There has long been a tradition that Hereward, the English rebel who lead a stance against the Normans in the Fens around Ely in 1070, was the wayward son of Leofric of Mercia and Lady Godiva of the naked horse ride fame. Peter Rex has done extensive research in his book Hereward, the Last Englishman, which disproves this theory and sends old ideas of his parentage into the archives of myth and legend... Well it should do at any rate if Rex’s delving is anything to go by. For me at least, his thorough analysis of the evidence produces a plausible and well argued conclusion that Hereward was really the grandson of a wealthy Anglo-Danish magnate and dispels the other two main theories that had been followed for several centuries.
The notion that Leofric of Mercia had fathered this much loved outlaw of legendary fame had been preceded by another Leofric, is nothing new. Domesday had shown that this other Leofric, Lord of Bourne did not exist and so it would be quite reasonable to assume that writers of chronicles in seeking to explain the confusion of the two Leofrics, concluded that the Mercian Leofric was the most suitable candidate. If we look at the major source for his roots, the Gesta Herewardi is one of the first where it mentions Hereward's parents as Edith of York and Leofric of Bourne, a supposed nephew of Ralph the Staller. This does not correlate with an account by Abbott John of Peterborough that states that Brand, Abbott of Peterborough was his uncle on his father’s side:
‘There died paternal uncle of the said Hereward the Wake, to whom by the king’s choice there succeeded Turold’ –Rex (2005)
Later writers later believed Hereward to be the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia, whose known son Alfgar was exiled more than once and by all accounts he was a difficult son who brought shame and embarrassment on his father. Contemporary records seem to omit Earl Leofric as having another rebellious son called Hereward and surely if Hereward had been born into such a notable family, there would have been some mention of it around the time of his existence, especially given the heroic activities he was later to have been purported to have been involved in.
Hereward was said to have been exiled to Flanders after his unruly behaviour and the suggestion that he was a ringleader who encouraged the bad behaviour of others, had caused his father to request that he be exiled. He was also said to have participated in military activity on the continent as a mercenary during this enforced exile. There is plenty of evidence to show that there was such kind of activity the like of which would have attracted mercenaries like Hereward between the years of 1060-70. As the Gesta informs us that Hereward was exiled in 1054 at the age of 18, it would seem that the dates are out of sync with the military activity he is believed to have participated in. If the Gesta is to be believed and he was 18 at the time of his exile, he might well have been on the continent around the early 1060’s and returning home to England some time after the conquest making him available to take part as a leader in the rebellion and siege of Ely 1069-70.
So why does this not make him son of Leofric of Bourne or Leofric of Mercia? Firstly, the Gesta and The History of Crowland Abbey both contain discountable errors. In Gesta Herewardi is described as being son of Leofric of Bourne, son of Earl Ralph, the Crowland version has him written down as son of Leofric, Lord of Bourne, nepos of Radin Earl of Hertford whose wife is Goda, sister of King Edward. I shall discount the mother as it is of no consequence here. In the first case of the Gesta account, Ralph is meant to be Ralph the Staller and there is not a shred of evidence to say he had a son called Leofric who was Lord of Bourne. In the latter account, Radin is a mistake for Ralph and Earl of Hertford is an error and is meant to be referring to Earl Ralph of Hereford, King Edward’s nephew who was son of Goda not her husband; she was King Edward’s sister. No evidence exists to support a son called Ralph. He did, however have a son called Harold who would not have been old enough at the time to have fathered a man called Leofric, let alone be grandfather to Hereward. Furthermore, there is no record of a Leofric of Bourne. So where did the Bourne element come from? Well, who knows, perhaps another investigation is needed.
So who was Hereward's father then?
It seems that the answer may lay with Brand the abbot of Peterborough, who, as stated earlier, was said to have been Hereward’s uncle. Peter Rex, in his research has uncovered the truth about Hereward’s lineage and it would appear that if the abbot was indeed his uncle then Hereward’s father must be one of Brand’s brothers, Asketil, Siward, Siric or Godric. Their father was a man called Toki of Lincoln whose own father was Auti the Moneyer of Lincoln. They were an established wealthy family of Danish descent which would make Hereward an Anglo-Danish hero like Harold Godwinson, but nonetheless and Englishman all the same. Rex, by careful elimination has pinpointed the brother that would have been his father: Asketil Tokison.
I have tried to be brief but concise in my explanation of why I believe Peter Rex’s theory. I have not covered every aspect of research that needed to be done to arrive at this conclusion. If you would like to learn more Rex’s book will give a more in-depth insight into the story.
What do you think? Do you think that the Leofric of Mercia myth has been dispelled? Or are you more inclined to believe that Leofric and Godiva were his parents?