Robin Hood and the Potter – an Analysis

The potter to hes cart he went,
He was not to seke;
A god to-hande staffe therowt he hent,
Beffore Roben he leppyd.

Read my previous posts on A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk.

Like the Gest ballad, the Potter is divided into ‘fitts’ but this is a much shorter ballad and has only three fitts as opposed to the Gest’s eight. It is unclear if the outlaws are Barnsdale or Sherwood men in this story. Nottingham features prominently but Wentbridge is also mentioned which is smack bang in Barnsdale and near to the Sayles where Robin and his companions operate from in the Gest.

The outlaws spot a potter coming down the road who is known for getting out of paying them ‘pavage’ (tax). He even once gave Little John a good drubbing with his staff when he tried to rob him at Wentbridge. Determined to squeeze some coin out of him this time, Robin accosts the potter. A fight ensues and the Potter wins. Impressed, Robin lets him off but asks to borrow his clothes and wares while the potter remains with his men.

Dressed as the potter, Robin heads into Nottingham where he sells the potter’s wares at ridiculously low prices, gathering a big crowd. He attracts the attention of the sheriff’s wife who, after purchasing several pots, asks him to dinner.

While at their meat, Robin overhears some of the sheriff’s men discussing an archery contest. Robin joins in and of course thrashes them all soundly. He then tells the impressed sheriff that he has a bow in his cart that was given to him by Robin Hood. The sheriff shows some excitement at this and Robin agrees to take him to the outlaw on the morrow.

The following morning Robin leads the sheriff into the greenwood and blows his horn, summoning his men. They rob the sheriff but, as his wife showed him such hospitality, Robin lets him live. He sends him home on a white palfrey which he makes a gift of to the sheriff’s wife in return for her hospitality. The ballad closes with the sheriff being mocked by his wife and Robin giving the potter ten pounds for all the pots he sold so cheaply.


Humber ware chamber pot. Humber ware was produced in North Yorkshire in the 13th to 16th centuries, contemporaneous with the Robin Hood ballads. Photo by York Museums Trust CC BY-SA 4.0

Women are poorly represented in Robin Hood stories, especially in the pre-Maid Marion days. In fact they rarely pop up at all. The Potter is the only early Robin Hood ballad where a female has a role of any importance (excepting the Virgin Mary and the treacherous Prioress of Kirklees). There is some definite flirting between Robin and the sheriff’s wife and the ballad is noted for being more of a humorous tale than the others.

This is the first instance of a trope that grew to be a standard event in Robin Hood legends; Robin meets his match. The most famous of these is his fight with Little John over the bridge which dates from 1680 and has made it into most modern retellings of the legend. Another is his meeting with the curtal friar, usually identified with Friar Tuck.

cover smashwordsIn my next post one of Robin’s most famous adversaries finally makes his appearance!

Read Robin Hood and the Potter here.

The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester has been invaluable in my research and is well worth a look at here.



Robin Hood and the Monk – an Analysis

He gos in to Seynt Mary chirch,
And knelyd down before the rode;
Alle that ever were the church within
Beheld wel Robyn Hode.

In my previous post I took a look at A Gest of Robin Hood; the most comprehensive of the early Robin Hood ballads but not, in fact, the earliest. That distinction goes to Robin Hood and the Monk, an untitled tale found in a Cambridge University manuscript first printed and titled by Robert Jamieson in Popular Ballads and Songs in 1806. The original manuscript dates to the second half of the 15th century making it possibly fifty years older than the Gest.

Whereas Barnsdale in Yorkshire was the home of Robin and his companions in the Gest, the Monk is a Nottinghamshire tale through and through. This further supports the idea that there were once two Robin Hood traditions that got blended; a Nottinghamshire one and a Yorkshire one.

As with most of the ballads, the story begins with Robin and his band in the greenwood, commenting on the season. Little John is in unusually high spirits and is concerned by Robin’s glumness. Robin complains that he has not attended Mass in a while and determines to head off into Nottingham to rectify this. Concerned for his master’s safety, John insists on going with him but the two quarrel on the way and John storms off.

Robin makes it into Saint Mary’s church in Nottingham but is recognised by a monk he robbed some time back. The outraged monk goes to the sheriff and Robin is promptly seized and cast into a dungeon.

A page is missing in the original manuscript so we don’t know how the rest of the outlaws come to know of Robin’s predicament but they’re not happy. John and Much set out and accost the monk and his page on the road. In a rather shocking act of brutality for the not-so-merry men, they kill both monk and page and steal their letters which are destined for the king.

Little John and Much blag an audience with the king and spin him a tale about the monk dying en route to court. The king gives them his seal with orders to tell the sheriff to send the incarcerated Robin Hood to him. John and Much return to Nottingham and give the sheriff the news along with another cock-and-bull story about the king making the slain monk Abbot of Westminster. While the sheriff drinks himself stupid in celebration at pleasing his king, John and Much sneak into the dungeons and free Robin. The trio leap over the wall at its lowest part and scarper back to the greenwood.

Robin and John make up after their previous tiff, the sheriff does not dare face the king after letting Robin escape and the ballad ends with a wry note of respect from the king who is impressed by John’s loyalty to his master which surely outranks his respect for his king.

St Mary's Nottingham

The current St Mary’s Church in Nottingham dates back to the 1370s but a church has existed on the site since Saxon times.

It is tempting to imagine Robin cast into the gloomy dungeons of Nottingham Castle in this ballad but the castle isn’t mentioned once. Instead, the jail seems to be somewhere close to the sheriff’s residence and, contrary to just about every Robin Hood movie, the Sheriff of Nottingham did not live at Nottingham Castle. In fact, there was no Sheriff of Nottingham until 1449. Previous to that the post was called the ‘High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests’ and covered a large jurisdiction not limited to Nottingham alone.

A more likely location for Robin’s incarceration is the Shire Hall or Sheriff’s Hall which once occupied the site where the Museum of Justice currently stands in Nottingham (a mere few feet from St Mary’s). Dating from at least 1375, the Shire Hall served as a county court and jail (1). In 2009 a bottle-shaped pit was found in the sandstone caves beneath the building. This got various tourism-minded people in Nottingham excited who quickly labelled it ‘Robin Hood’s dungeon’. It certainly resembles an oubliette – from the French ‘to forget’ – a cave-like dungeon only accessed through a hole in the top where prisoners were either lowered by a rope or shoved carelessly. It may only have been a storage room of course, but at least we know prisoners of Robin Hood’s day were incarcerated at this site.

The Monk ballad is considered one of the best as it is a classic swashbuckling yarn involving capture, disguise, rescue, escape and even making a fool of the king. Next up is another classic tale of daring-do this time featuring Robin in a more active role as he takes on the guise of a potter.

Read Robin Hood and the Monk here.

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The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester has been invaluable in my research and is well worth a look at here.

  1. Brand, Ken. The Shire Hall and Old County Gaol Nottingham. Nottingham Civic Society

Guest post: Locksley or Huntington? Robin Hood’s Noble Heritage

1. Bishop Odo

Bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. As well as suppressing rebels like Waltheof the Earl of Huntingdon, he is also the alleged ancestor of Robert Fitz Odo of Loxley.

Robin Hood has been given many titles and fictitious backgrounds over the centuries. Was he the Earl of Huntington? Lord of Locksley? A disgraced nobleman or a common ragamuffin? I’ve done a guest post over at What Cathy Read Next examining the fictional titles of England’s famous hooded outlaw. Take a look!