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

Chapter 22.

How Hereward Sailed Foe England Once and for All.

So Hereward fought the Viscount of Pinkney, who had the usual luck which befell those who crossed swords with him, and plotted meanwhile with Gyda and the Countess Judith. Abbot Egelsin sent them news from King Sweyn in Denmark; soon Judith and Tosti’s two sons went themselves to Sweyn, and helped the plot and the fitting out of the armament. News they had from England in plenty, by messengers from Queen Matilda to the sister who was intriguing to dethrone her husband, and by private messengers from Durham and from York.

Baldwin, the débonnaire marquis, had not lived to see this fruit of his long efforts to please everybody. He had gone to his rest the year before; and now there ruled in Bruges his son, Baldwin the Good, “Count Palatine,” as he styled himself, and his wife Richilda, the Lady of Hainault.

They probably cared as little for the success of their sister Matilda as they did for that of their sister Judith; and followed out — Baldwin at least — the great marquis’s plan of making Flanders a retreat for the fugitives of all the countries round.

At least, if (as seems) Sweyn’s fleet made the coast of Flanders its rendezvous and base of operations against King William, Baldwin offered no resistance.

So the messengers came, and the plots went on. Great was the delight of Hereward and the ladies when they heard of the taking of Durham and York; but bitter their surprise and rage when they heard that Gospatrick and the Confederates had proclaimed Edgar Atheling king.

“Fools! they will ruin all!” cried Gyda. “Do they expect Swend Ulfsson, who never moved a finger yet, unless he saw that it would pay him within the hour, to spend blood and treasure in putting that puppet boy upon the throne instead of himself?”

“Calm yourself, great Countess,” said Hereward, with a smile. “The man who puts him on the throne will find it very easy to take him off again when he needs.”

“Pish!” said Gyda. “He must put him on the throne first. And how will he do that? Will the men of the Danelagh, much less the Northumbrians, ever rally round an Atheling of Cerdic’s house? They are raising a Wessex army in Northumbria; a southern army in the north. There is no real loyalty there toward the Atheling, not even the tie of kin, as there would be to Swend. The boy is a mere stalking-horse, behind which each of these greedy chiefs expects to get back his own lands; and if they can get them back by any other means, well and good. Mark my words, Sir Hereward, that cunning Frenchman will treat with them one by one, and betray them one by one, till there is none left.”

How far Gyda was right will be seen hereafter. But a less practised diplomat than the great Countess might have speculated reasonably on such an event.

At least, let this be said, that when historians have complained of the treachery of King Swend Ulfsson and his Danes, they have forgotten certain broad and simple facts.

Swend sailed for England to take a kingdom which he believed to be his by right; which he had formerly demanded of William. When he arrived there, he found himself a mere cat’s-paw for recovering that kingdom for an incapable boy, whom he believed to have no right to the throne at all.

Then came darker news. As Ivo had foreseen, and as Ivo had done his best to bring about, William dashed on York, and drove out the Confederates with terrible slaughter; profaned the churches, plundered the town. Gospatrick and the earls retreated to Durham; the Atheling, more cautious, to Scotland.

Then came a strange story, worthy of the grown children who, in those old times, bore the hearts of boys with the ferocity and intellect of men.

A great fog fell on the Frenchmen as they struggled over the Durham moors. The doomed city was close beneath them; they heard Wear roaring in his wooded gorge. But a darkness, as of Egypt, lay upon them: “neither rose any from his place.”

Then the Frenchmen cried: “This darkness is from St. Cuthbert himself. We have invaded his holy soil. Who has not heard how none who offend St. Cuthbert ever went unpunished? how palsy, blindness, madness, fall on those who dare to violate his sanctuary?”

And the French turned and fled from before the face of St. Cuthbert; and William went down to Winchester angry and sad, and then went off to Gloucestershire; and hunted — for, whatever befell, he still would hunt — in the forest of Dean.

And still Swend and his Danes had not sailed; and Hereward walked to and fro in his house, impatiently, and bided his time.

In July, Baldwin died. Arnoul, the boy, was Count of Flanders, and Richilda, his sorceress-mother, ruled the land in his name. She began to oppress the Flemings; not those of French Flanders, round St. Omer, but those of Flemish Flanders, toward the north. They threatened to send for Robert the Frison to right them.

Hereward was perplexed. He was Robert the Frison’s friend, and old soldier. Richilda was Torfrida’s friend; so was, still more, the boy Arnoul; which party should he take? Neither, if he could help it. And he longed to be safe out of the land.

And at last his time came. Martin Lightfoot ran in, breathless, to tell how the sails of a mighty fleet were visible from the Dunes.

“Here?” cried Hereward. “What are the fools doing down here, wandering into the very jaws of the wolf? How will they land here? They were to have gone straight to the Lincolnshire coast. God grant this mistake be not the first of dozens!”

Hereward went into Torfrida’s bower.

“This is an evil business. The Danes are here, where they have no business, instead of being off Scheldtmouth, as I entreated them. But go we must, or be forever shamed. Now, true wife, are you ready? Dare you leave home and kin and friends, once and for all, to go, you know not whither, with one who may be a gory corpse by this day week?”

“I dare,” said she.

So they went down to Calais by night, with Torfrida’s mother, and all their jewels, and all they had in the world. And their housecarles went with them, forty men, tried and trained, who had vowed to follow Hereward round the world. And there were two long ships ready, and twenty good mariners in each. So when the Danes made the South Foreland the next morning, they were aware of two gallant ships bearing down on them, with a great white bear embroidered on their sails.

A proud man was Hereward that day, as he sailed into the midst of the Danish fleet, and up to the royal ships, and shouted: “I am Hereward the Berserker, and I come to take service under my rightful lord, Sweyn, king of England.”

“Come on board, then; we know you well, and right glad we are to have Hereward with us.”

And Hereward laid his ship’s bow upon the quarter of the royal ship (to lay alongside was impossible, for fear of breaking oars), and came on board.

“And thou art Hereward?” asked a tall and noble warrior.

“I am. And thou art Swend Ulfsson, the king?”

“I am Earl Osbiorn, his brother.”

“Then, where is the king?”

“He is in Denmark, and I command his fleet; and with me are Canute and Harold, Sweyn’s sons, and earls and bishops enough for all England.”

This was spoken in a somewhat haughty tone, in answer to the look of surprise and disappointment which Hereward had, unawares, allowed to pass over his face.

“Thou art better than none,” said Hereward. “Now, hearken, Osbiorn the Earl. Had Swend been here, I would have put my hand between his, and said in my own name, and that of all the men in Kesteven and the fens, Swend’s men we are, to live and die! But now, as it is, I say, for me and them, thy men we are, to live and die, as long as thou art true to us.”

“True to you I will be,” said Osbiorn.

“Be it so,” said Hereward. “True we shall be, whatever betide. Now, whither goes Earl Osbiorn, and all his great meinie?”

“We purpose to try Dover.”

“You will not take it. The Frenchman has strengthened it with one of his accursed keeps, and without battering-engines you may sit before it a month.”

“What if I asked you to go in thither yourself, and try the mettle and the luck which, they say, never failed Hereward yet?”

“I should say that it was a child’s trick to throw away against a paltry stone wall the life of a man who was ready to raise for you in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, five times as many men as you will lose in taking Dover.”

“Hereward is right,” said more than one Earl. “We shall need him in his own country.”

“If you are wise, to that country you yourselves will go. It is ready to receive you. This is ready to oppose you. You are attacking the Frenchman at his strongest point instead of his weakest. Did I not send again and again, entreating you to cross from Scheldtmouth to the Wash, and send me word that I might come and raise the Fen-men for you, and then we would all go north together?”

“I have heard, ere now,” said Earl Osbiorn, haughtily, “that Hereward, though he be a valiant Viking, is more fond of giving advice than of taking it.”

Hereward was about to answer very fiercely. If he had, no one would have thought any harm, in those plain-spoken times. But he was wise; and restrained himself, remembering that Torfrida was there, all but alone, in the midst of a fleet of savage men; and that beside, he had a great deed to do, and must do it as he could. So he answered —

“Osbiorn the Earl has not, it seems, heard this of Hereward: that because he is accustomed to command, he is also accustomed to obey. What thou wilt do, do, and bid me do. He that quarrels with his captain cuts his own throat and his fellows’ too.”

“Wisely spoken!” said the earls; and Hereward went back to his ship.

“Torfrida,” said he, bitterly, “the game is lost before it is begun.”

“God forbid, my beloved! What words are these?”

“Swend — fool that he is with his over-caution — always the same! — has let the prize slip from between his fingers. He has sent Osbiorn instead of himself.”

“But why is that so terrible a mistake?”

“We do not want a fleet of Vikings in England, to plunder the French and English alike. We want a king, a king, a king!” and Hereward stamped with rage. “And instead of a king, we have this Osbiorn — all men know him, greedy and false and weak-headed. Here he is going to be beaten off at Dover; and then, I suppose, at the next port; and so forth, till the whole season is wasted, and the ships and men lost by driblets. Pray for us to God and his saints, Torfrida, you who are nearer to Heaven than I; for we never needed it more.”

And Osbiorn went in; tried to take Dover; and was beaten off with heavy loss.

Then the earls bade him take Hereward’s advice. But he would not.

So he went round the Foreland, and tried Sandwich — as if, landing there, he would have been safe in marching on London, in the teeth of the élite of Normandy.

But he was beaten off there, with more loss. Then, too late, he took Hereward’s advice — or, rather, half of it — and sailed north; but only to commit more follies.

He dared not enter the Thames. He would not go on to the Wash; but he went into the Orwell, and attacked Ipswich, plundering right and left, instead of proclaiming King Sweyn, and calling the Danish folk around him. The Danish folk of Suffolk rose, and, like valiant men, beat him off; while Hereward lay outside the river mouth, his soul within him black with disappointment, rage, and shame. He would not go in. He would not fight against his own countrymen. He would not help to turn the whole plan into a marauding raid. And he told Earl Osbiorn so, so fiercely, that his life would have been in danger, had not the force of his arm been as much feared as the force of his name was needed.

At last they came to Yarmouth. Osbiorn would needs land there, and try Norwich.

Hereward was nigh desperate: but he hit upon a plan. Let Osbiorn do so, if he would. He himself would sail round to the Wash, raise the Fen-men, and march eastward at their head through Norfolk to meet him. Osbiorn himself could not refuse so rational a proposal. All the earls and bishops approved loudly; and away Hereward went to the Wash, his heart well-nigh broken, foreseeing nothing but evil.

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