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

Chapter 4.

How Hereward Took Service with Ranald, King of Waterford.

The coasts of Ireland were in a state of comparative peace in the middle of the eleventh century. The ships of Loghlin, seen far out at sea, no longer drove the population shrieking inland. Heathen Danes, whether fair-haired Fiongall from Norway, or brown-haired Dubgall from Denmark proper, no longer burned convents, tortured monks for their gold, or (as at Clonmacnoise) set a heathen princess, Oda, wife of Thorgill, son of Harold Harfager, aloft on the high altar to receive the homage of the conquered. The Scandinavian invaders had become Christianized, and civilized also — owing to their continual intercourse with foreign nations — more highly than the Irish whom they had overcome. That was easy; for early Irish civilization seems to have existed only in the convents and for the religious; and when they were crushed, mere barbarism was left behind. And now the same process went on in the east of Ireland, which went on a generation or two later in the east of Scotland. The Danes began to settle down into peaceful colonists and traders. Ireland was poor; and the convents plundered once could not be plundered again. The Irish were desperately brave. Ill-armed and almost naked, they were as perfect in the arts of forest warfare as those modern Maories whom they so much resembled; and though their black skenes and light darts were no match for the Danish swords and battle-axes which they adopted during the middle age, or their plaid trousers and felt capes for the Danish helmet and chain corslet, still an Irishman was so ugly a foe, that it was not worth while to fight with him unless he could be robbed afterwards. The Danes, who, like their descendants of Northumbria, the Lowlands, and Ulster, were canny common-sense folk, with a shrewd eye to interest, found, somewhat to their regret, that there were trades even more profitable than robbery and murder. They therefore concentrated themselves round harbors and river mouths, and sent forth their ships to all the western seas, from Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, or Limerick. Every important seaport in Ireland owes its existence to those sturdy Vikings’ sons. In each of these towns they had founded a petty kingdom, which endured until, and even in some cases after, the conquest of Ireland by Henry II. and Strongbow. They intermarried in the mean while with the native Irish. Brian Boru, for instance, was so connected with Danish royalty, that it is still a question whether he himself had not Danish blood in his veins. King Sigtryg Silkbeard, who fought against him at Clontarf, was actually his step-son — and so too, according to another Irish chronicler, was King Olaff Kvaran, who even at the time of the battle of Clontarf was married to Brian Boru’s daughter — a marriage which (if a fact) was startlingly within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity. But the ancient Irish were sadly careless on such points; and as Giraldus Cambrensis says, “followed the example of men of old in their vices more willingly than in their virtues.”

More than forty years had elapsed since that famous battle of Clontarf, and since Ragnvald, Reginald, or Ranald, son of Sigtryg the Norseman, had been slain therein by Brian Boru. On that one day, so the Irish sang, the Northern invaders were exterminated, once and for all, by the Milesian hero, who had craftily used the strangers to fight his battles, and then, the moment they became formidable to himself, crushed them, till “from Howth to Brandon in Kerry there was not a threshing-floor without a Danish slave threshing thereon, or a quern without a Danish woman grinding thereat.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the total annihilation of the Danish power in the Emerald isle, Ranald seemed to the eyes of men to be still a hale old warrior, ruling constitutionally — that is, with a wholesome fear of being outlawed or murdered if he misbehaved — over the Danes in Waterford; with five hundred fair-haired warriors at his back, two-edged axe on shoulder and two-edged sword on thigh. His ships drove a thriving trade with France and Spain in Irish fish, butter, honey, and furs. His workmen coined money in the old round tower of Dundory, built by his predecessor and namesake about the year 1003, which stands as Reginald’s tower to this day. He had fought many a bloody battle since his death at Clontarf, by the side of his old leader Sigtryg Silkbeard. He had been many a time to Dublin to visit his even more prosperous and formidable friend; and was so delighted with the new church of the Holy Trinity, which Sigtryg and his bishop Donatus had just built, not in the Danish or Ostman town, but in the heart of ancient Celtic Dublin, (plain proof of the utter overthrow of the Danish power,) that he had determined to build a like church in honor of the Holy Trinity, in Waterford itself. A thriving, valiant old king he seemed, as he sat in his great house of pine logs under Reginald’s Tower upon the quay, drinking French and Spanish wines out of horns of ivory and cups of gold; and over his head hanging, upon the wall, the huge doubled-edged axe with which, so his flatterers had whispered, Brian Boru had not slain him, but he Brian Boru.

Nevertheless, then as since, alas! the pleasant theory was preferred by the Milesian historians to the plain truth. And far away inland, monks wrote and harpers sung of the death of Ranald, the fair-haired Fiongall, and all his “mailed swarms.”

One Teague MacMurrough, indeed, a famous bard of those parts, composed unto his harp a song of Clontarf, the fame whereof reached Ranald’s ears, and so amused him that he rested not day or night till he had caught the hapless bard and brought him in triumph into Waterford. There he compelled him, at sword’s point, to sing, to him and his housecarles the Milesian version of the great historical event: and when the harper, in fear and trembling, came to the story of Ranald’s own death at Brian Boru’s hands, then the jolly old Viking laughed till the tears ran down his face; and instead of cutting off Teague’s head, gave him a cup of goodly wine, made him his own harper thenceforth, and bade him send for his wife and children, and sing to him every day, especially the song of Clontarf and his own death; treating him very much, in fact, as English royalty, during the last generation, treated another Irish bard whose song was even more sweet, and his notions of Irish history even more grotesque, than those of Teague MacMurrough.

It was to this old king, or rather to his son Sigtryg, godson of Sigtryg Silkbeard, and distant cousin of his own, that Hereward now took his way, and told his story, as the king sat in his hall, drinking “across the fire,” after the old Norse fashion. The fire of pine logs was in the midst of the hall, and the smoke went out through a louver in the roof. On one side was a long bench, and in the middle of it the king’s high arm-chair; right and left of him sat his kinsmen and the ladies, and his sea-captains and men of wealth. Opposite, on the other side of the fire, was another bench. In the middle of that sat his marshal, and right and left all his housecarles. There were other benches behind, on which sat more freemen, but of lesser rank.

And they were all drinking ale, which a servant poured out of a bucket into a great bull’s horn, and the men handed round to each other.

Then Hereward came in, and sat down on the end of the hindermost bench, and Martin stood behind him, till one of the ladies said —

“Who is that young stranger, who sits behind there so humbly, though, he looks like an earl’s son, more fit to sit here with us on the high bench?”

“So he does,” quoth King Ranald. “Come forward hither, young sir, and drink.”

And when Hereward came forward, all the ladies agreed that he must be an earl’s son; for he had a great gold torc round his neck, and gold rings on his wrists; and a new scarlet coat, bound with gold braid; and scarlet stockings, cross-laced with gold braid up to the knee; and shoes trimmed with martin’s fur; and a short blue silk cloak over all, trimmed with martin’s fur likewise; and by his side, in a broad belt with gold studs, was the Ogre’s sword Brain-biter, with its ivory hilt and velvet sheath; and all agreed that if he had but been a head taller, they had never seen a properer man.

“Aha! such a gay young sea-cock does not come hither for naught. Drink first, man, and tell us thy business after,” and he reached the horn to Hereward.

Hereward took it, and sang —

“In this Braga-beaker, Brave Ranald I pledge; In good liquor, which lightens Long labor on oar-bench; Good liquor, which sweetens The song of the scald.”

“Thy voice is as fine as thy feathers, man. Nay, drink it all. We ourselves drink here by the peg at midday; but a stranger is welcome to fill his inside all hours of the day.”

Whereon Hereward finished the horn duly; and at Ranald’s bidding, sat him down on the high settle. He did not remark, that as he sat down two handsome youths rose and stood behind him.

“Now then, Sir Priest,” quoth the king, “go on with your story.”

A priest, Irish by his face and dress, who sat on the high bench, rose, and renewed an oration which Hereward’s entrance had interrupted.

“So, O great King, as says Homerus, this wise king called his earls, knights, sea-captains, and housecarles, and said unto them, ‘Which of these two kings is in the right, who can tell? But mind you, that this king of the Enchanters lives far away in India, and we never heard of him more than his name; but this king Ulixes and his Greeks live hard by; and which of the two is it wiser to quarrel with, him that lives hard by or him that lives far off? Therefore, King Ranald, says, by the mouth of my humility, the great O’Brodar, Lord of Ivark, ‘Take example by Alcinous, the wise king of Fairy, and listen not to the ambassadors of those lying villains, O’Dea Lord of Slievardagh, Maccarthy King of Cashel, and O’Sullivan Lord of Knockraffin, who all three between them could not raise kernes enough to drive off one old widow’s cow. Make friends with me, who live upon your borders; and you shall go peaceably through my lands, to conquer and destroy them, who live afar off; as they deserve, the sons of Belial and Judas.’”

And the priest crost himself, and sat down. At which speech Hereward was seen to laugh.

“Why do you laugh, young sir? The priest seems to talk like a wise man, and is my guest and an ambassador.”

Then rose up Hereward, and bowed to the king. “King Ranald Sigtrygsson, it was not for rudeness that I laughed, for I learnt good manners long ere I came here, but because I find clerks alike all over the world.”


“Quick at hiding false counsel under learned speech. I know nothing of Ulixes, king, nor of this O’Brodar either; and I am but a lad, as you see: but I heard a bird once in my own country who gave a very different counsel from the priest’s.”

“Speak on, then. This lad is no fool, my merry men all.”

“There were three copses, King, in our country, and each copse stood on a hill. In the first there built an eagle, in the second there built a sparhawk, in the third there built a crow.

“Now the sparhawk came to the eagle, and said, ‘Go shares with me, and we will kill the crow, and have her wood to ourselves.’

“‘Humph!’ says the eagle, ‘I could kill the crow without your help; however, I will think of it.’

“When the crow heard that, she came to the eagle herself. ‘King Eagle,’ says she, ‘why do you want to kill me, who live ten miles from you, and never flew across your path in my life? Better kill that little rogue of a sparhawk who lives between us, and is always ready to poach on your marches whenever your back is turned. So you will have her wood as well as your own.’

“‘You are a wise crow,’ said the eagle; and he went out and killed the sparhawk, and took his wood.”

Loud laughed King Ranald and his Vikings all. “Well spoken, young man! We will take the sparhawk, and let the crow bide.”

“Nay, but,” quoth Hereward, “hear the end of the story. After a while the eagle finds the crow beating about the edge of the sparhawk’s wood.

“‘Oho!’ says he, ‘so you can poach as well as that little hooknosed rogue?’ and he killed her too.

“‘Ah!’ says the crow, when she lay a-dying, ‘my blood is on my own head. If I had but left the sparhawk between me and this great tyrant!’

“And so the eagle got all three woods to himself.”

At which the Vikings laughed more loudly than ever; and King Ranald, chuckling at the notion of eating up the hapless Irish princes one by one, sent back the priest (not without a present for his church, for Ranald was a pious man) to tell the great O’Brodar, that unless he sent into Waterford by that day week two hundred head of cattle, a hundred pigs, a hundredweight of clear honey, and as much of wax, Ranald would not leave so much as a sucking-pig alive in Ivark.

The cause of quarrel, of course, was too unimportant to be mentioned. Each had robbed and cheated the other half a dozen times in the last twenty years. As for the morality of the transaction, Ranald had this salve for his conscience — that as he intended to do to O’Brodar, so would O’Brodar have gladly done to him, had he been living peaceably in Norway, and O’Brodar been strong enough to invade and rob him. Indeed, so had O’Brodar done already, ever since he wore beard, to every chieftain of his own race whom he was strong enough to ill-treat. Many a fair herd had he driven off, many a fair farm burnt, many a fair woman carried off a slave, after that inveterate fashion of lawless feuds which makes the history of Celtic Ireland from the earliest, times one dull and aimless catalogue of murder and devastation, followed by famine and disease; and now, as he had done to others, so it was to be done to him.

“And now, young sir, who seem as witty as you are good looking, you may, if you will, tell us your name and your business. As for the name, however, if you wish to keep it to yourself, Ranald Sigtrygsson is not the man to demand it of an honest guest.”

Hereward looked round and saw Teague MacMurrough standing close to him, harp in hand. He took it from him courteously enough, put a silver penny into the minstrel’s hand, and running his fingers over the strings, rose and began —

“Outlaw and free thief,

Landless and lawless

Through the world fare I,

Thoughtless of life.

Soft is my beard, but

Hard my Brain-biter.

Wake, men me call, whom

Warrior or watchman

Never caught sleeping,

Far in Northumberland

Slew I the witch-bear,

Cleaving his brain-pan,

At one stroke I felled him.”

And so forth, chanting all his doughty deeds, with such a voice and spirit joined to that musical talent for which he was afterwards so famous, till the hearts of the wild Norsemen rejoiced, and “Skall to the stranger! Skall to the young Viking!” rang through the hall.

Then showing proudly the fresh wounds on his bare arms, he sang of his fight with the Cornish ogre, and his adventure with the Princess. But always, though he went into the most minute details, he concealed the name both of her and of her father, while he kept his eyes steadily fixed on Ranald’s eldest son, Sigtryg, who sat at his father’s right hand.

The young man grew uneasy, red, almost angry; till at last Hereward sang —

“A gold ring she gave me

Right royally dwarf-worked,

To none will I pass it

For prayer or for sword-stroke,

Save to him who can claim it

By love and by troth plight,

Let that hero speak

If that hero be here.”

Young Sigtryg half started from his feet: but when Hereward smiled at him, and laid his finger on his lips, he sat down again. Hereward felt his shoulder touched from behind. One of the youths who had risen when he sat down bent over him, and whispered in his ear —

“Ah, Hereward, we know you. Do you not know us? We are the twins, the sons of your sister, Siward the White and Siward the Red, the orphans of Asbiorn Siwardsson, who fell at Dunsinane.”

Hereward sprang up, struck the harp again, and sang —

“Outlaw and free thief, My kinsfolk have left me, And no kinsfolk need I Till kinsfolk shall need me. My sword is my father, My shield is my mother, My ship is my sister, My horse is my brother.”

“Uncle, uncle,” whispered one of them, sadly, “listen now or never, for we have bad news for you and us. Your father is dead, and Earl Algar, your brother, here in Ireland, outlawed a second time.”

A flood of sorrow passed through Hereward’s heart. He kept it down, and rising once more, harp in hand —

“Hereward, king, hight I,

Holy Leofric my father,

In Westminster wiser

None walked with King Edward.

High minsters he builded,

Pale monks he maintained.

Dead is he, a bed-death,

A leech-death, a priest-death,

A straw-death, a cow’s death.

Such doom I desire not.

To high heaven, all so softly,

The angels uphand him,

In meads of May flowers

Mild Mary will meet him.

Me, happier, the Valkyrs

Shall waft from the war-deck,

Shall hail from the holmgang

Or helmet-strewn moorland.

And sword-strokes my shrift be,

Sharp spears be my leeches,

With heroes’ hot corpses

High heaped for my pillow.”

“Skall to the Viking!” shouted the Danes once more, at this outburst of heathendom, common enough among their half-converted race, in times when monasticism made so utter a divorce between the life of the devotee and that of the worldling, that it seemed reasonable enough for either party to have their own heaven and their own hell. After all, Hereward was not original in his wish. He had but copied the death-song which his father’s friend and compeer, Siward Digre, the victor of Dunsinane, had sung for himself some three years before.

All praised his poetry, and especially the quickness of his alliterations (then a note of the highest art); and the old king filling not this time the horn, but a golden goblet, bid him drain it and keep the goblet for his song.

Young Sigtryg leapt up, and took the cup to Hereward. “Such a scald,” he said, “ought to have no meaner cup-bearer than a king’s son.”

Hereward drank it dry; and then fixing his eyes meaningly on the Prince, dropt the Princess’s ring into the cup, and putting it back into Sigtryg’s hand, sang —

“The beaker I reach back

More rich than I took it.

No gold will I grasp

Of the king’s, the ring-giver,

Till, by wit or by weapon,

I worthily win it.

When brained by my biter

O’Brodar lies gory,

While over the wolf’s meal

Fair widows are wailing.”

“Does he refuse my gift?” grumbled Ranald.

“He has given a fair reason,” said the Prince, as he hid the ring in his bosom; “leave him to me; for my brother in arms he is henceforth.”

After which, as was the custom of those parts, most of them drank too much liquor. But neither Sigtryg nor Hereward drank; and the two Siwards stood behind their young uncle’s seat, watching him with that intense admiration which lads can feel for a young man.

That night, when the warriors were asleep, Sigtryg and Hereward talked out their plans. They would equip two ships; they would fight all the kinglets of Cornwall at once, if need was; they would carry off the Princess, and burn Alef’s town over his head, if he said nay. Nothing could be more simple than the tactics required in an age when might was right.

Then Hereward turned to his two nephews who lingered near him, plainly big with news.

“And what brings you here, lads?” He had hardened his heart, and made up his mind to show no kindness to his own kin. The day might come when they might need him; then it would be his turn.

“Your father, as we told you, is dead.”

“So much the better for him, and the worse for England. And Harold and the Godwinssons, of course, are lords and masters far and wide?”

“Tosti has our grandfather Siward’s earldom.”

“I know that. I know, too, that he will not keep it long, unless he learns that Northumbrians are free men, and not Wessex slaves.”

“And Algar our uncle is outlawed again, after King Edward had given him peaceably your father’s earldom.”

“And why?”

“Why was he outlawed two years ago?”

“Because the Godwinssons hate him, I suppose.”

“And Algar is gone to Griffin, the Welshman, and from him on to Dublin to get ships, just as he did two years ago; and has sent us here to get ships likewise.”

“And what will he do with them when he has got them? He burnt Hereford last time he was outlawed, by way of a wise deed, minster and all, with St. Ethelbert’s relics on board; and slew seven clergymen: but they were only honest canons with wives at home, and not shaveling monks, so I suppose that sin was easily shrived. Well, I robbed a priest of a few pence, and was outlawed; he plunders and burns a whole minster, and is made a great earl for if. One law for the weak and one for the strong, young lads, as you will know when you are as old as I. And now I suppose he will plunder and burn more minsters, and then patch up a peace with Harold again; which I advise him strongly to do; for I warn you, young lads, and you may carry that message from me to Dublin to my good brother your uncle, that Harold’s little finger is thicker than his whole body; and that, false Godwinsson as he is, he is the only man with a head upon his shoulders left in England, now that his father, and my father, and dear old Siward, whom I loved better than my father, are dead and gone.”

The lads stood silent, not a little awed, and indeed imposed on, by the cynical and worldly-wise tone which their renowned uncle had assumed.

At last one of them asked, falteringly, “Then you will do nothing for us?”

“For you, nothing. Against you, nothing. Why should I mix myself up in my brother’s quarrels? Will he make that white-headed driveller at Westminster reverse my outlawry? And if he does, what shall I get thereby? A younger brother’s portion; a dirty ox-gang of land in Kesteven. Let him leave me alone as I leave him, and see if I do not come back to him some day, for or against him as he chooses, with such a host of Vikings’ sons as Harold Hardraade himself would be proud of. By Thor’s hammer, boys, I have been an outlaw but five years now, and I find it so cheery a life, that I do not care if I am an outlaw for fifty more. The world is a fine place and a wide place; and it is a very little corner of it that I have seen yet; and if you were of my mettle, you would come along with me and see it throughout to the four corners of heaven, instead of mixing yourselves up in these paltry little quarrels with which our two families are tearing England in pieces, and being murdered perchance like dogs at last by treachery, as Sweyn Godwinsson murdered Biorn.”

The boys listened, wide-eyed and wide-eared. Hereward knew to whom he was speaking; and he had not spoken in vain.

“What do you hope to get here?” he went on. “Ranald will give you no ships: he will have enough to do to fight O’Brodar; and he is too cunning to thrust his head into Algar’s quarrels.”

“We hoped to find Vikings here, who would go to any war on the hope of plunder.”

“If there be any, I want them more than you; and, what is more, I will have them. They know that they will do finer deeds with me for their captain than burning a few English homesteads. And so may you. Come with me, lads. Once and for all, come. Help me to fight O’Brodar. Then help me to another little adventure which I have on hand — as pretty a one as ever you heard a minstrel sing — and then we will fit out a longship or two, and go where fate leads — to Constantinople, if you like. What can you do better? You never will get that earldom from Tosti. Lucky for young Waltheof, your uncle, if he gets it — if he, and you too, are not murdered within seven years; for I know Tosti’s humor, when he has rivals in his way ——”

“Algar will protect us,” said one.

“I tell you, Algar is no match for the Godwinssons. If the monk-king died tomorrow, neither his earldom nor his life would be safe. When I saw your father Asbiorn lie dead at Dunsinane, I said, ‘There ends the glory of the house of the bear;’ and if you wish to make my words come false, then leave England to founder and rot and fall to pieces — as all men say she is doing — without your helping to hasten her ruin; and seek glory and wealth too with me around the world! The white bear’s blood is in your veins, lads. Take to the sea like your ancestor, and come over the swan’s bath with me!”

“That we will!” said the two lads. And well they kept their word.

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