Hereward was and who he was not. There is no evidence that  the outlaw known as Hereward was the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the famous Lady Godiva and therefore a descendant of Alfred the Great. There is also no evidence that Hereward had surviving children despite unsubstantiated claims that the Wakes are descendants in the female line and the Harwoods are descendants in the male line.  Rex argues that that Hereward’s patrimony and lineage were inflated by early chroniclers and later novelists to make him seem a more worthy adversary for a King.

Instead, Hereward appears to have been from a comparatively modest gentry family, an Abbot’s nephew who spent time gaining military experience in Flanders before leading his rebellion. The most dramatic chapters of the book concern the rise and breakdown of Hereward’s insurrection. Hereward counted on Danish support to reverse the Norman Conquest and bring back the Anglo-Scandinavian world of his youth Instead, the Danes abandoned him and he held the Island of Ely with the support of northern Earls before a final defeat and flight from the Normans. The struggle between William and Hereward became personal as the outlaw came to personify the Saxon resistence that the Conqueror was determined to crush at all costs.

As a Harwood descendant, I was disappointed to learn from Hereward that I am probably not descended from Hereward “the Wake,” let alone Alfred the Great. There are many questions about William the Conqueror’s best known English adversary that will always remain unanswered. Rex provides the most complete and accurate account of Hereward’s life and rebellion to date and sheds light on a different path that English history could have taken. If the Danes had supported Hereward and his rebellion had been successful, Scandinavia might have shaped England’s political future and language. A lasting Norman Conquest was only one of many possible outcomes in the aftermath of 1066.

Next week: John Buchan: Model Governor General by J. William Galbraith

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