Hereward, the Last of the English (Hereward the Wake), by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 25.

How Hereward Found a Wiser Man in England than Himself.

There have been certain men so great, that he who describes them in words, much more pretends to analyze their inmost feelings, must be a very great man himself, or incur the accusation of presumption. And such a great man was William of Normandy — one of those unfathomable master-personages who must not be rashly dragged on any stage. The genius of a Bulwer, in attempting to draw him, took care, with a wise modesty, not to draw him in too much detail — to confess always that there was much beneath and behind in William’s character which none, even of his contemporaries, could guess. And still more modest than Bulwer is this chronicler bound to be.

But one may fancy, for once in a way, what William’s thoughts were, when they brought him the evil news of York. For we know what his acts were; and he acted up to his thoughts.

Hunting he was, they say, in the forest of Dean, when first he heard that all England, north of the Watling Street, had broken loose, and that he was king of only half the isle.

Did he — as when, hunting in the forest of Rouen, he got the news of Harold’s coronation — play with his bow, stringing and unstringing it nervously, till he had made up his mighty mind? Then did he go home to his lodge, and there spread on the rough oak board a parchment map of England, which no child would deign to learn from now, but was then good enough to guide armies to victory, because the eyes of a great general looked upon it?

As he pored over the map, by the light of bog-deal torch or rush candle, what would he see upon it?

Three separate blazes of insurrection, from northwest to east, along the Watling Street.

At Chester, Edric, “the wild Thane,” who, according to Domesday-book, had lost vast lands in Shropshire; Algitha, Harold’s widow, and Blethwallon and all his Welsh — “the white mantles,” swarming along Chester streets, not as usually, to tear and ravage like the wild-cats of their own rocks, but fast friends by blood of Algitha, once their queen on Penmaenmawr. 30 Edwin, the young Earl, Algitha’s brother, Hereward’s nephew — he must be with them too, if he were a man.

30 See the admirable description of the tragedy of Penmaenmawr, in Bulwer’s ‘Harold.’

Eastward, round Stafford, and the centre of Mercia, another blaze of furious English valor. Morcar, Edwin’s brother, must be there, as their Earl, if he too was a man.

Then in the fens and Kesteven. What meant this news, that Hereward of St. Omer was come again, and an army with him? That he was levying war on all Frenchmen, in the name of Sweyn, King of Denmark and of England? He is an outlaw, a desperado, a boastful swash-buckler, thought William, it may be, to himself. He found out, in after years, that he had mistaken his man.

And north, at York, in the rear of those three insurrections lay Gospatrick, Waltheof, and Marlesweyn, with the Northumbrian host. Durham was lost, and Comyn burnt therein. But York, so boasted William Malet, could hold out for a year. He should not need to hold out for so long.

And last, and worst of all, hung on the eastern coast the mighty fleet of Sweyn, who claimed England as his of right. The foe whom he had part feared ever since he set foot on English soil, a collision with whom had been inevitable all along, was come at last; but where would he strike his blow?

William knew, it may be, that the Danes had been defeated at Norwich; he knew, doubt it not (for his spies told him everything), that they had purposed entering the Wash. To prevent a junction between them and Hereward was impossible. He must prevent a junction between them and Edwin and Morcar’s men.

He determined, it seems — for he did it — to cut the English line in two, and marched upon Stafford as its centre.

So it seems; for all records of these campaigns are fragmentary, confused, contradictory. The Normans fought, and had no time to write history. The English, beaten and crushed, died and left no sign. The only chroniclers of the time are monks. And little could Ordericus Vitalis, or Florence of Worcester, or he of Peterborough, faithful as he was, who filled up the sad pages of the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle — little could they see or understand of the masterly strategy which was conquering all England for Norman monks, in order that they, following the army like black ravens, might feast themselves upon the prey which others won for them. To them, the death of an abbot, the squabbles of a monastery, the journey of a prelate to Rome, are more important than the manoeuvres which decided the life and freedom of tens of thousands.

So all we know is, that William fell upon Morcar’s men at Stafford, and smote them with a great destruction; rolling the fugitives west and east, toward Edwin, perhaps, at Chester, certainly toward Hereward in the fens.

At Stafford met him the fugitives from York, Malet, his wife, and children, with the dreadful news that the Danes had joined Gospatrick, and that York was lost.

William burst into fiendish fury. He accused the wretched men of treason. He cut off their hands, thrust out their eyes, threw Malet into prison, and stormed on north.

He lay at Pontefract for three weeks. The bridges over the Aire were broken down. But at last he crossed and marched on York.

No man opposed him. The Danes were gone down to the Humber. Gospatrick and Waltheof’s hearts had failed them, and they had retired before the great captain.

Florence, of Worcester, says that William bought Earl Osbiorn off, giving him much money, and leave to forage for his fleet along the coast, and that Osbiorn was outlawed on his return to Denmark.

Doubtless William would have so done if he could. Doubtless the angry and disappointed English raised such accusations against the earl, believing them to be true. But is not the simpler cause of Osbiorn’s conduct to be found in this plain fact? He had sailed from Denmark to put Sweyn, his brother, on the throne. He found, on his arrival, that Gospatrick and Waltheof had seized it in the name of Edgar Atheling. What had he to do more in England, save what he did? — go out into the Humber, and winter safely there, waiting till Sweyn should come with reinforcements in the spring?

Then William had his revenge. He destroyed, in the language of Scripture, “the life of the land.” Far and wide the farms were burnt over their owners’ heads, the growing crops upon the ground; the horses were houghed, the cattle driven off; while of human death and misery there was no end. Yorkshire, and much of the neighboring counties, lay waste, for the next nine years. It did not recover itself fully till several generations after.

The Danes had boasted that they would keep their Yule at York. William kept his Yule there instead. He sent to Winchester for the regalia of the Confessor; and in the midst of the blackened ruins, while the English, for miles around, wandered starving in the snows, feeding on carrion, on rats and mice, and, at last, upon each other’s corpses, he sat in his royal robes, and gave away the lands of Edwin and Morcar to his liegemen. And thus, like the Romans, from whom he derived both his strategy and his civilization, he “made a solitude and called it peace.”

He did not give away Waltheof’s lands; and only part of Gospatrick’s. He wanted Gospatrick; he loved Waltheof, and wanted him likewise.

Therefore, through the desert which he himself had made, he forced his way up to the Tees a second time, over snow-covered moors; and this time St. Cuthbert had sent no fog, being satisfied, presumably, with William’s orthodox attachment to St. Peter and Rome; so the Conqueror treated quietly with Waltheof and Gospatrick, who lay at Durham.

Gospatrick got back his ancestral earldom from Tees to Tyne; and paid down for it much hard money and treasure; bought it, in fact, he said.

Waltheof got back his earldom, and much of Morcar’s. From the fens to the Tees was to be his province. And then, to the astonishment alike of Normans and English, and it may be, of himself, he married Judith, the Conqueror’s niece; and became, once more, William’s loved and trusted friend — or slave.

It seems inexplicable at first sight. Inexplicable, save as an instance of that fascination which the strong sometimes exercise over the weak.

Then William turned southwest. Edwin, wild Edric, the dispossessed Thane of Shropshire, and the wilder Blethwallon and his Welshmen, were still harrying and slaying. They had just attacked Shrewsbury. William would come upon them by a way they thought not of.

So over the backbone of England, by way, probably, of Halifax, or Huddersfield, through pathless moors and bogs, down towards the plains of Lancashire and Cheshire, he pushed over and on. His soldiers from the plains of sunny France could not face the cold, the rain, the bogs, the hideous gorges, the valiant peasants — still the finest and shrewdest race of men in all England — who set upon them in wooded glens, or rolled stones on them from the limestone crags. They prayed to be dismissed, to go home.

“Cowards might go back,” said William; “he should go on. If he could not ride, he would walk. Whoever lagged, he would be foremost.” And, cheered by his example, the army at last debouched upon the Cheshire flats.

Then he fell upon Edwin, as he had fallen upon Morcar. He drove the wild Welsh through the pass of Mold, and up into their native hills. He laid all waste with fire and sword for many a mile, as Domesday-book testifies to this day. He strengthened the walls of Chester, and trampled out the last embers of rebellion; he went down south to Salisbury, King of England once again.

Why did he not push on at once against the one rebellion left alight — that of Hereward and his fenmen?

It may be that he understood him and them. It may be that he meant to treat with Sweyn, as he had done, if the story be true, with Osbiorn. It is more likely that he could do no more; that his army, after so swift and long a campaign, required rest. It may be that the time of service of many of his mercenaries was expired. Be that as it may, he mustered them at Old Sarum — the Roman British burgh which still stands on the down side, and rewarded them, according to their deserts, from the lands of the conquered English.

How soon Hereward knew all this, or how he passed the winter of 1070–71, we cannot tell. But to him it must have been a winter of bitter perplexity.

It was impossible to get information from Edwin; and news from York was almost as impossible to get, for Gilbert of Ghent stood between him and it.

He felt himself now pent in, all but trapped. Since he had set foot last in England ugly things had risen up, on which he had calculated too little — namely, Norman castles. A whole ring of them in Norfolk and Suffolk cut him off from the south. A castle at Cambridge closed the south end of the fens; another at Bedford, the western end; while Lincoln Castle to the north, cut him off from York.

His men did not see the difficulty; and wanted him to march towards York, and clear all Lindsay and right up to the Humber.

Gladly would he have done so, when he heard that the Danes were wintering in the Humber.

“But how can we take Lincoln Castle without artillery, or even a battering-ram?”

“Let us march past, it then, and leave it behind.”

“Ah, my sons,” said Hereward, laughing sadly, “do you suppose that the Mamzer spends his time — and Englishmen’s life and labor — in heaping up those great stone mountains, that you and I may walk past them? They are put there just to prevent our walking past, unless we choose to have the garrison sallying out to attack our rear, and cut us off from home, and carry off our women into the bargain, when our backs are turned.”

The English swore, and declared that they had never thought of that.

“No. We drink too much ale this side of the Channel, to think of that — or of anything beside.”

“But,” said Leofwin Prat, “if we have no artillery, we can make some.”

“Spoken like yourself, good comrade. If we only knew how.”

“I know,” said Torfrida. “I have read of such things in books of the ancients, and I have watched them making continually — I little knew why, or that I should ever turn engineer.”

“What is there that you do not know?” cried they all at once. And Torfrida actually showed herself a fair practical engineer.

But where was iron to come from? Iron for catapult springs, iron for ram heads, iron for bolts and bars?

“Torfrida,” said Here ward, “yon are wise. Can you use the divining-rod?

“Why, my knight?”

“Because there might be iron ore in the wolds; and if you could find it by the rod, we might get it up and smelt it.”

Torfrida said humbly that she would try; and walked with the divining-rod between her pretty fingers for many a mile in wood and wold, wherever the ground looked red and rusty. But she never found any iron.

“We must take the tires off the cart-wheels,” said Leofwin Prat.

“But how will the carts do without? For we shall want them if we march.”

“In Provence, where I was born, the wheels of the carts are made out of one round piece of wood. Could we not cut out wheels like them?” asked Torfrida.

“You are the wise woman, as usual,” said Hereward.

Torfrida burst into a violent flood of tears, no one knew why.

There came over her a vision of the creaking carts, and the little sleek oxen, dove-colored and dove-eyed, with their canvas mantles tied neatly on to keep off heat and flies, lounging on with their light load of vine and olive twigs beneath the blazing southern sun. When should she see the sun once more? She looked up at the brown branches overhead, howling in the December gale, and down at the brown fen below, dying into mist and darkness as the low December sun died down; and it seemed as if her life was dying down with it. There would be no more sun, and no more summers, for her upon this earth.

None certainly for her poor old mother. Her southern blood was chilling more and more beneath the bitter sky of Kesteven. The fall of the leaf had brought with it rheumatism, ague, an many miseries. Cunning old leech-wives treated the French lady with tonics, mugwort, and bogbean, and good wine enow, But, like David of old, she got no heat; and before Yule-tide came, she had prayed herself safely out of this world, and into the world to come. And Torfrida’s heart was the more light when she saw her go.

She was absorbed utterly in Hereward and his plots. She lived for nothing else; and clung to them all the more fiercely, the more desperate they seemed.

So that small band of gallant men labored on, waiting for the Danes, and trying to make artillery and take Lincoln Keep. And all the while — so unequal is fortune when God so wills — throughout the Southern Weald, from Hastings to Hind-head, every copse glared with charcoal-heaps, every glen was burrowed with iron diggings, every hammer-pond stamped and gurgled night and day, smelting and forging English iron, wherewith the Frenchmen might slay Englishmen.

William — though perhaps he knew it not himself — had, in securing Sussex and Surrey, secured the then great iron-field of England, and an unlimited supply of weapons; and to that circumstance, it may be, as much as to any other, the success of his campaigns may be due.

It must have been in one of these December days that a handful of knights came through the Bruneswold, mud and blood bespattered, urging on tired horses, as men desperate and foredone. And the foremost of them all, when he saw Hereward at the gate of Bourne, leaped down, and threw his arms round his neck and burst into bitter weeping.

“Hereward, I know you, though you know me not. I am your nephew, Morcar Algarsson; and all is lost.”

As the winter ran on, other fugitives came in, mostly of rank and family. At last Edwin himself came, young and fair, like Morcar; he who should have been the Conqueror’s son-in-law; for whom his true-love pined, as he pined, in vain. Where were Sweyn and his Danes? Whither should they go till he came?

“To Ely,” answered Hereward.

Whether or not it was his wit which first seized on the military capabilities of Ely is not told. Leofric the deacon, who is likely to know best, says that there were men there already holding theirs out against William, and that they sent for Hereward. But it is not clear from his words whether they were fugitives, or merely bold Abbot Thurstan and his monks.

It is but probable, nevertheless, that Hereward, as the only man among the fugitives who ever showed any ability whatsoever, and who was, also, the only leader (save Morcar) connected with the fen, conceived the famous “Camp of Refuge,” and made it a formidable fact. Be that as it may, Edwin and Morcar went to Ely; and there joined them a Count Tosti (according to Leofric), unknown to history; a Siward Barn, or “the boy,” who had been dispossessed of lands in Lincolnshire; and other valiant and noble gentlemen — the last wrecks of the English aristocracy. And there they sat in Abbot Thurstan’s hall, and waited for Sweyn and the Danes.

But the worst Job’s messenger who, during that evil winter and spring, came into the fen, was Bishop Egelwin of Durham. He it was, most probably, who brought the news of Yorkshire laid waste with fire and sword. He it was, most certainly, who brought the worse news still, that Gospatrick and Waltheof were gone over to the king. He was at Durham, seemingly, when he saw that; and fled for his life ere evil overtook him: for to yield to William that brave bishop had no mind.

But when Hereward heard that Waltheof was married to the Conqueror’s niece, he smote his hands together, and cursed him, and the mother who bore him to Siward the Stout.

“Could thy father rise from his grave, he would split thy craven head in the very lap of the Frenchwoman.”

“A hard lap will he find it, Hereward,” said Torfrida. “I know her — wanton, false, and vain. Heaven grant he do not rue the day he ever saw her!”

“Heaven grant he may rue it! Would that her bosom were knives and fish-hooks, like that of the statue in the fairy-tale. See what he has done for us! He is Earl not only of his own lands, but he has taken poor Morcar’s too, and half his earldom. He is Earl of Huntingdon, of Cambridge, they say — of this ground on which we stand. What right have I here now? How can I call on a single man to arm, as I could in Morcar’s name? I am an outlaw here and a robber; and so is every man with me. And do you think that William did not know that? He saw well enough what he was doing when he set up that great brainless idol as Earl again. He wanted to split up the Danish folk, and he has done it. The Northumbrians will stick to Waltheof. They think him a mighty hero, because he held York-gate alone with his own axe against all the French.”

“Well, that was a gallant deed.”

“Pish! we are all gallant men, we English. It is not courage that we want, it is brains. So the Yorkshire and Lindsay men, and the Nottingham men too, will go with Waltheof. And round here, and all through the fens, every coward, every prudent man even — every man who likes to be within the law, and feel his head safe on his shoulders — no blame to him — will draw each from me for fear of this new Earl, and leave us to end as a handful of outlaws. I see it all. As William sees it all. He is wise enough, the Mamzer, and so is his father Belial, to whom he will go home some day. Yes, Torfrida,” he went on after a pause, more gently, but in a tone of exquisite sadness, “you were right, as you always are. I am no match for that man. I see it now.”

“I never said that. Only —”

“Only you told me again and again that he was the wisest man on earth.”

“And yet, for that very reason, I bade you win glory without end, by defying the wisest man on earth.”

“And do you bid me do it still?”

“God knows what I bid,” said Torfrida, bursting into tears. “Let me go pray, for I never needed it more.”

Hereward watched her kneeling, as he sat moody, all but desperate. Then he glided to her side, and said gently —

“Teach me how to pray, Torfrida. I can say a Pater or an Ave. But that does not comfort a man’s heart, as far as I could ever find. Teach me to pray, as you and my mother do.”

And she put her arms round the wild man’s neck, and tried to teach him, like a little child.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44