Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Thursday, 19 October 2017


Those who have enjoyed my recent articles on the Border Reivers might like to give my reiver tale, titled (appropriately enough) Reiver. It is currently available on Kindle and audiobook - enjoy!

‘If Jesus Christ was amongst them, he would deceive them…’

1569 AD. The March lands between England and Scotland are a place of terror, where outlaw bands and broken men rob, pillage and murder in open defiance of the law. Here, deadly blood-feud is a way of life. Families of robbers, known as Border Reivers, live via blackmail and terrorism. No man sleeps safe in his bed, and the sound of hoofbeats on the tops is a herald of death.

Richie Reade, known as Richie o’the Bow, finds himself dragged into this dark and bloody world. One night his village is raided by a gang of Armstrongs, the most dreaded of the reiver families. After he slays two of the gang, Richie is declared a dead man walking: the Armstrongs and their allies will not rest until they have his head. Betrayed by the law, Richie is forced to flee into the wilderness. He and his fellow outlaws begin to forge a reputation as Richie’s Bairns, killing the Armstrongs wherever they find them.

Meanwhile the Border is threatened by war. The rebellious northern earls plan to depose the Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, and replace her with the Catholic Mary Stewart. Many of the reiver families rise to join the rebellion, and the earls march south under the Banner of the Five Wounds. Civil war threatens to break out in England, even as fresh murder and conspiracy raise havoc in Scotland.

With the north in turmoil, and the Border in a state of bloody flux, Richie and his outlaws do what they can to survive. As his fame grows, Richie finds himself drawn inexorably into the war for England’s soul. When the final battle looms, above the rushing waters of the Hell Beck, he must choose his fate. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The keen Lord Scrope

A post on the keen but unlucky Lord Scrope, another of the charismatic Wardens of the turbulent Anglo-Scottish frontier:


Thomas Scrope, 10th Baron Scrope of Bolton (1567-1609) was Warden of the English West March from 1593 until the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. Considering his miserable time in office, he may have wished the union came about much earlier. Scrope was fated to be remembered as the Warden who in 1596 failed to prevent the escape of ‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle. This stunning jailbreak, perhaps the most famous of Border Reiver tales, spelt endless humiliation for Scrope, lampooned in the Ballad of Kinmont Willie as ‘the keen Lord Scrope.’

Judging from his letters, Scrope was a nervous and highly-strung character, convinced that everyone was out to get him. In fairnesss, he wasn’t far wrong: his own deputies, Thomas and Lance Carleton, were a shameless pair of rogues who more or less openly connived with reivers on both sides of the border. Scrope evidently inspired little respect among his officers, and made the problem worse with his lack of savvy and political intelligence. At one time or another he quarrelled with most of his fellow Wardens, and complained of their lack of cooperation. It didn’t help that Scrope was the son of Henry Scrope, one of the most famous and effective of English Wardens. Comparisons were inevitable, and Scrope had neither the ability or temperament to live up to his father’s reputation. In many ways Scrope is a tragic figure. His failure as Warden was not down to want of trying, and he was personally brave to a degree that alarmed contemporaries. Robert Carey, himself a valiant fighter, remarked that Scrope was “careless of himself”, and took no precautions against assassins.

Like other Wardens, Scrope frequently rode out at the head of his soldiers to tackle gangs of reivers. The ballad Hughie the Graeme tells of how ‘Gude Lord Scroope’ hunted down Hughie for stealing a horse, and engaged in single combat until both men were sorely wounded: ‘But as they were dealing their blows so free, And both so bloody at the time, Over the moss came ten yeomen so tall, All for to take brave Hughie the Graeme.’ The ballad may well have a kernel of truth, for Scrope loathed the Grahams like poison. He also hated the Lowthers, who in turn resented him as an upstart, and of course the Carletons. Other than his natural paranoia, much of Scope’s hatred stemmed from the Kinmont Willie affair.

‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong was one of the Armstrongs of Liddesdale, probably the most feared and notorious of riding surnames. He was a famous reiver, who led destructive large-scale raids into northern England, with his own pele tower and band of followers. On 17th March 1596, after attending a truce day, he was ridden down and captured by a band of English reivers. Why he was taken is a mystery. Lord Scrope later came up with a list of official excuses, none of which convince. Willie was taken to prison at Carlisle Castle, where he was kept for several weeks in relatively mild conditions. The likelihood is that Scrope was embarrassed by his prisoner, and didn’t know quite what to do with him. Carlisle, the chief stronghold on the English side of the border, was considered impregnable. Over the centuries it had withstood one assault after another. Scrope must have thought his prisoner was quite secure, and had no inkling of the humiliation in store.

On the morning of Sunday, April 13th 1596, a gang of eighty Scottish reivers managed to break into the castle, liberate Willie and take him back to Scotland. This incredible hit-and-run raid was carried out with speed and efficiency and a minimum of violence: Scrope later claimed that two of his garrison were left for dead, but no fatalities are reported. The raid on Carlisle, while skilfully done by the Scots, only succeeded thanks to their secret friends on the English side. Scrope’s crooked deputies, the Carletons brothers, were involved, as were the English Grahams. As ever, ties of kinship were involved. Thomas Carleton was related to the Grahams by marriage, and through them a kinsman of Kinmont Willie himself. Scrope had recently sacked Thomas from his post as deputy and land sergeant of Gilsland, proving another motive to connive with the Scots. As for the Scottish raiding party, they included some of the most famous (and feared) names on the frontier: ‘Auld Wat’ Scott of Harden, Willie Kang Irvine, Christie Armstrong, Will Redcloak Bell, and others.

From Scrope’s point of view, the raid was a catastrophe. His reputation lay in ruins, and none of the letters he sent to London, justifying his conduct, cut any ice. Elizabeth I was furious, though (fortunately for Scrope) much of her rage was directed at the Scots instead of her hapless Warden. While she sent angry letters to James I, demanding the heads of those responsible, Scrope set about plotting vengeance. For the next year he obsessively collected evidence for the raid, wrote endless letters maligning the Grahams in particular, and seems to have gone half out of his mind; the tone of his correspondence is increasingly hysterical, and at one point he swore to have his revenge or die:

 “It shall cost me both life and living, rather than such an indignity to Her Highness, and contempt to me, shall be tolerated.”

Scrope’s rage overrode his humanity. In the winter of 1596 he sent one Captain Carvell, a hardened veteran officer, to raid the Scottish West March at the head of 2000 riders. Carvell’s men lifted 700 beasts, burnt Annan and Dumfries and then ravaged Liddesdale. Here, they took 3000 head of sheep and cattle, destroyed twenty-four buildings, and captured a number of prisoners. These, the Scots alleged, were stripped naked and tied together in pairs. They were led back into England on leashes, and more than sixty women and children died in the snow. Scrope vehemently denied these charges, but it was clear his men had done some rough work. He was gently reprimanded by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary of State, who warned Scrope that he “should not too suddenly use that kind of force…that course would be kept for the last extremity.”

Ultimately, Scrope never had his revenge on the perpetrators of the Kinmont Willie raid. The accesssion of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 heralded the end of the Border Reiver era, and Scrope’s release from office. Scrope must have viewed it as a blessed escape, though he didn’t live much longer to enjoy his freedom. In 1609 he died at the village of Langar in Nottinghamshire, far away from the accursed Border, aged just 42. A magnificent memorial to him and his family can still be seen inside the village church.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A medieval nightmare...


Inside a little glen on the old Scottish West March can be found the roofless shell of Hermitage Castle. Like an ancient tree, this menacing Border stronghold refuses to fall down, unbroken by the barrage of time. Hermitage was built to guard the valley of Liddesdale, home to some of the most unspeakably dangerous criminal gangs in Anglo-Scottish history. Something of the region’s bloodsoaked past can be sensed in the gaunt lines of the castle, a forbidding lump of stone with no frills or pretence to comfort or decoration. A strange quiet hangs over the surrounding valley, broken only by the gurgle of the stream: well might George MacDonald Fraser, a prominent Border historian, have described Hermitage as a ‘medieval nightmare.’

Hermitage was supposedly built in the mid-13th century by one Nicholas de Soulis, in a regular Norman motte and bailey pattern. It remained in the family until about 1320, when his descendent William de Soulis was accused of witchcraft and the attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland. According to legend, William was a powerful magician whose flesh could not be harmed by steel or rope. His tenants, an enterprising bunch, seized hold of their master and boiled him alive inside a pot of molten lead on the Ninestane Rig, a nearby megalithic circle. The tale is a gruesome one, and perfectly suited to the castle’s sinister reputation, but untrue; in reality William died a prisoner at Dumbarton Castle. Even so, one of Hermitage’s many ghosts is said to be Redclap Sly, the restless spirit of William de Soulis.

The castle then fell into the hands of the Douglas family, who added their own grim history. Sir William Douglas, ironically known as the Flower of Chivalry, had his former comrade Sir Alexander Ramsay imprisoned and starved to death at Hermitage. Thereafter the castle passed into the custody of the Dacres, then back via inheritance to the Douglases. The 14th century remains that can be seen today are the work of John Lewin, master mason at Durham Cathedral, employed by Earl William Douglas to build a new stronghold on the site of the earlier. Earl William’s heirs split into two branches, the Black (or Earls of Douglas) and the Red (Earls of Angus). By the late 15th century both strands of this troublesome and ambitious family had annoyed the Scottish kings beyond endurance. As a result the castle was granted to the Hepburns of Bothwell, who became Keepers and lords of Hermitage.

It was a Bothwell who triggered the most famous incident in Hermitage’s history. In 1566 James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and lover of Mary Queen of Scots, came to Hermitage to exercise his duty as Keeper of Liddesdale. Brave and arrogant, he aimed to teach the local reivers a lesson, while Mary did the same to rebels at Jedburgh. At first Bothwell was succesful, and managed to capture a number of Elliotts, one of the chief riding surnames of Liddesdale. The earl sent them to Hermitage for safe keeping and ventured out again, eager for more action. He soon found it in the shape of Little Jock Elliott of the Park, a famous reiver and a worthy feather in Bothwell’s cap. Throwing aside all caution, Bothwell recklessly charged at Jock and engaged him in single combat. After a tussle, Bothwell shot Jock from the saddle and then dismounted to check the man was dead. This proved a terrible mistake: Jock leaped up and stabbed Bothwell three times.

While the reiver was left to die, Bothwell’s soldiers lifted their wounded master onto a cart and took him back to Hermitage. They arrived to find that the Elliotts had escaped from prison, overcome the garrison and taken over the castle. To add to his humiliation, Bothwell was forced to negotiate with the Elliotts before he could gain admittance. The news of his injuries prompted Mary to ride at breakneck speed to Hermitage, a famous romantic dash that ended with her blundering into a marsh. She very nearly died of a cold, and the two damaged lovers must have wished themselves anywhere but the godforsaken Border. As for Little Jock Elliott, who apparently died of his wounds, his embarrassment of Bothwell inspired a famous rhyme:

Fierce Bothwell I vanquished clean, 
Gar'd troopers an' fitmen flee; 
By my faith I dumfoondert the Queen, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Alang by the dead water stank, 
Jock Fenwick I met on the lea, 
But his saddle was toom in a clank, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Oh, ma name it's wee Jock Elliot, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me?

The refrain ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me?’ - who dares to lay a hand on me, essentially - expresses the Border spirit of defiance against outsiders.

In 1594 James VI of Scotland granted Hermitage to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, direct ancestor of the poet and author of the same name, famous in his own right as the ‘Bold Buccleuch’. As well as Warden of the Scottish West March, Keeper of Liddesdale, and a thorough-going scoundrel, Scott also helped to mastermind the famous rescue of Kinmont Willie from under Lord Scrope’s nose in 1596. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the castle lost its purpose and slowly fell into ruin. Some repairs were carried out in the 1800s, and this enduring monument to the high era of the Border Reivers is now in the care of Historical Environment Scotland. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wardens of the Border

A more general essay on the Wardens of the Border, those unfortunate men given the impossible task of keeping the Border Reivers in line...

WARDENS OF THE BORDER, Part One - by David Pilling
The Anglo-Scots border of the 16th century was a dangerous place, plagued by gangs of criminals or ‘riding surnames’ remembered as the Border Reivers. From their pele towers or bastles, these families rode forth to steal, rob, murder and conduct savage blood-feuds, thumbing their noses at the law. To be a Warden in this region, one of the chief law officers appointed by London or Edinburgh to keep the borderlands in some kind of order, was a hellish task. None of the Wardens can really be said to have succeeded at their task, though some tried manfully. Others sank under the weight of office, or connived with the reivers in taking a share of their ill-gotten gains.

The borders were divided into Marches, three on either side of the border. Each March had its Warden, invested with the authority of life and death over every person inside his jurisdiction. There was an also an unofficial seventh Warden on the Scottish side, based at Hermitage Castle and known as the Keeper of Liddesdale. This special office was necessary since Liddesdale, a dark valley in the Scottish West March, was the very mouth of Hell: here dwelled the Armstrongs and Elliots, the most dangerous of the reiving families. Hermitage, described by one author as ‘a medieval nightmare’, is a squat grey lump of a fortress, and the Keepers who manned it had to be hard men, able to ride and fight at a moment’s notice.

To be effective, a Warden had to be a potent mixture of judge, lawyer, fighting soldier, detective, administrator and intelligence agent. He also had to a shrewd politician, able to keep his masters in London or Edinburgh happy, as well as strike a balance between the factions inside his March. The reiver families on both sides of the border were often related, and the complex web of kinship groups is virtually impossible to untangle. There was no national bar: an English Charlton might wed a Scottish Elliot, or vice versa, and nobody thought anything of it. Blood relations inevitably led to other alliances: the reivers were Borderers first, Scottish or English a distant second. At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, for instance, the reivers of both armies were seen to be amiably chatting to each other. When spotted, they made a half-effort pretence at fighting. National badges were worn lightly - as though a ‘puff of wind’ might blow them away - so they could be torn off if necessary. This happened at Ancrum Moor in 1545, where English reivers threw aside their St George arm-bands and joined in the pursuit of the English army.

Any effort to apply normal law and order to the Marches was doomed to failure. Instead they were governed by a body of local law and custom, including such features as blood-feud, hot trod and red hand; these terms themselves give some idea of the rawness and savagery of the region. It was the job of the Wardens to impose this law, keep his March in a state of defence, and generally prevent chaos. In peacetime his most important task was to guard the land against reivers. He had powers to arrest reivers from his own March who raided the other country, and co-operate with fellow Wardens in punishing offenders and compensating victims. This was the theory; in practice Wardens were often jealous of each other and refused to co-operate. Sometimes they conducted their own private feuds, such as the feud between Robert Carey and Robert Kerr of Cessford in the 1590s. Carey’s decision to execute Geordie Burn, one of Kerr’s followers, in 1596 led to fears of a general invasion of the English Marches. In the parlance of the time, it was dreaded lest Kerr should invade in force and ‘shake loose the border.’

As might be expected, the Wardens included some eccentric characters. Perhaps the most famous was Sir John Forster, Warden of the English Middle March, whose epic lifetime (he lived to be 101) encompassed the entire classic reiver era. Forster, described by Alistair Moffat as the ultimate reiver lord, was technically an officer of the law, loyal to Queen Elizabeth I. In reality he was an utter scoundrel who for decades shamelessly abused his office. He took bribes, released condemned men and executed the innocent, connived with the enemy, dealt in stolen goods, dealt in every kind of villainy. At the same time Forster was vital to the defence of the Marches. As brave and intelligent as he was corrupt, Forster had his finger on every pulse, and missed nothing. In 1569, when Crookback Leonard Dacre led a revolt against the Queen, Forster played a vital role in crushing the rebels. Thirteen years later, with England threatened by Spain and France, Forster intercepted a French agent attempting to travel through the Middle March. The agent carried a mirror, which Forster discovered to contain secret letters written in code. When deciphered, the letters turned out to a blueprint for the invasion of England. Forster immediately sent the agent and his letters to Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, and can perhaps be credited with delaying the Spanish Armada.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A stirring world...

To support the release of the audiobook version of Reiver, here's the first part of a potted biography of Robert Carey, a dashing Elizabethan courtier and fearless Warden of the riotous Anglo-Scottish Borderlands.

The stirring world of Robert Carey

Robert Carey (1560-1639) was the son of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and Anne Morgan, a gentlewoman of Welsh descent. He may also have been a bastard grandson of Henry VIII: there were rumours (never entirely confirmed or denied) that his father was the old king’s illegitimate son, fathered on Mary Boleyn before Henry switched his affections to her more famous sister, Anne.

The younger Carey was a classic Elizabethan soldier-adventurer-courtier, straight out of the pages of a Rafael Sabatini novel. Or to give a more modern reference, he was Lord Flashheart without the braying arrogance. He is chiefly remembered for his slim volume of memoirs, penned in later life when he had achieved the titles of Baron of Leppington and Earl of Monmouth. His memoir is of passing interest for his description of court life under Elizabeth I and the author’s military service against the French and the Spanish Armada. The middle section, in which Carey describes his exploits on the Anglo-Scottish border, is where it flares into life.

Carey provides us with a unique, if brief, glimpse into the daily trials of a law officer on that blood-soaked frontier, dominated by organised gangs of murdererous thieves - the ‘border reivers’ - who thumbed their noses at the governments in London and Edinburgh and dared the authorities to try and tame them. Many officers, faced with this unmanageable hell and starved of resources, cracked under the strain. Not so Carey, who relished the danger and the hardship:

“I lived with great content (he wrote); for we had a stirring world, and few days passed over my head but I was on horseback, either to prevent mischief, or to take malefactors…”

Carey’s account of his time as Warden of the English East March (among other posts) provides a snapshot of life on the untamed frontier, a precursor to the American West, every bit as wild and disorderly. He gives first-hand accounts of ambushes, bloody skirmishes on stark fells and in the depths of midnight forests, sieges of outlaw strongholds and pele towers. Through him we are also provided with a transcript of the actual speech of a border reiver.

The reiver in question was Geordie Burns, a thief of Teviotdale on the Scottish side of the border. Geordie, with some of his kinsmen, rode frequent sorties into England, taking cattle and goods and slaying any who opposed them. One night he and his gang were unfortunate enough to run into Carey, out on patrol with twenty mounted troopers. The Burns men were driving stolen cattle - literally caught ‘red-handed’, as they said on the border - and heavily outnumbered, there being only four of them. Even so, they made a fight of it. Two were killed including Geordie’s uncle, shot through the head, one escaped and Geordie himself was taken prisoner, ‘bravely resisting until he was sore hurt in the head.’

Bleeding and bound in irons, Geordie was not afraid. He spat at Carey, ‘who it was that durst avow this night’s work?’ Geordie trusted in the protection of Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford, the acting Scottish Warden and Carey’s opposite number. Kerr, known as ‘the firebrand’, was notoriously hand-in-glove with the reiver families on the Scottish side of the border, openly protecting them from the law and taking a share of their profits. A hard, brutal character with several murders to his name, Kerr was the last man anyone wanted to offend. Geordie counted on Carey releasing him without charge, for fear that Kerr would muster the reivers and ‘shake loose the border’ i.e. mount a full-scale invasion of northern England.

Carey, however, wasn’t afraid of Kerr or anyone else. He imprisoned Geordie and wasted no time in having him tried and convicted of March-treason. He then did an unusual thing. After supper that night Carey disguised himself as a soldier of the garrison and went down to Geordie’s cell, along with some other troopers, to interview the condemned man. Carey sat down beside Geordie and told him ‘that we were desirous to see him, because we heard he was stout and valiant, and true to his friends; and that we were sorry our master could not be moved to save his life.’

Geordie, whose earlier bravado had quite vanished, was in the mood to talk. He made a full and frank confession of his misspent life, the content of which seems to have shocked Carey:

’He voluntarily of himself said that, that he had lived long enough to do so many villainies…and withal told us that he had lain with above forty men’s wives, what in England, what in Scotland: and that he had killed seven Englishmen with his own hands, cruelly murdering them; that he has spent his whole life in whoring, drinking, stealing and taking deep revenge for slight offences. He seemed to be very penitent, and much desired a minister for the comfort of his soul.’

This is the true voice of the reiver, captured in a manner that has few parallels - the nearest the sixteenth century could offer to a police interrogation. Carey, somewhat shaken, granted Geordie his minister, one Mr Selby, a ‘very worthy honest preacher’, but there was no question of granting the condemned man a reprieve. The next morning Geordie was taken out and hanged, regardless of the threat of Scottish vengeance. In his blunt letter to William Cecil, the Queen’s councillor, Carey explained that he hanged Geordie for:
‘I should have offended God, my prince, and my country…if I had suffered so wicked a man to live.’

After Geordie’s execution the English Wardens waited nervously, expecting Kerr to storm over the border at any moment with three thousand reivers at his back. The Scottish government in Edinburgh had other ideas. After some tense bargaining, it was agreed that certain hostages would be exchanged for the sake of peace. One of the captives was the firebrand himself, delivered into the safe keeping of Robert Carey.

It seemed the Scots had had their bellyful of Kerr, and wanted the corrupt troublemaker put of the way. Possibly they hoped Carey would do everyone a favour and murder his hostage. Other Wardens, such as the notorious scoundrel Sir John Forster, might have happily cut Kerr’s throat. Instead Carey befriended him: the two men dined and supped together, went hunting three days a week, and became good friends. Thus the peace of the Anglo-Scots border was kept, and Geordie Burns quietly consigned to the dustbin of history.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Reiver on Audio!

After months of recording, REIVER is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and iTunes, narrated by the splendid Mark Topping! Below are links to the new audiobook and the Kindle version.

‘If Jesus Christ was amongst them, he would deceive them…’ 

 1569 AD. The March lands between England and Scotland are a place of terror, where outlaw bands and broken men rob, pillage and murder in open defiance of the law. Here, deadly blood-feud is a way of life. Families of robbers, known as Border Reivers, live via blackmail and terrorism. No man sleeps safe in his bed, and the sound of hoofbeats on the tops is a herald of death. Richie Reade, known as Richie o’the Bow, finds himself dragged into this dark and bloody world. One night his village is raided by a gang of Armstrongs, the most dreaded of the reiver families. After he slays two of the gang, Richie is declared a dead man walking: the Armstrongs and their allies will not rest until they have his head. Betrayed by the law, Richie is forced to flee into the wilderness. He and his fellow outlaws begin to forge a reputation as Richie’s Bairns, killing the Armstrongs wherever they find them. Meanwhile the Border is threatened by war. The rebellious northern earls plan to depose the Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, and replace her with the Catholic Mary Stewart. Many of the reiver families rise to join the rebellion, and the earls march south under the Banner of the Five Wounds. Civil war threatens to break out in England, even as fresh murder and conspiracy raise havoc in Scotland. With the north in turmoil, and the Border in a state of bloody flux, Richie and his outlaws do what they can to survive. As his fame grows, Richie finds himself drawn inexorably into the war for England’s soul. When the final battle looms, above the rushing waters of the Hell Beck, he must choose his fate...'

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Beef!

Below is a piece I wrote a while ago on John 'the Beef' Giffard, one of the colourful personalities of the Second Barons' War in England. This is the second in a series of articles related to my current work in progress. Links to my author pages and Goodreads profile can be found at the end.

John ‘le Boeuf’ Giffard, 1st Baron Giffard, Lord of Brimpsfield (1231-99)

John Giffard was one of those dynamic larger-than-life figures of the high medieval era who seem to owe more to fiction than reality. A complex but not untypical mixture of forest outlaw, royal councillor, baronial gangster and professional soldier, his nickname of ‘le Boeuf’ - the Beef - hints at the kind of man he was. Giffard’s nickname and certain elements of his career may have inspired the character of Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, one of the trio of splendid knightly villains in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. 

As a youth Giffard saw much service against the Welsh, taking part in the royal campaigns of 1246, 1247 and 1248, first as an esquire and then a fully fledged knight. Doubtless hardened by these experiences, he made his mark in the early 1260s as an adherent of Simon de Montfort, the rebellious Earl of Leicester. His antics on behalf of de Montfort earned him a mention in The Song of the Barons, composed by a pro-baronial minstrel. Part of the couplet mentioning Giffard has not survived, but the fragments that remain translate as follows:

‘Sir John Giffard ought well to be named, who had scarcely a…in this riding-bout…and he was always forward…valiant and wise and active…and of great renown….’
Giffard’s deeds in this era are the stuff of balladry. In early 1263 a dispute between the two rival sheriffs of Gloucestershire, the Montfortian William de Traci and the royalist Maci de Besile, spilled over into violence. De Besile went armed into the court at Gloucester where de Traci was sitting in session, seized his rival by the hair and dragged him through the streets to the castle. In response Giffard and Roger de Clifford stormed Gloucester Castle, released de Traci, seized de Besile and carried him off prisoner into the Welsh marshes. They also found time to kill a carpenter who had shot two of Giffard’s esquires, raid de Besile’s estate at Sherston and steal his cattle.

For Giffard’s next trick, he descended upon the Hundred Court at Quedgeley, where the Royal Constable had summoned him to answer charges of treason. Giffard came, but in full armour and with troops at his back. The Constable and jury scattered in panic, followed closely by Giffard, who slew a few of them before arriving before the walls of royalist-held Gloucester. Here it was decided to take the city by stratagem. Along with his ally, John de Balun, Giffard disguised himself as a Welsh wool merchant. Carrying woolpacks and wearing a distinctive style of long Welsh cloak, they deceived the porters into letting them through the gates. Once inside they threw off their disguises, slew the guards and admitted the rest of the baronial army. The city was overrun but the garrison of the castle held firm. Enter Prince Edward, who came hurrying up with royal reinforcements and attempted to storm the walls. Repulsed, Edward hopped into an empty boat moored beside the Severn and rowed across with some men to reinforce the garrison. Not to be outdone in terms of theatrical heroics, Giffard launched an attack on the abbey by climbing the wall of the abbey orchard - no doubt stopping to gather a few apples on the way. Eventually a truce was brokered by the Abbot of Gloucester and Bishop of Worcester, whereby Giffard and the other rebels agreed to withdraw.

We next hear of Giffard at the Battle of Lewes, where he was unhorsed during the first savage cavalry assault led by Edward. Taken prisoner and carried off to Lewes Castle, Giffard must have scarce credited his good fortune when news arrived that the royalists were defeated. Soon after Lewes he broke with de Montfort after a dispute over ransoms for Richard of Cornwall (Henry III’s brother) and other prisoners taken at Lewes. Giffard fled to join forces with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Together they blocked de Montfort’s tour of Gloucestershire, took Gloucester and destroyed all available shipping, ruining de Montfort’s hopes of crossing the Severn. At the ‘murder of Evesham’ in 1265, where the Montfortian cause was exterminated in a spate of noble bloodletting unseen since Hastings, Giffard played his part: chosen as a member of the death-squad instructed by Edward to hunt down de Montfort on the field, he was with Roger de Mortimer in the last moments, when de Montfort fell to his knees and was skewered through the neck by Mortimer’s lance.

Giffard’s later career was mostly concerned with Wales, where his expertise and knowledge of Welsh warfare proved invaluable to Edward I. A bachelor until he was 39, Giffard chose a wife in his own distinctive idiom - as John Cleese might say - by illegally abducting a widow named Maud de Longespee and spiriting her off to Brimpsfield Castle. He was eventually allowed to marry her by paying a fine of 300 marks for marrying without consent. The lady’s thoughts are unknown, but the marriage seemed happy enough. Maud bore Giffard two daughters and possibly conspired with him in an extremely murky incident that still baffles historians to this day.

In 1282 the Welsh rose in revolt under their prince, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. Giffard had served against Llewellyn in the first Edwardian war of 1277, and was now summoned to arms again. In the winter of 1282 things were going badly for the English. The Earl of Gloucester’s defeat at Llandeilo was followed by a more serious reverse at Moel-y-don on the Anglesey strait, where Luke de Tany and some 300 bannerets were drowned. King Edward withdrew to Rhuddlan to summon reinforcements from Gascony, while his commanders elsewhere were forced onto the defensive.

To make things worse, Roger de Mortimer, Edward’s most able captain in Wales, died in October 1282. His command in Montgomery was given over to Roger l’Estrange, while Builth was turned over to Giffard. Thus l’Estrange and Giffard, along with the late Mortimer’s kinsmen Edmund and Roger de Mortimer of Chirk, were on the scene when Llewellyn advanced into the region at the head of 7000 men. What happened next, the details of how precisely Llewellyn was lured to his death and the flower of his army destroyed by the Marchers at Irfon Bridge, is a perhaps unknowable mystery. At least fourteen sources, English and Welsh, give slightly differing accounts of the prince’s demise.

One later poem describes Llewellyn meeting a mysterious gentlewoman in a tryst (his wife Eleanor de Montfort would not have been happy). A few days after Llewellyn’s death John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Giffard’s wife Maud de Longespee in response to her entreaty that her late cousin - she was kin to Llewellyn - be absolved of his excommunication and buried in consecrated ground. This was impossible, he replied, unless there was evidence of his repentance before death. He therefore asked Maud to fetch ‘any of those who were present at his death’ to bring evidence of his penitence. This is a strange request, to say the least: presumably the only persons present at Llewellyn’s death were the soldiers who killed him. Pecham does also mention that Llewellyn  asked for a priest to absolve him before he died. Perhaps the tale of the tryst stemmed from Maud’s involvement in the affair, which in turn gives rise to a suspicion that she played some part in luring the last native Prince of Wales to his doom: after all, her husband was a commander on the English side, and she was a blood-relation to Llewellyn. After 1282 Giffard stood high in favour with Edward, and was constantly re-granted presents of Welsh land despite losing them in various rebellions. This, as John Morris, suggests, argues that Giffard had done some great service to the crown, the most obvious being the killing of Llewellyn in a ruthless gangland-style assassination.

Even in his latter years ‘the Beef’ continued to play a vital role in Edward’s Welsh campaigns. When the whole of Wales rose against English rule in 1294 under Madog ap Llewellyn, Edward managed to get himself trapped by a Welsh army inside Conway Castle. The Earl of Warwick hurried up to his aid and broke Madog’s army in an engagement at Maes Moydog in Powys, where longbowmen were used in tandem with the English cavalry. Shortly afterwards Edward proclaimed he wished to ‘show his gratitude to John Giffard, has taken him under his special protection and defence on account of his bodily infirmity; and also because quite recently he and his men have powerfully aided the king in the king’s Welsh campaign’. This remarkable entry suggests Giffard was wounded in the fighting against Madog and possibly advised Warwick on his strategy at Maes Moydog. If so then Giffard was present at Lewes, Evesham, Irfon Bridge and Maes Moydog, making him one of the most important English soldier-barons of the period.   

By this time Giffard’s wife Maud had died without male issue. He twice remarried and at the age of 54 finally managed to father two sons, John and Edmund, by his third wife Margaret Neville. He was twice summoned to Parliament in 1295 and 1298 and appointed a member of Prince Edward - later Edward II’s - council in 1298 when England briefly threatened to collapse into civil war. Men who live by the sword are generally said to die by it, but this maxim didn't apply to Giffard. The old warrior expired peacefully on 29th May 1299, aged 68, at manor of Boynton in Wiltshire. He was buried in the Abbey Church at Malmesbury.

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Friday, 6 October 2017

The Robber Knight

I'm going to post a series of articles relating to my next novel, set during the Second Barons' War in 13th century England. The following concerns Sir Adam de Gurdun, one of several Robin Hood-type characters who infested the forests and highways of England during this period. Below the article are links to my author profiles and Goodreads account.


Sir Adam de Gurdun was a minor Hampshire knight who rose to brief fame during the Second Barons’ War in 1260s England. For three years he led a popular rebellion in Somerset, comprising peasants and clergymen as well as local knights, before taking to the forests at the head of a band of outlaws. He was finally tracked down and defeated in single combat by the Lord Edward and delivered into the custody of Edward’s mother, Eleanor of Provence. After a period of imprisonment, he was able to redeem his freedom and his estates after paying a severe fine, and spent the rest of his long life as a loyal Crown servant.

Adam hailed from a minor Hampshire landed family, though he rose in the world via military service and an advantageous marriage. A career soldier, he served Henry in Poitou (1242), Gascony (1253-4) and Wales (1257). On the latter campaign he served alongside Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, who was to prove Adam’s friend and nemesis in the future. In 1255 Adam married Constance, a member of the Venuz family in Hampshire. This connection brought him estates in Hampshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire, as well as a life-grant from his father-in-law of the lucrative keepership of Aliceholt and Woolmer forests.

Constance was an unlikely match for an obscure country knight. Her first husband, Robert de Pont de L’Arche, had died in 1246. His brother and heir, William, was an outlaw on Lundy Island wanted for the murder of a royal clerk. On Robert’s death Henry III seized the dead man’s estates after allocating dower lands to Constance, and in 1247 granted custody of the inheritance to his Poitevin half-brother, William de Valence. In 1252 William de Pont de L’Arche was finally captured and ‘received into the king’s peace’, only to sell his entire inheritance off to Valence at a knock-down sum under the most suspicious of circumstances. Valence paid William 1000 marks for the estate, though it was easily worth over £200 per annum. Land at this time normally sold for ten times its annual value, so Valence had clearly secured a tremendous bargain from William, who immediately vanishes from the record. Clearly unimpressed with the shady deal, Constance refused to remarry for ten years. King Henry had granted overlordship of her dower lands to Valence, and ordered Constance to take an oath of fealty to him ‘as her lord’ and swear not to marry without his consent. Despite this, Constance married Adam in 1255, apparently without Valence’s consent. Whatever secret history lies behind the unsanctioned wedding remains buried.

Adam was probably familiar, thanks to visiting Constance’s manor in Dorset, with local complaints since the 1250s over the king’s fiscal exactions and the tyranny of the Poitevins. These included the notorious Elias de Rabayn, Sheriff of Somerset and Devon and Keeper of Corfe Castle, and Aymer de Valence, William’s brother and bishop-elect of Winchester. Adam threw in his lot with Simon de Montfort and in 1263 was probably among the rebels who ‘rode with flags flying through the country plundering loyal subjects’. In mid-1263 he seized Dunster Castle, a hilltop fortress on the fringes of Exmoor. Dunster had been in the possession of Eleanor of Provence, Henry’s queen, since 1258, but was remote and probably undefended. Thus it made an ideal stronghold for rebels, and Adam was to garrison it for the next three years.

From Dunster, Adam launched attacks against royalists in Somerset. Some of his deeds have survived in the various court rolls. He broke into the manor of Sir Ralph de Bakeputz at Cheddar, smashing doors and windows and plundering goods and livestock to the value of £100; he raided the manors of Thomas de Audeham, another wealthy royalist, at Chiselborough and Norton, cutting down his woods and taking goods to the value of 200 marks. He also attacked and kidnapped royalist knights in person: one Walter de Matteresdune later complained that Adam had taken his armour and weapons, while the Somerset knight Sir Philip de Cantilupe was captured and ransomed.

Adam’s followers hailed from all over Dorset and Somerset and as far away as South Devon, possibly the result of him touring these areas in person to whip up support. After the Battle of Lewes government in the south-west was thrown into confusion, and uneasily divided between a type of military governor (Brian de Goviz), the sheriff (William de Staunton) and the Montfortian keepers of the castles at Bristol, Corfe and Dunster. Local peasants later complained that they had been forced into the service of Sir John de la Warr, the keeper of Bristol, and Sir Robert de Verdun, keeper of Corfe. No such complaints were lodged against Adam de Gurdun at Dunster, and it may be significant that his followers were described as his personal following rather than followers of de Montfort.

The presence of so many peasants in Adam’s company contrasts with the lack of wealthy and influential knights. A few, such as Sir Robert de Bingham, did spend time in his retinue but either strayed from it or were seconded by Adam back to the main Montfortian forces: Bingham, for instance, was captured by the royalists at the Battle of Northampton. Released after Lewes, he returned briefly to Dunster only to desert Adam’s service again, this time for good. Adam enjoyed greater support from the lesser gentry in Somerset, but more remarkable is the depth of his support from the peasantry and minor clergy. Amongst the poor men of his following we find the likes of Henry, son of the smith; William Herberd, whose worldly goods only amounted to 12 pence per annum; John Brun the potter, Thomas son of Hugh the cobbler, William the Carter - etc. The commoners of Minehead, Milverton, Chiselborough and Norton appear to have volunteered to join Adam, and fought for him with enthusiasm. One band of Milverton peasants slogged over forty miles west to fight for Adam in Devon at Barnstaple. Two priests were also later accused of ‘abetting’ Adam’s men, while his raiding band at Chiselborough and Norton included one ‘Robert le Clerc’, probably the local priest. The explanation for such loyalty may lie in Adam’s personal charisma, allied to his support for the Provisions of Oxford and the Montfortian reform movement. Records of Dorset government demonstrate the Provisions brought genuine relief to Somerset: the shrievalty was reformed, financial exactions reduced, legal reforms implemented. These were all good reasons for the local peasantry to rise in arms under an experienced fighting man who knew how to lead and organise.

Adam’s big moment came in June 1265, when the Montfortian regime was tottering. On 16th June he was appointed Keeper of Lundy Island and on 28th was ordered in the king’s name to repel rebels ‘raising new wars wherat the king is not a little moved and angered’. The crisis became acute when William de Valence and John de Warenne landed in Pembrokeshire with a force of mercenaries, and King Henry’s heir, the Lord Edward, escaped custody at Hereford to link up with Gilbert de Clare and Roger de Mortimer at Wigmore. In desperation, Montfort turned to Adam in the hope that he would be able to raise a fleet and prevent Valence from sailing down the Bristol Channel. In the event Adam was required to deal with a raiding force of Welshmen led by Sir William de Berkeley, a knight of ‘evil’ reputation. On 1st August these men came across the Bristol Channel from Glamorgan and plundered Minehead. Adam rode out from Dunster to meet the raiders and drove them back into the sea with great slaughter, drowning their captain. His victory did the Montfortian cause little good. Montfort was already set on his disastrous course towards Evesham, and Berkeley’s raid may have been intended as no more than a distraction to prevent Montfortian forces leaving Somerset.

In the wake of the royalist victory at Evesham, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore came thundering into Somerset to retake Bristol, shore up his interests at Bridgewater and crush local rebels. One of his first targets was Dunster Castle, and by 22nd August the stronghold had fallen. No details survive of the battle or siege, but it seems Adam abandoned the castle in the face of superior forces. Mortimer promptly seized Adam’s estates, while the outlaw and the remainder of his company retreated into the forests of Berkshire. They spent the next few months roaming between Berkshire and Bedfordshire and the Peak Forest in Derbyshire, before descending into Alton Wood near Hampshire. This was Adam’s old stamping ground, near his family estates.

His final defeat is recorded by several of major chroniclers of the day. By the spring of 1266 he had been joined by another Montfortian knight, Sir David de Uffington, and their company numbered eighty men. On 10th May they raided the manor of Shortgrave and then returned to their hideout at Alton via the Chilterns, carrying away ‘all that they could’. They were betrayed by one Robert Chadde, a former follower turned spy, who had informed the Lord Edward of the location of Adam’s headquarters. Edward followed the raiders and attacked them in camp at Alton Wood. Sources differ on the precise details, but all agree that Edward engaged Adam in single combat. The Flores contains perhaps the most realistic account, stripped of chivalric gloss:

‘Who immediately the son of the king when encountering attacked alone, fighting manfully with the same Adam. But finally Adam surrendered wounded, his boldness commended him to Edward, ordering catchforms [blood catchers or bandages] to be placed near to the stabbed wounds, not thinking of him as the enemy, but he led him away just as a guest. Truly his companions he ordered to be hanged in the oaks of the wood.’

The fate of Adam’s followers was to be hanged en masse while their master was led away to honourable captivity. This was the punishment reserved for penniless commoners rather than aristocrats who could buy their way out of trouble. Edward sent his prisoner gift-wrapped to Eleanor of Provence, whose castle at Dunster the outlaw had occupied for so long. After a spell in prison Adam was able to redeem his estates for a hefty fine, and spent the rest of his days as an unremarkable Crown servant. He appears to have patched up his differences with Roger Mortimer, since the two appear together on a charter in 1270. Adam later served under Mortimer in the Montgomery command during the Welsh war of 1276-77. In 1280 he was made a Justice of the Forest, and in the 1290s made custos of the seashore in Hampshire and a commissioner of array in that county. He died in 1305, aged somewhere between 65 and 80.

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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Dafydd ap Gruffudd

On this day in 1283 Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, was executed at Shrewsbury on charges of plotting the death of Edward I. Dafydd is a controversial figure, and the barbaric manner of his death tends to elicit a sympathy that the details of his career would otherwise scarcely inspire.
Dafydd was born in 1238, a younger son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn and grandson of Llywelyn ap Iorweth, known to later generations as Llywelyn the Great. In 1241 he and his younger brother Rhodri were handed over as hostages to Henry III of England. He came of age in 1252 and in the following year was summoned to pay homage to King Henry.

His first significant act, in 1255, was to rebel against his older brother Llywelyn, lord of Gwynedd and would-be Prince of Wales. Dafydd and his brother Owain were defeated by Llywelyn at the Battle of Bryn Derwin, where Dafydd was captured and imprisoned. He was released a year later and restored to favour, only to sign a pact with the Lord Edward, Henry's eldest son and the future Edward I.

Dafydd remained in Edward's service for 19 years. In 1264, while Edward ravaged the Derbyshire estates of his rival, Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, Dafydd and Hamo Lestrange invaded the earl's Staffordshire estates and destroyed towns, castles, churches and villages. After Edward's capture at the Battle of Lewes, Ferrers had his revenge when he marched to Chester and inflicted a humiliating defeat upon Dafydd and his Marcher allies. Dafydd escaped the field and is next heard of in 1267, when Llywelyn again restored him to favour via the terms of the Treaty of Montgomery.

Despite his brother's mercy, Dafydd again chose to rebel. In 1274 he colluded with Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, lord of Powys, in an attempt to assassinate Llywelyn. The plot was discovered, and Dafydd and Gruffudd fled for protection to the English court. Dafydd then sided with the English crown in Edward I's first Welsh war of 1276-77. During this campaign Dafydd served at the head of 200 Welsh infantry under the Earl of Warwick in the English invasion of the Perfeddwlad. He twice complained to Warwick that he wished to keep the plunder his men had taken from Welsh villages, and the matter was still unresolved when Dafydd met Edward at the king's new castle of Flint. Here an agreement was made whereby Dafydd stood to gain his share of any land conquered from Llywelyn. In 1277, after Llywelyn's defeat and the Treaty of Aberconwy, Dafydd was again reconciled with his brother. Llywelyn's patience with Dafydd is almost beyond belief, and arguably led to his downfall.

Eternally dissatisfied, Dafydd took no pleasure from the postwar agreement or his English estates, granted to him by Edward as reward for his services. He complained to the king that he was bored on his manor of Frodsham, and asked to be given hunting rights for a little amusement. His request was granted, but he took umbrage at the behaviour of Reynold de Grey, who allegedly infringed on Dafydd's estates in the Perfeddwlad. In early 1282 Dafydd made a dramatic appearance in the county court at Hope, where he declared his rights 'in a loud voice' and then stormed out.

Edward appears to have had no inkling of the trouble brewing in Wales. On Palm Sunday 1282, Dafydd suddenly descended upon the royal castle at Hawarden, butchered the garrison and captured the constable, Roger de Clifford. At the same time his Welsh allies in the southwest seized the castles at Llanbadarn and Carreg Cennen. Rhuddlan and Flint were also besieged. Dafydd and Llywelyn were almost certainly in collusion, since Dafydd was supplied by his brother with materials for artillery.

Edward's response was furious. The war that followed was bitter and prolonged, but the king was hell-bent on victory: he raised staggering amounts of money, imposed emergency taxes, called up unprecedented numbers of mercenaries, mustered every available fighting man in northern England and the March. Dafydd's decision to attack Hawarden on a holy day handed the English the propaganda advantage, and he and his followers were excommunicated. The result was almost inevitable, and it became clear that Llywelyn and Dafydd had made a terrible mistake: perhaps, as RR Davies suggests, they hoped to sweep away Edward's hegemony in Wales as easily as they had done in 1257. If so, again to quote Davies, they had mistaken their man.

On December 11th 1282 Llywelyn was killed near Builth by the forces of Edmund Mortimer and his Marcher allies, in circumstances that remain murky. Now, at last, Dafydd could realise his lifelong ambition and assume the title of Prince of Wales. Fate mocked him, MacBeth-style, for his doom was rapidly closing in. Edward's armies, bolstered by reinforcements, swamped the mountainous heartland of Snowdonia. The key strongholds of Castell y Bere and Dolwyddelan fell, apparently without a fight, and Dafydd was forced back to his last redoubt at Dolbadarn. He broke out to raise the men of Meirionydd, only to find that Edward had undercut him by offering a free pardon to any Welshman of Meirionydd who came into the peace. The war swiftly turned into a man-hunt, as hundreds of Welshmen laid down their arms and joined in the pursuit of their erstwhile prince.

On 28th June 1283, Dafydd and one of his sons was captured on the Bera mountain by 'men of their own tongue'. He was wounded in the fight, and Edward gave orders that he should be nursed back to health. Nothing was going to rob the king of his vengeance upon the man he regarded as the arch-traitor, who for 19 years had accepted Edward's gifts, protection and hospitality and then spat on him. A special parliament was called at Shrewsbury, where Edward asked his nobles what should be done with the prisoner. For plotting the death of the king and sundry other offences, Dafydd was condemned to the grotesque sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering.

The form of execution was nothing new: Henry III had practised a version of it on an assassin who tried to kill him in 1238, and later a poisoner named Walter de Scoteney. The Welsh themselves seem to have practised it on English prisoners at Deganwy in 1245. Dafydd, however, was the first man of noble birth to be formally executed in such a manner. The gruesome task was carried out before a large crowd at Shewsbury on 3rd October 1283, and the executioner, Geoffrey of Shewsbury, paid 20 shillings for the job. Dafydd's daughter, Gwladys, was sent to the convent of Sempringham in Lincolnshire, and his two sons to perpetual imprisonment at Bristol Castle.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Hereward returns

A piece I wrote recently for  The History Geeks, a popular Facebook history forum. The subject is Hereward the Wake, the English legendary hero of the 11th century, and a new project at his hometown of Bourne, Lincolnshire to restore his fame and name.

“Shall Hereward die like a wolf in a cave? Forward, all the Wake men! A Wake! A Wake!”

- Charles Kingsley, Hereward the Wake
Hereward was an 11th century English thegn, mercenary and outlaw, destined to live forever in legend as Hereward ‘the Wake’, a heroic leader of native resistance against William the Conqueror. Elements of his story inspired tales of similar medieval outlaw figures such as Fulk Fitzwarin, Eustace the Monk and of course Robin Hood, who replaced Hereward in the English popular imagination.   

In reality Hereward seems to have been a local thegn or landholder, holding various estates in Lincolnshire from the abbeys of Peterborough and Crowland. Two sources, the Gesta Herewardi and Historia Croylandis, claim Hereward was the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia, while the Victorian novelist tried to pass him off as the son of Leofric of Bourne and Lady Godiva (she of the famous nude ride through Coventry). However the historian Peter Rex has recently suggested that his father was really one Asketil, a local thegn of Danish descent. The details of Hereward’s tenancy, preserved in Domesday Book, suggest he was more than a mere man of the abbey. In contrast to lower-ranking thegns, whose rents were largely dependent on their ecclesiastical lords, Hereward negotiated his with the abbot. This might elevate Hereward to the status of a king’s thegn, one who attended upon the king in person and led troops in time of war.

Contemporary references to Hereward, sparse as they are, tend to support the legend. Domesday Book records that he ‘fled the country’ shortly after 1062, which accords with his first period of outlawry and exile in the tales. According to the Gesta Herewardi, one of the earliest versions of the legend, Hereward was shipwrecked off the coast of Guines and served for a time as a mercenary in Flanders. Remarkably, one ‘miles Herivvardi’ - ‘Hereward the soldier’ - appears on a charter at Cambrai, dated 1065. This is the only surviving instance of the name in the area from this time, and could well be a passing reference to the Englishman in exile. Shortly afterwards, the Gesta tells us, Hereward travelled to St Omer and there met Torfrida, who became his wife. Sadly, there are no certain references to Torfrida, though there is nothing unlikely about Hereward getting married.

The Gesta tells other stories of Hereward’s adventures in exile, some more plausible than others. He is said to have travelled to Cornwall and Ireland as well as Flanders, fought and slew an enormous bear, and rescued a Cornish princess from an unwanted marriage. In Flanders he supposedly joined an expedition against ‘Scaldemarilad’ (probably a series of islands in the Scheldt estuary); this tale may be consistent with the campaigns of Robert the Frisian on behalf of his father Baldwin, Count of Flanders, in the early 1060s. Again, there is nothing unlikely about a wandering exile and sword-for-hire taking military service with a local nobleman.

After 1066, and William of Normandy’s successful invasion of England, Hereward returned to his native land. The Gesta tells us he came home to discover his father’s lands had been taken over by the Normans, who had killed his brother and nailed the boy’s head over the doorway of the hall. Hereward went berserk, stormed into the hall and slaughtered every Norman he found inside. He then went to Peterborough Abbey, where he was knighted ‘in the English fashion’. He briefly returned to Flanders to cool his heels, before returning again to England in September 1067 to lead a revolt against the Normans.

A few of Hereward’s exploits against the Normans can be pieced together. The Gesta, the Liber Eliensis (another early version of his legend), and the Hyde or Warenne Chronicle record his killing one Frederick, brother-in-law to William de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey. Hereward is said to have ambushed Frederick in his house and killed him on the spot; it may be that Frederick was serving in the Norman army against the Ely rebels, and Hereward slew him in what could be termed a medieval commando raid. Thanks to this deed, a breach was opened between Hereward and de Warenne that nothing could mend. Hereward is also supposed to have shot an arrow at the earl himself, who was saved when the missile ricoheted off the nose-bar of his helmet.

By 1071 the Isle of Ely had become the last bastion of native resistance to the Conqueror. Hereward and his band, probably local men, chose to plunder Peterborough Abbey and take away the‘red gold’ stored there. This, they claimed, was to prevent the new Norman abbot from having the treasure, and use it to pay off Danish troops sent to help the English by Sweyn II, King of Denmark. The Danes promptly betrayed Hereward and sailed home with the gold; justice was done when a storm blew up at sea and sent their entire fleet to the bottom. Hereward’s failed effort to recruit Danish aid may hint at Danish ancestry, and perhaps his desire to see a King of Denmark on the English throne in place of William or the Godwinssons.

Eventually William himself came with an army to besiege Ely and build a fortress on the edges of the fens. Matthew Paris says the remains of this structure could still be seen in the early 13th century and was known as Hereward’s stronghold. At one point William is said to have procured the services of a witch to curse the defenders from the top of a wooden tower; this came to naught when Hereward set fire to the tower, witch and all. On another occasion William sent his army in a frontal attack on the isle, and an entire column of soldiers was drowned when their pontoon bridge overturned and tipped them into the black waters. It was said their skeletons were still being dredged from the fens sixty years later.

Whatever the truth of all these heroic tales, William had his way in the end. The isle was stormed, apparently after the monks of Crowland had betrayed their countrymen and showed the Normans a secret path to the rebel camp. Most of the defenders surrendered, to be imprisoned or mutilated, with the exception of Hereward: the Anglo-Saxon chronicle records that he refused to submit and ‘led his men out valiantly.’ His fate afterwards is a mystery. Some accounts claim he made his peace with William, like many others, and died of a peaceful old age. Others say he was betrayed and murdered by a band of Normans. By the time of Domesday Book in 1085, he was certainly no longer in Lincolnshire, for his lands were in possession of Ogier the Breton. It may be Hereward had died, or was murdered as the tales claim, or perhaps he joined the exodus of Englishmen who chose to leave Norman-ruled England and seek a new life in the East. According to the Historia Croylandis, he was buried at Crowland Abbey.

Happily, the Wake lives again. In recent times a local society has been formed, the Wake Hereward Project, devoted to restoring the memory of Lincolnshire’s great folk hero and inspiring further research into his life and times. For those interested in joining the quest, a link to the website and Twitter account can be seen below: