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The Legend of Hereward: A Review

I just finished reading Mike Ripley’s book The Legend of Hereward and I’m pleased to say that, after a slow start, it was exactly what I was hoping it would be.

I first heard about Hereward from a 1960s television series, now sadly lost, which told the story of the ‘last of the Anglo-Saxon rebels’ against William the Conqueror’s invasion and conquest of England in the most famous year in history, 1066. Hereward the Wake, known also as Hereward the Outlaw and Hereward the Exile, so the story went, was an Anglo-Saxon nobleman and a leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest from his base on the swampy Isle of Ely in eastern England. The legend states that he roamed the Fens, which nowadays covers the parts of the modern counties of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, defying the Normans successfully for a time. His epithet ‘the Wake’, first recorded in the 14th century, has an uncertain derivation — it may mean ‘watchful’ and the TV series had him use it as a battle-cry, from memory.

But the success of the book is due to the fact that Ripley takes all these blanks and plays with them, transforming Hereward into a drug-taking, fire-starting, psychopathic, ignorant and brutal individual whose actions later become the seeds of the legends later told about him. Those looking for a misty, romanticised warrior rebel will here be disappointed, as I was at first: but Ripley’s strength is in turning what little we know about this figure into a page-turning, gripping tale which is not only entertaining and plausible but also highly educational. In fact, this for me was the best thing about the book: not only was I gripped by the narrative, which tells how one crazy man almost accidentally ends up defying and defeating a highly trained militaristic force for an unexpected length of time using a combination of ingenuity, wit, sheer guts and luck, but I felt as though I was immersed in the time — there were chapters when I felt as though I was there, in post-Conquest England, a country suffering under the heel of a merciless and brutal tyrant, seeking its solace in the Church, on the edge of starvation, facing the harsh vagaries of not only ruthless soldier barons but also the weather and the heartless demands of the supposed ‘heroes’ of the story.

Being a romantic, I missed the heroic figure of Hereward the Wake, but Ripley’s book gives the reader such a grounding in Norman times so that one may imagine being there.


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