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

Chapter 28.

How They Fought at Aldreth.

When William heard that the Danes were gone, he marched on Ely, as on an easy prey.

Ivo Taillebois came with him, hungry after those Spalding lands, the rents whereof Hereward had been taking for his men for now twelve months. William de Warrenne was there, vowed to revenge the death of Sir Frederic, his brother. Ralph Guader was there, flushed with his success at Norwich. And with them all the Frenchmen of the east, who had been either expelled from their lands, or were in fear of expulsion.

With them, too, was a great army of mercenaries, ruffians from all France and Flanders, hired to fight for a certain term, on the chance of plunder or of fiefs in land. Their brains were all aflame with the tales of inestimable riches hidden in Ely. There were there the jewels of all the monasteries round; there were the treasures of all the fugitive English nobles; there were there — what was there not? And they grumbled, when William halted them and hutted them at Cambridge, and began to feel cautiously the strength of the place — which must be strong, or Hereward and the English would not have made it their camp of refuge.

Perhaps he rode up to Madingley windmill, and saw fifteen miles away, clear against the sky, the long line of what seemed naught but a low upland park, with the minster tower among the trees; and between him and them, a rich champaign of grass, over which it was easy enough to march all the armies of Europe; and thought Ely an easy place to take. But men told him that between him and those trees lay a black abyss of mud and peat and reeds, Haddenham fen and Smithy fen, with the deep sullen West water or “Ald-reche” of the Ouse winding through them. The old Roman road was sunk and gone long since under the bog, whether by English neglect, or whether (as some think) by actual and bodily sinking of the whole land. The narrowest space between dry land and dry land was a full half-mile; and how to cross that half-mile, no man knew.

What were the approaches on the west? There were none. Beyond Earith, where now run the great washes of the Bedford Level, was a howling wilderness of meres, seas, reed-ronds, and floating alder-beds, through which only the fen-men wandered, with leaping-pole and log canoe.

What in the east? The dry land neared the island on that side. And it may be that William rowed round by Burwell to Fordham and Soham, and thought of attempting the island by way of Barraway, and saw beneath him a labyrinth of islands, meres, fens, with the Ouse, now increased by the volume of the Cam, lying deep and broad between Barraway and Thetford-inthe-Isle; and saw, too, that a disaster in that labyrinth might be a destruction.

So he determined on the near and straight path, through Long Stratton and Willingham, down the old bridle-way from Willingham ploughed field — every village there, and in the isle likewise, had and has still its “field,” or ancient clearing of ploughed land — and then to try that terrible half-mile, with the courage and wit of a general to whom human lives were as those of the gnats under the hedge.

So all his host camped themselves in Willingham field, by the old earthwork which men now call Belsar’s Hills; and down the bridle-way poured countless men, bearing timber and fagots cut from all the hills, that they might bridge the black half-mile.

They made a narrow, firm path through the reeds, and down to the brink of the Ouse, if brink it could be called, where the water, rising and falling a foot or two each tide, covered the floating peat for many yards before it sunk into a brown depth of bottomless slime. They would make a bottom for themselves by driving piles.

The piles would not hold; and they began to make a floating bridge with long beams, says Leofric, and blown-up cattle-hides to float them.

Soon they made a floating sow, and thrust it on before them as they worked across the stream; for they were getting under shot from the island.

Meanwhile the besieged had not been idle. They had thrown up, says Leofric, a turf rampart on the island shore, and antemuralia et propugnacula,— doubtless overhanging “hoardings,” or scaffolds, through the floor of which they could shower down missiles. And so they awaited the attack, contenting themselves with gliding in and out of the reeds in their canoes, and annoying the builders with arrows and cross-bow bolts.

At last the bridge was finished, and the sow safe across the West water, and thrust in, as far as it would float, among the reeds on the high tide. They in the fort could touch it with a pole.

The English would have destroyed it if they could. But Hereward bade them leave it alone. He had watched all their work, and made up his mind to the event.

“The rats have set a trap for themselves,” he said to his men, “and we shall be fools to break it up till the rats are safe inside.”

So there the huge sow lay, black and silent, showing nothing to the enemy but a side of strong plank, covered with hide to prevent its being burned. It lay there for three hours, and Hereward let it lie.

He had never been so cheerful, so confident. “Play the man this day, every one of you, and ere nightfall you will have taught the Norman once more the lesson of York. He seems to have forgotten that. It is me to remind him of it.”

And he looked to his bow and to his arrows, and prepared to play the man himself — as was the fashion in those old days, when a general proved his worth by hitting harder and more surely than any of his men.

At last the army was in motion, and Willingham field opposite was like a crawling ants’ nest. Brigade after brigade moved down to the reed beds, and the assault began.

And now advanced along the causeway and along the bridge a dark column of men, surmounted by glittering steel. Knights in complete mail, footmen in leather coats and quilted jerkins; at first orderly enough, each under the banner of his lord; but more and more mingled and crowded as they hurried forward, each eager for his selfish share of the inestimable treasures of Ely. They pushed along the bridge. The mass became more and more crowded; men stumbled over each other, and fell off into the mire and the water, calling vainly for help, while their comrades hurried on unheeding, in the mad thirst for spoil.

On they came in thousands; and fresh thousands streamed out of the fields, as if the whole army intended to pour itself into the isle at once.

“They are numberless,” said Torfrida, in a serious and astonished voice, as she stood by Hereward’s side.

“Would they were!” said Hereward. “Let them come on, thick and threefold. The more their numbers the fatter will the fish below be before tomorrow morning. Look there, already!”

And already the bridge was swaying, and sinking beneath their weight. The men in places were ankle deep in water. They rushed on all the more eagerly, and filled the sow, and swarmed up to its roof.

Then, what with its own weight, what with the weight of the laden bridge — which dragged upon it from behind — the huge sow began to tilt backwards, and slide down the slimy bank.

The men on the top tried vainly to keep their footing, to hurl grapnels into the rampart, to shoot off their quarrels and arrows.

“You must be quick, Frenchmen,” shouted Hereward in derision, “if you mean to come on board here.”

The Normans knew that well; and as Hereward spoke two panels in the front of the sow creaked on their hinges, and dropped landward, forming two draw-bridges, over which reeled to the attack a close body of knights, mingled with soldiers bearing scaling ladders.

They recoiled. Between the ends of the draw-bridges and the foot of the rampart was some two fathoms’ depth of black ooze. The catastrophe which Hereward had foreseen was come, and a shout of derision arose from the unseen defenders above.

“Come on — leap it like men! Send back for your horses, knights, and ride them at it like bold huntsmen!”

The front rank could not but rush on: for the pressure behind forced them forward, whether they would or not. In a moment they were wallowing waist deep, trampled on, and disappearing under their struggling comrades, who disappeared in their turn.

“Look, Torfrida! If they plant their scaling ladders, it will be on a foundation of their comrades’ corpses.”

Torfrida gave one glance through the openings of the hoarding, upon the writhing mass below, and turned away in horror. The men were not so merciful. Down between the hoarding-beams rained stones, javelins, arrows, increasing the agony and death. The scaling ladders would not stand in the mire. If they had stood a moment, the struggles of the dying would have thrown them down; and still fresh victims pressed on from behind, shouting “Dex Aie! On to the gold of Ely!” And still the sow, under the weight, slipped further and further back into the stream, and the foul gulf widened between besiegers and besieged.

At last one scaling ladder was planted upon the bodies of the dead, and hooked firmly on the gunwale of the hoarding. Ere it could be hurled off again by the English, it was so crowded with men that even Hereward’s strength was insufficient to lift it off. He stood at the top, ready to hew down the first comer; and he hewed him down.

But the Normans were not to be daunted. Man after man dropped dead from the ladder top — man after man took his place; sometimes two at a time; sometimes scrambling over each other’s backs.

The English, even in the insolence of victory, cheered them with honest admiration. “You are fellows worth fighting, you French!”

“So we are,” shouted a knight, the first and last who crossed that parapet; for, thrusting Hereward back with a blow of his sword-hilt, he staggered past him over the hoarding, and fell on his knees.

A dozen men were upon him; but he was up again and shouting —

“To me, men-at-arms! A Dade! a Dade!” But no man answered.

“Yield!” quoth Hereward.

Sir Dade answered by a blow on Hereward’s helmet, which felled the chief to his knees, and broke the sword into twenty splinters.

“Well hit,” said Hereward, as he rose. “Don’t touch him, men! this is my quarrel now. Yield, sir! you have done enough for your honor. It is madness to throw away your life.”

The knight looked round on the fierce ring of faces, in the midst of which he stood alone.

“To none but Hereward.”

“Hereward am I.”

“Ah,” said the knight, “had I but hit a little harder!”

“You would have broke your sword into more splinters. My armor is enchanted. So yield like a reasonable and valiant man.”

“What care I?” said the knight, stepping on to the earthwork, and sitting down quietly. “I vowed to St. Mary and King William that into Ely I would get this day; and in Ely I am; so I have done my work.”

“And now you shall taste — as such a gallant knight deserves — the hospitality of Ely.”

It was Torfrida who spoke.

“My husband’s prisoners are mine; and I, when I find them such prudhommes as you are, have no lighter chains for them than that which a lady’s bower can afford.”

Sir Dade was going to make an equally courteous answer, when over and above the shouts and curses of the combatants rose a yell so keen, so dreadful, as made all hurry forward to the rampart.

That which Hereward had foreseen was come at last. The bridge, strained more and more by its living burden, and by the falling tide, had parted — not at the Ely end, where the sliding of the sow took off the pressure — but at the end nearest the camp. One sideway roll it gave, and then, turning over, engulfed in that foul stream the flower of Norman chivalry; leaving a line — a full quarter of a mile in length — of wretches drowning in the dark water, or, more hideous still, in the bottomless slime of peat and mud.

Thousands are said to have perished. Their armor and weapons were found at times, by delvers and dikers, for centuries after; are found at times unto this day, beneath the rich drained cornfields which now fill up that black half-mile, or in the bed of the narrow brook to which the Westwater, robbed of its streams by the Bedford Level, has dwindled down at last.

William, they say, struck his tents and departed forthwith, “groaning from deep grief of heart;” and so ended the first battle of Aldreth.

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