Places: Hereward the Wake

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1866

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Eleventh century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Cambridgeshire

*Cambridgeshire. Hereward the WakeMarshy fenland region around Cambridge, where most of the novel’s action takes place. Kingsley’s opening pages are a paean to the great beauty of this landscape, a site of historic importance because there the Saxons continued to fight the Norman forces of William I for seven years after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This expansive marshy area, now diked and cultivated, was forested in medieval times. On the low rolling uplands above the open flat lands that housed towns of the Danelaw and Christian monasteries at Crowland, Ramsey, and on the Isle of Ely, there Hereward builds his “Camp of Refuge.”

The novel was published on the eight hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and its subtitle identifies Hereward as the “Last of the English” because the race subsequently included a French strain, associated with the softening effects of civilization. In contrast, Kingsley regarded the preconquest invasions as a happy marriage, and he uses the imagery of gender to characterize them: the Anglo-Saxon woman impregnated by the Norse Viking, the “great male race.” Kingsley believed that such revitalization was urgent for a Victorian England weakened by effete indulgences. Hereward’s battle cry “A Wake!” proclaims his salient quality of alertness, and Kingsley called upon his nation to “awake” and rise from their decline.

Kingsley gives to England’s early Anglo-Danish nobility, who lived in a hard but “cheerful” landscape, a mythic status as gallant–though not always efficient–warriors. Their proud personal independence and the free institutions that inform British liberty derive from the northern races of Denmark and Norway who came as invaders but achieved a stable society. This argument is crucial in the Victorian invention of the Vikings, whose history is defined by the need for more agricultural lands, skill as shipbuilders and the love of the sea, and a passion for personal freedom. Much of the novel’s matter comes from Icelandic sagas, and Hereward’s heroes are Harold Hardraade, Ragnor Lodborg, and Frithiof. Going into exile, he sails close to Orkney and encounters a “witch-whale”; as on many occasions Hereward’s singing of Viking songs gives confidence to his followers.

Kingsley makes a sharp distinction between Hereward’s northeastern homeland and the southern home of the men of Wessex and the Godwinssons who claim to be all of England. These counties, even before the Norman Conquest, were the most civilized and most French. The breadth of separation is evoked by several pages that describe Hereward’s journey to meet King William at Winchester to seek peace after he concludes that further resistance is pointless.


*Greenwood. Region stretching from the fens to the Scottish border, for two hundred years the refuge of outlaws, including the famous Robin Hood. Hereward spends time in the greenwood before he acknowledges King William’s superiority. Both a real landscape and a mythic place, the greenwood transforms lives of despair and poverty into something that is not only tolerable but pleasant. As with the fenland, this less cultivated place is superior to the overly civilized and developed parts of England. In the forest, lawless men soon form an ordered society, defined by hard knocks, strict rules, fair play, and equal justice for high and low–the English ideal, advocated especially in the public schools and fostered by popular historical novels like Hereward the Wake, of which there are several juvenile versions.

*Crowland Minster

*Crowland Minster. Most significant of several religious houses in the novel, used by Hereward as a place of refuge. After richly describing its buildings and their functions, Kingsley subsequently notes its destruction and later rebuilding, a sign of Norman development. The local monks start a little school in a nearby town that eventually becomes Cambridge University.

BibliographyChitty, Susan. The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. This biography, using correspondence previously closed to researchers, is the best available analysis of Kingsley’s personality, and especially of his relationship with his wife. A chapter is devoted to the writing of Hereward the Wake.Collums, Brenda. Charles Kingsley: The Lion of Eversley. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. This good biography is a useful introduction to Kingsley’s public life. It includes an analysis of Hereward the Wake.Sanders, Andrew. The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Provides essential background to the Victorians’ interest in historical fiction. A chapter is devoted to Hereward the Wake, comparing the novel’s view of history with the views that Kingsley expressed in The Roman and the Teuton.Uffelman, Larry K. Charles Kingsley. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A general survey of Kingsley’s literary reputation and an analysis of his works. It is the best beginning point for study of Kingsley.Vance, Norman. The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A comprehensive survey of Victorian attitudes toward Christian manliness, using Hereward as an example.
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