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

Chapter 34.

How Hereward Went to the Greenwood.

And now is Hereward to the greenwood gone, to be a bold outlaw; and not only an outlaw himself, but the father of all outlaws, who held those forests for two hundred years, from the fens to the Scottish border. Utlages, forestiers, latrunculi (robberlets), sicarii, cutthroats, sauvages, who prided themselves upon sleeping on the bare ground; they were accursed by the conquerors, and beloved by the conquered. The Norman viscount or sheriff commanded to hunt them from hundred to hundred, with hue and cry, horse and bloodhound. The English yeoman left for them a keg of ale, or a basket of loaves, beneath the hollins green, as sauce for their meal of “nombles of the dere.”

“For hart and hind, and doe and roe,

Were in that forest great plentie,”


“Swannes and fesauntes they had full good

And foules of the rivere.

There fayled never so lytell a byrde,

That ever was bred on brere.”

With the same friendly yeoman “that was a good felawe,” they would lodge by twos and threes during the sharp frosts of midwinter, in the lonely farm-house which stood in the “field” or forest-clearing; but for the greater part of the year their “lodging was on the cold ground” in the holly thickets, or under the hanging rock, or in a lodge of boughs.

And then, after a while, the life which began in terror, and despair, and poverty, and loss of land and kin, became not only tolerable, but pleasant. Bold men and hardy, they cared less and less for

“The thornie wayes, the deep valleys,

The snowe, the frost, the rayne,

The colde, the hete; for dry or wete

We must lodge on the plaine,

And us above, none other roofe,

But a brake bushe, or twayne.”

And they found fair lasses, too, in time, who, like Torfrida and Maid Marian, would answer to their warnings against the outlaw life, with the nut-browne maid, that —

“Amonge the wylde dere, such an archere

As men say that ye be,

He may not fayle of good vitayle

Where is so great plentè:

And water clere of the rivere,

Shall be full swete to me,

With which in hele, I shall right wele,

Endure, as ye may see.”

Then called they themselves “merry men,” and the forest the “merry greenwood”; and sang, with Robin Hood —

“A merrier man than I, belyye

There lives not in Christentie.”

They were coaxed back, at times, to civilized life; they got their grace of the king, and entered the king’s service; but the craving after the greenwood was upon them. They dreaded and hated the four stone walls of a Norman castle, and, like Robin Hood, slipt back to the forest and the deer.

Gradually, too, law and order rose among them, lawless as they were; the instinct of discipline and self-government, side by side with that of personal independence, which is the peculiar mark and peculiar strength of the English character. Who knows not how, in the “Lytell Geste of Robin Hood,” they shot at “pluck-buffet,” the king among them, disguised as an abbot; and every man who missed the rose-garland, “his tackle he should tyne”; —

“And bere a buffet on his head,

Iwys ryght all bare,

And all that fell on Robyn’s lote,

He smote them wonder sair.

“Till Robyn fayled of the garlonde,

Three fyngers and mair.”

Then good Gilbert bids him in his turn

“‘Stand forth and take his pay.’

“‘If it be so,’ sayd Robyn,

‘That may no better be,

Syr Abbot, I delyver thee myn arrowe,

I pray thee, Syr, serve thou me.’

“‘It falleth not for myne order,’ saith the kynge,

‘Robyn, by thy leve,

For to smyte no good yeman,

For doute I should hym greve.’

“‘Smyte on boldly,’ sayd Robyn,

‘I give thee large leve.’

Anon our kynge, with that word,

He folde up his sleve.

“And such a buffet he gave Robyn,

To grounde he yode full nere.

‘I make myn avowe,’ sayd Robyn,

‘Thou art a stalwarte frere.

“‘There is pyth in thyn arme,’ sayd Robyn,

‘I trowe thou canst well shoote.’

Thus our kynge and Hobyn Hode

Together they are met.”

Hard knocks in good humor, strict rules, fair play, and equal justice, for high and low; this was the old outlaw spirit, which has descended to their inlawed descendants; and makes, to this day, the life and marrow of an English public school.

One fixed idea the outlaw had — hatred of the invader. If “his herde were the king’s deer,” “his treasure was the earl’s purse”; and still oftener the purse of the foreign churchman, Norman or Italian, who had expelled the outlaw’s English cousins from their convents; shamefully scourged and cruelly imprisoned them, as the blessed Archbishop Lanfranc did at Canterbury, because they would not own allegiance to a French abbot; or murdered them at the high altar, as did the new abbot of Glastonbury, because they would not change their old Gregorian chant for that of William of Fécamp. 39

On these mitred tyrants the outlaw had no mercy, as far as their purses were concerned. Their persons, as consecrated, were even to him sacred and inviolable — at least, from wounds and death; and one may suppose Hereward himself to have been the first author of the laws afterward attributed to Robin Hood. As for “robbing and reving, beting and bynding,” free warren was allowed against the Norman.

39 See the “Anglo–Saxon Chronicle”.

“‘Thereof no fors,’ said Robyn,

‘We shall do well enow.

But look ye do no housbonde harme,

That tilleth wyth his plough.

“‘No more ye shall no good yemàn,

That walketh by grene wood shawe;

Ne no knyght, ne no squyer,

That will be good felàwe.

“‘These bysshoppes, and these archbysshoppes,

Ye shall them bete and binde;

The hye sheryff of Nottingham,

Hym holde in your mynde.’

“Robyn loved our dere Ladye,

For doubt of dedely synne,

Wolde he never do company harme

That any woman was ynne.”

And even so it was with Hereward in the Bruneswald, if the old chroniclers, Leofric especially, are to be believed.

And now Torfrida was astonished. She had given way utterly at Ely, from woman’s fear, and woman’s disappointment. All was over. All was lost. What was left, save to die?

But — and it was a new and unexpected fact to one of her excitable Southern blood, easily raised, and easily depressed — she discovered that neither her husband, nor Winter, nor Geri, nor Wenoch, nor Ranald of Ramsey, nor even the romancing harping Leofric, thought that all was lost. She argued it with them, not to persuade them into base submission, but to satisfy her own surprise.

“But what will you do?”

“Live in the greenwood.”

“And what then?”

“Burn every town which a Frenchman holds, and kill every Frenchman we meet.”

“But what plan have you?”

“Who wants a plan, as you call it, while he has the green hollies overhead, the dun deer on the lawn, bow in his hand, and sword by his side?”

“But what will be the end of it all?”

“We shall live till we die.”

“But William is master of all England.”

“What is that to us? He is not our master.”

“But he must be some day. You will grow fewer and fewer. His government will grow stronger and stronger.”

“What is that to us? When we are dead, there will be brave yeomen in plenty to take our place. You would not turn traitor?”

“I? Never! never! I will live and die with you in your greenwood, as you call it. Only — I did not understand you English.”

Torfrida did not. She was discovering the fact, which her nation have more than once discovered since, that the stupid valor of the Englishman never knows when it is beaten; and sometimes, by that self-satisfied ignorance, succeeds in not being beaten after all.

So Hereward — if the chronicles speak truth — assembled a formidable force, well-nigh, at last, four hundred men. Winter, Geri, Wenoch, Grogan, one of the Azers of Lincoln, were still with him. Ranald the butler still carried his standard. Of Duti and Outi, the famous brothers, no more is heard. A valiant Matelgar takes their place; Alfric and Sexwold and many another gallant fugitive cast up, like scattered hounds, at the sound of “The Wake’s” war-horn. There were those among them (says Gaimar) who scorned to fight single-handed less than three Normans. As for Hereward, he would fight seven.

“Les quatre oscist, les treis fuirent;

Naffrez, sanglant, cil s’en partirent

En plusurs lius issi avint,

K’encontre seit très bien se tuit

De seit hommes avait vertu,

Un plus hardi ne fu veu.”

They ranged up the Bruneswald, dashing out to the war-cry of “A Wake! a Wake!” laying all waste with fire and sword, that is, such towns as were in the hands of Normans. And a noble range they must have had for gallant sportsmen. Away south, between the Nene and Welland, stretched from Stamford and Peterborough the still vast forests of Rockingham, nigh twenty miles in length as the crow flies, down beyond Rockingham town, and Geddington Chase. To the west, they had the range of the “hunting counties,” dotted still, in the more eastern part, with innumerable copses and shaughs, the remnants of the great forest, out of which, as out of Rockinghamshire, have been cut those fair parks and

“Handsome houses,

Where the wealthy nobles dwell”;

past which the Lord of Burleigh led his Welsh bride to that Burghley House by Stamford town, well-nigh the noblest of them all, which was, in Hereward’s time, deep wood, and freestone down. Round Exton, and Normanton, and that other Burley on the Hill; on through those Morkery woods, which still retain the name of Hereward’s ill-fated nephew; north by Irnham and Corby; on to Belton and Syston (par nobile), and southwest again to those still wooded heights, whence all-but-royal Belvoir looks out over the rich green vale below, did Hereward and his men range far and wide, harrying the Frenchman, and hunting the dun deer. Stags there were in plenty. There remain to this day, in Grimsthorpe Park by Bourne, the descendants of the very deer which Earl Leofric and Earl Algar, and after them Hereward the outlaw, hunted in the Bruneswald.

Deep-tangled forest filled the lower claylands, swarming with pheasant, roe, badger, and more wolves than were needed. Broken, park-like glades covered the upper freestones, where the red deer came out from harbor for their evening graze, and the partridges and plovers whirred up, and the hares and rabbits loped away, innumerable; and where hollies and ferns always gave dry lying for the night. What did men need more, whose bodies were as stout as their hearts?

They were poachers and robbers; and why not? The deer had once been theirs, the game, the land, the serfs; and if Godric of Corby slew the Irnham deer, burned Irnham Hall over the head of the new Norman lord, and thought no harm, he did but what he would with that which had been once his own.

Easy it was to dash out by night and make a raid; to harry the places which they once had owned themselves, in the vale of Belvoir to the west, or to the east in the strip of fertile land which sloped down into the fen, and levy black-mail in Rippinghale, or Folkingham, or Aslackby, or Sleaford, or any other of the “Vills” (now thriving villages) which still remain in Domesday-book, and written against them the ugly and significant —

“In Tatenai habuerunt Turgisle et Suen IIII. Carrucas terae,” &c. “Hoc Ivo Taillebosc ibi habet in dominio,”— all, that is, that the wars had left of them.

The said Turgisle (Torkill or Turketil misspelt by Frenchmen) and Sweyn, and many a good man more — for Ivo’s possessions were enormous — were thorns in the sides of Ivo and his men which must be extracted, and the Bruneswald a nest of hornets, which must be smoked out at any cost.

Wherefore it befell, that once upon a day there came riding to Hereward in the Bruneswald a horseman all alone.

And meeting with Hereward and his men he made signs of amity, and bowed himself low, and pulled out of his purse a letter, protesting that he was an Englishman and a “good felawe,” and that, though he came from Lincoln town, a friend to the English had sent him.

That was believable enough, for Hereward had his friends and his spies far and wide.

And when he opened the letter, and looked first, like a wary man, at the signature, a sudden thrill went through him.

It was Alftruda’s.

If he was interested in her, considering what had passed between them from her childhood, it was nothing to be ashamed of. And yet somehow he felt ashamed of that same sudden thrill.

And Hereward had reason to be ashamed. He had been faithful to Torfrida — a virtue most rare in those days. Few were faithful then, save, it may be, Baldwin of Mons to his tyrant and idol, the sorceress Richilda; and William of Normandy — whatever were his other sins — to his wise and sweet and beautiful Matilda. The stories of his coldness and cruelty to her seem to rest on no foundation. One need believe them as little as one does the myth of one chronicler, that when she tried to stop him from some expedition, and clung to him as he sat upon his horse, he smote his spur so deep into her breast that she fell dead. The man had self-control, and feared God in his own wild way — therefore it was, perhaps, that he conquered.

And Hereward had been faithful likewise to Torfrida, and loved her with an overwhelming adoration, as all true men love. And for that very reason he was the more aware that his feeling for Alftruda was strangely like his feeling for Torfrida, and yet strangely different.

There was nothing in the letter that he should not have read. She called him her best and dearest friend, twice the savior of her life. What could she do in return, but, at any risk to herself, try and save his life? The French were upon him. The posse comitatus of seven counties was raising. “Northampton, Cambridge, Lincoln, Holland, Leicester, Huntingdon, Warwick,” were coming to the Bruneswald to root him out.

“Lincoln?” thought Hereward. “That must be Gilbert of Ghent, and Oger the Breton. No! Gilbert is not coming, Sir Ascelin is coming for him. Holland? That is my friend Ivo Taillebois. Well, we shall have the chance of paying off old scores. Northampton? The earl thereof just now is the pious and loyal Waltheof, as he is of Huntingdon and Cambridge. Is he going to join young Fitz–Osbern from Warwick and Leicester, to root out the last Englishman? Why not? That would be a deed worthy of the man who married Judith, and believes in the powers that be, and eats dirt daily at William’s table.”

Then he read on.

Ascelin had been mentioned, he remarked, three or four times in the letter, which was long, as from one lingering over the paper, wishing to say more than she dared. At the end was a hint of the reason:—

“O, that having saved me twice, you could save me once more. Know you that Gospatrick has been driven from his earldom on charge of treason, and that Waltheof has Northumbria in his place, as well as the parts round you? And that Gospatrick is fled to Scotland again, with his sons — my man among them? And now the report comes, that my man is slain in battle on the Border; and that I am to be given away — as I have been given away twice before — to Ascelin. This I know, as I know all, not only from him of Ghent, but from him of Peterborough, Ascelin’s uncle.”

Hereward laughed a laugh of cynical triumph — pardonable enough in a broken man.

“Gospatrick! the wittol! the woodcock! looking at the springe, and then coolly putting his head therein. Throwing the hatchet after the helve! selling his soul and never getting the price of it! I foresaw it, foretold it, I believe to Alftruda herself — foretold that he would not keep his bought earldom three years. What a people we are, we English, if Gospatrick is — as he is — the shrewdest man among us, with a dash of canny Scots blood too. ‘Among the one-eyed, the blind is king,’ says Torfrida, out of her wise ancients, and blind we are, if he is our best. No. There is one better man left I trust, one that will never be fool enough to put his head into the wolf’s mouth, and trust the Norman, and that is Hereward the outlaw.”

And Hereward boasted to himself, at Gospatrick’s expense, of his own superior wisdom, till his eye caught a line or two, which finished the letter.

“O that you would change your mind, much as I honor you for it. O that you would come in to the king, who loves and trusts you, having seen your constancy and faith, proved by so many years of affliction. Great things are open to you, and great joys; — I dare not tell you what: but I know them, if you would come in. You, to waste yourself in the forest, an outlaw and a savage! Opportunity once lost, never returns; time flies fast, Hereward, my friend, and we shall all grow old — I think at times that I shall soon grow old. And the joys of life will be impossible, and nothing left but vain regrets.”

“Hey?” said Hereward, “a very clerkly letter. I did not think she was so good a scholar. Almost as good a one as Torfrida.”

That was all he said; and as for thinking, he had the posse comitatus of seven counties to think of. But what could those great fortunes and joys be, which Alftruda did not dare to describe?

She growing old, too? Impossible, that was woman’s vanity. It was but two years since she was as fair as a saint in a window. “She shall not marry Ascelin. I will cut his head off. She shall have her own choice for once, poor child.”

And Hereward found himself worked up to a great height of paternal solicitude for Alftruda, and righteous indignation against Ascelin. He did not confess to himself that he disliked much, in his selfish vanity, the notion of Alftruda’s marrying any one at all. He did not want to marry her himself — of course not. But there is no dog in the manger so churlish on such points as a vain man. There are those who will not willingly let their own sisters, their own daughters, their own servants marry. Why should a woman wish to marry any one but them?

But Hereward, however vain, was no dreamer or sluggard. He set to work, joyfully, cheerfully, scenting battle afar off, like Job’s war-horse, and pawing for the battle. He sent back Alftruda’s messenger, with this answer:—

“Tell your lady that I kiss her hands and feet. That I cannot write, for outlaws carry no pen and ink. But that what she has commanded, that will I perform.”

It is noteworthy, that when Hereward showed Torfrida (which he did frankly) Alftruda’s letter, he did not tell her the exact words of his answer, and stumbled and varied much, vexing her thereby, when she, naturally, wished to hear them word for word.

Then he sent out spies to the four airts of heaven. And his spies, finding a friend and a meal in every hovel, brought home all the news he needed.

He withdrew Torfrida and his men into the heart of the forest — no hint of the place is given by the chronicler — cut down trees, formed an abattis of trunks and branches, and awaited the enemy.

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