Saturday, 26 July 2014

Feature Post by Paula Lofting: An Investigation into the Parentage of Hereward (the Wake)

As an author writing in the 11thc, at some point I knew that the heroic character of Hereward, wrongly known as "The Wake", would have to make his entrance upon the stage. So I wanted to sift through the information there is about him and separate the myth from the fact. Whist doing a book search about him, I came upon a recent works by Peter Rex, that feature Hereward and other English rebels who fought to retain their lands from the grasping Normans who had invaded in 1066. The first was The English Resistance: The Underground War Agaisnt the Normans by Peter Rex. This book was a great starting point in learning the facts around the events that were the rebellion years. The Conquest only began in 1066, it took roughly more than 6 years before England was well and truly subjugated.This book included Hereward and his men along with many others such as Eadric the Wild, Earls Waltheof, Morcar and Edwin as well as Edgar the Atheling. Then I got my hands on Rex's book about Hereward in which he seeks to discover who this man was and what the facts are that are known about him, plucking him out of the mists of legend and giving us the man that belongs to what is known about the history of the time.  Like the French resistance in the Second World War, the English fought back to rid their land of the invaders, unfortunately they hadn't bargained on the Conqueror's determination, or the ruthlessness of their overlords.  Still, the bravery of such men as Hereward and Eadric the Wild would go down in history and mythology. But just who was this man whose  'a brief life in history and a long one in romance' (Charles Plummer, Oxford Scholar)? Let's take a look at what the evidence actually turns up.

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.
Ely Cathedral

 As for Leofric of Mercia, we can also discount him, as we know his son was called Alfgar and Alfgar’s sons were Burghred, Edwin and Morcar. There was never a contemporary record of a Hereward there and Leofric did not hold any land that was called Bourne.
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?


  1. A truly fascinating post. I have read this twice now as there is much to absorb and much to think about.

  2. I think your post has effectively squashed the notion that Leofric was Hereward's father. Very interesting post!

  3. I vote with Anna Belfrage. Leofric is a romantic favorite, but 'not the Daddy.'

  4. Paula, I was most interested to read your post--a great one, by the way--as I've just finished a novel, The Red Wolf's Prize, set in England in 1068 and Hereward the Wake, while not a character, is mentioned. He WAS a fascinating figure who certainly inspired others to resist William the Conqueror. Alas, we will never know what England might have been had it not been taken over by Normans.

  5. A very interesting read and a fine piece of scholarship