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

Chapter 20.

How Hereward was Made a Knight After the Fashion of the English.

A wild night was that in Bourne. All the folk, free and unfree, man and woman, out on the streets, asking the meaning of those terrible shrieks, followed by a more terrible silence.

At last Hereward strode down from the hall, his drawn sword in his hand.

“Silence, good folks, and hearken to me, once for all. There is not a Frenchman left alive in Bourne. If you be the men I take you for, there shall not be one left alive between Wash and Humber. Silence, again!” as a fierce cry of rage and joy arose, and men rushed forward to take him by the hand, women to embrace him. “This is no time for compliments, good folks, but for quick wit and quick blows. For the law we fight, if we do fight; and by the law we must work, fight or not. Where is the lawman of the town?”

“I was lawman last night, to see such law done as there is left,” said Perry. “But you are lawman now. Do as you will. We will obey you.”

“You shall be our lawman,” shouted many voices.

“I! Who am I? Out-of-law, and a wolf’s-head.”

“We will put you back into your law — we will give you your lands in full husting.”

“Never mind a husting on my behalf. Let us have a husting, if we have one, for a better end than that. Now, men of Bourne, I have put the coal in the bush. Dare you blow the fire till the forest is aflame from south to north? I have fought a dozen of Frenchmen. Dare you fight Taillebois and Gilbert of Ghent, with William, Duke of Normandy, at their back? Or will you take me, here as I stand, and give me up to them as an outlaw and a robber, to feed the crows outside the gates of Lincoln? Do it, if you will. It will be the wiser plan, my friends. Give me up to be judged and hanged, and so purge yourselves of the villanous murder of Gilbert’s cook — your late lord and master.”

“Lord and master! We are free men!” shouted the holders, or yeomen gentlemen. “We hold our lands from God and the sun.”

“You are our lord!” shouted the socmen, or tenants. “Who but you? We will follow, If you will lead!”

“Hereward is come home!” cried a feeble voice behind. “Let me come to him. Let me feel him.”

And through the crowd, supported by two ladies, tottered the mighty form of Surturbrand, the blind Viking.

“Hereward is come!” cried he, as he folded his master’s son in his arms. “Hoi! he is wet with blood! Hoi! he smells of blood! Hoi! the ravens will grow fat now, for Hereward is come home!”

Some would have led the old man away; but he thrust them off fiercely.

“Hoi! come wolf! Hoi! come kite! Hoi! come erne from off the fen! You followed us, and we fed you well, when Swend Forkbeard brought us over the sea. Follow us now, and we will feed you better still, with the mongrel Frenchers who scoff at the tongue of their forefathers, and would rob their nearest kinsman of land and lass. Hoi! Swend’s men! Hoi! Canute’s men! Vikings’ sons, sea-cocks’ sons, Berserkers’ sons all! Split up the war-arrow, and send it round, and the curse of Odin on every man that will not pass it on! A war-king tomorrow, and Hildur’s game next day, that the old Surturbrand may fall like a freeholder, axe in hand, and not die like a cow, in the straw which the Frenchman has spared him.”

All men were silent, as the old Viking’s voice, cracked and feeble when he began, gathered strength from rage, till it rang through the still night-air like a trumpet-blast.

The silence was broken by a long wild cry from the forest, which made the women start, and catch their children closer to them. It was the howl of a wolf.

“Hark to the witch’s horse! Hark to the son of Fenris, how he calls for meat! Are ye your fathers’ sons, ye men of Bourne? They never let the gray beast call in vain.”

Hereward saw his opportunity and seized it. There were those in the crowd, he well knew, as there must needs be in all crowds, who wished themselves well out of the business; who shrank from the thought of facing the Norman barons, much more the Norman king; who were ready enough, had the tide of feeling begun to ebb, of blaming Hereward for rashness, even though they might not have gone so far as to give him up to the Normans; who would have advised some sort of compromise, pacifying half-measure, or other weak plan for escaping present danger, by delivering themselves over to future destruction. But three out of four there were good men and true. The savage chant of the old barbarian might have startled them somewhat, for they were tolerably orthodox Christian folk. But there was sense as well as spirit in its savageness; and they growled applause, as he ceased. But Hereward heard, and cried —

“The Viking is right! So speaks the spirit of our fathers, and we must show ourselves their true sons. Send round the war-arrow, and death to the man who does not pass it on! Better die bravely together than falter and part company, to be hunted down one by one by men who will never forgive us as long as we have an acre of land for them to seize. Perry, son of Surturbrand, you are the lawman. Put it to the vote!”

“Send round the war-arrow!” shouted Perry himself; and if there was a man or two who shrank from the proposal they found it prudent to shout as loudly as did the rest.

Ere the morning light, the war-arrow was split into four splinters, and carried out to the four airts, through all Kesteven. If the splinter were put into the house-father’s hand, he must send it on at once to the next freeman’s house. If he were away, it was stuck into his house-door, or into his great chair by the fireside, and woe to him if, on his return, he sent it not on likewise. All through Kesteven went that night the arrow-splinters, and with them the whisper, “Hereward is come again!” And before midday there were fifty well-armed men in the old camping-field outside the town, and Hereward haranguing them in words of fire.

A chill came over them, nevertheless, when he told them that he must return at once to Flanders.

“But it must be,” he said. He had promised his good lord and sovereign, Baldwin of Flanders, and his word of honor he must keep. Two visits he must pay, ere he went; and then to sea. But within the year, if he were alive on ground, he would return, and with him ships and men, it might be with Sweyn and all the power of Denmark. Only let them hold their own till the Danes should come, and all would be well. And whenever he came back, he would set a light to three farms that stood upon a hill, whence they could be seen far and wide over the Bruneswold and over all the fen; and then all men might know for sure that Hereward was come again.

“And nine-and-forty of them,” says the chronicler, “he chose to guard Bourne,” seemingly the lands which had been his nephew Morcar’s, till he should come back and take them for himself. Godiva’s lands, of Witham, Toft and Mainthorpe, Gery his cousin should hold till his return, and send what he could off them to his mother at Crowland.

Then they went down to the water and took barge, and laid the corpse therein; and Godiva and Hereward sat at the dead lad’s head; and Winter steered the boat, and Gwenoch took the stroke-oar.

And they rowed away for Crowland, by many a mere and many an ea; through narrow reaches of clear brown glassy water; between the dark-green alders; between the pale-green reeds; where the coot clanked, and the bittern boomed, and the sedge-bird, not content with its own sweet song, mocked the song of all the birds around; and then out into the broad lagoons, where hung motionless, high overhead, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see. Into the air, as they rowed on, whirred up the great skeins of wild fowl innumerable, with a cry as of all the bells of Crowland, or all the hounds of Bruneswold; and clear above all the noise sounded the wild whistle of the curlews, and the trumpet-note of the great white swan. Out of the reeds, like an arrow, shot the peregrine, singled one luckless mallard from the flock, caught him up, struck him stone dead with one blow of his terrible heel, and swept his prey with him into the reeds again.

“Death! death! death!” said Lady Godiva, as the feathers fluttered down into the boat and rested on the dead boy’s pall. “War among man and beast, war on earth, war in air, war in the water beneath,” as a great pike rolled at his bait, sending a shoal of white fish flying along the surface. “And war, says holy writ, in heaven above. O Thou who didst die to destroy death, when will it all be over?”

And thus they glided on from stream to stream, until they came to the sacred isle of “the inheritance of the Lord, the soil of St. Mary and St. Bartholomew; the most holy sanctuary of St. Guthlac and his monks; the minster most free from worldly servitude; the special almshouse of the most illustrious kings; the sole place of refuge for any one in all tribulations; the perpetual abode of the saints; the possession of religious men, especially set apart by the Common Council of the kingdom; by reason of the frequent miracles of the most holy Confessor, an ever fruitful mother of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi; and, by reason of the privileges granted by the kings, a city of grace and safety to all who repent.”

As they drew near, they passed every minute some fisher’s log canoe, in which worked with net or line the criminal who had saved his life by fleeing to St. Guthlac, and becoming his man henceforth; the slave who had fled from his master’s cruelty; and here and there in those evil days, the master who had fled from the cruelty of Normans, who would have done to him as he had done to others. But all old grudges were put away there. They had sought the peace of St. Guthlac; and therefore they must keep his peace, and get their living from the fish of the five rivers, within the bounds whereof was peace, as of their own quiet streams; for the Abbot and St. Guthlac were the only lords thereof, and neither summoner nor sheriff of the king, nor armed force of knight or earl, could enter there.

At last they came to Crowland minster — a vast range of high-peaked buildings, founded on piles of oak and hazel driven into the fen — itself built almost entirely of timber from the Bruneswold; barns, granaries, stables, workshops, stranger’s hall — fit for the boundless hospitality of Crowland — infirmary, refectory, dormitory, library, abbot’s lodgings, cloisters; and above, the great minster towering up, a steep pile, half wood, half stone, with narrow round-headed windows and leaden roofs; and above all the great wooden tower, from which, on high days, chimed out the melody of the seven famous bells, which had not their like in English land. Guthlac, Bartholomew, and Bettelm were the names of the biggest, Turketul and Tatwin of the middle, and Pega and Bega of the smallest. So says Ingulf, who saw them a few years after pouring down on his own head in streams of melted metal. Outside the minster walls were the cottages of the corodiers, or laboring folk; and beyond them again the natural park of grass, dotted with mighty oaks and ashes; and, beyond all those, cornlands of inexhaustible fertility, broken up by the good Abbot Egelric some hundred years before, from which, in times of dearth, the monks of Crowland fed the people of all the neighboring fens.

They went into the great court-yard. All men were quiet, yet all men were busy. Baking and brewing, carpentering and tailoring in the workshops, reading and writing in the cloister, praying and singing in the church, and teaching the children in the school-house. Only the ancient sempects — some near upon a hundred and fifty years old — wandered where they would, or basked against a sunny wall, like autumn flies, with each a young monk to guide him, and listen to his tattle of old days. For, said the laws of Turketul the good, “Nothing disagreeable about the affairs of the monastery shall be mentioned in their presence. No person shall presume in any way to offend them; but with the greatest peace and tranquillity they shall await their end.”

So, while the world outside raged, and fought, and conquered, and plundered, they within the holy isle kept up some sort of order, and justice, and usefulness, and love to God and man. And about the yards, among the feet of the monks, hopped the sacred ravens, descendants of those who brought back the gloves at St. Guthlac’s bidding; and overhead, under all the eaves, built the sacred swallows, the descendants of those who sat and sang upon St. Guthlac’s shoulders; and when men marvelled thereat, he, the holy man, replied: “Know that they who live the holy life draw nearer to the birds of the air, even as they do to the angels in heaven.”

And Lady Godiva called for old Abbot Ulfketyl, the good and brave, and fell upon his neck, and told him all her tale; and Ulfketyl wept upon her neck, for they were old and faithful friends.

And they passed into the dark, cool church, where in the crypt under the high altar lay the thumb of St. Bartholomew, which old Abbot Turketul used to carry about, that he might cross himself with it in times of danger, tempest, and lightning; and some of the hair of St. Mary, Queen of Heaven, in a box of gold; and a bone of St. Leodegar of Aquitaine; and some few remains, too, of the holy bodies of St. Guthlac; and of St. Bettelm, his servant; and St. Tatwin, who steered him to Crowland; and St. Egbert, his confessor; and St. Cissa the anchorite; and of the most holy virgin St. Etheldreda; and many more. But little of them remained since Sigtryg and Bagsac’s heathen Danes had heaped them pellmell on the floor, and burned the church over them and the bodies of the slaughtered monks.

The plunder which was taken from Crowland on that evil day lay, and lies still, with the plunder of Peterborough and many a minster more, at the bottom of the Nene, at Huntingdon Bridge. But it had been more than replaced by the piety of the Danish kings and nobles; and above the twelve white bearskins which lay at the twelve altars blazed, in the light of many a wax candle, gold and jewels inferior only to those of Peterborough and Coventry.

And there in the nave they buried the lad Godwin, with chant and dirge; and when the funeral was done Hereward went up toward the high altar, and bade Winter and Gwenoch come with him. And there he knelt, and vowed a vow to God and St. Guthlac and the Lady Torfrida his true love, never to leave from slaying while there was a Frenchman left alive on English ground.

And Godiva and Ulfketyl heard his vow, and shuddered; but they dared not stop him, for they, too, had English hearts.

And Winter and Gwenoch heard it, and repeated it word for word.

Then he kissed his mother, and called Winter and Gwenoch, and went forth. He would be back again, he said, on the third day.

Then those three went to Peterborough, and asked for Abbot Brand. And the monks let them in; for the fame of their deed had passed through the forest, and all the French had fled.

And old Brand lay back in his great arm-chair, his legs all muffled up in furs, for he could get no heat; and by him stood Herluin the prior, and wondered when he would die, and Thorold take his place, and they should drive out the old Gregorian chants from the choir, and have the new Norman chants of Robert of Fécamp, and bring in French–Roman customs in all things, and rule the English boors with a rod of iron.

And old Brand knew all that was in his heart, and looked up like a patient ox beneath the butcher’s axe, and said, “Have patience with me, Brother Herluin, and I will die as soon as I can, and go where there is neither French nor English, Jew nor Gentile, bond or free, but all are alike in the eyes of Him who made them.”

But when he saw Hereward come in, he cast the mufflers off him, and sprang up from his chair, and was young and strong in a moment, and for a moment.

And he threw his arms round Hereward, and wept upon his neck, as his mother had done. And Hereward wept upon his neck, though he had not wept upon his mother’s.

Then Brand held him at arms’ length, or thought he held him, for he was leaning on Hereward, and tottering all the while; and extolled him as the champion, the warrior, the stay of his house, the avenger of his kin, the hero of whom he had always prophesied that his kin would need him, and that then he would not fail.

But Hereward answered him modestly and mildly —

“Speak not so to me and of me, Uncle Brand. I am a very foolish, vain, sinful man, who have come through great adventures, I know not how, to great and strange happiness, and now again to great and strange sorrows; and to an adventure greater and stranger than all that has befallen me from my youth up until now. Therefore make me not proud, Uncle Brand, but keep me modest and lowly, as befits all true knights and penitent sinners; for they tell me that God resists the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. And I have that to do which do I cannot, unless God and his saints give me grace from this day forth.”

Brand looked at him, astonished; and then turned to Herluin.

“Did I not tell thee, prior? This is the lad whom you called graceless and a savage; and see, since he has been in foreign lands, and seen the ways of knights, he talks as clerkly as a Frenchman, and as piously as any monk.”

“The Lord Hereward,” said Herluin, “has doubtless learned much from the manners of our nation which he would not have learned in England. I rejoice to see him returned so Christian and so courtly a knight.”

“The Lord Hereward, Prior Herluin, has learnt one thing in his travels — to know somewhat of men and the hearts of men, and to deal with them as they deserve of him. They tell me that one Thorold of Malmesbury — Thorold of Fécamp, the minstrel, he that made the song of Rowland — that he desires this abbey.”

“I have so heard, my lord.”

“Then I command — I, Hereward, Lord of Bourne! — that this abbey be held against him and all Frenchmen, in the name of Swend Ulfsson, king of England, and of me. And he that admits a Frenchman therein, I will shave his crown for him so well, that he shall never need razor more. This I tell thee; and this I shall tell your monks before I go. And unless you obey the same, my dream will be fulfilled; and you will see Goldenbregh in a light low, and burning yourselves in the midst thereof.”

“Swend Ulfsson? Swend of Denmark? What words are these?” cried Brand.

“You will know within six months, uncle.”

“I shall know better things, my boy, before six months are out.”

“Uncle, uncle, do not say that.”

“Why not? If this mortal life be at best a prison and a grave, what is it worth now to an Englishman?”

“More than ever; for never had an Englishman such a chance of showing English mettle, and winning renown for the English name. Uncle, you must do something for me and my comrades ere we go.”

“Well, boy?”

“Make us knights.”

“Knights, lad? I thought you had been a belted knight this dozen years?”

“I might have been made a knight by many, after the French, fashion, many a year agone. I might have been knight when I slew the white bear. Ladies have prayed me to be knighted again and again since. Something kept me from it. Perhaps” (with a glance at Herluin) “I wanted to show that an English squire could be the rival and the leader of French and Flemish knights.”

“And thou hast shown it, brave lad!” said Brand, clapping his great hands.

“Perhaps I longed to do some mighty deed at last, which would give me a right to go to the bravest knight in all Christendom, and say, ‘Give me the accolade, then! Thou only art worthy to knight as good a man as thyself.’”

“Pride and vainglory,” said Brand, shaking his head.

“But now I am of a sounder mind. I see now why I was kept from being knighted — till I had done a deed worthy of a true knight; till I had mightily avenged the wronged, and mightily succored the oppressed; till I had purged my soul of my enmity against my own kin, and could go out into the world a new man, with my mother’s blessing on my head.”

“But not of the robbery of St. Peter,” said Herluin. The French monk wanted not for moral courage — no French monk did in those days. And he proved it by those words.

“Do not anger the lad, Prior; now, too, above all times, when his heart is softened toward the Lord.”

“He has not angered me. The man is right. Here, Lord Abbot and Sir Prior, is a chain of gold, won in the wars. It is worth fifty times the sixteen pence which I stole, and which I repaid double. Let St. Peter take it, for the sins of me and my two comrades, and forgive. And now, Sir Prior, I do to thee what I never did for mortal man. I kneel, and ask thy forgiveness. Kneel, Winter! Kneel, Gwenoch!” And Hereward knelt.

Herluin was of double mind. He longed to keep Hereward out of St. Peter’s grace. He longed to see Hereward dead at his feet; not because of any personal hatred, but because he foresaw in him a terrible foe to the Norman cause. But he wished, too, to involve Abbot Brand as much as possible in Hereward’s “rebellions” and “misdeeds,” and above all, in the master-offence of knighting him; for for that end, he saw, Hereward was come. Moreover, he was touched with the sudden frankness and humility of the famous champion. So he answered mildly —

“Verily, thou hast a knightly soul. May God and St. Peter so forgive thee and thy companions as I forgive thee, freely and from my heart.”

“Now,” cried Hereward, “a boon! a boon! Knight me and these my fellows, Uncle Brand, this day.”

Brand was old and weak, and looked at Herluin.

“I know,” said Hereward, “that the French look on us English monk-made knights as spurious and adulterine, unworthy of the name of knight. But, I hold — and what churchman will gainsay me? — that it is nobler to receive sword and belt from a man of God than from a man of blood like one’s self; the fittest to consecrate the soldier of an earthly king, is the soldier of Christ, the King of kings.” 26

“He speaks well,” said Herluin. “Abbot, grant him his boon.”

26 Almost word for word from the “Life of Hereward.”

“Who celebrates high mass tomorrow?”

“Wilton the priest, the monk of Ely,” said Herluin, aloud. “And a very dangerous and stubborn Englishman,” added he to himself.

“Good. Then this night you shall watch in the church. To-morrow, after the Gospel, the thing shall be done as you will.”

That night two messengers, knights of the Abbot, galloped from Peterborough. One to Ivo Taillebois at Spalding, to tell him that Hereward was at Peterborough, and that he must try to cut him off upon the Egelric’s road, the causeway which one of the many Abbots Egelric had made some thirty years before, through Deeping Fen to Spalding, at an enormous expense of labor and of timber. The other knight rode south, along the Roman road to London, to tell King William of the rising of Kesteven, and all the evil deeds of Hereward and of Brand.

And old Brand slept quietly in his bed, little thinking on what errands his prior had sent his knights.

Hereward and his comrades watched that night in St. Peter’s church. Oppressed with weariness of body, and awe of mind, they heard the monks drone out their chants through the misty gloom; they confessed the sins — and they were many — of their past wild lives. They had to summon up within themselves courage and strength henceforth to live, not for themselves, but for the fatherland which they hoped to save. They prayed to all the heavenly powers of that Pantheon which then stood between man and God, to help them in the coming struggle; but ere the morning dawned, they were nodding, unused to any long strain of mind.

Suddenly Hereward started, and sprang up, with a cry of fire.

“What? Where?” cried his comrades, and the monks who ran up.

“The minster is full of flame. No use! too late! you cannot put it out! It must burn.”

“You have been dreaming,” said one.

“I have not,” said Hereward. “Is it Lammas night?”

“What a question! It is the vigil of the Nativity of St. Peter and St. Paul.”

“Thank heaven! I thought my old Lammas night’s dream was coming true at last.”

Herluin heard, and knew what he meant.

After which Hereward was silent, filled with many thoughts.

The next morning, before the high mass, those three brave men walked up to the altar; laid thereon their belts and swords; and then knelt humbly at the foot of the steps till the Gospel was finished.

Then came down from the altar Wilton of Ely, and laid on each man’s bare neck the bare blade, and bade him take back his sword in the name of God and of St. Peter and St. Paul, and use it like a true knight, for a terror and punishment to evil-doers, and a defence for women and orphans, and the poor and the oppressed, and the monks the servants of God.

And then the monks girded each man with his belt and sword once more. And after mass was sung, they rose and went forth, each feeling himself — and surely not in vain — a better man.

At least this is certain, that Hereward would say to his dying day, how he had often proved that none would fight so well as those who had received their sword from God’s knights the monks. And therefore he would have, in after years, almost all his companions knighted by the monks; and brought into Ely with him that same good custom which he had learnt at Peterborough, and kept it up as long as he held the isle.

So says the chronicler Leofric, the minstrel and priest.

It was late when they got back to Crowland. The good Abbot received them with a troubled face.

“As I feared, my Lord, you have been too hot and hasty. The French have raised the country against you.”

“I have raised it against them, my lord. But we have news that Sir Frederick —”

“And who may he be?”

“A very terrible Goliath of these French; old and crafty, a brother of old Earl Warrenne of Norfolk, whom God confound. And he has sworn to have your life, and has gathered knights and men-at-arms at Lynn in Norfolk.”

“Very good; I will visit him as I go home, Lord Abbot. Not a word of this to any soul.”

“I tremble for thee, thou young David.”

“One cannot live forever, my lord. Farewell.”

A week after, a boatman brought news to Crowland, how Sir Frederick was sitting in his inn at Lynn, when there came in one with a sword, and said: “I am Hereward. I was told that thou didst desire, greatly, to see me; therefore I am come, being a courteous knight,” and therewith smote off his head. And when the knights and others would have stopped him, he cut his way through them, killing some three or four at each stroke, himself unhurt; for he was clothed from head to foot in magic armor, and whosoever smote it, their swords melted in their hands. And so, gaining the door, he vanished in a great cloud of sea-fowl, that cried forever, “Hereward is come home again!”

And after that, the fen-men said to each other, that all the birds upon the meres cried nothing, save “Hereward is come home again!”

And so, already surrounded with myth and mystery, Hereward flashed into the fens and out again, like the lightning brand, destroying as he passed. And the hearts of all the French were turned to water; and the land had peace from its tyrants for many days.

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