Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

Hereward "The Last of the English"

More than 800 years ago, there was living in the county of Lincolnshire a rich Englishman, known as the lord of Bourn.

He had a son named Hereward, who was taller and stronger than anyone living in that part of England. His great strength and love of fighting led him into many a quarrel; and so most people were not very sorry when he crossed the sea to fight in other lands.

Now about this time, a sad trouble befell our native land. A great warrior, William, duke of Normandy, came across the strait of Dover with a large army. In the famous battle of Hastings, fought in the year 1066, our brave king, Harold, was slain. William the Norman then became the ruler of England, and he gave most of the land in this country to his Norman friends.

The father of Hereward was now dead; and, soon, news came to the brave young Englishman that his old home had been given to a follower of the new king. Hereward came home at once, and very soon gathered a few friends round him. With these, he made such a fierce attack on the Norman that he was forced to flee.

In this way, Hereward won back his old home, but he was not allowed to remain in peace. All the Normans near banded themselves together to punish this daring man; so Hereward and his friends had to flee to a very safe place known as the Isle of Ely.

We still call this part of England the Fens; and in Hereward's day it well deserved the name. All around was a waste of waters, with here and there a little island. There were swamps, too, in which a man could easily sink and thus lose his life. Here, then, Hereward formed his "Camp of Refuge," as it was called.

Ely Cathedral


Day by day, his little band grew larger; for the news soon spread that one brave Englishman scorned to yield to the cruel Normans; and those who had suffered at their hands got a very good welcome indeed from Hereward. There was not much fear of food runČning short, for these hardy men could live on the fish and wild fowl which swarmed around them.

For a long time the Normans had tried in vain to get near their foes, but this was no easy matter. Men clad in armour did not dare to cross the swamps, and they could not find a path across them. And so, for some years, Hereward and his men were quite safe.

But at last, king William, himself, came with an army against these brave Fen men. He soon saw that he must make some kind of a path across the swamps. So he got a great number of skins blown full of air, and then beams of wood were laid upon them.

Workers in the fens


Slowly but surely, the floating bridge grew. But one day, Hereward and his men stole out of the camp and set fire to some reeds growing near the bridge. A number of Normans were burnt, and others, in their hurry to get away, fell into the soft slimy ground, where they sank, and so lost their lives.

Still, king William kept on with the work, and in time the path was finished. And now, thousands of Normans, clad in heavy coats of mail, began to cross the frail bridge; but before they could reach the Camp of Refuge the path gave way beneath them. Soon, most of them were struggling in the mud, where they quickly sank, never to rise again.

It is said that, in the end, the monks of Ely sent to king William, and offered to show him a secret path to the island, if he would spare their monastery. William gave the promise; the Camp of Refuge was taken at last; and more than a thousand of its brave defenders were killed.

We are not quite certain what became of Hereward. Some say that he cut his way through the Norman ranks, and escaped to France: others tell us that the king was so pleased with his wonderful bravery, that he allowed him to return to his old home at Bourn.

Whatever was the end of this brave hero, we know that for many years afterwards his countrymen loved to tell, in song and story, of his daring deeds. As there was not one after him who dared to fight against king William, we generally speak of Hereward, as "the Last of the English."