The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Hereward the Wake, "Last of the English" (1865)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Hereward the Wake, “Last of the English” was written by Charles Kingsley and first appeared as “Hereward, the Last of the English” (Good Words, Jan-Dec 1865). The Reverend Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) is not well-known today. His only book which remains regularly read is his children’s fable The Water Babies. But during his lifetime he was one of the giants of mid-century Victorian literature. Kingsley wrote children's literature, poetry, historical romances, sermons, scientific treatises, religious tracts, and literary criticism. He was also a parish priest, a prominent social reformer and political activist, a professor of history at Cambridge, tutor to the future Edward VII, and chaplain to Queen Victoria herself. Although The Water Babies and Westward Ho! are better known, and Hypatia more highly praised (and controversial) in its time, Hereward the Wake--Kingsley’s last novel—is his best.

There was a historical Hereward the Wake (circa 1035-circa 1072), a rebel against the eleventh century Norman invasion of England. Although he became a national hero to the English and the subject of many legends and songs, little is known for certain about Hereward, and it is theorized that he was actually half-Danish rather than of Saxon descent.

Hereward the Wake is set in the eleventh century, in the years before, during, and after the Norman Conquest. Hereward is the son of the Lord of Bourne, a Saxon nobleman of a powerful family. Hereward’s mother is Lady Godiva, and Hereward is as rebellious, spirited, irreligious and rambunctious as Godiva is spiritual and kind. After a friar complains to Lady Godiva that Hereward and his band of friends robbed him of Church money, Godiva is angry and hurt, for this is just the latest in a series of Hereward’s misdeeds. She confronts him and he freely admits to it, showing no shame. She is left with no choice but to declare him outlawed, which is what he wants. (It will allow him to have adventures, rather than be stuck at home). Hereward leaves his father’s house, accompanied only by a family retainer, Martin Lightfoot, who vows to serve him as friend and servant. Hereward then begins his adventuring. In Scotland he slays a giant bear and gains much renown thereby; in doing so he saves the life of a young girl, Alftruda, who he would encounter again. In Cornwall he meets the king and saves the king’s daughter from a bad marriage by killing the would-be groom, a red-bearded giant named Ironhook. This frees the daughter to marry the prince she truly loves and adds to Hereward’s reputation. Hereward adventures further about the British Isles, gathering about him a troop of men and becoming widely known as a doughty fighter and a canny captain of soldiers.

Hereward and his men, traveling by sea, are wrecked on the Flemish Coast, and they take service under Baldwin of Flanders, defeating the French for him. Hereward falls in love with Torfrida, a beautiful woman who is reputed to be a sorceress. Torfrida is equally smitten with Hereward, and the two marry and have a daughter. Meanwhile, back in Britain, King Edward dies and Harold Hardraada succeeds him. But William of Normandy invades Britain and defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Hereward is unhappy with the thought of the Normans ruling England and decides to visit Bourne. There he finds that the Normans have driven his mother from her home and are treating the Saxons badly. Hereward kills the Normans in Bourne and vows that he will go back to Flanders and then return with an army to kill every Norman in England. Hereward puts his mother up in Crowland Abbey, is formally knighted by the monks there, and returns to Flanders. Unfortunately, many of the English in Britain are confused and disunited, and the leader the Danes sent to aid Hereward is stupid and vain and refuses to listen to Hereward’s advice, getting many of his men killed and badly damaging the prospects of the English. When Hereward and his men and the Danes eventually land in England, they are easily defeated, and the Danes flee, leaving Hereward to carry on the fight. Hereward and his men stage a brave, lengthy holdout on the island of Ely, but are eventually betrayed by a group of monks.

Hereward and Torfrida and his men live as outlaws in the forests and fens of England, but as time passes and their situation grows increasingly desperate, they grow unhappy. Torfrida is cold toward Hereward and he commits adultery (either in the flesh or in spirit, it is never confirmed which), and when she discovers proof of this she goes temporarily mad and then gets herself to the nunnery at Crowland, where she takes care of Lady Godiva and has her marriage to Hereward dissolved. Hereward, bereft of hope and now his wife, gives up and enlists under King William, marrying the bewitching Alftruda, who has loved him for years. Hereward is not happy, however, for God’s grace has turned against him, he does not love Alftruda (he is afraid of her but besotted with her looks at the same time), and he has many enemies at the French court. Eventually he is tricked into a duel and imprisoned. He escapes and returns to Alftruda, but his enemies surprise him and kill him, although he takes twelve of them with him. When Torfrida hears of his death, she travels to the location where his body is kept, frightens and shames his killers, and retrieves his body and has it buried in Crowland.

Hereward the Wake is a racial epic of the Saxon resistance to the Norman invasion. Kingsley had strong views about the nobility of the Saxon race and the vileness of the Normans, or as he calls them, “French,” and he used the historical Hereward and his life as the vehicle by which to express those views. That Kingsley alters the facts of Hereward’s life (toward the end of telling a good story, of course) is one of the novel’s flaws, but fidelity to history is only an advantage and not an absolute necessity in historical romances. Too, Kingsley wrote Hereward at a time when the political and cultural revolutions and turmoil on the Continent left many English feeling insecure, so Hereward contains a stirring (if blatant and chauvinistic) call to the English to maintain English culture against external invaders.

So Hereward is a didactic novel. But Kingsley wrote Hereward when he was old enough and skillful enough as a writer to smoothly incorporate his didactic intent into the novel and to put enough exciting action into the novel that the reader does not mind the mouthpiece passages. The problem that bedeviled Kingsley in Westward Ho!--the struggle between Kingsley’s ideology and his storytelling sense--is far less evident in Hereward the Wake. The statements of Kingsley’s prejudices are not so crushingly blatant, and the integration of those biases into the story is smoother. Kingsley’s belief in the racial superiority of the British (more broadly, the inhabitants of the British Isles, the Teutons, and the Scandinavians) to Continental Europeans and his belief in the religious superiority of Protestantism to the Catholic Church appear in Hereward the Wake, but they are far more evenly woven into the book than in Westward Ho!

The end result is an excellent read. Despite its length, the lecturing passages, and the occasional chapter or story which has little to do with the overall plot, Hereward is vigorous, full of memorable characters, duels, heroic triumphs and valiant defeats. Hereward the Wake is a fine combination of action and emotion. Although some critics have found and continue to find the battles and duels too numerous and even nauseating, most modern readers will disagree.

Kingsley changes the dates and events of Hereward’s life to suit his own ideological ends, but his use of the language of the time, the practices of Saxons and Norman, both rich and poor, and the different landscape of Britain during that period is spot-on and well-deployed. Although Kingsley is almost pedantic in his constant use of footnotes and citations to support and justify the history in his story, he is anything but pedantic in his use of language and practices and landscape. Instead the reader gets these through full immersion, so that as the story is read interesting practices are described, always in context and in the flow of the story, and interesting old words are used, but comfortably within the narration. Kingsley does not make a point of highlighting these things, or seeming to boast about his erudition. They are simply a part of the text and an effective way to show how different life was at that time.

The dialogue is entertaining. Wit was not one of Kingsley’s strengths, but there are some good one-liners and exchanges, and there is heat and life to the dialogue. Some historical novels have dialogue which is seemingly mouthed by the author's puppets, but this is not the case in Hereward, whose characters are surprisingly lifelike. The dialogue has a certain modern sensibility, despite the more formal cadence and structure and the occasional “thee” and “thou,” so that there are, for example, comments about the quality of one character’s vocal impersonation of another. The dialogue is not used strictly in the service of the story, but to demonstrate individual characters’ personalities.

The modern sensibility is evident in other areas of the novel, and is in fact the cause of another of the novel’s flaws. Kingsley clearly wanted to tell a traditional epic in a modern form, to make a myth out of the raw material of history and write it as a novel. But a novel has requirements which an epic cannot meet: characterization beyond one dimension, a consideration of emotion and feeling, a focus on other aspects of life beyond combat and conquest, and the acknowledgment that real life is not as simple or straightforward as an epic poem implies. Kingsley tries to have it both ways, to tell an epic story but to add to it the depth of a novel. He only partially succeeds at this. Hereward has many of the touches of epic and myth: Hereward’s great size and strength; Martin Lightfoot’s magic axe; Hereward’s magic sword Brainbiter; Hereward’s magic armor; Hereward’s fight against the bear; the “ogre;” Hereward’s battles against great odds; the use of chivalric tropes–Hereward and his allies and enemies are all knights and act as such by engaging in one-on-one duels; the repeated use of Norse songs and poems in the manner of Norse sagas; the appearance of saints to help or hinder heroes; those same saints acting in temperamental ways; and the general sweep of the novel, starting with Hereward’s humble beginnings, moving through his resistance to the invaders, and memorably ending with a perhaps literally bewitching Torfrida retrieving Hereward’s body by facing down and unmanning his murderers.

Kingsley adds to these a number of more modern touches. There are moments which would be out of place in an epic but which nicely hint at individual characters’ personalities, like the aforementioned compliment about one character’s skill at impersonation, and an infuriated Hereward stamping his feet in rage. Characters’ motivations are reasonable, rather than epic, so that Martin Lightfoot hates his father--not because his father is an utter monster, but simply because he treated Martin’s mother badly. Kingsley attempts to treat secondary characters as more than just objects in Hereward’s life. Where most epics privilege the position of the hero and do not show concern for the feelings of other characters, Kingsley, in Hereward, spares a moment to portray the sadness of a princess forced against her will into an arranged marriage and of a woman who is valued by others only for her beauty and as a bargaining chip in political games. And near the end of the novel the deteriorating relationship between Hereward and Torfrida is treated in a reasonable and non-histrionic way. Their marriage fails not because of some epic temptation but simply due to realistic and understandable human foibles.

Kingsley also describes the lives of the underclass, so that Hereward is about more than just knightly nobles whacking each other with swords. Kingsley romanticizes the lives of the poor but also includes some hints about the true desperation of the poor during those years. And Kingsley does not romanticize the life of an outlaw at all. When Hereward and his followers take to the woods to live the life that Robin Hood would later emulate, they have a good time during the summers, but during the winters it is difficult for them, and the longer they live in the wilds the wilder and less civilized they become and the greater the pressure on Hereward’s marriage. Kingsley explores this at length, unromantically and convincingly. Lastly, Kingsley displays a certain unmythical cynicism toward human nature, so that even the Danes and Saxons who he is biased in favor of can act knavishly either in person or in crowds.

But Kingsley does not mesh the two kinds of stories, the epic and the modern, completely or smoothly, and he often seems to privilege the epic style over the modern. The result is that many of the modern touches are isolated. The characterization of Hereward and to a lesser degree Torfrida is well done, but still more would have been welcome. Too many of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, and too much of Hereward’s life occurs without having any effect on him. (That is, a life of reaving would surely harden a person’s soul, but we see none of that in Hereward). In an epic these would not be flaws, but in a modern story they are.

On the whole, however, Hereward is enjoyable–surprisingly so. Kingsley’s Hereward is some distance from what is known of the historical Hereward. Kingsley did this to fit his own paradigm of Christianity as well as for dramatic purposes, so that Hereward has “Christian” virtues of mercy and honor. Unfortunately he is superstitious, only lightly believing in God but more strongly believing in the power of witches and curses. This, Kingsley implies, is a central reason for his eventual downfall. Interestingly, many critics describe Hereward as a symbol of muscular Christianity, but the character is not, and in fact spends most of the novel scornful of Christianity. Hereward may be a muscular Christian novel, but Hereward himself is no Christian.

Hereward, the historical figure, was important in the history of English popular culture:

Hereward was not a robber of the rich and benefactor of the poor, but his image as a brave resister of ethnic and cultural oppression hiding out in the almost inaccessible fenlands, his fabled ability to disguise himself and his betrayal are early examples of what became the fully-formed tradition of Robin Hood. As historian Maurice Keen observed in The Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1961): ‘Hereward is the lineal ancestor of the later English outlaws’.1

Hereward, the novel, was written without much joy by Kingsley, perhaps because the weight of scholarship required to write the novel (and he made use of a noted antiquary to double-check his details) robbed him of the pleasure of writing. But the novel sold well and elevated the historical Hereward “into one of the most romantic figures of English medieval history.”2 Despite its flaws, which on consideration are relatively minor, Hereward is one of the best historical romances of the pre-Weyman School years (see: The Historical Romance).

Recommended Edition

Print: Charles Kinglsey, Hereward the Wake. London: British Library, 2011.



1 Graham Seal, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History (New York: Anthem Press, 2011), 37-38.

2 Paul Dalton and John C. Appleby, Outlaws in Medieval and Early Modern England (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 7.