Hereward the Wake, England's national hero, wasn't really English after all

David Keys
Sunday 20 February 2005 01:00

One of history's "greatest Englishmen" wasn't really English at all. Hereward the Wake, the guerrilla leader who fought William the Conqueror for five years from 1066, was, according to new research, a high-ranking Dane.

One of history's "greatest Englishmen" wasn't really English at all. Hereward the Wake, the guerrilla leader who fought William the Conqueror for five years from 1066, was, according to new research, a high-ranking Dane.

From a base in the Fens, Hereward led a war of resistance against the Normans until he was finally defeated in 1071. Popular tradition has maintained that Hereward was the son of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Earl Leofric. This nobleman, so the story goes, was married to Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the streets of Coventry to make her husband lower taxes.

But an in-depth study, Hereward, the Last Englishman, to be published this week, reveals that Hereward was the son of a prominent Anglo-Danish magnate called Asketil.

The research by the historian Peter Rex sheds a fascinating light on the political circumstances of the time. Ever since the late ninth-century Viking raids, parts of eastern England had often come under Danish control - and for some of the 11th century the whole of England became part of a vast Danish empire, which also included Norway, southern Sweden.

England became the subject of a geopolitical tug-of-war between the Scandinavians and the Normans. The half-Norman English king Edward the Confessor was intensely pro-Norman, while his half-Danish successor Harold was supported by the Anglo-Danish community.

In 1066 the country was invaded by both the Scandinavians and the Normans, both of whom were determined to seize permanent control of England.

As an ethnic Dane, Hereward was intensely anti-Norman, probably even more so than many Anglo-Saxons.

He was able to enlist military support from Denmark itself, the new research reveals, and in 1069 the Danish royal family and the Danish church sent a small army across the North Sea to assist Hereward.

As a result of his long guerrilla campaign and by avoiding the attentions of the William's soldiers he earned the popular title "the Wake", meaning "the watchful". One tradition had claimed that the tag stemmed from his links to an old Norman family from the Channel Islands, the Wakes, but this has largely been discounted.

"I believe that my new research is important because, for the first time, it places Hereward in an Anglo-Scandinavian geopolitical setting rather than a purely Anglo-Saxon one," said Mr Rex.

"This new perspective changes the way we understand the English resistance to the Norman conquest."

The resistance leader proves to have been a born rebel, disruptive under the pro-Norman Edward the Confessor and outlawed by royal decree. He seems to have learnt his fighting skills in the Low Countries, where he worked for a succession of Flemish magnates, and was finally appointed mercenary supremo by the Count of Flanders.

After the Normans won the Battle of Hastings, however, Hereward couldn't resist the temptation to return to England to give William the Conqueror a hard time. Eventually he lost, and was believed to have been killed.

He certainly met a bloody end in the popular Sixties dramatisation of his life by the BBC, in which he lost his head. In fact his fate is unknown for certain: he probably escaped into exile.

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