Hereward... the Fenland Robin Hood?

Stuart Orme

Stuart Orme

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Many readers will be familiar with the name Hereward. He’s been a shopping centre, a radio station and many businesses.

Although he was a real person, sorting fact from fiction is difficult. Some of his alleged exploits inspired early ballads about Robin Hood. Even his nickname Hereward ‘the Wake’ (‘wakeful’ or ‘watchful’) is most likely a later invention.

Hereward’s story has been passed down through the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (written at Peterborough Abbey, today the Cathedral) and a biography written 40 years after his death called the Gesta Herewardi.

Hereward was born about 1035 at Bourne in Lincolnshire. One unlikely story claims that his mother was Lady Godiva, famed for riding naked through Coventry. He was certainly part of a Saxon noble family.

Aged 18, Hereward was exiled from England by King Edward the Confessor for being a troublemaker – today he would be a candidate for an ASBO. He spent the next 15 years on the continent, employed as a mercenary, so was out of England at the time of the Norman invasion of 1066. This meant he avoided getting the chop with the rest of the Saxon aristocracy at the Battle of Hastings.

Hereward returned to England in 1069 and started a resistance movement against the Norman invaders, operating from the Fens. He used Ely as his base of operations, ideal as it was a remote island in the marshes, making it difficult to attack.

In 1070 Hereward’s uncle, Abbot Brand of Peterborough died and William the Conqueror appointed a Norman, Turold, to replace him. Hereward enlisted King Sweyn of Denmark and an army of Vikings to raid Peterborough, burning the town and looting the abbey’s treasures, ostensibly to stop them falling into the hands of the nasty Normans. The loot was shipped off to Denmark, apart from the holy relic of the arm of St Oswald which was recovered and returned to the abbey.

An archaeological dig this summer in the Cathedral precincts will hopefully uncover some of the abbey’s defences from the time of Hereward’s attack.

William the Conqueror, furious at Hereward’s behaviour, ordered a castle be built in Peterborough. He also sent an army to lay siege to Ely and bring Hereward to justice.

The Normans tried building a timber causeway to bridge the marshes, but it collapsed under the weight of men and armour on it. Legend has it that they then hired a witch to curse Hereward from a wooden tower, but he set fire to it. Eventually he was betrayed by a monk from Ely, who showed the Normans a secret path through the marshes.

Hereward then disappeared from the pages of history. Some say he escaped the Normans into exile; others that he was killed in the fighting. One story says that he made his peace with William and became one of his knights. And so Hereward passed into legend, romanticised in novels like that written by Barnack-born Charles Kingsley in 1865.

And, of course, he had a shopping centre named after him...