Hereward the Wake: The Story of a Real Life Robin Hood
Explore the little-known tale of Hereward the Wake, the unsung hero behind the Robin Hood legend.
There are few characters as iconic as the English bandit and hero Robin Hood. A fixture in English literature and popular culture dating back to the fifteenth century, he has received countless adaptations on the silver screen. First depicted on screen in Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling Robin Hood (1922), the litany of leading men (Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, Russel Crowe, and Taron Edgerton to name a few) who have donned his signature green tights speaks to the enduring influence of his legend. The story of a noble but mischievous outlaw, hiding in the forests of England and defying authority with charm and bravado, continues to delight audiences.
While the tale of Robin Hood has evolved considerably over the centuries, few people realize that this mythos was inspired by a real life outlaw who vexed the king of England in the eleventh century at a critical point in English history. This article will discuss the life and misadventures of the real-life Robin Hood known as Hereward the “Wake” and consider how his story affected the tales of the green-clad vigilante.
As in many versions of the Robin Hood legend, Hereward was a nobleman who abruptly lost his land and status when the English government christened him an outlaw at a young age. He went on to have a range of adventures abroad, serving as a mercenary in Ireland and Flanders, before returning to England to take back his land through open rebellion. The story of his life, filled with tales of daring do and dramatic reversals of fortune, survives in a number of sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and has direct parallels to Robin Hood’s legend. Hereward is deemed an outlaw, rebels against authority, acquires a band of loyal followers, uses trickery and deception to outfox his enemies, fights a kind of guerilla war using the natural landscape, and is ultimately reconciled to the king. While not as well-known as the hero he inspired, Hereward’s story provided a model for the charismatic bandit and speaks to the social tensions erupting in England during his own life.
Hereward lived during a particularly chaotic time in English history, and his story provides insight into a period of substantial political and social unrest. Born at some point in the mid-eleventh century, Hereward experienced some of the country’s most dramatic upheavals. In 1016, decades of viking raiding culminated in the conquest of England by the Danish prince Cnut (d. 1035), who ousted the previous king to take control of the kingdom. Cnut, sometimes called “the Great,” began a twenty-five year period of Norse rule over the English people which ended only when his son died childless and passed the throne back to the English prince Edward. King Edward the Confessor (d. 1066), although recognized as a saint for his piety, was a somewhat lackluster ruler in practice.
When Edward also died without an heir, he caused yet another succession crisis which culminated with the Norman Conquest of England. Defeating the other would-be kings Harold Godwinson (d. 1066) and Harold Hardrada (d. 1066), William the duke of Normandy (d. 1087) dramatically crossed the English Channel in 1066 and established himself as the new king of England and changed the history of the country forever. These two conquests caused major shakeups in the political, social, and economic conditions of England when the English acquired new Norman overlords. These political calamities serve as the backdrop to Hereward’s story, as foreign powers swept into England and radically affected the lives of its people.
This context is necessary to understand how Hereward’s rebellion against William the Conqueror fits into the larger tensions between the English and Normans during this period. The earliest account of Hereward’s life, which will be the focus of this article, is the Latin Gesta Herewardi (The Deeds of Hereward). Although some aspects of the story seem to be fantastical flourishes invented by the anonymous author, Hereward does battle with a bear with a man’s face and receives guidance from a ghostly wolf, much of his tale can be corroborated. The Gesta implicates Hereward in a number of major events from the period: helping the monastery of Ely fight against King William’s and sacking the abbey of Peterborough. Not only did both of these events happen, but medieval chronicles like the Liber Eliensis and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explicitly mention Hereward’s involvement.
Modern historians like Paul Dalton have noted that the Gesta makes frequent reference to real-life individuals who fought with Hereward, and the author of the text goes out of his way to note that he interviewed soldiers who served under him! Historians like Hugh Thomas have used Hereward’s story as evidence of the considerable tensions that existed between the Norman rulers and the English inhabitants of England at this time. Throughout the narrative, Hereward proves the valor of the English people by soundly defeating their Norman nobility. While these precise tensions are not at play in Robin Hood’s legend, many accounts place it during the rule of King John (d. 1216), a period of similar unrest that culminated with a revolt against the king and the creation of the Magna Carta.
Like Robin Hood, Hereward rebelled due to wrongs committed against him and his family. Hereward spends his wayward youth fighting as a mercenary abroad before returning home to the homeland that had rejected him. Coming back to his family lands in Bourne after the Norman Conquest, he discovers that the Normans have brutally murdered his younger brother and stolen the family’s property. Enraged, he sneaks into the Norman encampment at night and massacres their warriors in revenge. This serves as the catalyst for his future rebellions against the king, leading him to gather a group of outcasts and misfits to fight alongside him, as “his force [was] growing larger with fugitives, the condemned and disinherited.”
Hereward’s personal motivations mirror the setbacks which force Robin Hood to engage in vigilantism in some versions of his story. Returning home from the crusades to find his lands and home taken by King John’s cruel taxes, Robin likewise gathers his merry men to resist such tyranny. Both gather a delightful and outlandish cast of characters: Robin has Little John and Will Scarlet while Hereward has “Wulfric the Black,” and “Leofwine Mowe… ‘The Sickle’.” Intriguingly, the outlaws each also keep a religious official on-hand, Robin Hood having his Friar Tuck and Hereward keeping a priest named Hugo. This may be because both men adhere to a code of morality that they employ despite their thievery and vigilantism. By maintaining a certain honor and dignity even as they wage open rebellions, they are shown to be both proud warriors and lovable tricksters whom the audience can admire.
The Gesta Herewardi depicts its hero as a master of disguise, and the Robin Hood mythos adopted this skill as a defining feature for the hero of Sherwood. Robin most famously disguised himself as a potter in the story Robin Hood and the Potter to befuddle his enemies and engage in the archery contest that is frequently depicted in his story. This iconic act of trickery is a perfect encapsulation of Robin as a hero: a daring figure who defies authority and uses his wits and skill to overcome it.
This was likely inspired by two stories of similar deception from Hereward’s life. The first occurs during Hereward’s adventures in Ireland, while serving the King of Ireland’s son. The prince’s betrothed is forced into a marriage with one of his enemies, and he tasks Hereward with sneaking into the wedding to retrieve her. Dyeing his hair to disguise his appearance, Hereward arrives at the wedding as a guest. After delighting the other attendees and the bride and groom with his harp playing, Hereward stages a daring escape, defeats the prince’s enemies, and recovers his bride for him.
Later on in the story, Hereward conceals himself again to perform reconnaissance on his Norman enemies. Getting hold of a donkey and some pots, he plays himself off as an English potter and sells the illusion by speaking only in Old English. This marked him out as low status to the Normans, who were using Latin or Old French.
Remnants of this class distinction still remain in modern English, as Tibor Örsi observes in his work on our modern words for livestock and meat. Modern words for many animals, such as “cow” and “pig,” derive from the Old English used by those who worked with these beasts. The names for their meat, such as beef and pork, derive from the Old French used by Norman nobles who enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
Buying Hereward’s disguise as a country bumpkin, the Norman nobles leak information about their plans and allow him into the king’s household. His disguise is so convincing that many of the servants remark that he looks like the rebel Hereward but dismiss it as an odd curiosity. Although he is eventually discovered, Hereward escapes capture and returns to his men by disguising himself yet again as a fisherman! Both Hereward and Robin Hood therefore use cleverness and guile to overcome their opponents as they fight a rebellion from the fringes of society.
The two heroes found success by fighting out of wooded landscapes to overcome superior numbers. Robin Hood of course is most famous for residing in the wooded region of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, where he troubles the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham with his antics. The forests are a kind of natural hideout and fortification for Robin and his merry men, and this likely took inspiration from Hereward’s own use of natural defenses.
In his case, this was the region of marshes and swamps known as the Fens in the east of England, particularly the island of Ely. Ely was home to a monastery whose monks ask the rebelling Hereward to come and help them defend themselves from King William and his armies. The monks fear that the king will place a Norman abbot in charge of the monastery and force them to change their long-held religious customs. Hereward accepts this task and leads his men to the island, which the Gesta’s author describes as “well-fortified by waters and swamp, much stronger than any castle.” King William and his followers never successfully manage to penetrate the island’s natural defenses, although their efforts grow increasingly comical over the course of the story.
As the king’s armies struggle to take Ely, they employ two bizarre strategies to defeat Hereward’s rebels. First, they attempt to reach the island through inventive engineering: building a bridge over the water held up by inflated animal skins. This ultimately fails as the combined weight of the army and their siege engines cause it to sink into the swamp and stop the invaders in their tracks.
Having tried this, the king is then convinced by the lord Ivo de Taillebois to resort to more supernatural tactics, using a witch who promises to be able to defeat Ely’s defenders with her magic. While the armies stage an assault on the rebels’ defenses, she mounts a scaffolding and begins to hurl insults and curses at the enemies and “at the end of her chattering and incantations she bared her arse at them.” Surprisingly, this mooning had no effect on the defenders, and a change in the wind causes a fire to break out near the king’s camp. The army scatters and the witch slips from her perch and dies from the fall.
In the end, it is the monks of Ely who bring the king’s armies to their shores when they make a treaty with him behind Hereward’s back. Betrayed, Hereward flees and takes his armies to the forest of Brunneswold, a more direct parallel for Sherwood, and hides out there for some time. The Robin Hood legend thus play on Hereward’s superior tactics and use of the natural world to overcome his royal adversaries.
All stories must eventually come to an end, and both Hereward and Robin Hood conclude their tales with royal reconciliations and, sometimes, tragic deaths. In many versions of the Robin Hood story, such as the Middle English Gest of Robyn Hode, the hero is welcomed into royal favor after a chance meeting with the king. While he eventually returns to the woods and his vagabond lifestyle, his return to royal favor provides him with a degree of legitimacy for the audience. Years later, he meets his end when he entrusts his location to a prioress who betrays him to one of his enemies and has him killed.
This is likely inspired by two versions of Hereward’s story, which record very different ends for the outlaw. The Gesta describes how he receives William’s forgiveness and is given his lands and titles back even after his years of rebellion. Although the king welcomes him into the fold, other members of his court are not quite so gracious. As a result, other versions of Hereward’s story relate a betrayal similar to Robin’s. Geffrei Gaimar’s Old French Estoire des Engleis tells a bleaker tale for example, relating that Hereward was ambushed by his enemies and brutally decapitated. While we have no idea which of these two stories is true, both made an impact upon the Robin Hood legend and inspired how the more famous hero met his end in various tales.
While Hereward inspired one of the world’s most famous heroes, his own story fell out of prominence over the centuries. It was only in the nineteenth century that he returned to some degree of renown with Charles Kingsley’s novel Hereward the Wake, the Last of the English. Since then, historians have reappraised both the historical veracity of Hereward’s story and the important role he played in shaping the Robin Hood legend. The legacy of this proud outlaw, using trickery and bravado to overcome his enemies from the safety of his wooded stronghold, looms large nearly a thousand years after his death. This real-life rebel provided shape to a narrative that remains fixed in our culture, inspiring us to root for clever underdogs who triumph over impossible odds and leave their mark upon the world.