Peter Rex, Hereward: the Last Englishman (Stroud: Tempus,
2005). ISBN 0 7524 3318 0. Pb., 223pp, £17.99.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the English and the Norman Conquest and no more so than in Hereward ‘the Wake’. To an earlier generation of scholars Hereward was largely a figure of legend and in consequence figured only marginally in the account of the Norman Conquest and settlement of England. Now he has moved out of the wings into the limelight. The various versions of the story of his fight against the despoilers of his patrimony have been examined for the light they cast on English attitudes to the disaster in the twelfth century; there have even been revisionary reassessments of the historicity of the sources. It is indeed an opportune time to examine anew the whole tradition and this is the avowed aim of Peter Rex in Hereward: the Last Englishman.
After a brief examination of Anglo-Danish society in the late eleventh century, Rex begins the story with Hereward’s background. He dismisses most of the accounts (the son of Earl Leofric, connection with Bourne etc), but accepts that he was of high status. On the basis of ‘unnoticed’ Peterborough and Crowland tradition, he asserts that he was a kinsman of Abbot Brand of Peterborough and proceeds to identify his father as Brand’s brother Asketil son of Toki. Following Elizabeth van Houts’ analysis, he then turns to his early life as exile and mercenary in Flanders, his return to England, and then his rebellion against the Normans. Here Rex provides only a cursory account of the fenlands and the Isle of Ely before embarking on a detailed analysis of the campaign. He accepts that Hereward sacked Peterborough before his retreat to the Isle and argues that the Norman response was naval blockade as much as attack. For him the final and successful assault was effected by the construction of a pontoon bridge somewhere in the region of Little Thetford rather than at Aldreth. Rex concludes with the mystery of Hereward’s fate thereafter, suggesting that he went back into exile in Flanders, and argues that there was no connection between him and his family and the subsequent emergence of the barony of Bourne. A postscript deals with ‘Hereward in fact and fiction’ and biographical appendices with the dramatis personae of the story.
Rex comes up with some novel ideas, but not all are convincing. The nature of the sources, Domesday included, lies at the heart of the Hereward story, but nowhere does the author confront them in any concerted way. In the absence of any clear explication, the ‘common sense’ approach that Rex applies to conflicting evidence often just begs the question at issue. His examination of Hereward’s parentage is a case in point. It is based on late sources which he otherwise dismisses as fantasy and he makes unwarranted assumptions of identity: not all references to the name Asketil are necessarily to the same individual as he seems to assume. The account of the siege, informed as it is by a deep knowledge of local topography, is more satisfying. Rex’s argument for the final approach to the island from the east is plausible as is his suggestion that Hereward went back into exile afterwards. The two major sources here are contradictory and he is probably right in seeking a third way. The Crowland tradition of the fate of his lands cannot be so easily dismissed, though. The identity of the barony of Bourne in the twelfth century seems to have been founded in the lands and interests of Hereward in the eleventh and so its transfer through the marriage of Hereward’s daughter, as asserted by the Historia Croylandensis, remains highly probable.
Despite the subtitle, the issue of Englishness remains the ghost at the feast. From time to time Rex attributes aspects of the sources to changing perceptions of identity, but he never really confronts the subject head-on. For him, it would seem, English, Danes, Normans were distinct races with defined cultures, identity, and interests. The eleventh-century reality was otherwise. It is now recognized that family and local interests, power structures and custom, even fashion, blurred the edges of ethnicity. Hereward’s stand against the Normans was as much about patrimony and place as Englishness. And so, arguably, was it to be throughout the Middle Ages, for Hereward was to remain a local fenland hero. It was only in the nineteenth century that he was promoted to national icon with the publication of Charles Kingsley’s historical novel Hereward the Wake.
On the production side, Rex has not been well served by his editor. Proof-reading is often indifferent: some readers will be befuddled by the occasional confusion of 1066 for 1086 and vice versa. But this is as nothing to the constant repetition of material in this overtly chronological account. Those unfamiliar with the period might be forgiven for thinking that Hereward and the Danes sacked Peterborough twice and wonder why Abbot Turold arrives so many times with all his titles and medals. Nevertheless, Hereward: the Last Englishman remains the best account of the story so far, although it is somewhat less than the popular, accessible account that it is intended to be.