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CONQUEST - 14: HEREWARD'S FENLAND RISING - William's Siege of Ely, Winter 1070-71

Updated on July 24, 2016

Hereward had many kinsmen in East Anglia and Middle England...

With his Dane axe an insurgent dispatches one of the Normans - this could be one of Hereward's kinsmen on his father's side, Siward 'Blond', Siward 'Red', Skalpi, Outig or Dutig...
With his Dane axe an insurgent dispatches one of the Normans - this could be one of Hereward's kinsmen on his father's side, Siward 'Blond', Siward 'Red', Skalpi, Outig or Dutig... | Source
A setback for the Normans - Hereward staged lightning raids on the besiegers with men chosen by him for their skills in fenland warfare
A setback for the Normans - Hereward staged lightning raids on the besiegers with men chosen by him for their skills in fenland warfare | Source

Hereward before and after the Conquest

Hereward had been offered bookland by the abbot of Crowland Abbey a few years before the Conquest. For some reason he did not take up the offer and left for Flanders - modern-day Belgium - into self-imposed exile. He had a name as a warrior and took mercenary service with Count Baldwin V, entering the Scheldt under the command of Baldwin's son, Robert 'the Frisian' to exact taxes from the islanders in the estuary. The invasion was repulsed by the uncanny intervention of St. Willibrord.

Be that as it may, Herward's career was projected by military contests in Bruges and Poitiers - this must be in the form of early jousting - and he was awarded prizes. He may have been attracted in 1065 to St. Omer on the coast by the presence of the former earl, Tostig, who was for a short time deputy to the castellan of the town, Wulfric Rabel. St. Omer was also the refuge of Tostig's and Harold's mother Gytha in 1068 after the fall of Exeter to William. He met his first wife here, Turfrida, daughter or sister to Wulfric.

Hereward came back to England some time after the battle at Hastings and avenged the death of his younger brother. The Normans had hanged the young fellow in his home and were in the process of enjoying the fruits of their 'labours' when Hereward showed up. He lay about with his Dane axe and left the Normans where they lay, taking down his brother and having him buried by local Benedictine friars. Hereward had a number of loyal followers who went with him to Peterborough, and who were instrumental in the sack of the abbey to deny the treasures stored there to William's Norman appointee Turold to the abbacy after Abbot Brand's death in 1069.

Turold arrived at Peterborough to find a smoking ruin, almost all the monks gone with the Danes under their king, Svein Estrithsson, and Hereward at large. Rumours abounded that, like his brother Jarl Osbeorn the year before, Svein had been given a 'sop' by William and took Peterborough's treasures as well as a number of the Brothers from the abbey by their request.

Hereward and his friends fortified Ely island and held off numerous attacks as I shall outline briefly. Firstly, I'll introduce you to the Norman magnates who were aligned against Hereward and the rebels:

William fitzRobert (the king); William fitzOsbern, the king's oldest friend whose father died defending the young duke in Normandy; Ivo Taillebois, shire reeve of Lincoln whom Hereward confronted at Stamford; Abbot Turold of Peterborough (earlier 'Burh') with his knights; Ogier the Breton, the new Lord of Bourne who was give the lands Hereward would have held from the Church; Frederik 'the Fleming' of Oosterzele, brother-in-law of William de Warenne, killed in ambush by Hereward; William Malet, former shire reeve of York, also killed somewhere in the marshes.



A thorough-going and interesting overview of England after the coronation of William. Uprisings abound across the kingdom, but there is no concerted opposition. William's reactions to the risings became increasingly savage, resulting in the Harrying of the North late in 1069 to early 1070 and the siege of Ely later in 1070 after a second Danish fleet came. The Normans had never endured harsh winters such as those experienced in the Fenlands and were close to desertion.

The English And The Norman Conquest

Ely, (Elige, pron.'Eliye') and environs

East Anglia was awash with marsh, sea channels and black, standing water. Ely was not easily - reached, and even then only by those 'in the know' who had grown to adulthood in the region by hunting or trade - ('Gipeswic' pron 'Yipeswich' = Ipswich)
East Anglia was awash with marsh, sea channels and black, standing water. Ely was not easily - reached, and even then only by those 'in the know' who had grown to adulthood in the region by hunting or trade - ('Gipeswic' pron 'Yipeswich' = Ipswich)
Ely Cathedral, 'the ship of the Fens', Ely Abbey and city   Elige, 'Eel Island' was isolated by deep channels, marsh and 'lodes', seemingly bottomless black standing water.
Ely Cathedral, 'the ship of the Fens', Ely Abbey and city Elige, 'Eel Island' was isolated by deep channels, marsh and 'lodes', seemingly bottomless black standing water. | Source
Tour map of the modern city of Ely
Tour map of the modern city of Ely | Source

The lead up to the Siege of Ely

Hereward had many kinsmen in and around East Anglia. The abbot of 'Burh' was an elderly uncle named Brand who had sought the verification of his office from the aetheling Eadgar after the death of his predecessor Leofric. He had not known that William was to be crowned around the end of the year. A Norman abbot named Turold was appointed by William in Brand's stead. You've seen the outcome of Turold's arrival at Burh above. After the Danes left Hereward, his kinsmen and friends bound themselves to protect the shrine of St Aetheldreda as well as the isle and abbey of Ely against the Normans in general and against the king in particular. They swore their oaths over her tomb, invoking her protection.

Eadwin, his brother Morkere and Bishop Aethelwin of Durham arrived in the Fenlands. Marsh and fenland extended around Ely from Cotinglade near Cotenham to Littleport or Abbotsdelf, and from Stretham Mere to Circewere (or Churchwere). The Brothers at Ely reckoned the distance at seven by four miles, which in reality was twelve by ten miles.

There were at the time four points of access to Ely: at Abbotsdelf, Stuntney, Earith and Aldreth. In the Eleventh Century only Aldreth was usable. Breadth of fen was said to be four furlongs - in reality again nearer sixteen. Two miles were given as the length of William's causeway strengthened for his mounted assault (ref: Florence of Worcester). The Fenlands were largely under-drained swamp with meandering tributaries of the Great Ouse passing between eyots and isles that supported small hamlets such as Stuntney or Coveney. Ely was the largest of the cultivated fen islands. Access to Ely was impossible with almost stagnant mere and marsh making permanent structures impracticable due to the vagaries of tide and sub-strata.

Settlement on Ely was located on the western side of the isle, on sloping ground that rose to the abbey site itself at the highest elevation. Eleventh Century weaponry has been found in the area in ditches around Roller's Lode (a 'lode' is a waterway or channel) and Dimock's Cote near Wicken and in the river Great Ouse itself.

The Liber Eliensis (the Book of Ely), supported by Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis tells of the king advancing eastward from the castle at Grantaceaster (Cambridge). The Great Ouse, then known as the Aldreth River, flowed west, its source west of Stretham. The ground then rose steadily onto Ely toward Linden End in Haddenham. The cost of the Norman siege was reflected in later land values, assessed for Domesday in 1086. The three settlements of Haddenham, Linden End and Hill Row, valued in 1066 with Wilburton were worth £34 annually. Their value sank to £18 when handed back to the abbot.

Thurstan was the abbot at Ely when Morkere, Siward 'Barn' and Bishop Aethelwin arrived in late 1070. His friars had summoned the help of thegns, freemen and sokemen on Ely from the two Hundreds that met at Witchford to defend the abbey and lands of Saint Aetheldreda. Morkere would have had his own following - as his older brother Eadwin had, and died with him when betrayed by his servants - and Aethelwin had his laymen or canons, just as Siward would have his retainers from his soke.

There was also Thurketil of Harringworth (Northamptonshire), the most influential king's thegn in the Eastern Danelaw shires - he was forced to abandon his lands after the Norman takeover, and went over to the Danes, amongst whom he had kinsmen. He may have been descended from Thorkell 'Havi' (Thorkell 'the Tall'). Food stores from his former estates would have been forthcoming without the knowledge of their new Norman owners, such was his popularity in the region. Then there was a Siward of Maldon (Essex, near the Thames) had extensive lands in East Anglia. He was an old friend of Hereward's

Two of Morkere's kinsmen came to Ely, a nephew named Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry (both Northamptonshire). They were soon joined by Ordgar, shire reeve (of Grantchester/Cambridge). He had kept his post after William was made king despite being known as one of 'Harold's men'. Later the infamous Norman Picot was given the shire reeve's post (now sheriff). Another of Hereward's kin was Alwin, son of the Ordgar who would forfeit his lands after William took Ely. Again, another of Morkere's kinsmen was Thorbeorht. Then there was a Rahere, kinsman of Hereward aside from Siward 'Red' and Siward 'Blond' on his father's side. Twins Outi and Duti were nephews, Winter and Liveret were more distant kinsmen. Rahere came from Wroxhambury in Norfolk, near the River Bure.

The total number of Hereward's supporters has been assessed as two to three thousand who could be classed as fighting men. A large number of William's men would have been non-combatants. William raised a land and ship fyrd which would have numbered several thousand. He ordered the isle to be ringed on all sides, although that was not altogether possible without risk. Gaps would have been presented, through which stores could be smuggled through during frequent thick winter mists or sea mists that rolled in from the east. With snowfalls these would have deadened sounds made by men and beasts.

In Peter Rex's book, 'The English Resistance', Hereward appears from Chapter 7. Three chapters deal with Hereward's role in the fight against the Normans. One chapter deals with how the name 'Wake' was attached to Hereward.

Read this book in conjunction with Ann Williams' book above to gain insight into the age.

Ely, the 'Isle of eels' is shown in its marshy environs, separated from the mainland by 'lodes'or channels,swamp and marshland
Ely, the 'Isle of eels' is shown in its marshy environs, separated from the mainland by 'lodes'or channels,swamp and marshland

Ely Beset...

William had a wooden causeway built to the isle, embedded where possible in stones or rocks near the shore and floated on hides blown with air or, on flat boats. When this was deemed ready mounted knights were sent in a headlong charge over it, bound for the abbey of Ely. Their aim was to grab gold and silver treasures said to be kept there.

The causeway was progressively loosened from its anchoring under the weight of horses and armoured men bearing weaponry. When it gave way most were thrown into the swamp and deep channels on either side. Few survived and only one mounted man made it onto the isle. He was taken to Hereward and freed, his nerve admired.

Abashed, William now fell back leaving guards to watch the - known - crossings in a bid to stop defenders from mounting a counter-attack. Ramparts and bulwarks of hardened earth and peat were built along their side of the Great Ouse to withstand raiders. The first attack on Ely is thought to have been launched at Aldreth, the hythe or haven where alders grew, probably near the Alderbrook upriver from Stuntney. Downriver where the Granta flowed into the Great Ouse was faster and deeper then, which was mainly why William's attack failed. The frail structure of his bridge or causeway was undermined by swirling water working on its moorings.

At Brandon near Huntingdon William went over his options. A stockade was built and a dyke dug at Reach near Burwell, with a manned garrison to control movements by the Aenglish. With this a base for William's army was provided. Hereward countered at nearby Burwell, the settlement burnt to the ground for enabling the Normans in their bid to isolate Ely, the men having given William supplies and stores of their own free will.

Next the Norman garrison at Reach set out to tackle Hereward's men, to fall to them all bar one. This was a man named Richard, son of the Vicomte Osbert. He too was spared for his bravery. The main body of Normans drove Hereward's men back to their boats. On Hereward's side, amongst others, were Thurstan, Siward, Leofric, Botig of St Edmunds in Suffolk and Acer 'the Hard'.. The Aenglish success in this skirmish had William worried. He knew he could not leave the men on Ely before going against the Scots across the Tees, as wll as deal with insurgents in Normandy (he is known to have taken an army and fleet north to Scotland in 1072 before going back to Normandy. He would go against Malcolm III again in 1074 and force a treaty on him at Abernethy).

William despaired of ever taking Ely, and spoke of coming to an agreement with Hereward, but was steered away from this ignoble line of thought. They told him that the defenders had raided on their lands. From this we have to take it that Hereward had attacked the Normans more often than their chroniclers admitted. A truce was offered by William to Hereward. For a short time raids on the Norman camps were stood down, although Morkere and the others maintained William was up to something and raids began again.

William, angered at not being able to storm the isle was uncharacteristically ready to give up the siege, the spirit of Saint Aetheldreda too effective for him to break. Ivo Taillebois, shire reeve of Lincoln would have none of his defeatism. He told the king he knew of an old spay-wife (witch) who would put a curse on the isle to render the defenders helpless. William was ready to listen to anyone. He let Ivo go ahead with his scheme and the king set watches around the landward side of the isle. He strengthened the blockade to further assist the old woman's spells. To his knowledge all the ways in and out were sealed. One story tells of Hereward dressed as an old potter out selling his wares. He changed his disguise to that of a fisherman before being found out. He fled to Somersham and found his way back to Ely under cover of darkness. It is just as likely Hereward, who had eyes everywhere amongst the men and women, learned what was happening around the Fenlands.

William and his nobles went back to Aldreth and summoned the fishermen to bring their boats to Cotinglade with wood to build mounds and hillocks from which an attack might be staged. His mounted men and footsoldiers were stationed in an ancient Iron Age camp at Belsar's Hill near Willingham that had also been used by the Romans. Only a timber stockade would be needed to fortify the camp. This castellum guarded the narrow causeway unsuitable for mounted knights, that led to the river crossing at Aldreth.

He then had four round siege towers built, on which he had ballistas (catapults) mounted to shield the men working on widening the causeway to make it suitable for horsemen. On the isle the men built ramparts, strengthening the turf mounds beyond the palisades. Waterborne attacks were mounted by the Normans to divert the defenders from their real purpose. The ballistas were used on Ely's defences.

Hereward with his men at Ely fighting the Normans under William's direct command

A monk led William in by a little-known path. Earl Morkere and other nobles were taken but Hereward and a few friends escaped the Normans'. After sheltering in the wildwoods he left these shores forever with friends and Flemish wife Alftruda
A monk led William in by a little-known path. Earl Morkere and other nobles were taken but Hereward and a few friends escaped the Normans'. After sheltering in the wildwoods he left these shores forever with friends and Flemish wife Alftruda

The witch and beyond... Betrayal.

After a week the witch was brought by Ivo Taillebois and hoisted to the top of one of the towers from where she started to curse the defenders. She uttered incantations, pulled up her frocks and showed her naked buttocks as a gesture to seal her 'magic' [this parallels the story of one of Exeter's defenders three years earlier, who insulted William by showing his genitals and farting loudly].


Hereward sent men out unseen from Ely to set fire to the reeds and briars that ringed the towers' timber bases. Oil and pitch were used to get the fire going, to make sure the damp sedge was set alight. The fire caught, each of the towers going up in flames, black smoke and flames driving the Normans back. The spay wife screamed hysterically atop the tower. As she shrieked curses the smoke blinded her and she fell, breaking her neck. William was left to ponder his next move...

He would have to resort to using his wits. Ensuring that word reached the monks on Ely he issued a decree to divide the abbey's lands amongst the foremost of his nobles. The monks did learn of this and reported it to Abbot Thurstan when he returned from Angerhale (a hamlet near Bottisham in modern-day Cambridgeshire) where he had hidden the abbey's treasures and ornaments. Unknown to Hereward he sued for peace and begged William to restore the abbey's lands 'freely and honourably'.

William consented. He stood to win anyway. Everything would be done without Hereward or the other leaders knowing. William was to be shown to the isle whilst Hereward was away foraging off the isle. Hereward heard from a monk - Alwin, son of Ordgar - of what was to happen in his absence. Alwin stopped Hereward burning down the church and town to render them useless to the Normans. He was urged to flee as William was close, at Witchford.

If the decree was issued and believed by the monks they would be wronged by William, as he had already given his followers notice that they would have the land without having to pay the abbey the usual dues. So, knowing Abbot Thurstan would not now oppose him - therefore also the monks and canons - William first had a castello built at Aldreth and set about having a bridge assembed over the Great Ouse. Existing parts of the causeway were strengthened through the swamp. Boats were used to support the causeway and to bring up supplies as the Normans advanced. Where the boats were tied together a road of staves and hurdles was mounted on them for the horsemen to cross. Shallow or waterlogged stretches were infilled with rocks and stones to form a solid road. The advance was to be made on horseback, with ballistas and spear throwers providing an 'umbrella'.

It was nevertheless hazardous. Men in heavy hauberks and padded over-coats were dismayed that they would have to cross the fen with Aenglish arrows raining down on them. The marsh over which they would have to cross was a hindrance in itself, eddying soil mass loosened by water courses went through unreliable ground in which deep gashes showed haphazardly as the mud broke apart. Not only the natural hazards beneath them presented a living nightmare, but rain and hailstones threatened to make it worse. The marsh itself would look ghastly to outsiders, of unfathomable depth..The causeway was spoken of as narrow (as far as horsemen were concerned) and winding - the track between Belsar's Hill and Aldreth - and in need of strengthening. As they went forward the Normans found they were using their dead comrades as 'stepping stones'. The defenders struck out at them as they advanced and more were slain. We are told by one source:

"The king rapidly led his army across by a weak and wobbly bridge made on little boats with poles and wicker hurdles"

A makeshift structure at best, after all. With the Aldreth Ouse crossed, the Normans were faced with more marsh, with more fast-flowing waterways and stagnant pools. They overran and broke apart the embankments made of peat blocks. Here the defenders had thrown rocks and other cheaply gained non-standard weaponry. As the onslaught progressed over the causeway and floating bridges the king brought in his fleet to block the seaward channels.

The attackers were Frankish knights, according to the Liber Eliensis',

"A thousand Frankish cavalry, mailed and helmed, who had crossed over were attacking three thousand of the outlaws and many more Aenglish men-at-arms brought from inland summoned by the commoners".


Geoffrey Gaimar wrote not only of knights but 'of sergeants, ship-men and hired men'. This attack was unforseen and Liber Eliensis maintains,

"The king however brought the army safe right up to the waters of Ely, much closer than anyone might have foreseen. Then the loud voice of victory most quickly drove the enemies from the isle".


(No prizes for guessing who their patron was; Liber Eliensis would add that the onslaught had been enabled "by an amazing feat of engineering". It went on to state that the king had brought forward small boats that bore the 'siege engines' or ballistas, and with which he was able to bombard the defenders heavily enough that the earth shook).

Yet even after crossing the river the Normans had a struggle uphill towards Haddenham over further stagnant pools, hardly able to advance to solid earth.'for pitfalls and eddies of mud'. On, beyond Haddenham there was more marsh, where the most likely way from Aldreth to Ely ran over flint causeways that linked the fen isles. This would bring William to Witchford, skirting the area known now as Grunty Fen - still well below sea-level. He followed the 'crooked.fen paths on a most difficult marsh', enabling him to enfold his enemy in a pincer movement..

The Victorians romanticised Hereward, entrenching the notion he was 'the Wake'

A Victorian - romanticised - image of Hereward fighting the Normans - single-handed it seems from this picture - from Cassell's 1885 History of England
A Victorian - romanticised - image of Hereward fighting the Normans - single-handed it seems from this picture - from Cassell's 1885 History of England | Source

There are several accounts of the siege...

There are several accounts of the siege, the one above widely acknowledged as being accurate. There is more detail elsewhere.

The outcome of fighting in the district is reflected in lower land values in Domesday a decade and a half later by four tenths (or 40%). Aldreth, Ely, Cottenham, Impington, Willingham, Sutton and Haddenham saw values drop, as well as Witcham, Witchford and Wilburton, Little Downham and Little Thetford. On gaining a foothold on the isle William drove his force on ahead of him. Leaders yielded in the hope of being treated fairly.

Hereward's own followers and kin melted away, off Ely by way of the Great Ouse and Well Stream near Upwell. Here he withdrew to a broad span of water known as Wide beside Welle. Its shores offered ways westward unknown to many.

William paid his respects at Ely's abbey church. Without going too near the shrine of Saint Aetheldreda he left the building and went back to Witchford where he talked with Abbot Thurstan and took his surrender. Nevertheless he find the abbot heavily for allowing the rebels to use the isle as a stronghold. He guaranteed that the abbey would keep its lands. For their part the monks had already handed the king 700 Marks. Now they would be pressed for the remaining 300 as a fine for not welcoming the king 'in the manner befitting' when he went into their church. Thurstan is said to have met him again at Warwick, where he was given a charter that laid down Ely's ownership of its lands. The way the charter was termed is used in the Liber Eliensis in covering the surrender of the isle.

One condition laid down by William for the abbey was that a number of knights was retained for its 'protection', to be fed, wined and dined at the abbey's expense. Other promises made by William were broken. Those Aenglish leaders taken were shut away, Morkere, Aethelwin and Siward 'Barn'. Morkere was handed over to Roger Beaumont to be held until the end of William's reign in 1087. William's successor William 'Rufus' had him arrested again and he died in captivity. Siward 'Barn' or 'Bearn' (as in'Bairn', the 'youngster') was also detained, although set free and sent into exile. He is thought to have gone east with others to join the Varangian Guard. He was given land by the emperor Alexios east of the Crimean peninsula in an area known (then) locally as 'Little England'. Bishop Aethelwin was put away in a monastery but died only months later. Others had hands or feet chopped off or were blinded. Many commoners were sent away unpunished.

Hereward himself, kinsmen and followers kept clear of the king, very likely to the west of the Fenlands in the Brunesweald. From there Hereward is said to have been taken back to Flanders where he was taken into the service of Count Baldwin VI as he had been with Baldwin V. There are as many legends of him after Ely as there were of Harold after Caldbec Hill near Hastings.

One aspect little known is of the men who joined Hereward on Ely. The events follow closely on the taking of York by the aetheling Eadgar, and the subsequent harrying of the North after the king, his brother Robert of Mortain and William fitzOsbern chased Eadgar, Waltheof, Gospatric and other close associates along the Yorkshire coast to the Tees from nearby Redcar (Redekarre at the time, or Reed Carr - a 'carr' being flat, marshy land).


When William finally tricked Abbot Thurstan into revealing the way onto Ely many fled with Hereward. Siward and Morkere amongst others were taken captive. Siward was later released under a deathbed amnesty by William I and left for the east to join the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperor at the time of Alexios 'Komnenos' (crowned 1081, died 1118). Morkere was re-arrested and detained by William II, 'Rufus' to die in captivity. Bishop Aethelwin died only months after imprisonment.

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Book seven of the RAVENFEAST saga, FENMAN sees the central character Ivar with his friends from the North here at Ely to take on the Normans under King William's direct command. The story follows on from LANDWASTER, the 'Harrying of the North' leads on to this stand against Norman overlordship and Ivar's developing friendship with an acquaintance, Hereward, he met after William was crowned at the West Mynster. Take a look at the RAVENFEAST page to see how the saga unfurls. http://hubpages.com/literature/THE-RAVENFEAST-SERIES

FENMAN is in the early stages of writing and could be published late summer/early autumn, 2016.

The legend and the facts - sorted

After Hereward left again for Flanders a Norman lord, Baldwin was appointed to the lordship of Bourne. Seeking to give himself some 'history' and roots in the area Baldwin took the soubriquet 'Wake'. This is where the confusion arises. Hereward was never known in his lifetime as 'the Wake' - just goes to show how Norman fiction was turned into fact..



Next - 9: Consequenses, Resistance and Compliance

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 3 months ago

      Interesting the intrigue and the different schemes involved. Much more complicated than the set up and maneuver in most historic battles. Thank you.

    • alancaster149 profile image
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      Alan Robert Lancaster 3 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The Siege of Ely features in the next book in the RAVENFEAST series, Robert. Make yourself familiar with the background on the RAVENFEAST SERIES page on the Profile Page and be sure leave a comment. (Lots more in the 'underbrush' here on HubPages).

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