The story of Hereward the Wake

The story of Hereward the Wake is a story of this time told many times over. It is a key part of the story we are telling of the great Fenland Monasteries. I am going to address this part of the story in two steps – one step here and now, another next week when other elements of the time step in.

This part is a direct verbatim transcription of the story from:‘The Peterborough Chronicle of Hugh Candidus.’

Hugh Candidus – sometimes named ‘Hugh White’ – compiled the first known local chronicle of Peterborough. He lived during the reigns of Henry I, Stephen and Henry II.   His Chronicle covers the period 655 to 1177. There have been three editions of this document. The first was in 1941 and a second one in 1966. The copy I have used was translated by Charles Mellows & William Thomas Mellows, edited by William and published by the Peterborough Museum Society in 1980.

‘When Abbot Leofric was dead, as we have said, the whole congregation elected and appointed in his place Abbot Brand his fellow-worker and helper in all his good deeds, who with his brethren gave great possessions, as we have said before, to God and Saint Peter and his monks. They sent him to Edgar Ætheling who was of the royal seed, that he might grant him the abbacy, which indeed, he gladly did. For all thought that he would acquire the land, and would be made kink, wherefore William, who had been already anointed king was exceedingly angry with him. But after the mediation of his friends, Abbot Brand gave the king forty gold marks for his friendship, to confirm by his charter all the lands which he and his bretheren had given. And this thing he did, as we have written above. This abbott lived no more than three years after this; and when he died om the 30th of November 1069 all manner of evils befell the monastery from that time onward.

‘Then came into England the Danes, that is to say, King Sweyn, son of King Canute, and with him a mighty army, and the English thought he would acquire the land by battle. And a certain earl among them named Osbern and Christian the bishop and many with them came to the Isle of Ely, and Hereward with his men joined them, and they did all manner of evil things. And Hereward himself incited and invited them to come to the monastery of Burch [then the name of Peterborough Abbey], and take whatever was there in gold, in silver, and in other precious things, because they had heard that the abbot was dead and that King William had given the abbacy to a certain Norman monk named Turold, and because he was a very stern man and because he had already come to Stamford [the near-by town] with his knights, therefore they made haste to go and take whatever they could find. Nor was this hidden from the monks of Burch.

‘There was in the monastery at that time a certain sacrist named Ivar, who, upon hearing this rumour, by the advice of the monks took all that he could gather together, texts of the gospels, chasubles, copes, and similar small gear, and came to Abbot Turold at Stamford and told him how Hereward and the Danes were coming to despoil the church.

‘Then very early in the morning of the same day, came these aforesaid evildoers with many ships, but the monks and their men closed the gates and courageously begun to defend from above; and a strenuous battle was there fought at the Bolhithe gate. Then Hereward and his allies, seeing that they could in no wise conquer them nor force and entrance, set fire to the buildings that were next the gate, and thus entered by the aid if fire, and they burned all the offices of the monks, and the whole of the vill [town], save only the church and one house. Then the monks came unto them and entreated them not to do this great wrong; but they would not harken to them but, armed as they were, entered the church and would have carried away the great cross but they were not able. Albeit they took the golden crown from the head of the crucifix, with the precious stones, and the footrest under its feet, which was also of pure gold and gems, and they took two golden feretories [golden or gilded biers for carrying items in processions] and nine others adorned with silver and gold anf gems, and twelve crosses some of gold and others of gold and silver and jewels. And even this sufficed them not, but they climbed the tower and took the great table which the monks had hidden there which was all of gold and silver and precious stones, which was wont to be before the altar. No-one can tell or estimate how much gold and silver in divers sorts of ornaments, and books they took. All these things were excellent in worth, and none so good remain in all England.

‘Nevertheless they said they were doing this out of loyalty to the church and the Danes would guard these things better than the Frenchmen for the use of the church. An indeed Hereward was himself a man of the monks, and for that reason many believed in him. But he oft times swore in after times that he had done this of good intention, because he supposed they were conquering king William, and would themselves possess the land. Now all that was carried to Abbot Turold was saved, but all that they themselves seized was lost. So they took all things that they could gather together, and put them in their ships, and sailed away in haste, fearing lest the Normans could come upon them. And when they came to Ely they gave it all to the Danes, and Æthelwold the prior and Egelsin the monk and many of the older monks they had brought away with them. Then all the rest were scattered hither and thither as sheep without a shepherd, so that none remained in the monastery, save only one sick monk named Leofwin Lange who was lying in the infirmary. Thus was fulfilled what was spoken to Bishop Æthelfric – and all this took place on June 2nd 1069.

‘That same day came Abbot Turold to the monastery with 140 [some say 160] Normans, well-armed, and could not find them because they had already gone on their ships; but he found all things both within and without utterly burned, save only the church. So that city which was called the Golden Borough became the poorest of cities.

‘Prior Æthelwold and others of the elders were carried, as we have said, with the treasures, and were at Ely with the Danes, and because the prior was a man of wisdom and understanding they made him a promise that if he would come with them to protect their country he should be a bishop. He pretended to them that he would gladly do so, and thereupon they gave into his keeping all their treasures, and delivered him the keys thereof.

‘But he secretly got for himself hammers and tools of all sorts such as he needed and kept them by him. Then on a certain day the Danes made themselves a great feast, and the men making merry over treasure they had got with little labour, were all very joyful. While they were banqueting and carousing all day, Prior Æthelwold took his tools, and after a prayer began to open the feretory [golden or gilded biers for carrying items in processions] in which he knew the arm of St. Oswald king and martyr was hidden.’

This last piece is not directly linked to the story we are telling – so we’ll keep the story for another day!


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