Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
Hero Myths of the British Race
Hereward the Wake
In Hereward the Wake (or "Watchful") is found one of those heroes whose date can be ascertained with a fair amount of exactness and yet in whose story occur mythological elements which seem to belong to all ages. The folklore 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 Nelson or George Washington, 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.
Briefly it may be stated that Hereward was a native of Lincolnshire, and was in his prime about 1070. In that year he joined a party of Danes who appeared in England, attacked Peterborough and sacked the abbey there, and afterward took refuge in the Isle of Ely. Here he was besieged by William the Conqueror, and was finally forced to yield to the Norman. He thus came to stand for the defeated Saxon race, and his name has been passed down as that of the darling hero of the Saxons. For his splendid defence of Ely they forgave his final surrender to Duke William; they attributed to him all the virtues supposed to be inherent in the free-born, and all the glorious valor 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.
An account of one of Hereward's adventures as a youth will serve as illustration of the stories told of his prowess. On an enforced visit to Cornwall, he found that King Alef, a petty British chief, 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, ever chivalrous, picked a quarrel with the giant and killed him in fair fight, whereupon the king threw him into prison. In the following night, however, the released princess arranged that the gallant Saxon should be freed and sent hot-foot for her lover, Prince Sigtryg. After many adventures Hereward reached the prince, who hastened to return to Cornwall with the young hero. But to the grief of both, they learned upon their arrival that the princess had just been betrothed to a wild Cornish hero, Haco, and the wedding feast was to be held that very day. Sigtryg at once 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 honor 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 recognized 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.
Returning to Sigtryg, the young Saxon told all that he had learned, and the Danes planned an ambush in the ravine where Haco had decided to blind and set free his captives. The whole was carried out exactly as Hereward arranged it. The Cornishmen, with the 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 recognized in Hereward their deliverer and best friend, and in their gratitude wished him to dwell with them always; but the hero's roving and daring temper forbade his settling down, but rather urged him on to deeds of arms in other lands, where he quickly won a renown second to none.