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

Chapter 6.

How Hereward was Wrecked Upon the Flanders Shore.

Hereward had drunk his share at Sigtryg’s wedding. He had helped to harry the lands of O’Brodar till (as King Ranald had threatened) there was not a sucking-pig left in Ivark, and the poor folk died of famine, as they did about every seven years; he had burst (says the chronicler) through the Irish camp with a chosen band of Berserkers, slain O’Brodar in his tent, brought off his war-horn as a trophy, and cut his way back to the Danish army — a feat in which the two Siwards were grievously wounded; and had in all things shown himself a daring and crafty captain, as careless of his own life as of other folks’.

Then a great home-sickness had seized him. He would go back and see the old house, and the cattle-pastures, and the meres and fens of his boyhood. He would see his widowed mother. Perhaps her heart was softened to him by now, as his was toward her; and if not, he could show her that he could do without her; that others thought him a fine fellow if she did not. Hereward knew that he had won honor and glory for himself; that his name was in the mouths of all warriors and sea-rovers round the coasts as the most likely young champion of the time, able to rival, if he had the opportunity, the prowess of Harold Hardraade himself. Yes, he would go and see his mother: he would be kind if she was kind; if she were not, he would boast and swagger, as he was but too apt to do. That he should go back at the risk of his life; that any one who found him on English ground might kill him; and that many would certainly try to kill him, he knew very well. But that only gave special zest to the adventure.

Martin Lightfoot heard this news with joy.

“I have no more to do here,” said he. “I have searched and asked far and wide for the man I want, and he is not on the Irish shores. Some say he is gone to the Orkneys, some to Denmark. Never mind; I shall find him before I die.”

“And for whom art looking?”

“For one Thord Gunlaugsson, my father.”

“And what wantest with him?”

“To put this through his brain.” And he showed his axe.

“Thy father’s brain?”

“Look you, lord. A man owes his father naught, and his mother all. At least so hold I. ‘Man that is of woman born,’ say all the world; and they say right. Now, if any man hang up that mother by hands and feet, and flog her to death, is not he that is of that mother born bound to revenge her upon any man, and all the more if that man had first his wicked will of that poor mother? Considering that last, lord, I do not know but what I am bound to avenge my mother’s shame upon the man, even if he had never killed her. No, lord, you need not try to talk this out of my head. It has been there nigh twenty years; and I say it over to myself every night before I sleep, lest I should forget the one thing which I must do before I die. Find him I will, and find him I shall, if there be justice in heaven above.”

So Hereward asked Ranald for ships, and got at once two good vessels as payment for his doughty deeds.

One he christened the Garpike, from her narrow build and long beak, and the other the Otter, because, he said, whatever she grappled she would never let go till she heard the bones crack. They were excellent, new “snekrs,” nearly eighty feet long each; with double banks for twelve oars a side in the waist, which was open, save a fighting gangway along the sides; with high poop and forecastle decks; and with one large sail apiece, embroidered by Sigtryg’s Princess and the other ladies with a huge white bear, which Hereward had chosen as his ensign.

As for men, there were fifty fellows as desperate as Hereward himself, to take service with him for that or any other quest. So they ballasted their ships with great pebbles, stowed under the thwarts, to be used as ammunition in case of boarding; and over them the barrels of ale and pork and meal, well covered with tarpaulins. They stowed in the cabins, fore and aft, their weapons — swords, spears, axes, bows, chests of arrow-heads, leather bags of bowstrings, mail-shirts, and helmets, and fine clothes for holidays and fighting days. They hung their shields, after the old fashion, out-board along the gunwale, and a right gay show they made; and so rowed out of Waterford harbor amid the tears of the ladies and the cheers of the men.

But, as it befell, the voyage did not prosper. Hereward found his vessels under-manned, and had to sail northward for fresh hands. He got none in Dublin, for they were all gone to the Welsh marches to help Earl Alfgar and King Griffin. So he went on through the Hebrides, intending, of course, to plunder as he went: but there he got but little booty, and lost several men. So he went on again to the Orkneys, to try for fresh hands from the Norse Earl Hereof; but there befell a fresh mishap. They were followed by a whale, which they made sure was a witch-whale, and boded more ill luck; and accordingly they were struck by a storm in the Pentland Frith, and the poor Garpike went on shore on Hoy, and was left there forever and a day, her crew being hardly saved, and very little of her cargo.

However, the Otter was now not only manned, but over manned; and Hereward had to leave a dozen stout fellows in Kirkwall, and sail southward again, singing cheerily to his men —

“Lightly the long-snake

Leaps after tempests,

Gayly the sun-gleam

Glows after rain

In labor and daring

Lies luck for all mortals,

Foul winds and foul witch-wives

Fray women alone.”

But their mishaps were not over yet. They were hardly out of Stronsay Frith when they saw the witch-whale again, following them up, rolling and spouting and breaching in most uncanny wise. Some said that they saw a gray woman on his back; and they knew — possibly from the look of the sky, but certainly from the whale’s behavior — that there was more heavy weather yet coming from the northward.

From that day forward the whale never left them, nor the wild weather neither. They were beaten out of all reckoning. Once they thought they saw low land to the eastward, but what or where who could tell? and as for making it, the wind, which had blown hard from northeast, backed against the sun and blew from west; from which, as well as from the witch-whale, they expected another gale from north and round to northeast.

The men grew sulky and fearful. Some were for trying to run the witch down and break her back, as did Frithiof in like case, when hunted by a whale with two hags upon his back — an excellent recipe in such cases, but somewhat difficult in a heavy sea. Others said that there was a doomed man on board, and proposed to cast lots till they found him out, and cast him into the sea, as a sacrifice to Aegir the wave-god. But Hereward scouted that as unmanly and cowardly, and sang —

“With blood of my bold ones,

With bale of my comrades,

Thinks Aegir, brine-thirsty,

His throat he can slake?

Though salt spray, shrill-sounding,

Sweep in swan’s-flights above us,

True heroes, troth-plighted,

Together we’ll die.”

At last, after many days, their strength was all but worn out. They had long since given over rowing, and contented themselves with running under a close-reefed canvas whithersoever the storm should choose. At night a sea broke over them, and would have swamped the Otter, had she not been the best of sea-boats. But she only rolled the lee shields into the water and out again, shook herself, and went on. Nevertheless, there were three men on the poop when the sea came in, who were not there when it went out.

Wet and wild dawned that morning, showing naught but gray sea and gray air. Then sang Hereward —

“Cheerly, my sea-cocks

Crow for the day-dawn.

Weary and wet are we,

Water beladen.

Wetter our comrades,

Whelmed by the witch-whale.

Us Aegir granted

Grudging, to Gondul,

Doomed to die dry-shod,

Daring the foe.”

Whereat the hearts of the men were much cheered.

All of a sudden, as is the wont of gales at dawn, the clouds rose, tore up into ribbons, and with a fierce black shower or two, blew clean away; disclosing a bright blue sky, a green rolling sea, and, a few miles off to leeward, a pale yellow line, seen only as they topped a wave, but seen only too well. To keep the ship off shore was impossible; and as they drifted nearer and nearer, the line of sand-hills rose, uglier and more formidable, through the gray spray of the surf.

“We shall die on shore, but not dry-shod,” said Martin. “Do any of you knights of the tar-brush know whether we are going to be drowned in Christian waters? I should like a mass or two for my soul, and shall die the happier within sight of a church-tower.”

“One Dune is as like another as one pea; we may be anywhere between the Texel and Cap Gris Nez, but I think nearer the latter than the former.”

“So much the worse for us,” said another. “If we had gone ashore among those Frieslanders, we should have been only knocked on the head outright; but if we fall among the Frenchmen, we shall be clapt in prison strong, and tortured till we find ransom.”

“I don’t see that,” said Martin. “We can all be drowned if we like, I suppose?”

“Drowned we need not be, if we be men,” said the old sailing-master to Hereward. “The tide is full high, and that gives us one chance for our lives. Keep her head straight, and row like fiends when we are once in the surf, and then beach her up high and dry, and take what befalls after.”

And what was likely to befall was ugly enough. Then, as centuries after, all wrecks and wrecked men were public prey; shipwrecked mariners were liable to be sold as slaves; and the petty counts of the French and Flemish shores were but too likely to extract ransom by prison and torture, as Guy Earl of Penthieu would have done (so at least William Duke of Normandy hinted) by Harold Godwinsson, had not William, for his own politic ends, begged the release of the shipwrecked earl.

Already they had been seen from the beach. The country folk, who were prowling about the shore after the waifs of the storm, deserted “jetsom and lagend,” and crowded to meet the richer prize which was coming in “flotsom,” to become “jetsom” in its turn.

“Axe-men and bow-men, put on your harness, and be ready; but neither strike nor shoot till I give the word. We must land peaceably if we can; if not, we will die fighting.”

So said Hereward, and took the rudder into his own hand. “Now then,” as she rushed into the breakers, “pull together, rowers all, and with a will.”

The men yelled, and sprang from the thwarts as they tugged at the oars. The sea boiled past them, surged into the waist, blinded them with spray. She grazed the sand once, twice, thrice, leaping forward gallantly each time; and then, pressed by a huge wave, drove high and dry upon the beach, as the oars snapt right and left, and the men tumbled over each other in heaps.

The peasants swarmed down like flies to a carcass; but they recoiled as there rose over the forecastle bulwarks, not the broad hats of peaceful buscarles, but peaked helmets, round red shields, and glittering axes. They drew back, and one or two arrows flew from the crowd into the ship. But at Hereward’s command no arrows were shot in answer.

“Bale her out quietly; and let us show these fellows that we are not afraid of them. That is the best chance of peace.”

At this moment a mounted party came down between the sandhills; it might be, some twenty strong. Before them rode a boy on a jennet, and by him a clerk, as he seemed, upon a mule. They stopped to talk with the peasants, and then to consult among themselves. Suddenly the boy turned from his party; and galloping down the shore, while the clerk called after him in vain, reined up his horse, fetlock deep in water, within ten yards of the ship’s bows.

“Yield yourselves!” he shouted, in French, as he brandished a hunting spear. “Yield yourselves, or die!”

Hereward looked at him smiling, as he sat there, keeping the head of his frightened horse toward the ship with hand and heel, his long locks streaming in the wind, his face full of courage and command, and of honesty and sweetness withal; and thought that he had never seen so fair a lad.

“And who art thou, thou pretty, bold boy?” asked Hereward, in French.

“I,” said he, haughtily enough, as resenting Hereward’s familiar “thou,” “am Arnulf, grandson and heir of Baldwin, Marquis of Flanders, and lord of this land. And to his grace I call on you to surrender yourselves.”

Hereward looked, not only with interest, but respect, upon the grandson of one of the most famous and prosperous of northern potentates, the descendant of the mighty Charlemagne himself. He turned and told the men who the boy was.

“It would be a good trick,” quoth one, “to catch that young whelp, and keep him as a hostage.”

“Here is what will have him on board before he can turn,” said another, as he made a running noose in a rope.

“Quiet, men! Am I master in this ship or you?”

Hereward saluted the lad courteously. “Verily the blood of Baldwin of the Iron Arm has not degenerated. I am happy to behold so noble a son of so noble a race.”

“And who are you, who speak French so well, and yet by your dress are neither French nor Fleming?”

“I am Harold Naemansson, the Viking; and these my men. I am here, sailing peaceably for England; as for yielding — mine yield to no living man, but die as we are, weapon in hand. I have heard of your grandfather, that he is a just man and a bountiful; therefore take this message to him, young sir. If he have wars toward, I and my men will fight for him with all our might, and earn hospitality and ransom with our only treasure, which is our swords. But if he be at peace, then let him bid us go in peace, for we are Vikings, and must fight, or rot and die.”

“You are Vikings?” cried the boy, pressing his horse into the foam so eagerly, that the men, mistaking his intent, had to be represt again by Hereward. “You are Vikings! Then come on shore, and welcome. You shall be my friends. You shall be my brothers. I will answer to my grandfather. I have longed to see Vikings. I long to be a Viking myself.”

“By the hammer of Thor,” cried the old master, “and thou wouldst make a bonny one, my lad.”

Hereward hesitated, delighted with the boy, but by no means sure of his power to protect them.

But the boy rode back to his companions, who had by this time ridden cautiously down to the sea, and talked and gesticulated eagerly.

Then the clerk rode down and talked with Hereward.

“Are you Christians?” shouted he, before he would adventure himself near the ship.

“Christians we are, Sir Clerk, and dare do no harm to a man of God.”

The Clerk rode nearer; his handsome palfrey, furred cloak, rich gloves and boots, moreover his air of command, showed that he was no common man.

“I,” said he, “am the Abbot of St. Bertin of Sithiu, and tutor of yonder prince. I can bring down, at a word, against you, the Châtelain of St. Omer, with all his knights, besides knights and men-at-arms of my own. But I am a man of peace, and not of war, and would have no blood shed if I can help it.”

“Then make peace,” said Hereward. “Your lord may kill us if he will, or have us for his guests if he will. If he does the first, we shall kill, each of us, a few of his men before we die; if the latter, we shall kill a few of his foes. If you be a man of God, you will counsel him accordingly.”

“Alas! alas!” said the Abbot, with a shudder, “that, ever since Adam’s fall, sinful man should talk of nothing but slaying and being slain; not knowing that his soul is slain already by sin, and that a worse death awaits him hereafter than that death of the body of which he makes so light!”

“A very good sermon, my Lord Abbot, to listen to next Sunday morning: but we are hungry and wet and desperate just now; and if you do not settle this matter for us, our blood will be on your head — and may be your own likewise.”

The Abbot rode out of the water faster than he had ridden in, and a fresh consultation ensued, after which the boy, with a warning gesture to his companions, turned and galloped away through the sand-hills.

“He is gone to his grandfather himself, I verily believe,” quoth Hereward.

They waited for some two hours, unmolested; and, true to their policy of seeming recklessness, shifted and dried themselves as well as they could, ate what provisions were unspoilt by the salt water, and, broaching the last barrel of ale, drank healths to each other and to the Flemings on shore.

At last down rode, with the boy, a noble-looking man, and behind him more knights and men-at-arms. He announced himself as Manasses, Châtelain of St. Omer, and repeated the demand to surrender.

“There is no need for it,” said Hereward. “We are already that young prince’s guests. He has said that we shall be his friends and brothers. He has said that he will answer to his grandfather, the great Marquis, whom I and mine shall be proud to serve. I claim the word of a descendant of Charlemagne.”

“And you shall have it!” cried the boy. “Châtelain! Abbot! these men are mine. They shall come with me, and lodge in St. Bertin.”

“Heaven forefend!” murmured the Abbot.

“They will be safe, at least, within your ramparts,” whispered the Châtelain.

“And they shall tell me about the sea. Have I not told you how I long for Vikings; how I will have Vikings of my own, and sail the seas with them, like my Uncle Robert, and go to Spain and fight the Moors, and to Constantinople and marry the Kaiser’s daughter? Come,” he cried to Hereward, “come on shore, and he that touches you or your ship, touches me!”

“Sir Châtelain and my Lord Abbot,” said Hereward, “you see that, Viking though I be, I am no barbarous heathen, but a French-speaking gentleman, like yourselves. It had been easy for me, had I not been a man of honor, to have cast a rope, as my sailors would have had me do, over that young boy’s fair head, and haled him on board, to answer for my life with his own. But I loved him, and trusted him, as I would an angel out of heaven; and I trust him still. To him, and him only, will I yield myself, on condition that I and my men shall keep all our arms and treasure, and enter his service, to fight his foes, and his grandfather’s, wheresoever they will, by land or sea.”

“Fair sir,” said the Abbot, “pirate though you call yourself, you speak so courtly and clerkly, that I, too, am inclined to trust you; and if my young lord will have it so, into St. Bertin I will receive you, till our lord, the Marquis, shall give orders about you and yours.”

So promises were given all round; and Hereward explained the matter to the men, without whose advice (for they were all as free as himself) he could not act.

“Needs must,” grunted they, as they packed up each his little valuables.

Then Hereward sheathed his sword, and leaping from the bow, came up to the boy.

“Put your hands between his, fair sir,” said the Châtelain.

“That is not the manner of Vikings.”

And he took the boy’s right hand, and grasped it in the plain English fashion.

“There is the hand of an honest man. Come down, men, and take this young lord’s hand, and serve him in the wars as I will do.”

One, by one the men came down; and each took Arnulf’s hand, and shook it till the lad’s face grew red. But none of them bowed, or made obeisance. They looked the boy full in the face, and as they stepped back, stared round upon the ring of armed men with a smile and something of a swagger.

“These are they who bow to no man, and call no man master,” whispered the Abbot.

And so they were: and so are their descendants of Scotland and Northumbria, unto this very day.

The boy sprang from his horse, and walked among them and round them in delight. He admired and handled their long-handled double axes; their short sea-bows of horn and deer-sinew; their red Danish jerkins; their blue sea-cloaks, fastened on the shoulder with rich brooches; and the gold and silver bracelets on their wrists. He wondered at their long shaggy beards, and still more at the blue patterns with which the English among them, Hereward especially, were tattooed on throat and arm and knee.

“Yes, you are Vikings — just such as my Uncle Robert tells me of.”

Hereward knew well the exploits of Robert le Frison in Spain and Greece. “I trust that your noble uncle,” he asked, “is well? He was one of us poor sea-cocks, and sailed the swan’s path gallantly, till he became a mighty prince. Here is a man here who was with your noble uncle in Byzant.”

And he thrust forward the old master.

The boy’s delight knew no bounds. He should tell him all about that in St. Bertin.

Then he rode back to the ship, and round and round her (for the tide by that time had left her high and dry), and wondered at her long snake-like lines, and carven stem and stern.

“Tell me about this ship. Let me go on board of her. I have never seen a ship inland at Mons there; and even here there are only heavy ugly busses, and little fishing-boats. No. You must be all hungry and tired. We will go to St. Bertin at once, and you shall be feasted royally. Hearken, villains!” shouted he to the peasants. “This ship belongs to the fair sir here — my guest and friend; and if any man dares to steal from her a stave or a nail, I will have his thief’s hand cut off.”

“The ship, fair lord,” said Hereward, “is yours, not mine. You should build twenty more after her pattern, and man them with such lads as these, and then go down to

‘Miklagard and Spanialand,

That lie so far on the lee, O!’

as did your noble uncle before you.”

And so they marched inland, after the boy had dismounted one of his men, and put Hereward on the horse.

“You gentlemen of the sea can ride as well as sail,” said the châtelain, as he remarked with some surprise Hereward’s perfect seat and hand.

“We should soon learn to fly likewise,” laughed Hereward, “if there were any booty to be picked up in the clouds there overhead”; and he rode on by Arnulf’s side, as the lad questioned him about the sea, and nothing else.

“Ah, my boy,” said Hereward at last, “look there, and let those be Vikings who must.”

And he pointed to the rich pastures, broken by strips of corn-land and snug farms, which stretched between the sea and the great forest of Flanders.

“What do you mean?”

But Hereward was silent. It was so like his own native fens. For a moment there came over him the longing for a home. To settle down in such a fair fat land, and call good acres his own; and marry and beget stalwart sons, to till the old estate when he could till no more. Might not that be a better life — at least a happier one — than restless, homeless, aimless adventure? And now, just as he had had a hope of peace — a hope of seeing his own land, his own folk, perhaps of making peace with his mother and his king — the very waves would not let him rest, but sped him forth, a storm-tossed waif, to begin life anew, fighting he cared not whom or why, in a strange land.

So he was silent and sad withal.

“What does he mean?” asked the boy of the Abbot.

“He seems a wise man: let him answer for himself.”

The boy asked once more.

“Lad! lad!” said Hereward, waking as from a dream. “If you be heir to such a fair land as that, thank God for it, and pray to Him that you may rule it justly, and keep it in peace, as they say your grandfather and your father do; and leave glory and fame and the Vikings’ bloody trade to those who have neither father nor mother, wife nor land, but live like the wolf of the wood, from one meal to the next.”

“I thank you for those words, Sir Harold,” said the good Abbot, while the boy went on abashed, and Hereward himself was startled at his own saying, and rode silent till they crossed the drawbridge of St. Bertin, and entered that ancient fortress, so strong that it was the hiding-place in war time for all the treasures of the country, and so sacred withal that no woman, dead or alive, was allowed to defile it by her presence; so that the wife of Baldwin the Bold, ancestor of Arnulf, wishing to lie by her husband, had to remove his corpse from St. Bertin to the Abbey of Blandigni, where the Counts of Flanders lay in glory for many a generation.

The pirates entered, not without gloomy distrust, the gates of that consecrated fortress; while the monks in their turn were (and with some reason) considerably frightened when they were asked to entertain as guests forty Norse rovers. Loudly did the elder among them bewail (in Latin, lest their guests should understand too much) the present weakness of their monastery, where St. Bertin was left to defend himself and his monks all alone against the wicked world outside. Far different had been their case some hundred and seventy years before. Then St. Valeri and St. Riquier of Ponthieu, transported thither from their own resting-places in France for fear of the invading Northmen, had joined their suffrages and merits to those of St. Bertin, with such success that the abbey had never been defiled by the foot of the heathen. But, alas! the saints, that is their bodies, after a while became homesick; and St. Valeri appearing in a dream to Hugh Capet, bade him bring them back to France in spite of Arnulf, Count of those parts, who wished much to retain so valuable an addition to his household gods.

But in vain. Hugh Capet was a man who took few denials. With knights and men-at-arms he came, and Count Arnulf had to send home the holy corpses with all humility, and leave St. Bertin all alone.

Whereon St. Valeri appeared in a dream to Hugh Capet, and said unto him, “Because thou hast zealously done what I commanded, thou and thy successors shall reign in the kingdom of France to everlasting generations.” 8

8 “Histoire des Comtes de Flandre,” par E. le Glay. E. gestis SS. Richarii et Walerici.

However, there was no refusing the grandson and heir of Count Baldwin; and the hearts of the monks were comforted by hearing that Hereward was a good Christian, and that most of his crew had been at least baptized. The Abbot therefore took courage, and admitted them into the hospice, with solemn warnings as to the doom which they might expect if they took the value of a horse-nail from the patrimony of the blessed saint. Was he less powerful or less careful of his own honor than St. Lieven of Holthem, who, not more than fifty years before, had struck stone-blind four soldiers of the Emperor Henry’s, who had dared, after warning, to plunder the altar? 9 Let them remember, too, the fate of their own forefathers, the heathens of the North, and the check which, one hundred and seventy years before, they had received under those very walls. They had exterminated the people of Walcheren; they had taken prisoner Count Regnier; they had burnt Ghent, Bruges, and St. Omer itself, close by; they had left naught between the Scheldt and the Somme, save stark corpses and blackened ruins. What could withstand them till they dared to lift audacious hands against the heavenly lord who sleeps there in Sithiu? Then they poured down in vain over the Heilig–Veld, innumerable as the locusts. Poor monks, strong in the protection of the holy Bertin, sallied out and smote them hip and thigh, singing their psalms the while. The ditches of the fortress were filled with unbaptized corpses; the piles of vine-twigs which they lighted to burn down the gates turned their flames into the Norsemen’s faces at the bidding of St. Bertin; and they fled from that temporal fire to descend into that which is eternal, while the gates of the pit were too narrow for the multitude of their miscreant souls. 10

9 Ibid.

10 This gallant feat was performed in the A. D. 891.

So the Norsemen heard, and feared; and only cast longing eyes at the gold and tapestries of the altars, when they went in to mass.

For the good Abbot, gaining courage still further, had pointed out to Hereward and his men that it had been surely by the merits and suffrages of the blessed St. Bertin that they had escaped a watery grave.

Hereward and his men, for their part, were not inclined to deny the theory. That they had miraculously escaped, from the accident of the tide being high, they knew full well; and that St. Bertin should have done them the service was probable enough. He, of course, was lord and master in his own country, and very probably a few miles out to sea likewise.

So Hereward assured the Abbot that he had no mind to eat St. Bertin’s bread, or accept his favors, without paying honestly for them; and after mass he took from his shoulders a handsome silk cloak (the only one he had), with a great Scotch Cairngorm brooch, and bade them buckle it on the shoulders of the great image of St. Bertin.

At which St. Bertin was so pleased (being, like many saints, male and female, somewhat proud after their death of the finery which they despised during life), that he appeared that night to a certain monk, and told him that if Hereward would continue duly to honor him, the blessed St. Bertin, and his monks at that place, he would, in his turn, insure him victory in all his battles by land and sea.

After which Hereward stayed quietly in the abbey certain days; and young Arnulf, in spite of all remonstrances from the Abbot, would never leave his side till he had heard from him and from his men as much of their adventures as they thought it prudent to relate.

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