Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 189

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.

Hereward at Court

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 [Pg 338] 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.

Hereward’s Exile

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.

Hereward’s Farewell

“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?” “Wherever 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 [Pg 339] 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.

Hereward in Northumbria

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 [Pg 340] 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.