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

Chapter 17.

How Hereward Took the News from Stanford Brigg and Hastings.

After that, news came thick and fast.

News of all the fowl of heaven flocking to the feast of the great God, that they might eat the flesh of kings, and captains, and mighty men, and horses, and them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both bond and free.

News from Rome, how England, when conquered, was to be held as a fief of St. Peter, and spiritually, as well as temporarily, enslaved. News how the Gonfanon of St. Peter, and a ring with a bit of St. Peter himself enclosed therein, had come to Rouen, to go before the Norman host, as the Ark went before that of Israel.

Then news from the North. How Tosti had been to Sweyn, and bid him come back and win the country again, as Canute his uncle had done; and how the cautious Dane had answered that he was a much smaller man than Canute, and had enough to hold his own against the Norsemen, and could not afford to throw for such high stakes as his mighty uncle.

Then how Tosti had been to Norway, to Harold Hardraade, and asked him why he had been fighting fifteen years for Denmark, when England lay open to him. And how Harold of Norway had agreed to come; and how he had levied one half of the able-bodied men in Norway; and how he was gathering a mighty fleet at Solundir, in the mouth of the Sogne Fiord. Of all this Hereward was well informed; for Tosti came back again to St. Omer, and talked big. But Hereward and he had no dealings with each other. But at last, when Tosti tried to entice some of Hereward’s men to sail with him, Hereward sent him word that if he met him, he would kill him in the streets.

Then Tosti, who (though he wanted not for courage) knew that he was no match for Hereward, went off to Bruges, leaving his wife and family behind; gathered sixty ships at Ostend, went off to the Isle of Wight, and forced the landsfolk to give him money and food. And then Harold of England’s fleet, which was watching the coast against the Normans, drove him away; and he sailed off north, full of black rage against his brother Harold and all Englishmen, and burned, plundered, and murdered, along the coast of Lincolnshire, out of brute spite to the Danes who had expelled him.

Then came news how he had got into the Humber; how Earl Edwin and his Northumbrians had driven him out; and how he went off to Scotland to meet Harold of Norway; and how he had put his hands between Harold’s, and become his man.

And all the while the Norman camp at St. Pierre-sur-Dive grew and grew; and all was ready, if the wind would but change.

And so Hereward looked on, helpless, and saw these two great storm-clouds growing — one from north, and one from south — to burst upon his native land.

Two invasions at the same moment of time; and these no mere Viking raids for plunder, but deliberate attempts at conquest and colonization, by the two most famous captains of the age. What if both succeeded? What if the two storm-clouds swept across England, each on its own path, and met in the midst, to hurl their lightnings into each other? A fight between William of Normandy and Harold of Norway, on some moorland in Mercia — it would be a battle of giants; a sight at which Odin and the Gods of Valhalla would rise from their seats, and throw away the mead-horn, to stare down on the deeds of heroes scarcely less mighty than themselves. Would that neither might win! Would that they would destroy and devour, till there was none left of Frenchmen or of Norwegians!

So sang Hereward, after his heathen fashion; and his housecarles applauded the song. But Torfrida shuddered.

“And what will become of the poor English in the mean time?”

“They have brought it on themselves,” said Hereward, bitterly. “Instead of giving the crown to the man who should have had it — to Sweyn of Denmark — they let Godwin put it on the head of a drivelling monk; and as they sowed, so will they reap.”

But Hereward’s own soul was black within him. To see these mighty events passing as it were within reach of his hand, and he unable to take his share in them — for what share could he take? That of Tosti Godwinsson against his own nephews? That of Harold Godwinsson, the usurper? That of the tanner’s grandson against any man? Ah that he had been in England! Ah that he had been where he might have been — where he ought to have been but for his own folly — high in power in his native land — perhaps a great earl; perhaps commander of all the armies of the Danelagh. And bitterly he cursed his youthful sins as he rode to and fro almost daily to the port of Calais, asking for news, and getting often only too much.

For now came news that the Norsemen had landed in Humber: that Edwin and Morcar were beaten at York; that Hardraade and Tosti were masters of the North.

And with that, news that, by the virtue of the relics of St. Valeri, which had been brought out of their shrine to frighten the demons of the storm, and by the intercession of the blessed St. Michael, patron of Normandy, the winds had changed, and William’s whole armament had crossed the Channel, landed upon an undefended shore, and fortified themselves at Pevensey and Hastings.

And then followed a fortnight of silence and torturing suspense.

Hereward could hardly eat, drink, sleep, or speak. He answered Torfrida’s consolations curtly and angrily, till she betook herself to silent caresses, as to a sick animal. But she loved him all the better for his sullenness; for it showed that his English heart was wakening again, sound and strong.

At last news came. He was down, as usual, at the port. A ship had just come in from the northward. A man just landed stood on the beach gesticulating, and calling in an unknown tongue to the bystanders, who laughed at him, and seemed inclined to misuse him.

Hereward galloped down the beach.

“Out of the way, villains! Why man, you are a Norseman!”

“Norseman am I, Earl, Thord Gunlaugsson is my name, and news I bring for the Countess Judith (as the French call her) that shall turn her golden hair to snow — yea, and all fair lasses’ hair from Lindesness to Loffoden!”

“Is the Earl dead?”

“And Harold Sigurdsson!”

Hereward sat silent, appalled. For Tosti he cared not. But Harold Sigurdsson, Harold Hardraade, Harold the Viking, Harold the Varanger, Harold the Lionslayer, Harold of Constantinople, the bravest among champions, the wisest among kings, the cunningest among minstrels, the darling of the Vikings of the North; the one man whom Hereward had taken for his pattern and his ideal, the one man under whose banner he would have been proud to fight — the earth seemed empty, if Harold Hardraade were gone.

“Thord Gunlaugsson,” cried he, at last, “or whatever be thy name, if thou hast lied to me, I will draw thee with wild horses.”

“Would God that I did lie! I saw him fall with an arrow through his throat. Then Jarl Tosti took the Land-ravager and held it up till he died. Then Eystein Orre took it, coming up hot from the ships. And then he died likewise. Then they all died. We would take no quarter. We threw off our mail, and fought baresark, till all were dead together.” 16

16 For the details of this battle, see Skorro Sturleson, or the admirable description in Bulwer’s “Harold.”

“How camest thou, then, hither?”

“Styrkar the marshal escaped in the night, and I with him, and a few more. And Styrkar bade me bring the news to Flanders, to the Countess, while he took it to Olaf Haroldsson, who lay off in the ships.”

“And thou shalt take it. Martin! get this man a horse. A horse, ye villains, and a good one, on your lives!”

“And Tosti is dead?”

“Dead like a hero. Harold offered him quarter — offered him his earldom, they say: even in the midst of battle; but he would not take it. He said he was the Sigurdsson’s man now, and true man he would be!”

“Harold offered him? — what art babbling about? Who fought you?”

“Harold Godwinsson, the king.”


“At Stanford Brigg, by York Town.”

“Harold Godwinsson slew Harold Sigurdsson? After this wolves may eat lions!”

“The Godwinsson is a gallant fighter, and a wise general, or I had not been here now.”

“Get on thy horse, man!” said he, scornfully and impatiently, “and gallop, if thou canst.”

“I have ridden many a mile in Ireland, Earl, and have not forgotten my seat.”

“Thou hast, hast thou?” said Martin; “thou art Thord Gunlaugsson of Waterford.”

“That am I. How knowest thou me, man?”

“I am of Waterford. Thou hadst a slave lass once, I think; Mew: they called her Mew, her skin it was so white.”

“What’s that to thee?” asked Thord, turning on him savagely.

“Why, I meant no harm. I saw her at Waterford when I was a boy, and thought her a fair lass enough, that is all.”

And Martin dropped into the rear. By this time they were at the gates of St. Omer.

As they rode side by side, Hereward got more details of the fight.

“I knew it would fall out so. I foretold it!” said Thord. “I had a dream. I saw us come to English land, and fight; and I saw the banners floating. And before the English army was a great witchwife, and rode upon a wolf, and he had a corpse in his bloody jaws. And when he had eaten one up, she threw him another, till he had swallowed all.”

“Did she throw him thine?” asked Martin, who ran holding by the stirrup.

“That did she, and eaten I saw myself. Yet here I am alive.”

“Then thy dreams were naught.”

“I do not know that. The wolf may have me yet.”

“I fear thou art fey.” 17

17 Prophesying his own death.

“What the devil is it to thee if I be?”

“Naught. But be comforted. I am a necromancer; and this I know by my art, that the weapon that will slay thee was never forged in Flanders here.”

“There was another man had a dream,” said Thord, turning from Martin angrily. “He was standing in the king’s ship, and he saw a great witchwife with a fork and a trough stand on the island. And he saw a fowl on every ship’s stem, a raven, or else an eagle, and he heard the witchwife sing an evil song.”

By this time they were in St. Omer.

Hereward rode straight to the Countess Judith’s house. He never had entered it yet, and was likely to be attacked if he entered it now. But when the door was opened, he thrust in with so earnest and sad a face that the servants let him pass, but not without growling and motions as of getting their weapons.

“I come in peace, my men, I come in peace: this is no time for brawls. Where is the steward, or one of the Countess’s ladies? Tell her, madam, that Hereward waits her commands, and entreats her, in the name of St. Mary and all Saints, to vouchsafe him one word in private.”

The lady hurried into the bower. The next moment Judith hurried out into the hall, her fair face blanched, her fair eyes wide with terror.

Hereward fell on his knee.

“What is this? It must be bad news if you bring it.”

“Madam, the grave covers all feuds. Earl Tosti was a very valiant hero; and would to God that we had been friends!”

She did not hear the end of the sentence, but fell back with a shriek into the women’s arms.

Hereward told them all that they needed to know of that fratricidal strife; and then to Thord Gunlaugsson —

“Have you any token that this is true? Mind what I warned you, if you lied!”

“This have I, Earl and ladies,” and he drew from his bosom a reliquary. “Ulf the marshal took this off his neck, and bade me give it to none but his lady. Therefore, with your pardon, Sir Earl, I did not tell you that I had it, not knowing whether you were an honest man.”

“Thou hast done well, and an honest man thou shall find me. Come home, and I will feed thee at my own table; for I have been a sea-rover and a Viking myself.”

They left the reliquary with the ladies, and went.

“See to this good man, Martin.”

“That will I, as the apple of my eye.”

And Hereward went into Torfrida’s room.

“I have news, news!”

“So have I.”

“Harold Hardraade is slain, and Tosti too!”

“Where? how?”

“Harold Godwinsson slew them by York.”

“Brother has slain brother? O God that died on cross!” murmured Torfrida, “when will men look to thee, and have mercy on their own souls? But, Hereward, I have news — news more terrible by far. It came an hour ago. I have been dreading your coming back.”

“Say on. If Harold Hardraade is dead, no worse can happen.”

“But Harold Godwinsson is dead!”

“Dead! Who next? William of Normandy? The world seems coming to an end, as the monks say it will soon.” 18

18 There was a general rumor abroad that the end of the world was at hand, that the “one thousand years” of prophecy had expired.

“A great battle has been fought at a place they call Heathfield.”

“Close by Hastings? Close to the landing-place? Harold must have flown thither back from York. What a captain the man is, after all.”

“Was. He is dead, and all the Godwinssons, and England lost.”

If Torfrida had feared the effect of her news, her heart was lightened at once as Hereward answered haughtily —

“England lost? Sussex is not England, nor Wessex either, any more than Harold was king thereof. England lost? Let the tanner try to cross the Watling street, and he will find out that he has another stamp of Englishmen to deal with.”

“Hereward, Hereward, do not be unjust to the dead. Men say — the Normans say — that they fought like heroes.”

“I never doubted that; but it makes me mad — as it does all Eastern and Northern men — to hear these Wessex churls and Godwinssons calling themselves all England.”

Torfrida shook her head. To her, as to most foreigners, Wessex and the southeast counties were England; the most civilized; the most Norman; the seat of royalty; having all the prestige of law, and order, and wealth. And she was shrewd enough to see, that as it was the part of England which had most sympathy with Norman civilization, it was the very part where the Norman could most easily gain and keep his hold. The event proved that Torfrida was right: but all she said was, “It is dangerously near to France, at least.”

“It is that. I would sooner see 100,000 French north of the Humber, than 10,000 in Kent and Sussex, where he can hurry over supplies and men every week. It is the starting-point for him, if he means to conquer England piecemeal.”

“And he does.”

“And he shall not!” and Hereward started up, and walked to and fro. “If all the Godwinssons be dead, there are Leofricssons left, I trust, and Siward’s kin, and the Gospatricks in Northumbria. Ah? Where were my nephews in the battle? Not killed too, I trust?”

“They were not in the battle.”

“Not with their new brother-in-law? Much he has gained by throwing away the Swan-neck, like a base hound as he was, and marrying my pretty niece. But where were they?”

“No man knows clearly. They followed him down as far as London, and then lingered about the city, meaning no man can tell what: but we shall hear — and I fear hear too much — before a week is over.”

“Heavens! this is madness, indeed. This is the way to be eaten up one by one! Neither to do the thing, nor leave it alone. If I had been there! If I had been there —”

“You would have saved England, my hero!” and Torfrida believed her own words.

“I don’t say that. Besides, I say that England is not lost. But there were but two things to do: either to have sent to William at once, and offered him the crown, if he would but guarantee the Danish laws and liberties to all north of the Watling street; and if he would, fall on the Godwinssons themselves, by fair means or foul, and send their heads to William.”

“Or what?”

“Or have marched down after him, with every man they could muster, and thrown themselves on the Frenchman’s flank in the battle; or between him and the sea, cutting him off from France; or — O that I had but been there, what things could I have done! And now these two wretched boys have fooled away their only chance —”

“Some say that they hoped for the crown themselves.

“Which? — not both? Vain babies!” And Hereward laughed bitterly. “I suppose one will murder the other next, in order to make himself the stronger by being the sole rival to the tanner. The midden cock, sole rival to the eagle! Boy Waltheof will set up his claim next, I presume, as Siward’s son; and then Gospatrick, as Ethelred Evil–Counsel’s great-grandson; and so forth, and so forth, till they all eat each other up, and the tanner’s grandson eats the last. What care I? Tell me about the battle, my lady, if you know aught. That is more to my way than their statecraft.”

And Torfrida told him all she knew of the great fight on Heathfield Down — which men call Senlac — and the Battle of Hastings. And as she told it in her wild, eloquent fashion, Hereward’s face reddened, and his eyes kindled. And when she told of the last struggle round the Dragon 19 standard; of Harold’s mighty figure in the front of all, hewing with his great double-headed axe, and then rolling in gore and agony, an arrow in his eye; of the last rally of the men of Kent; of Gurth, the last defender of the standard, falling by William’s sword, the standard hurled to the ground, and the Popish Gonfanon planted in its place — then Hereward’s eyes, for the first and last time for many a year, were flushed with noble tears; and springing up he cried: “Honor to the Godwinssons! Honor to the Southern men! Honor to all true English hearts! Why was I not there to go with them to Valhalla?”

19 I have dared to differ from the excellent authorities who say that the standard was that of “A Fighting Man”; because the Bayeux Tapestry represents the last struggle as in front of a Dragon standard, which must be-as is to be expected — the old standard of Wessex, the standard of English Royalty. That Harold had also a “Fighting Man” standard, and that it was sent by William to the Pope, there is no reason to doubt. But if the Bayeux Tapestry be correct, the fury of the fight for the standard would be explained. It would be a fight for the very symbol of King Edward’s dynasty.

Torfrida caught him round the neck. “Because you are here, my hero, to free your country from her tyrants, and win yourself immortal fame.”

“Fool that I am, I verily believe I am crying.”

“Those tears,” said she, as she kissed them away, “are more precious to Torfrida than the spoils of a hundred fights, for they tell me that Hereward still loves his country, still honors virtue, even in a foe.”

And thus Torfrida — whether from woman’s sentiment of pity, or from a woman’s instinctive abhorrence of villany and wrong — had become there and then an Englishwoman of the English, as she proved by strange deeds and sufferings for many a year.

“Where is that Norseman, Martin?” asked Hereward that night ere he went to bed, “I want to hear more of poor Hardraade.”

“You can’t speak to him now, master. He is sound asleep this two hours; and warm enough, I will warrant.”


“In the great green bed with blue curtains, just above the kitchen.”

“What nonsense is this?”

“The bed where you and I shall lie some day; and the kitchen which we shall be sent down to, to turn our own spits, unless we mend our manners mightily.”

Hereward looked at the man. Madness glared in his eyes, unmistakably.

“You have killed him!”

“And buried him, cheating the priests.”

“Villain!” cried Hereward, seizing him.

“Take your hands off my throat, master. He was only my father.”

Hereward stood shocked and puzzled. After all, the man was “No-man’s-man,” and would not be missed; and Martin Lightfoot, letting alone his madness, was as a third hand and foot to him all day long.

So all he said was, “I hope you have buried him well and safely?”

“You may walk your bloodhound over his grave, tomorrow, without finding him.”

And where he lay, Hereward never knew. But from that night Martin got a trick of stroking and patting his little axe, and talking to it as if it had been alive.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56