After the 1066 Norman conquest an alliance of English rebels held out on the swamp-ringed isle of Ely— but William would not be denied.
On Oct. 14, 1066, the Norman- French army defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, lay dead on the field along with most of his bodyguards; the English army was smashed and scattered; and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, had earned the sobriquet by which history remembers him—William the Conqueror.
William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day that year, but his conquest was far from complete. He spent the next five years putting down rebellion after rebellion, laying waste to large tracts of his new kingdom in the process. An enigmatic English nobleman known as Hereward the Wake proved his most cunning and determined adversary, leading a valiant resistance against the numerically superior and highly organized Norman army.
Hereward was born around 1045 into a large and established Anglo-Danish family with extensive land holdings in Lincolnshire and across the Humber estuary into Holderness on England’s east coast. According to De Gestis Herwardi Saxoni (“The Exploits of Hereward the Saxon”), an early 12th century manuscript that recounts his reported deeds, Hereward was something of a hothead in his teenage years, “stirring up quarrels among those of his own age…contests among his elders…and tumult among the common people.” In the autumn of 1063, the Gestis continues, his father “drove him from his presence,” and Hereward was forced into exile, fleeing to Flanders.
Hereward was still abroad at the outset of the first revolts against William’s rule. In 1067 an Anglo-Saxon nobleman named Eadric, the victim of a land grab by Norman neighbors, formed an alliance with two Welsh princes and raided deep into his native Herefordshire, in the West Midlands, laying siege to the city of Hereford. That same year the late King Harold’s sons Godwine and Edmund, who had fled to Ireland after Hastings, began raiding the West Country, and Harold’s mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, encouraged the people of Exeter to revolt. An insurrection also threatened the port city of Dover on the southeast coast.
Despite the widespread uprisings, William spent much of the year attending to affairs in Normandy. In his absence the confiscation of English property and widespread looting became commonplace. Among the dispossessed were members of Hereward’s family, and it may have been news of such injustices that brought him back from exile. He returned home to find his widowed mother evicted and his younger brother murdered, his head mounted over the gate of the family house. Hereward entered the building undetected, where, according to the Gestis, he found his brother’s killers “overcome with intoxication, and the soldiers reclining on the women’s laps.” Taking vengeance, “he laid low 14 of them, and their lord…and their heads the same night he set up over the gate where his brother’s head had been placed.”
As news of Hereward’s revenge spread through the countryside, many of his countrymen flocked to join him; he had not been the only Englishman evicted from his lands, thus there was no shortage of discontented men willing to follow anyone with the courage to oppose the rapacious Normans. Hereward soon commanded a small army and only required a secure base from which to continue his attacks against the Normans. The ground he chose was the Isle of Ely.
Ely was a fertile tract of land in southern Lincolnshire, some 10 by 12 miles in area and surrounded by a nearly impenetrable marsh and peat bog. Hereward would have been familiar with the region, as he had held lands nearby before his exile.
The dispossessed English noble eked out a Robin Hood– like existence, raiding the territory of the neighboring Normans, driving off or killing any that remained in their manors, and ambushing and assassinating any foolhardy enough to enter his domain. Hereward’s ruthless tactics soon persuaded some of the invaders to quit their newly acquired lands and return to the Continent.
Elsewhere in England the Normans suppressed sporadic local uprisings with increasing brutality. In 1069 William faced the greatest threat to date when Eadric, by then known as “The Wild,” torched the city of Shrewsbury before marching on Chester, and Harold’s sons resumed their coastal raids against the West Country. Simultaneously, the whole of northern England rebelled under the leadership of Morcar —whom William had stripped of his earldom of Northumbria the previous year—and his brother Edwin, Earl of Mercia. Danish King Sweyn II, who nursed his own distant claim to the English throne, supported them. The English took Durham, slaughtering the 900 Norman troops garrisoned there, then drove south and took York.
William marched north with his army, resolved to crush the rebellious English. Reluctant to face this large Norman force, the Danes prudently withdrew, and without their support the revolt collapsed. William recaptured York unopposed and, using it as his base, set about ensuring the north would never rise again.
In the winter of 1069–70 William sent out troops in all directions with instructions to lay waste to the countryside and kill all the inhabitants. This campaign, known as the “Harrowing of the North,” was effectively a genocide that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Anglo-Danes and crippled the economy and culture of northern England for a generation. So thorough was the destruction that 16 years later, when William documented the assets of his new realm in the Domesday Book, large tracts of Yorkshire and Cheshire are described by the sole Latin word vasta (“waste”).
With the north in ruins and the rebellions in the west subdued, there was only one place in England where the flame of resistance still flickered—the Isle of Ely, where Hereward and his band continued to defy the Conqueror.
In the spring of 1070 King Sweyn sailed from the Humber with his fleet and set up camp on Ely. Many English rebels joined him, including Hereward, believing Sweyn’s intention was to depose William and assume the English throne. More likely the Danes were simply looking for a haven in which to regroup and resupply before returning home.
About that time the Abbot Brand of Peterborough, 20 miles west of Ely, died, and according to the custom of the time the monks elected his replacement from among their own number. The man they chose was another Englishman, a fact that infuriated William.
The medieval church was an extremely wealthy institution. Monasteries and abbeys were not only endowed with well-stocked treasuries but also controlled vast tracts of land. Moreover, many English nobles had been depositing their personal assets with the church in hopes of protecting them from Norman avarice. To wrest control of that wealth, William had replaced high-ranking English clerics with Normans whenever the opportunity arose. On hearing of events at Peterborough, he rescinded the new English abbot’s election and appointed the Norman monk Turold to the position. Turold set out for his new see with an escort of 160 knights—a small army by the standards of the time but an indication of how dangerous Ely and environs had become for the Normans.
Hereward had strong ties to Peterborough; he’d once held property nearby, and the deceased abbot is believed to have been his paternal uncle. Learning of Turold’s approach, he persuaded the Danes to join him in an attack on Peterborough, ostensibly to secure and carry off its treasure, though Hereward may have intended to use the booty to buy ongoing Danish support in his fight against the Normans.
Peterborough Abbey lay on the banks of the River Nene, and Hereward commandeered a fleet of small boats for an amphibious landing adjacent to the monastery. The monks repelled the initial assault, and Hereward responded by setting fire to surrounding houses and the gate that led into the abbey enclosure. In the ensuing confusion the English and Danes broke through and looted the monastery.
Peterborough was a rich prize. Among its treasures were numerous crucifixes, chalices and other gold and silver ceremonial objects, as well as manuscripts with jewel-encrusted covers. The great cross above the altar proved too difficult to carry off, but the raiders removed the jewel-encrusted crown of thorns from the head of the Christ figure, along with a magnificent altar screen the monks had hidden in the church tower.
William, acutely aware of the danger posed to his new kingdom should the Danish raiders join forces with English rebels, entered into secret negotiations with King Sweyn. The two quickly struck a deal: William would allow the Danes to retain the treasure from the looted monastery, provided the latter immediately return home. The Danes promptly deserted their English allies and sailed away, the holds of their longships stuffed with the riches of Peterborough.
Although significantly weakened by this unexpected withdrawal of Danish support, Hereward continued to pillage the countryside around Ely, causing, according to a later monastic chronicle, much “wearisome trouble” by the use of “many insidious stratagems.” While not always successful, the raids gave the English hope, and the rebel ranks continued to swell.
Up to that point William had left it to surrounding Norman nobles and their men to contain the rebels on Ely, but he could not ignore the sack of Peterborough and theft of its treasure. William was concerned that Hereward’s growing reputation as a successful leader could galvanize and consolidate the English resistance. He was also mindful that Ely’s proximity to the English Channel made it an ideal rallying point for the many thousands of Englishmen who had gone into voluntary exile on the Continent after the Norman invasion. It could also provide a potential beachhead for any future Danish incursion. The island had become a significant problem for the Norman king.
Matters came to a head in 1071 when Morcar arrived at Ely. The English earl had reconciled with William after the great uprising of 1069 but subsequently fled William’s court, fearing he was about to be imprisoned. Bishop Aethelwine and other prominent English rebels and their retainers accompanied him. What had been a localized problem was threatening to erupt into another general insurrection.
Acting quickly, William assembled a large force to encircle and blockade Ely, leaving the defenders no means of escape and no hope of reinforcements. Surrounding the isle was one thing, however. Capturing it would prove far more difficult.
In the 11th century the Isle of Ely was an enclave of high ground surrounded by a swath of reed swamp and sedge through which ran numerous streams and rivers. Interspersed between these were wide sheets of open water and bog. For soldiers in full armor the terrain was dangerously unstable. For heavy cavalry, which formed the backbone of the Norman army, it was a nightmare. The most common method of transportation in the fens was by boat, as the few causeways linking Ely to the mainland where both narrow and treacherous. Hereward had made access even more difficult by fortifying these causeways with peat bulwarks easily defended by small units armed with javelins, slings and other basic weapons.
Starving Ely’s inhabitants into submission was not an option, as the land above the water table was extremely fertile, and its harvests could sustain a large population. There were also sizeable herds of cattle and other domesticated animals, the forests were full of game, the marshes home to numerous species of wild birds, and the rivers provided a constant supply of fish. Ely even had its own vineyards.
As a siege would prove fruitless, William decided to launch a massed assault, hoping to overwhelm the defenders. As the existing entry points to the isle were fortified and guarded, he ordered the construction of a new causeway robust enough to bear the weight of fully armed and armored knights. William had boatloads of wood and stone transported to the site, and conscripted English fishermen lashed the trunks of trees together with cowhide and used inflated sheepskins to create a type of pontoon bridge stretching some 900 yards across the marshes.
Completed in haste, the resulting structure was unsound. Thus when the first wave of Norman heavy cavalry and troops swarmed onto the span, it collapsed under their weight. Only one knight made it to the far side, and he was soon captured. The remainder of the attacking force was “sucked down to the swirling waters of the mere.” Writing in the 12th century, one chronicler claimed the bogs of Ely were still yielding up Norman corpses and their rotten and rusted armor.
This debacle was a major blow to William, who is said to have considered offering peace terms to the English. But the barons of his council prevailed on the king to resume the attack. To improve the odds one of William’s commanders employed the services of a local witch to weaken the resolve of Ely’s defenders with her spells and curses.
William ordered the construction of a second causeway, stronger and more stable than the first, along with a series of mounds and hillocks to serve as fighting platforms for his soldiers. The king’s men also built four wooden towers to support ballistae and catapults with which to bombard the enemy with javelins and rocks. While those preparations were under way, Hereward is said to have disguised himself as a potter in order to infiltrate the Norman camp and gather intelligence. This may well be true, as when the attack came, the English were ready for it.
William’s second attempt to take Ely began in a bizarre manner when the witch mounted one of the towers and, according to the Gestis, began “denouncing destruction and uttering charms” against the English. This magical assault allegedly climaxed with the crone presenting her wrinkled backside to the defenders. Apparently unperturbed by the sight, Hereward and his men launched their counterattack. Hereward had used fire as a weapon before, notably at Peterborough, and here again he employed it with deadly effect. He sent his men forward with orders to set alight the wooden platforms and towers, which were soon burning fiercely. The fire spread into the surrounding reed beds, throwing the Normans into panic as the flames swept through their lines. They fled into the marshes, utterly routed, with Hereward and his men in pursuit. English arrows and javelins killed many of the Normans; others drowned or were consumed by the fire. The witch, trapped in one of the blazing towers and facing certain immolation, hurled herself from the top of the structure and broke her neck.
His overt military efforts to invest Ely having ended in disaster, William resorted to subterfuge, sending “crafty messengers” to Earl Morcar and Thurstan, the abbot of Ely. To the earl he offered pardon and a return to the king’s favor if he surrendered; to the abbot restoration of his monastery’s lands if he divulged the location of a secret crossing onto the isle. Both agreed to William’s offers.
Morcar led his men from Ely and threw himself on the king’s mercy, but it was not forthcoming. William, reneging on his promises, had the earl imprisoned for life. Thurstan fared somewhat better, having only to pay a hefty fine. With Morcar and his men gone and the support of the monastery withdrawn, Hereward and his remaining warriors found themselves facing the Norman army alone. It was then William launched his third and final attack against Ely.
Relying on information from Thurstan, William waited until Hereward and his men were away foraging. Then, with guides provided by the abbot, the Norman king led his army through the fens. Even so the passage was difficult. The ground, by monastic accounts, would “hardly support the footsteps of a man or of any animal” and provided no cover from English archers. At points the Normans found themselves crossing bridges of their dead companions and horses, victims of the previous failed attempts to storm the isle. When the attackers flagged, the king himself spurred them on with promises of the plunder that would be theirs once the objective was taken.
The Norman force finally reached the banks of a river, the last obstacle between them and the high ground of Ely. Despite Abbot Thurstan’s assurances the crossing was secret, English defenders were waiting behind a wall of peat blocks on the opposite bank. But William would not be denied. He had his siege engines brought up by boat and ordered bombardment of the English bulwark, a relentless barrage that ultimately forced the defenders to retreat.
With the final line of defense breached, William ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge of small boats lashed together in line and overlaid with planks. The king then led his army of 1,000 Norman knights across the bridge onto the high ground, capturing the town of Ely with little resistance. William imprisoned some of the rebel leaders and sentenced others to the loss of their hands, feet or eyes, but he spared the commoners any reprisals, perhaps as part of the deal made with Abbot Thurstan.
With William’s fleet in control of the surrounding waterways, only a handful of Ely’s defenders managed to escape. Whether Hereward was among them is open to conjecture. Some chroniclers claim he and some of his men managed to elude capture, while another insists he was captured but subsequently pardoned by William—who admired his courage and tenacity—and died in the king’s service during one of William’s later campaigns.
Despite the best efforts of Hereward and his fellow rebels, lack of centralized coordination and lackluster support from the Danes doomed the English. Against the well-honed Norman military machine, their resistance, no matter how courageous, served only to delay the subjugation and ultimate destruction of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England.
For further reading Australian contributor Kim Stubbs recommends Hereward: The Last Englishman (2005), by Peter Rex, and The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation and Identity (2003), by Hugh M. Thomas.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.