Legend, tradition and anecdote

THE county is not prolific in legend or rich in anecdote, but a mass of interesting tradition and story clings around one of its historical heroes—Robin Hood, The character of the famous outlaw and his exploits in the ‘merrie greenwood’ are too well known to need any detailed repetition. Everyone has followed with curiosity at some time or other of his career the daring freebooter and his dashing comrades, with their marvellous use of the weapon which won England some of its most glorious victories. Their bold thefts from the rich, their charity to the poor, and their strange pranks with captive travellers, especially those in monkish garb, to say nothing of their various encounters with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and even with royalty itself, make up a romance full of incident and attraction. Washington Irving, in his delightful meditations upon the beauties of Sherwood Forest, speaks of ‘the picturings of my boyish fancy which began to rise in my mind, and Robin Hood and his men to stand before me.

“He clothed himself in scarlet then,
His men were all in green;
A finer show throughout the world
In no place could be seen.

Good Lord! it was a gallant sight
To see them all in a row
With every man a good broad sword,
And eke a good yew bow.”

The heads of the story as collected by Stow in his annals are briefly these: ‘In this time (A.D. 1190) were many robbers and outlaws, among the which Robin Hood and Little John continued in woods, despoiling and robbing the goods of the rich. They killed none but such as continually oppressed the poor, or by resistance for their own defence. The said Robert entertained a hundred tall men and good archers with such spoils and thefts as he got, upon whom four hundred (were they ever so strong) durst not give the onset. He suffered no woman to be oppressed or otherwise molested. Poor men’s goods he spared, abundantly relieving them with that which by theft he got from abbeys and the houses of rich Earls, whom Major, the historian, blameth for his rapine and theft, but of all thieves he affirmeth him to be the prince and the most gentle thief.’; As Professor Morley well says in his ‘Library of English Literature’: ‘Robin Hood personified to thousands in England the spirit of liberty in arms against the cruel forest laws, against all the tyrannies of the strong in Church and State, against all luxury fed on the spoils of labour. From the old days when Hereward the Saxon held the woods in defiance of Norman kings, there had been stories of bold outlaws who through songs and tales of the countryside became heroes to the labouring man, with more freedom in their souls than in their lives.’ John of Fordun places the date of Robin Hood’s existence after the Battle of Evesham, A.D. 1265, and says: ‘Then from among the dispossessed and the banished arose that most famous cut-throat, Robin Hood, with Little John and their accomplices, whom the foolish multitude are so fond of celebrating in tragedy and comedy, and the ballads concerning whom sung by jesters and minstrels delight them beyond all others.’

The rhymes and proverbial sayings connected with Robin Hood are so extensive as to form a literature of themselves. Some of the ballads are of considerable length, and dwell with enthusiastic admiration on the skill and valour of the hero and his men. Take, for instance, ‘A Lytell Geste (Gesta) of Robyn Hood,’ printed about the year 1489, which consists of no less than 1820 lines. It is divided into eight ‘fyttes,’ or songs, each of which tells in quaint English words of some escapade of the hero. In the first the outlaws seize a poor knight who is on his way to an abbey to beg further time in which to repay four hundred pounds he has borrowed from the Abbot on mortgage of his land. Robin hears his story, and lends him the money to free himself from the claims of the Abbot. In the second there is depicted the joy of the knight and his lady at thus being relieved of the prospect of becoming disinherited. The third relates to Little John, who took service with the Sheriff of Nottingham; but becoming tired of this life of servitude, and having a quarrel with the butler, who would not give him his dinner when he was late one day, he determined to seek the freedom of the forest. The cook took his part, and the two joined Robin Hood’s band of freebooters.

‘That ilke same day at night
They hied them to the treasure-house,
As fast as they might gone;
The locks that were of good steel
They brake them every one;
They took away the silver vessel,
And all that they might get,
Pieces, masars (bowls), and spoons
Would they none forget;
Also they took the good pence,
Three hundred pound and three,
And did them straight to Robin Hood,
Under the greenwood tree.’

That day the Sheriff was hunting in the forest, and the outlaws surrounded him. They made him sit down to dine from his own stolen plate, and having played this joke upon him, kept him a night, and sent him home thankful that he had got off so cheaply with his life. The next ‘fytte’ tells how the robbers waylaid two monks belonging to St. Mary’s Abbey—the monks to whom the knight’s lands were in danger of being forfeit. From them Robin Hood stole eight hundred pounds, and considered it the payment due to him for having lent the knight four. When the knight came to repay the loan, Robin refused it, and gave him the other four hundred obtained from the monks. This is followed by a description of how the robbers were in danger of being surprised by the Sheriff of Nottingham, and took refuge in the castle of the knight they had befriended. Upon this the Sheriff proceeded to London to complain to the King that the knight was harbouring the outlaws. This is told in the sixth ‘fytte,’ which also shows how, after the departure of Robin, Sir Richard at the Lee was out hawking one day, and was taken captive by the Sheriff for having entertained the merry freebooters in his castle. When Sir Richard was taken into custody his lady rode in all speed to Robin Hood and told him of the seizure of her husband. The chieftain then assembled his men, attacked the Sheriff at Nottingham, slew him, and liberated his friend the poor knight. In the seventh ‘fytte’the visit of King Edward is described:

‘Half a year dwelled our comely King
In Nottingham, and well more,
Could he not hear of Robin Hood
In what country that he were;
But alway went good Robin By halk and eke by hill,
And alway slew the Kinges deer,
And welt them at his will.
‘Then bespake a proud forstere
That stood by our Kings knee,
“If ye will see good Robin
Ye must do after me.
Take five of the best knyghtes
That be in your lede,
And walk down by your abbey,
And get you Monkes weed.
And I will be your ledés man,
And ledé you your way,
And ere you come to Nottingham,
Mine head then dare I lay
That ye shall meet with good Robin,
Alive if that he be,
Ere ye come to Nottingham
With eyen ye shall him see.”

‘Full hastily our King was dight,
So were his knyghtes five,
Each of them in Monkés weed,
And hasted them thither blithe.
Our King was great above his cowl,
A broad hat on his crown,
Right as he were abbot-like
They rode up in-to the town.
Stiff boots our King had on,
Forsooth as I you say,
He rode singing to greenwood,
The convent was clothed in gray;
His mail horse, and his great somers,
Followed our King behind,
Till they came to greene wood,
A mile under the lind:

There they met with good Robin,
Standing on the way,
And so did many a hold archer
For sooth as I you say.’

The result of this meeting of the King disguised as a monk with Robin Hood. was that the latter detained his Majesty, and robbed him of ‘forty pound.’ The ‘monk’ showed him the royal seal, and told him that he was bidden to the Court at Nottingham, upon which the ‘monk’ and loyal outlaw evinced great friendship towards each other, and engaged in the sports of the forest Each man who missed the mark in an archery tournament was to receive a buffet Robin at his turn missed the garland, and surrendered himself to the Abbot to receive the penalty.

‘Anon our King, with that word,
He fold up his sleeve,
And such a buffet he gave Robin,
To ground he yede full near.’