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Review: Hereward

Hereward by Victor Head
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Hereward” has the feel of a commissioned book — someone approached Mr. Head, saying — “Why don’t you write an up-to-date biography of Hereward the Wake?” Mr. Head might have replied — “There’s nothing to write. There are no contemporary sources; there are only a few living-memory sources and they’re contradictory; what’s left is myth created by over-imaginative Victorians.”

But, somehow, a contract was signed and a book was written–but it’s not a biography of Hereward the Wake. Instead it’s–

a) a fairly thoughtful examination of the politics of late Anglo-Saxon England through the death of William the Conqueror. Head delves past the “history is written by the winners” and lays out the fault lines of 11th-century England. He makes a credible argument that neither Edward nor Harold were universally supported by their peers and that history could have turned out much differently if William had stayed in England after he conquered it rather than returning to Normandy.

b) an extensive rehash of those Victorian “biographies” (Hereward, Harward, and Harvard are equivalent surnames–and Lt. Gen. TN Harward, who wrote one of the more helium-filled Victorian biographies, was far more eager to prove his descent from Hereward the Wake than to claim John Harvard, founder of that university, as a well-documented relation.)

c) a very evocative description of the Isle of Ely and its surrounding fens in their modern, reduced, and tamed form and as they were when the rump of Anglo-Saxon England made their last stand.

Together, the three parts make for a worthwhile read…just NOT a biography of Hereward the Wake.

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1 comment to Review: Hereward

  • CJ Cherryh

    A book about Hereward the Wake, I think by Kingsley, was one of my read-again-and-agains when I was a highschool sophomore. I checked that book out of the library more often than the collective in the previous history of that book.