Boadicea the legendary Queen of the Iceni, filled with hate and rage, rebelled against the Romans and sacked London after they took her lands, raped her two daughters and lashed her with a whip. Arthur, mad with grief at the death of his infant child, went to war with the invading Saxons, killing nine hundred and sixty of them at the Battle of Badon as payment for his daughter’s death. Hereward, five hundred years later, filled with the same hatred and rage, fought back against the despised Norman conquerors who had taken his lands, raped his mother and killed his father and brother, putting their severed heads on spikes by the entrance of his home.
Not being royalty or commanding a huge army that could march on the capital he instead enlisted the help of his friend and visited the drunk Norman soldiers in a gloomy little tavern on a blustery and moonless night. By all accounts they had been boasting about their sacking of his household and raping his mother. He fell upon them in a cold rage. Legend has it that he killed fourteen of them that day and, taking down the heads of his father and brother, placed their fourteen heads on wooden spikes at the entrance to his family home. He then fled into the wilds of the fens.
He joined a disparate band of ragtag rebels hiding in the swamps and mists of the fenland. They were hunted men, outlaws who all had stories to tell of the atrocities of the Norman occupation. Saxon men who had suffered too many injustices and who refused to bow their heads any longer to the oppressive Norman rulers. Leofric, for instance, had all his sheep slaughtered and his house burned to the ground, with his two cousins still inside, as punishment for an alleged but unproven offence against Ivo, a vindictive and sadistic Norman official. Eadraed, a giant of a man, refused to pay the cripplingly high taxes so in retribution they took his money and his wife and burned his crops. In retaliation he murdered a Norman soldier with his bare hands and then fled into the marshlands. These were men who had been robbed and abused and driven to rebellion.
Strong, bold and decisive, and rid of the troubled ways of his youth, Hereward soon rose to become their leader. Willing to do the thankless tasks and as charitable with the men as he was implacable with his enemies, he won their loyalty and respect. Moulding them into a potent fighting force he led them on a guerrilla campaign as they hassled and harried the Norman soldiers whenever they could. Emerging silently from the marshes and swamps they would ambush a column or sack a small garrison before swiftly retreating into the fens. They raided far and wide, spreading fear amongst the Normans of East Anglia.
His legend grew. Rumours and tales spread of the brave Saxon rebel who defied the King. It was said by some that Hereward, alone and unaided, burst into the tavern on that fateful day and felled fifty Norman soldiers armed only with an axe. Another tale has it that he and his three most trusted men fought off a hundred horsed Norman knights, such was their ferocity and savagery that the beleaguered knights turned and fled back to the protection of their castle, chased all the way by Hereward and his three fearless captains. Just as they neared the gates Hereward, not wanting their commander to get away, threw his heavy ash spear from three hundred yards and pinned him to the gate, the spear piercing his back and exiting through his stomach.
For five years the band of rebels were a growing thorn in the side of the Normans. Their numbers swelled. They were perceived to be such a force that the Danish King Sweyn sent a small army to the fens to establish a base at Ely, an island amongst the marshes. Allied to the rebels they planned a campaign against their Norman enemy, hoping to gain a foothold close to their capital. Abbot Brand, respected and well liked, had just been replaced by the Norman Turold at a local abbey. It was not an appointment that went down well with the aggrieved and resentful natives. Turold was a brute of a man. He did not possess any of the biblical virtues that you would expect of a man of his position. It was rumoured, and is most likely true, that he stole from his previous abbey’s treasury and oppressed his Saxon flock. Hereward and Sweyn chose the overthrow of Turold as the beginning of their campaign. They descended upon the abbey and set it on fire, killing Turold and his men as they ran from the burning buildings, gold and coins falling from their hands as they tried to escape the flames. Thick black smoke rose from the burning abbey high into the sky, noticeable for miles around. Turold’s head was placed on a stake by the charred remains of the abbey entrance.
Inevitably, news of Hereward and his rebels came to the attention of the Norman King William. William, a decisive and relentless man himself, had already put down revolts in the west led by Eadric the Wild and Gytha, mother of the late King Harold. He erected castles, brooding symbols of his control and power, at every town and city he subjugated. Ominously, William had just returned to London after cruelly supressing a rebellion in the north. It is said that he harried the northern counties mercilessly, destroying crops, slaughtering cattle, starving the population and murdering innocent women and children. He burned York to the ground. Such was the destruction and devastation that he left behind that even his own battle-scarred men, veterans of a thousand campaigns, were moved to tears at the unbearable sight of it all. It was a grim winter for the terrorised people of the north.
William marched upon the fenland. Outnumbered by William’s dreaded army and deeming it unwise to meet him in a pitched battle Hereward retreated deep into the fens. Joined by the rebellious Saxon Earl Morcar they waited at Ely for the coming storm. William began building a bridge to cross the otherwise impassable swamps. When it was finished his massed ranks of soldiers began their slow way across the timber causeway, but such was the weight of the armoured soldiers on the bridge that it sank into the marshes and many of the men drowned.
Three times William’s army tried to cross over to the island. And three times they failed. For the third attempt William had even enlisted the help of a witch. As his men assembled for an assault on the island she stood high above on a raised platform raining down curses and vile insults upon the Saxon warriors. As she stood there screaming into the wind Hereward and his men emerged silently from their hiding places and set fire to the reeds. The fire engulfed the platform and the witch fell, still screaming, to her death. As the Normans tried desperately to escape the flames some drowned in the mire and countless others were shot and killed by the arrows of the deadly Saxon bowmen.
Relentless as he was, William did not give up. Pragmatic and with a good understanding of human nature he tried a different tactic. He bribed a local, Thurstan of Ely, to reveal a secret way across the marshes, an old and concealed passage known only to the Saxon inhabitants of the area. Before the rebels could escape or organise their defence the Normans were upon them. Fuelled by the humiliation of their failed attempts at crossing to the island they fell upon Hereward’s men without mercy, cutting them down one by one. Hereward’s heroic captains fell defending his life, taking over thirty Norman soldiers with them as they tried in vain to reach Hereward with their swords. It is said that Hereward himself killed over twenty Normans, wounded and disconsolate at the destruction of his band of rebels, he lashed out with fury at his hated enemy, still swinging his great sword and shouting his fearsome battle-cry as he was swamped by a mass of soldiers intent on finishing him off.
And so ended the life of Hereward the Outlaw. Some say that in the confusion of battle he slipped out of the packed bodies on top of him and swam across the marshes to safety, the only man to survive the assault. Once he recovered from his wounds and his grief he survived alone in the swampland, occasionally surfacing to exact revenge on a fearful Norman who knew all too well the stories of the legendary Hereward roaming the marshes and bringing swift justice upon them. But this is most likely just a fanciful myth of unreliable source, circulated by those who refused to believe that their great hero died by the hands of their hated oppressors.
Author Notes: Hereward and the majority of the other characters of the story did exist, Hereward is believed to have lived from around 1035 to 1072. However, I have filled out the bare facts and embellished parts of his story.