Bourne Archive: FNQ: Hereward Title                  

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Web page © 2007 R.J.PENHEY     With thanks to the trustees of the Willoughby Memorial Library.

The Bourne Archive

Fenland Notes and Queries. Edited by Rev. W.D. Sweeting, Rector of Maxey.

This quarterly periodical took the form of a forum in which people sent in questions about the history, ecology and so on of the Fens and the region’s environs and others replied with some sort of answer. Often, the ‘answers’ seem to have been spontaneous, so qualifying as ‘notes’.

In the period, 1895 and 1897, beginning with Part 25, April 1895, Sweeting included, as a supplement, his own translation of S. H. Miller’s transcription of a medieval copy of an earlier re-editing of the original, eye-witness version of the Hereward the Wake story. That is re-presented here; each chapter to its own web page. It begins with this, his title page.

De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis

(The exploits of Hereward the Saxon).


From an original Manuscript, contained in a book compiled by Robert of Swaffham, in the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough1.


Transcribed by

S. H. Miller, Esq.,

Fellow of Royal Astronomical and Meteorological Societies,



Translated by

Rev. W. D. Sweeting, M.A.,

Vicar of Maxey, Market Deeping.


Peterborough :

Geo. C. Caster, Market Place.



It is some years since the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough granted me permission to copy a MS., De Gestis Herwardi Incliti Militis, contained in a book compiled by Robert of Swaffham. Dr. Perowne, the present [1895] Bishop of Worcester, was then Dean, and the Rev. S. Phillips was the Cathedral Librarian. The latter afforded me every facility of the accomplishment of my purpose, and placed the book in a room of the Diocesan Registry, where I worked for several days, the book being safely secured in the strong room at night.1

The character of the writing (on velum) will be best understood by a reference to the illustration – a photograph of the first page.*[1] Many of the words are considerably abbreviated, as will be seen by comparing the illustration with the transcript.

It must be understood that in the transcript here given that modern spelling is adopted in the terminations of the cases in ć, the MS. Having no diphthongs, and in a few other instances (quotidie for cotidie, fortium for forcium, &c.) ; and that proper names are here always spelt with a capital, which is not always the case in the MS.

This MS. is undoubtedly the most ancient existing document touching the exploits of Hereward, and tradition says that it has its foundation in a record written by the mass-priest Leofric, in the lifetime of the hero. The original narrative was lost, by some mischance, or only fragments of it were left, and upon these, and perhaps some legendary tales, the learned Monk Hugo Candidus based his story here reproduced. 2

Historians, no doubt, have rejected the narrative as un-authentic, and assigned it to the region of fiction ; and it must be affirmed that although it is here put forth in its entirety it is not given as veritable history ; at the same time it is difficult to understand how the Monkish writers came to bestow so much care on that which had no ground-work of truth in it. Hereward himself has been thought, by some, to have been a mere imaginary being – a combination of heroic deeds personified. Genealogists, however, have shown an unbroken line of descent in the family of the Wakes, who have their seat to this day in Northamptonshire.*[2]

It is interesting to note that a Statuette of the Patriot has been accorded a niche in the New Stalls of Peterborough Cathedral, next to that of his reputed uncle, the Saxon Abbot Brand, who knighted him as a leader of men.

A generous age has, after 800 years, thrown a veil over the misdeeds of the daring soldier, who despoiled the Monastery, it may not have been in a sacrilegious spirit, nor in Danish wantonness, but to frustrate the Norman Abbot and Monks who came to displace “honest Saxons.”

However that may have been, let the deeds of Hereward live fresh and live long in our memories as examples of valour and patriotism.

After having had the MS. in my possession for some time, having kept it merely for personal reference, I am glad now to have found a fitting channel for its publication, and to have secured the co-operation of the Rev. W. D. Sweeting, M.A., Editor of Fenland Notes and Queries, who has kindly made the translation.

s. h. miller.

March, 1895.

FNQ Footnotes

*[1] The present [1895] Dean and Chapter have kindly permitted this to be taken in the Cathedral Library.

*[2] See a paper by Rev. E. Trollope, M.A., in Associated Architectural Societies Reports and Papers, Vol. VI., 1871.

Loading. The beginning of the text.


[The photograph is a sample of the supplement’s frontispiece from Fenland Notes & Queries, April 1895. For more details, click on the photo.]

RJP’s Footnotes

1.^     In 2007 it is in the Seeley Historical Library in the University of Cambridge. Mention of Dr. Perowne as the Dean of Peterborough ties the date of Miller’s work down to the period 1878 – 1890.

2.^    Although Hugo or Hugh Candidus is widely credited with having written his Chronicle (e.g. Martin p.9 and Patrick Supplement), another work in Robert of Swaffham’s Book, this foreword by Miller is as far as I am aware, the only place in which he is explicitly credited with the Gesta Herwardi text. However, Symon Patrick’s preface makes a point of drawing attention to Hugh’s authorship of the older work in Swaffham’s book of which the Gesta would be a part. On the other hand, David Roffe and others attribute the work to Richard of Ely but tend to give no explanation. Since Miller too, does not explain his attribution, it has to be accepted with reservation, though the circumstantial evidence of timing and Hugh’s position in Peterborough Abbey, are consistent. The matter is discussed in Appendix 1. Leofric the Deacon’s participation at the earlier stage is reported in the text (Chapter I) so is as reliable as anything we are likely to find from this remote period. For convenience, I shall refer to the author as Hugh or Leofric depending on which version is under consideration.

The strict accuracy of the claim that this is ‘the most ancient existing document touching the exploits of Hereward’ is questionable. It is certainly the most detailed of the early documents mentioning him but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1070 and 1071 does notice him. This comes from the Peterborough Chronicle (Version E: Bodlean MS. Laud Misc 636), which was compiled in around 1120, after the fire at Peterborough in 1116 (Wikipedia). Insofar as the present text is a translation representing Leofric’s pre-1116 version, then the claim stands. Insofar as Hugh’s ca. 1160-70 reconstruction is in question, it does not. Neither does it in connection with the now-existing MS.: Robert of Swaffham’s transcription of Hugh’s work.


Much has been written about the Hereward story and some of that writing has been either rather dismissive or superficial.  A fairly typical example of academic summaries of the account may be seen on the TEAMS site.

I am therefore presenting the material as nearly in its original form as my level of historical skill allows, so that the facts are available. I think the text includes some valuable information on the process of our arriving where we are at present in our social evolution, with corresponding insights into the world as it is.

The material is presented in the form of web pages, one to each chapter of the story. Each has:

1.      Miller’s transcription of the Latin text.

2.    Sweeting’s translation into English.

3.     RJP’s commentary attempting to find intrinsic information which permits an assessment of how historically reliable the text and translation are. As part of the assessment process, the commentary aims to draw out information which is disguised by the fact that the purpose of the original writers, Leofric and Hugh, was an encomium rather than a ‘history’ as the term is understood today. For this, the context provided by other sources is used.

The aim has been to transcribe Sweeting’s publication exactly, so the title is given as ‘De gestis Herwardi Saxonis’, the one Sweeting used. He translated it as ‘The exploits of Hereward the Saxon’. However, Miller’s foreword calls it ‘Gesta Herwardi’ (Hereward’s Actions) and the caption of the frontispiece calls it ‘De gestis Herwardi incliti militis’ (Of the deeds of Hereward, the renowned soldier). The last is part of the first line of the text. The word is not likely to be gestus, the fourth declension masculine noun (which emphasises the character’s bearing and personal carriage). This noun, gestus has no ending in either -a or –is. As the OED (gest) explains, it is rather, a neuter noun formed from the past participle of gerere, to carry (which emphasises the actions, deeds or exploits). These endings indicate a source in the past participle, nominative, neuter plural and past participle ablative, neuter plural of gerere respectively. They would refer literally, to ‘things carried out’ or ‘done’, thus to conduct, deeds or actions. [FWP]

Though it is often said or implied in modern writing elsewhere, here it is only in Sweeting’s title that a claim is made for a Saxon cultural background for Hereward. The text calls him Anglian or English depending on the translator’s view but nowhere does it call him a Saxon. However, Sweeting was not the first to use the title. In his lecture of 1861, Trollope (page 6) described the manuscript as “preserved among the muniments at Peterborough, under the title of ‘De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis’”.

Despite appearances in the above paragraphs, the aim has been to avoid too much narrow depth in favour of a view which would draw non-historical disciplines into the discussion. The Hereward story has been studied by historians who have tended to dismiss it as a rollicking yarn. Without doubt, it is that but it contains much credible, historical information and if this is to be understood, the text must be read also, in a frame of mind which is receptive of its geographical, political and anthropological information though this is incidental to Leofric and Hugh’s intention of telling us about what a Frenchman would readily recognize as Hereward’s beaux gestes. The original author, Leofric, was not an historian but was recording his respect for a friend with whom he had shared many adventures and dangers.

When Hereward was born, the second millennium was only about 38 years old. In England, the social and political attitudes were very different from those of that country today, in the early third millennium, but not unlike those in some parts of the world which are now prominent in the news. Hereward was not a Victorian gentleman neither was his activity as an apparent armed mugger, beyond the social pale. It was normal in a man of his social class to the extent that parts of the Hereward story read very like the 1052 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for example. See also 1065 in the ASC on the Gutenberg site.

For a description of Robert of Swaffham’s book, see Martin, J pp. 7 – 12. This source gives an impression that this text was fairly well down the list of importance in Robert’s eyes. It occupies folios 320 to 339 of 339 folios. Subsequent additions make a total of 374 folios. Its rescue from destruction in 1643 is described on p. xvi. See also Gunton (index, Swapham).


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