Bourne Archive: FNQ: Hereward XXIX

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De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis.


De visione quadam quam vidit, et de re quam vidit mirabili.

In sequenti siquidem nocte in somnis Herwardus vidit assistere sibi inestimabilis formæ virum, ætate senem, vultu terribilem, a toto amictu corporis specialiorem cunctis rebus quas viderat aut in mente conceperat, comminantem sibi eum 1 magno clave quem in manu gestabat et terribili præcepto, ut omnes res ecclesiæ suæ quas præterita nocte acceperat confestim ex integro restitutas repartiri faceret, si saluti suæ providere optaret, et in proximo miserabilem mortem evadere 2.  Verum expergefactus divino terrore corripitur omnia quæ abstulerat eadem hora reportavit, et sic cum suis omnibus ultra progrediens discessit 3.  In qua via repente rectam callem perdiderunt errantes.  Quibus deviantibus quoddam mirabile eis contigit et miraculum, si sane dici poterit talia viris sanguinem evenire posse.  Dum enim intempesta nocte 4 et caligine per devia silvarum hinc inde ubi se verterent nescirent, immanis lupus ante eos affuit, sicut canis domesticus congratulans eis, et in via secedens proprius ante eos ibat.  Quem tamen in caligine tenebrarum canem album propter canitiem æstimantes, alternatim sibi invicem exhortati sunt ut canem sequerentur proprius de villa illum asserentes.  Quod et fecerunt, et in medio noctis silentio dum se prosperatos ex tramite intelligerent, et suam viam agnoscerent, subito candelæ ardentes et adhærentes lanceis omnium militum apparuerunt 5, quæ tamen non valde lucidæ sed velut illæ quæ vulgus appellant candelæ nympharum.  Nec enim aliquis eorum evellere aut extinguere omnino eas potuit vel de manu projicere.  Unde valde sibi invicem admirantes, et, licet obstupescerent, suam viam cernentes semper duce lupo perrexerunt.  Lucescente siquidem die, omnes, quod eis mirabile fuit, ductorem suum lupum esse tandem comperere.  Et dum inter se de his quæ contigerant sibi hæsitarent, lupus non comparuit et candelæ evanuerunt, atque ipsi ubi ire disposuerant ultra Stanford pervenerunt, et suum iter prosperatum intelligentes, gratias egerunt deo, admirantes de his quæ sibi evenere.

The Exploits of Hereward the Saxon.


Of a vision and a marvellous occurrence seen by Hereward.

In the following night in his sleep Hereward saw standing by him a man of indescribable form, old, terrible of aspect, in all his clothing more remarkable than anything he had seen or imagined, threatening him with a great key which he carried in his hand, and with a terrible injunction that he should cause to be restored in their entirety all those belongings of his church which he had taken on the past night, if he wished to provide for his own safety and to escape a miserable death on the next day 2. On waking he was seized with holy terror, and the same hour took back everything he had taken away, and so with all his men took his departure 3. And on their journey they went astray, and lost the right road. And a marvellous thing happened to them as they were thus straying, a miracle, if in truth it can be said that such things can happen to men. For while in the stormy night 4 and darkness wandering hither and thither through the woods they knew not whither they were going, a huge wolf came in front of them, fawning upon them like a tame dog, and coming nearer on the path walked before them. Thinking him, in the darkness, to be a white dog, because of his white skin, they encouraged one another to follow the dog closely, declaring that he had come from some town. And so they did, and in the midst of the silence of the night, while they found that they had succeeded in getting out of the by-way, and recognised their road, of a sudden there appeared burning flames attached to the lances of the soldiers 5, but still not very bright, but like those which the common people call Fairies’ Lights. Nor could any man get rid of them or put them out, or throw them away. Whereupon in great wonder, though they were stupefied, knowing their road, they proceeded under the guidance of the wolf. At dawn they all, to their astonishment, found out at last that a wolf had been their guide. And while they were in doubt about what had happened to them, the wolf disappeared, and all the flames went out, and they came to the place they had intended, beyond Stamford, and seeing that their journey had been prosperously accomplished, they gave thanks to God, grateful for what had happened to them.


1.     Eum would make better sense as cum.

2.     There is no difficulty in explaining this in modern terms. He was having a nightmare fed by a guilty conscience. The saint of the dedication of Peterborough Abbey was Peter, hence the change in the name of the town from Medeshamstede to Borough, then Peterborough. The attribute indicating Peter in representations of saints is his key, which refers to his being the gatekeeper of Heaven. His indoctrination had led Hereward to think that he was in danger not only of being shut out of Heaven but also as it says here, arriving at its gate prematurely. The figure had referred to returning ‘omnes res ecclesiæ suæ’ all the things of his (St. Peter’s) church.

3.       The description is vague but despite what one might expect in the circumstances, Hereward seems not to have withdrawn far from Peterborough before taking his sleep. He was thus able to leave the goods and depart, heading for the far side of Stamford. This would put him somewhere in the general area of Great Casterton (TF0009) by the end of the chapter.

4.      As translated, these are the conditions consistent with the St. Elmo’s fire of note 5 but intempesta nocte is probably intended to mean ‘in the dead of night’.

5.       This will be St. Elmo’s fire, a manifestation of a form of electrical discharge related to lightning. Away from a marine context, candelæ nympharum (fairies’ candles) are sometimes confused by modern writers with ignis fatuus. The latter is will of the wisp, small amounts of marsh gas which become ignited and show in the dark, as a moving light, low over a fen. The former are an electrical discharge around upstanding pointed objects; typically mastheads but here, lances. A nymph is a bride or a spirit envisaged as a young woman; in a word, a fairy. Nymph reached English via Latin and French but is ultimately Greek. For other names on the candelæ nympharum theme, see Wikipedia.

This chapter reads as though Hereward and his men had found some magic mushrooms but it is also consistent with its being the story of some very tired men who are beginning to hallucinate. This appears to have been combined with an electrically charged atmosphere and a sense of guilt. The sky, obscured by the wet and stormy atmosphere consistent with the St Elmo’s fire, combined with the weariness could account for the poor navigation which would otherwise be surprising given the general competence of the men and their leader. The stars were obscured and the night dark. There was no loom (glow) from sodium vapour street lights in Peterborough to light the way by reflection from the clouds, as there is in the twenty-first century. To a modern mind, the idea of finding a wolf here is surprising but the eleventh century men’s surprise was not at its presence but in its behaviour. It was all very spooky and the tired men’s minds were struggling to stay with reality.

This story appears to have been told by someone who was present. The simplest explanation is that Hereward told his chaplain, Leofric who recorded it so that it was found by Hugh Candidus as described in Chapter I. Hereward will have known better than anyone else, what dreams he had experienced. In any case, the heading says ‘vidit’ – ‘he (Hereward) saw’. So Hereward would have agreed with us in thinking that these events were very unusual: even barely credible. That will have been why he had them and his perception of them recorded.

This story has thus, some credibility, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC: reading both Savage and Online Medieval & Classical Library accounts) has a distinctly different version. That places the raid on Peterborough in June 1070, followed immediately by Hereward’s withdrawal to Ely.

The ASC version of the Peterborough events falls into two parts. In the first, the Danes under Swein arrived in the Humber. Then the Danish bishop, Christian and the Danish Earl Osbern went to Ely, where they raised local support. At this point, the second thread explicitly names Hereward in connection with events in Peterborough, which he and his men plundered before going by water to Ely, where they gave the plunder to the Danes. These then expelled the Ely monks.

Back at Peterborough, the new Norman abbot, Thorold, arrived with 160 armed men as Hereward’s ships had moved off. This was on 2nd June 1070. William and Swein subsequently came to an agreement and the Danes left Ely for home, with the plunder.

According to the ASC, it was in 1071 that Edwin was murdered, Morcar went to Ely and he and Hereward were ousted by William’s attack via a causeway. Hereward then went off, out of the ASC’s record. Meanwhile, William went to Scotland (1072), to Maine (1073) and Normandy (1074). In 1075, William took Edwin and Morcar to Normandy with him. We therefore seem to have an indication that the ASC is not 100% reliable. Since also, the Gesta time scale does not fit that of the ASC, may we suspect that William declared the Siege of Ely completed, when he found a pressing need to deal with the situation vis à vis Scotland? This would force those obliged to follow his propaganda to compress the period of the siege. The Peterborough Chronicle was written after 1116, when William’s line and its followers were firmly settled into power. It is a truism that History is written by the victors. Whenever Leofric wrote his work, he was obviously a partisan of Hereward and the damage the manuscript suffered indicates that it was done before the Peterborough fire of 1116.

According to the present chapter, rather than going to Ely by ship, Hereward went overland, in the opposite direction, towards Stamford. We may suspect that this version was in some degree, concocted and was aimed at distancing Hereward from the fate of the treasure, which ASC’s version emphasizes. Namely, that it went to Ely, thence to Scandinavia and Scandinavian Ireland.

The ASC’s dates would mean that the present chapter, XXIX is out of sequence and chronologically, comes before chapter XX. But, as has been emphasised elsewhere (Chapter I, Commentary note 3.), the writers were concerned with demonstrating Hereward’s qualities rather than with writing a modern-style or an ASC-style history.

Historians normally resolve this conflict between the evidence of the ASC and the present, Gesta document by accepting the testimony of the ASC but the men who wrote the two documents were very much alike. The ASC is capable of having Edwin go to Normandy after he had been killed. Each document was written in its social and political context. The Gesta story includes more detail, so can be checked more readily against geographical and other yardsticks. It was written by a man who had taken part in some of the events described and nearer to the time of those events. Although Leofric was biased by his loyalty to Hereward, the Peterborough Chronicle writer makes it clear that he had strong feelings about the loss of the Abbey’s gold.

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