You may notice that my blog/webiste looks a bit crisper and more professional. I decided that it needed a long overdue facelift. I’ve also taken the plunge and finally got around to setting up a mailing list. I’ve long avoided these things as I figured that a blog with a ‘follow’ function was enough but I’ve been getting more into the business side of things recently and have heard again and again that a mailing list is the way to go in retaining old readers and hooking new ones.
Now the thing with mailing lists is that you need something to offer subscribers. Free novellas is a popular way forward and I will be doing one of those as soon as I can. This novella will tie into a new series I’m writing which will be a sequel trilogy to my Hengest and Horsa trilogy. But that trilogy is a long way from finished yet. I usually wait until about a month before release before I do a cover reveal but felt it was right to hook potential subscribers to my mailing list with some info on what I am currently working on.
Sign of the White Foal will be the first book in the Arthur of the Cymry trilogy and will probably be ready for release early next year. That’s quite a wait but I wanted to get my mailing list up and running ASAP. The tie-in novella (once I’ve written it) will be free and exclusive for subscribers. Here is the clickable image I’ve spent the last couple of days laboriously inserting into the back matter of all of my ebooks. Feel free to click on it and subscribe! I can’t promise any great activity yet but will be in touch when I have something to report!
In an effort to place these ballads in some rough biographical order, I have saved The Death of Robin Hood for last. As with Gisborne, the Death exists in the Percy Folio but in a very poor state. Fortunately the story also survives in a 1786 garland called The English Archer. Modern reprintings of the ballad construct the narrative using both sources with the garland filling in the blanks in the Folio manuscript.
Robin, feeling a weakness in his arms, decides to go to Churchlees where his cousin the prioress, will bleed him. Will Scarlett warns him of a ‘good yeoman’ there who is sure to quarrel with him and advises Robin to take a hundred of his best bowmen. Robin refuses and brings only Little John for company.
On the way they come to a black water with a plank lain over it. An old woman is kneeling there, banning (lamenting) Robin Hood. She claims that she and other women are weeping for Robin’s body which ‘that this day must be let bloode’.
Robin and John arrive at Churchlees and the prioress bleeds Robin to the point of weakness. Sensing treachery, Robin blows his horn and Little John breaks in. ‘Red Roger’ also appears and he and Robin fight. Robin, despite his weakened state, manages to slay Roger.
The distraught Little John threatens to burn all Churchlees down but Robin stays his hand for he has never harmed a woman and is not about to start now. Instead, he tells John to fetch his bow. He shoots an arrow (presumably through the window) and tells John to bury him where it lands. Robin dies and is buried ‘within the fair Kirkleys’.
It’s a confusing end to England’s greatest hero. The old woman banning at the water is a motif of Celtic origin which made it into the chivalric romances of the middle ages. She may be connected to the Irish banshee (bean sídhe); a female spectre whose wailing heralds the imminent death of whoever hears it.
Churchlees/Kirkleys is generally considered to be Kirklees in West Yorkshire although South Kirkby near Pontefract has also been put forward (1). At Kirklees the guesthouse of a medieval priory still stands as well as a grave which has long been associated with Robin Hood. The inscription on it reads;
Hear Underneath dis laitl Stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as hi an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal Dekembris 1247
The pseudo-archaic English suggests that the current monument may have replaced an earlier one. The 1569 chronicle of Richard Grafton and a sketch done by historian Nathanial Johnston in 1665 describe a very different stone engraved with a long cross and Hood’s name as well as that of William of Goldesborough, whoever he was (2). The current inscription may have been taken from the 1630 ballad A True Tale of Robin Hood by Martin Parker which gives the text as;
Decembris quarto die, 1198 : anno regni Richardii Primi 9.
Robert Earle of Huntington
Lies under this little stone
No archer was like him so good
His wildnesse named him Robbin Hood
Full thirteen yeares, and something more
These northern parts he vexed sore
Such out-lawes as he and his men
May England never know agen.
Robin Hood was first associated with the Earl of Huntington in Anthony Munday’s 1598 play The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington. Nobody knows where Munday got this idea from or if it was just fantasy but the name has stuck and is often used in modern interpretations along with Locksley as the true name of Robin Hood.
The date of Robin’s death is also a matter of debate. The antiquarian Joseph Hunter found a Robert Hood of nearby Wakefield in the Wakefield court rolls and calculated his death to be 1347. That this is exactly a century after the date on the tomb could be a coincidence or a scribal error on the part of the one who carved the current inscription (if indeed they believed the person interred was Robert Hood of Wakefield). But then why call him Robert Earl of Huntington? Incidentally, the Earl of Huntington is a non-existent title. There have been earls of Huntingdon but none of them were called Robert.
Red Roger is most likely Roger of Doncaster from the Gest, mentioned in that ballad as the prioress’s lover. Why they both wished Robin ill is never explained. The Wakefield court rolls have a Roger de Doncaster living at nearby Crigglestone in 1327 (3).
No name is given for the treacherous prioress of Kirklees which makes the search for her identity even harder. Joseph Hunter suggested Elizabeth de Stainton (4). According to Hunter, the twelve-year-old Elizabeth and her sister Alice, were placed under the care of the nuns at Kirklees when their widowed mother married Hugh de Tutehill circa 1344. Elizabeth eventually became prioress of Kirklees although the date of her incumbency is unknown.
John Walker (5) claims that Hugh de Tutehill/Toothill had a daughter called Matilda who lived at Wakefield. One Matilda mentioned in the Wakefield court rolls is Matilda Hood, wife of Robert. But before we get carried away with the idea that Elizabeth de Stainton was Robert Hood’s sister in law, it must be said that we do not know Matilda Hood’s maiden name.
Stainton’s grave (which can still be seen) was discovered in the priory’s grounds in 1706. Unfortunately there is no date on it but, if she was around twelve-years-old in 1344 (as Hunter tells us), it is unlikely that she would have been the prioress a mere three years later when Robert Hood of Wakefield met his end.
There have been various lists of Kirklees’s prioresses but the dates of their tenures are debatable and there are many gaps in the line of succession. The mystery of the wicked prioress’s identity is perhaps an even more tightly locked secret than that of Robin Hood.
The original ballads of Robin Hood formed much of the basis for my latest novel – Lords of the Greenwood. I blended elements of the ballads with historical events and characters to present a realistic take on the character while attempting to remain true to the spirit of the legend. Check it out here.
Continuing my series of blog posts on the five early ballads of Robin Hood, let’s take a look at the first appearance of a man who would become a nemesis for Robin Hood in later tradition, even eclipsing the villainy of the sheriff.
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne exists in the famous Percy Folio; a collection of ballads compiled sometime in the 17th century that formed the basis of Percy’s own Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765) and part of Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882 – 1898). Despite the late hand of the Percy Folio, the ballad itself is considered to be one of the earliest of Robin Hood.
We’re back in the locality of Barnsdale this time and Robin tells Little John of a nightmare he just had of two men who wish him ill. John tries to comfort him by saying that dreams pass swiftly as wind over the hills which I think is nicely poetic. Robin isn’t deterred however and sets out to confront these two men, wherever and whoever they may be.
They come across a yeoman dressed in a horse’s hide, complete with its head. He is heavily armed. Not trusting him one bit, John makes to approach him while Robin waits safely behind but Robin is having none of it. As in the Monk, Robin and John have another row and John leaves him in a huff (will he ever learn?).
John goes to Barnsdale and runs into the Sheriff of Nottingham (out of his jurisdiction again). The sheriff has slain two of John’s companions and his men are pursuing Scarlett (presumably Will, but no first name is given here). John shoots one of the soldiers (who is surprisingly given a name; William a Trent) but his bow breaks and he is set upon by the rest of the sheriff’s men.
Meanwhile Robin Hood and the stranger have struck up conversation and we learn who he is; Guy of Gysborne and according to his own boasts, he’s a nasty piece of work. He’s looking for Robin Hood and Robin, wisely, does not let on. The two have an archery contest and Robin eventually reveals himself. They fight and Robin slays Guy. In a rather shocking act, he decapitates Guy and disfigures his face with his ‘Irish knife’. Then he puts on the horse’s hide and sticks Guy’s bloody head on the end of his bow (can you see where this is going?)
Robin finds his way to the sheriff where Little John is bound fast to a tree. Thinking Robin is the bounty hunter he hired to kill Robin Hood, the sheriff lets Robin approach Little John assuming he means to finish the second outlaw off. Instead, Robin cuts John’s bonds and gives him his bow. The sheriff panics and flees towards Nottingham but is felled by an arrow from Little John that ‘did cleave his heart in twain’.
Guy of Gisborne’s portrayal here is a startling one considering the powerful knight and rival for Maid Marion’s hand we so often see in movies and on TV. Here he is a grubby bounty hunter and fellow yeoman dressed, inexplicably, in a whole horse’s hide. This has been the cause of much debate on the mythical origins of the legend as it seems a suspiciously pagan and ceremonial thing to wear but so far no reasonable explanation for Guy’s strange getup has been reached.
So where exactly was ‘Gysborne’ anyway? As with most Robin Hood locations, there is more than one candidate. Gisburn in Lancashire, once part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, seems likely but John C. Bellamy suggests Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire which was known in the middle ages as ‘Giseburne’. (1)
This ballad is also the first appearance of another important character. Actually, that depends on how you look at it. The character ‘Scarlett’ in Gisborne is generally accepted to be the same character as ‘Willyam Scarlok’ in the Gest and ‘Wyll Scathlok’ in the Monk. It does seem likely as research into the etymology of the three names suggests a link.
If we employ the Old English pronunciation of ‘sc’ then ‘Scarlok’ and ‘Scathlok’ become ‘Sharlok’ and ‘Shathlok’. There are several theories on the meaning of these words ranging from the Old English sceððan + loc meaning ‘burst lock’ (2) (a good name for a robber) to sc(e)afan + locc meaning ‘shave lock’ (of hair, suggesting a shaven-headed outlaw) (3).
But John H. Munro offers a different theory (4). I discussed the original meaning of scarlet being a type of fine cloth and not the colour red in a previous post. The etymology of scarlet, according to Munro, could come from the Flemish or Low Germanic components schaeren (to shear) and laken (cloth) suggesting that it took its name from the process used in cutting it. Admittedly Munro does state that the process of cutting the expensive ‘scarlet’ cloth did not differ from the cutting of other cloths, but it is still possible that ‘Scarlok’ was the etymological ancestor of the word ‘scarlet’, just as Wyll Scarlok was the literary ancestor of Will Scarlet.
The end draws near and my next and final post in this series will look at the eventual fate of Robin Hood.
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.
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.
In my next post one of Robin’s most famous adversaries finally makes his appearance!
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.
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.
As a follow-up to my post on Robert Hood of Wakefield, I have done another post over at English Historical Fiction Authors on that other historical figure behind my new novel – Roger Godberd. Take a look here!
There have been many candidates for the historical Robin Hood over the centuries. Robert Hood of Wakefield is one of them and I’ve written a post about him over at English Historical Fiction Authors. Take a look!
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!