IN dealing with hero-legends and myths we are sometimes confronted with the curious fact that a hero whose name and date can be ascertained with exactitude has yet in his story mythological elements which seem to belong to all the ages. This anomaly arises chiefly from the fact that the imagination of a people is a myth-making thing, and that the more truly popular the hero the more likely he is to become the centre of a whole cycle of myths, which are in different ages attached to the heroes of different periods. The folk-lore of primitive races is a great storehouse whence a people can choose tales and heroic deeds to glorify its own national hero, careless that the same tales and deeds have done duty for other peoples and other heroes. Hence it happens that Hereward the Saxon, a patriot hero as real and actual as Wellington or Nelson, whose deeds were recorded in prose and verse within forty years of his death, was even then surrounded by a cloud of romance and mystery, which hid in vagueness his family, his marriage, and even his death.
Hereward was, naturally, the darling hero of the Saxons, and for the patriotism of his splendid defence of Ely they forgave his final surrender to William the Norman; then they attributed to him all the virtues supposed to be inherent in the free-horn, and all the glorious valour on which the English prided themselves; and, lastly, they surrounded his death with a halo of desperate fighting, and made his last conflict as wonderful as that of Roland at Roncesvalles. If Roland is the ideal of Norman feudal chivalry, Hereward is
equally the ideal of Anglo-Saxon sturdy manliness and knighthood, and it seems fitting that the Saxon ideal in the individual should go down before the representatives, however unworthy, of a higher ideal.
When the weak but saintly King Edward the Confessor nominally ruled all England the land was divided into four great earldoms, of which Mercia and Kent were held by two powerful rivals. Leofric of Mercia and Godwin of Kent were jealous not only for themselves, but for their families, of each other's power and wealth, and the sons of Leofric and of Godwin were ever at strife, though the two earls were now old and prudent men, whose wars were fought with words and craft, not with swords. The wives of the two great earls were as different as their lords. The Lady Gytha, Godwin's wife, of the royal Danish race, was fierce and haughty, a fit helpmeet for the ambitious earl who was to undermine the strength of England by his efforts to win kingly power for his children. But the Lady Godiva, Leofric's beloved wife, was a gentle, pious, loving woman, who had already won an almost saintly reputation for sympathy and pity by her sacrifice to save her husband's oppressed citizens at Coventry, where her pleading won relief for them from the harsh earl on the pitiless condition of her never-forgotten ride. Happily her gentle self-suppression awoke a nobler spirit in her husband, and enabled him to play a worthier part in England's history. She was in entire sympathy with the religious aspirations of Edward the Confessor, and would gladly have seen one of her sons become a monk, perhaps to win spiritual power and a saintly reputation like those of the great Dunstan.
For this holy vocation she fixed on her second son, Hereward, a wild, wayward lad, with long golden curls, eyes of different colours, one grey, one blue, great breadth and strength of limb, and a wild and ungovernable temper which made him difficult of control. This reckless lad the Lady Godiva vainly tried to educate for the monkish life, but he utterly refused to adopt her scheme, would not master any but the barest rudiments of learning, and spent his time in wrestling, boxing, fighting and all manly exercises. Despairing of making him an ecclesiastic, his mother set herself to inspire him with a noble ideal of knighthood, but his wildness and recklessness increased with his years, and often his mother had to stand between the riotous lad and his father's deserved anger.
When he reached the age of sixteen or seventeen he became the terror of the Fen Country, for at his father's Hall of Bourne he gathered a band of youths as wild and reckless as himself, who accepted him for their leader, and obeyed him implicitly, however outrageous were his commands. The wise Earl Leofric, who was much at court with the saintly king, understood little of the nature of his second son, and looked upon his wild deeds as evidence of a cruel and lawless mind, a menace to the peace of England, while they were in reality but the tokens of a restless energy for which the comparatively peaceable life of England at that time was all too dull and tame.
Frequent were the disputes between father and son,
and sadly did Lady Godiva forebode an evil ending to the clash of warring natures whenever Hereward and his father met; yet she could do nothing to avert disaster, for though her entreaties would soften the lad into penitence for some mad prank or reckless outrage, one hint of cold blame from his father would suffice to make him hardened and impenitent; and so things drifted from bad to worse. In all Hereward's lawless deeds, however, there was no meanness or crafty malice. He hated monks and played many a rough trick upon them, but took his punishment, when it came, with equable cheerfulness; he robbed merchants with a high hand, but made reparation liberally, counting himself well satisfied with the fun of a fight or the skill of a clever trick; his band of youths met and fought other bands, but they bore no malice when the strife was over. In one point only was Hereward less than true to his own nobility of character--he was jealous of admitting that any man was his superior in strength or comeliness, and his vanity was well supported by his extraordinary might and beauty.
The deeds which brought Earl Leofric's wrath upon his son in a terrible fashion were not matters of wanton wickedness, but of lawless personal violence. Called to attend his father to the Confessor's court, the youth, who had little respect for one so unwarlike as "the miracle-monger," uttered his contempt for saintly king, Norman prelate, and studious monks too loudly, and thereby shocked the weakly devout Edward, who thought piety the whole duty of man. But his wildness touched the king more nearly still; for in his sturdy patriotism he hated the Norman favourites and courtiers who surrounded the Confessor, and again and again his
marvellous strength was shown in the personal injuries he inflicted on the Normans in mere boyish brawls, until at last his father could endure the disgrace no longer.
Begging an audience of the king, Leofric formally asked for a writ of outlawry against his own son. The Confessor, surprised, but not displeased, felt some compunction as he saw the father's affection overborne by the judge's severity. Earl Godwin, Leofric's greatest rival, was present in the council, and his pleading for the noble lad, whose faults were only those of youth, was sufficient to make Leofric more urgent in his petition. The curse of family feud, which afterwards laid England prostrate at the foot of the Conqueror, was already felt, and felt so strongly that Hereward resented Godwin's intercession more than his father's sternness.
"What!" he cried, "shall a son of Leofric, the noblest man in England, accept intercession from Godwin or any of his family? No. I may be unworthy of my wise father and my saintly mother, but I am not yet sunk so low as to ask a favour from a Godwin. Father, I thank you. For years I have fretted against the peace of the land, and thus have incurred your displeasure; but in exile I may range abroad and win my fortune at the sword's point." "Win thy fortune, foolish boy!" said his father. "And whither wilt thou fare?" "Where-ever fate and my fortune lead me," he replied recklessly. "Perhaps to join Harald Hardrada at Constantinople, and become one of the Emperor's Varangian Guard; perhaps to follow old Beowa out into the West, at the end of some day of glorious battle; perhaps to fight
giants and dragons and all kinds of monsters. All these things I may do, but never shall Mercia see me again till England calls me home. Farewell, father; farewell, Earl Godwin; farewell, reverend king. I go. And pray ye that ye may never need my arm, for it may hap that ye will call me and I will not come." Then Hereward rode away, followed into exile by one man only, Martin Lightfoot, who left the father's service for that of his outlawed son. It was when attending the king's court on this occasion that Hereward first saw and felt the charm of a lovely little Saxon maiden named Alftruda, a ward of the pious king.
Though the king's writ of outlawry might run in Mercia, it did not carry more than nominal weight in Northumbria, where Earl Siward ruled almost as an independent lord. Thither Hereward determined to go, for there dwelt his own godfather, Gilbert of Ghent, and his castle was known as a good training school for young aspirants for knighthood. Sailing from Dover, Hereward landed at Whitby, and made his way to Gilbert's castle, where he was well received, since the cunning Fleming knew that an outlawry could be reversed at any time, and Leofric's son might yet come to rule England. Accordingly Hereward was enrolled in the number of young men, mainly Normans or Flemings, who were seeking to perfect themselves in chivalry before taking knighthood. He soon showed himself a brave warrior, an unequalled wrestler, and a wary fighter, and soon no one cared to meddle with the young Mercian, who outdid them all in manly sports. The envy of the young Normans was held in check by Gilbert, and by a wholesome dread of Hereward's
strong arm; until, in Gilbert's absence, an incident occurred which placed the young exile on a pinnacle so far above them that only by his death could they hope to rid themselves of their feeling of inferiority.
Gilbert kept in his castle court an immense white Polar bear, dreaded by all for its enormous strength, and called the Fairy Bear. It was even believed that the huge beast had some kinship to old Earl Siward, who bore a bear upon his crest, and was reputed to have had something of bear-like ferocity in his youth. This white bear was so much dreaded that he was kept chained up in a strong cage. One morning as Hereward was returning with Martin from his morning ride he heard shouts and shrieks from the castle yard, and, reaching the great gate, entered lightly and closed it behind him rapidly, for there outside the shattered cage, with broken chain dangling, stood the Fairy Bear, glaring savagely round the courtyard. But one human figure was in sight, that of a girl of about twelve years of age.
There were sounds of men's voices and women's shrieks from within the castle, but the doors were fast barred, while the maid, in her terror, beat on the portal with her palms, and begged them, for the love of God, to let her in. The cowards refused, and in the meantime the great bear, irritated by the dangling chain, made a rush towards the child. Hereward dashed forward, shouting to distract the bear, and just managed to stop his charge at the girl, The savage animal turned on the new-corner, who needed all his agility to escape the monster's terrible
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Hereward and the Princess
onset. Seizing his battle-axe, the youth swung it around his head and split the skull of the furious beast, which fell dead. It was a blow so mighty that even Hereward himself was surprised at its deadly effect, and approached cautiously to examine his victim. In the meantime the little girl, who proved to be no other than the king's ward, Alftruda, had watched with fascinated eyes first the approach of the monster, and then, as she crouched in terror, its sudden slaughter; and now she summoned up courage to run to Hereward, who had always been kind to the pretty child, and to fling herself into his arms. "Kind Hereward," she whispered, "you have saved me and killed the bear. I love you for it, and I must give you a kiss, for my dame says so do all ladies that choose good knights to be their champions. Will you be mine?" As she spoke she kissed Hereward again and again.
"Where have they all gone, little one?" asked the young noble; and Alftruda replied: "We were all out here in the courtyard watching the young men at their exercises, when we heard a crash and a roar, and the cage burst open, and we saw the dreadful Fairy Bear. They all ran, the ladies and knights, but I was the last, and they were so frightened that they shut themselves in and left me outside; and when I beat at the door and prayed them to let me in they would not, and I thought the bear would eat me, till you came."
"The cowards!" cried Hereward. "And they think themselves worthy of knighthood when they will save their own lives and leave a child in danger! They must be taught a lesson. Martin, come hither and aid me." When Martin came, the two, with infinite trouble, raised the carcase of the monstrous beast, and placed
it just where the bower door, opening, would show it at once. Then Hereward bade Alftruda call to the knights in the bower that all was safe and they could come out, for the bear would not hurt them. He and Martin, listening, heard with great glee the bitter debate within the bower as to who should risk his life to open the door, the many excuses given for refusal, the mischievous fun in Alftruda's voice as she begged some one to open to her, and, best of all, the cry of horror with which the knight who had ventured to draw the bolt shut the door again on seeing the Fairy Bear waiting to enter. Hereward even carried his trick so far as to thrust the bear heavily against the bower door, making all the people within shriek and implore the protection of the saints. Finally, when he was tired of the jest, he convinced the valiant knights that they might emerge safely from their retirement, and showed how he, a stripling of seventeen, had slain the monster at one blow. From that time Hereward was the darling of the whole castle, petted, praised, beloved by all its inmates, except his jealous rivals.
The foreign knights grew so jealous of the Saxon youth, and so restive under his shafts of sarcastic ridicule, that they planned several times to kill him, and once or twice nearly succeeded. This insecurity, and a feeling that perhaps Earl Siward had some kinship with the Fairy Bear, and would wish to avenge his death, made Hereward decide to quit Gilbert's castle. The spirit of adventure was strong upon him, the sea seemed to call him; now that he had been acknowledged superior to the other noble youths in Gilbert's household, the castle no longer afforded a field for his ambition. Accordingly he took a sad leave of Alftruda, an
affectionate one of Sir Gilbert, who wished to knight him for his brave deed, and a mocking one of his angry and unsuccessful foes.
Entering into a merchant-ship, he sailed for Cornwall, and there was taken to the court of King Alef, a petty British chief, who, on true patriarchal lines, disposed of his children as he would, and had betrothed his fair daughter to a terrible Pictish giant, breaking off, in order to do it, her troth-plight with Prince Sigtryg of Waterford, son of a Danish king in Ireland. Hereward was ever chivalrous, and little Alftruda had made him feel pitiful to all maidens. Seeing speedily how the princess loathed her new betrothed, a hideous, misshapen wretch, nearly eight feet high, he determined to slay him. With great deliberation he picked a quarrel with the giant, and killed him the next day in fair fight; but King Alef was driven by the threats of the vengeful Pictish tribe to throw Hereward and his man Martin into prison, promising trial and punishment on the morrow.
To the young Saxon's surprise, the released princess appeared to be as grieved and as revengeful as any follower of the Pictish giant, and she not only advocated prison and death the next day, but herself superintended the tying of the thongs that bound the two strangers. When they were left to their lonely confinement Hereward began to blame the princess for hypocrisy, and to protest the impossibility of a man's ever knowing what a woman wants. "Who would have thought," he cried, "that that beautiful maiden loved a giant so hideous as this Pict? Had I known, I would never have fought
him, but her eyes said to me, 'Kill him,' and I have done so; this is how she rewards me!" "No," replied Martin, "this is how "; and he cut Hereward's bonds, laughing silently to himself. "Master, you were so indignant with the lady that you could not snake allowances for her. I knew that she must pretend to grieve, for her father's sake, and when she came to test our bonds I was sure of it, for as she fingered a knot she slipped a knife into my hands, and bade me use it. Now we are free from our bonds, and must try to escape from our prison."
In vain, however, the master and man ranged round the room in which they were confined; it was a tiny chapel, with walls and doors of great thickness, and violently as Hereward exerted himself, he could make no impression on either walls or door, and, sitting sullenly down on the altar steps, he asked Martin what good was freedom from bonds in a secure prison. "Much, every way," replied the servant; "at least we die with free hands; and I, for my part, am content to trust that the princess has some good plan, if we will only be ready." While he was speaking they heard footsteps just outside the door, and the sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Hereward beckoned silently to Martin, and the two stood ready, one at each side of the door, to make a dash for freedom, and Martin was prepared to slay any who should hinder. To their great surprise, the princess entered, accompanied by an old priest bearing a lantern, which he set down on the altar step, and then the princess turned to Hereward, crying, "Pardon me, my deliverer!" The Saxon was still aggrieved and bewildered, and replied: "Do you now say 'deliverer'? This afternoon
it was 'murderer, villain, cut-throat.' How shall I know which is your real mind?" The princess almost laughed as she said: "How stupid men are! What could I do but pretend to hate you, since otherwise the Picts would have slain you then and us all afterwards, but I claimed you as my victims, and you have been given to me. How else could I have come here to-night? Now tell me, if I set you free will you swear to carry a message for me?"
"Whither shall I go, lady, and what shall I say?" asked Hereward. "Take this ring, my ring of betrothal, and go to Prince Sigtryg, son of King Ranald of Waterford. Say to him that I am beset on every side, and beg him to come and claim me as his bride; otherwise I fear I may be forced to marry some man of my father's choosing, as I was being driven to wed the Pictish giant. From him you have rescued mc, and I thank you; but if my betrothed delays his coming it may be too late, for there are other hateful suitors who would make my father bestow my hand upon one of them. Beg him to come with all speed." "Lady, I will go now," said Hereward, "if you will set me free from this vault."
"Go quickly, and safely," said the princess; "but ere you go you have one duty to fulfil: you must bind me hand and foot, and fling me, with this old priest, on the ground." "Never," said Hereward, "will I bind a woman; it were foul disgrace to me for ever." But Martin only laughed, and the maiden said again: "How stupid men are! I must pretend to have been overpowered by you, or I shall be accused of having freed you, but I will say that I came hither to question
you, and you and your man set on me and the priest, bound us, took the key, and so escaped. So shall you be free, and I shall have no blame, and my father no danger; and may Heaven forgive the lie."
Hereward reluctantly agreed, and, with Martin's help, bound the two hand and foot and laid them before the altar; then, kissing the maiden's hand, and swearing loyalty and truth, he turned to depart. it the princess had one question to ask. "Who are you, noble stranger, so gallant and strong? I would fain know for whom to pray." "I am Hereward Leofricsson, and my father is the Earl of Mercia." "Are you that Hereward who slew the Fairy Bear? Little wonder is it that you have slain my monster and set me free." Then master and man left the chapel, after carefully turning the key in the lock. Making their way to the shore, they succeeded in getting a ship to carry them to Ireland, and in course of time reached Waterford.
The Danish kingdom of Waterford was ruled by King Ranald, whose only son, Sigtryg, was about Hereward's age, and was as noble-looking a youth as the Saxon hero. The king was at a feast, and Hereward, entering the hall with the captain of the vessel, sat down at one of the lower tables; but he was not one of those who can pass unnoticed. The prince saw him, distinguished at once his noble bearing, and asked him to come to the king's own table. He gladly obeyed, and as he drank to the prince and their goblets touched together he contrived to drop the ring from the Cornish princess into Sigtryg's cup. The prince saw and recognised it as he drained his cup, and, watching his opportunity, left the hall, and was soon followed by his guest.
Outside in the darkness Sigtryg turned hurriedly to Hereward, saying, "You bring me a message from my betrothed?" "Yes, if you are that Prince Sigtryg to whom the Princess of Cornwall was affianced." "Was affianced! What do you mean? She is still my lady and my love." "Yet you leave her there unaided, while her father gives her in marriage to a hideous giant of a Pict, breaking her betrothal, and driving the hapless maiden to despair. What kind of love is yours?" Hereward said nothing yet about his own slaying of the giant, because he wished to test Prince Sigtryg's sincerity, and he was satisfied, for the prince burst out: "Would to God that I had gone to her before! but my father needed my help against foreign invaders and native rebels. I will go immediately and save my lady or die with her!" "No need of that, for I killed that giant," said Hereward coolly, and Sigtryg embraced him in joy and they swore blood-brotherhood together. Then he asked: "What message do you bring me, and what means her ring?" The other replied by repeating the Cornish maiden's words, and urging him to start at once if he would save his betrothed from some other hateful marriage.
The prince went at once to his father, told him the whole story, and obtained a ship and men to journey to Cornwall and rescue the princess; then, with Hereward by his side, he set sail, and soon landed in Cornwall, hoping to obtain his bride peaceably. To his grief he learnt that the princess had just been betrothed to a wild Cornish leader, Haco, and the wedding feast was
to be held that very day. Sigtryg was greatly enraged, and sent a troop of forty Danes to King Alef demanding the fulfilment of the troth-plight between himself and his daughter, and threatening vengeance if it were broken. To this threat the king returned no answer, and no Dane came back to tell of their reception.
Sigtryg would have waited till morning, trusting in the honour of the king, but Hereward disguised himself as a minstrel and obtained admission to the bridal feast, where he soon won applause by his beautiful singing. The bridegroom, Haco, in a rapture offered him any boon he liked to ask, but he demanded only a cup of wine from the hands of the bride. When she brought it to him he flung into the empty cup the betrothal ring, the token she had sent to Sigtryg, and said: "I thank thee, lady, and would reward thee for thy gentleness to a wandering minstrel; I give back the cup, richer than before by the kind thoughts of which it bears the token." The princess looked at him, gazed into the goblet, and saw her ring; then, looking again, she recognised her deliverer and knew that rescue was at hand.
While men feasted Hereward listened and talked, and found out that the forty Danes were prisoners, to be released on the morrow when Haco was sure of his bride, but released useless and miserable, since they would be turned adrift blinded. Haco was taking his lovely bride back to his own land, and Hereward saw that any rescue, to be successful, must be attempted on the march. Yet he knew not the way the bridal company would go, and he lay down to sleep in the
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Hereward and Sigtryg
hall, hoping that he might hear something more. When all men slept a dark shape came gliding through the hall and touched Hereward on the shoulder; he slept lightly, and awoke at once to recognise the old nurse of the princess. "Come to her now," the old woman whispered, and Hereward went, though he knew not that the princess was still true to her lover. In her bower, which she was soon to leave, Haco's sorrowful bride awaited the messenger.
Sadly she smiled on the young Saxon as she said: "I knew your face again in spite of the disguise, but you come too late. Bear my farewell to Sigtryg, and say that my father's will, not mine, makes me false to my troth-plight." "Have you not been told, lady, that he is here?" asked Hereward. "Here?" the princess cried. "I have not heard. He loves me still and has not forsaken me?" "No, lady, he is too true a lover for falsehood. He sent forty Danes yesterday to demand you of your father and threaten his wrath if he refused." "And I knew not of it," said the princess softly; "yet I had heard that Haco had taken some prisoners, whom he means to blind." "Those are our messengers, and your future subjects," said Hereward. "Help me to save them and you. Do you know Haco's plans?" "Only this, that he will march to-morrow along the river, and where the ravine is darkest and forms the boundary between his kingdom and my father's the prisoners are to be blinded and released." "Is it far hence?" "Three miles to the eastward of this hall," she replied. "We will be there. Have no fear, lady, whatever you may see, but be bold and look for your lover in the fight." So
saying, Hereward kissed the hand of the princess, and passed out of the hall unperceived by any one.
Returning to Sigtryg, the young Saxon told all that he had learnt, and the Danes planned an ambush in the ravine where Haco had decided to blind and set free his captives. All was in readiness, and side by side Hereward and Sigtryg were watching the pathway from their covert, when the sound of horses' hoofs heard on the rocks reduced them to silence. The bridal procession came in strange array: first the Danish prisoners, bound each between two Cornishmen, then Haco and his unhappy bride, and last a great throng of Cornishmen. Hereward had taken command, that Sigtryg might look to the safety of his lady, and his plan was simplicity itself. The Danes were to wait till their comrades, with their guards, had passed through the ravine; then while the leader engaged Haco, and Sigtryg looked to the safety of the princess, the Danes would release the prisoners and slay every Cornishman, and the two parties of Danes, uniting their forces, would restore order to the land and destroy the followers of Haco.
The whole was carried out exactly as Hereward had planned. The Cornishmen, with Danish captives, passed first without attack; next came Haco, riding grim and ferocious beside his silent bride, he exulting in his success, she looking eagerly for any, signs of rescue. As they passed Hereward sprang from his shelter, crying, "Upon them, Danes, and set your brethren free!" and himself struck down Haco and smote off his head. There was a short struggle, but soon the
rescued Danes were able to aid their deliverers, and the Cornish guards were all slain; the men of King Alef, never very zealous for the cause of Haco, fled, and the Danes were left masters of the field. Sigtryg had in the meantime seen to the safety of the princess, and now placing her between himself and Hereward, he escorted her to the ship, which soon brought them to Waterford and a happy bridal. The Prince and Princess of Waterford always recognised in Hereward their deliverer and best friend, and in their gratitude wished him to dwell with them always; but he knew "how hard a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes," and would not stay. His roving and daring temper drove him to deeds of arms in other lands, where he won a renown second to none, but he always felt glad in his own heart, even in later days, when unfaithfulness to a woman was the one great sin of his life, that his first feats of arms had been wrought to rescue two maidens from their hapless fate, and that he was rightly known as Hereward the Saxon, the Champion of Women.