The Sherwood Forest

SO intimately associated with the history of Mansfield is the Sherwood Forest that no account of the town would be complete that had not some considerable reference thereto. I have searched all the references to the Forest which have come under my notice, and present the results to the reader, not for one moment suggesting they are complete. Major Rooke, in a pamphlet printed for private circulation, says:— "The Forest of Sherwood, it appears, was anciently divided, or rather known by the names of Thorney Wood and High Forest, the first of which, although the least, contained within its boundaries nineteen towns or villages, of which Nottingham was one. The High Forest abounded with fine, stately oaks, and was free from underwood."

The Forest of Sherwood, of which Mansfield was a border town, formerly extended for thirty miles northward from Nottingham, skirting the great north road on both sides. In all probability it was a primeval forest; at any rate, there is no record of the forest having been made. It was anciently divided into Thorney Wood and High Forest, and in one of these alone, the smallest, there were comprised nineteen towns and villages. Nottingham was included in Thorney Wood. There is, however, little or nothing now remaining in a sufficiently wild state to tell us truly of the great beauty of the ancient Royal Forest of Shirewood. During the last century and a half the clearing process has been carried on extensively. Prior to that period, until about 1725, the Forest was full of ancient trees, and the road from Mansfield to Nottingham presented one unbroken succession of green woods. The principal portions still remaining are the woods of Birkland and Bilhagh, where oaks of giant growth and of the most remote antiquity are still to be found. Such are the oaks in Welbeck Park. Many of these ancient trees are hollow through nearly the whole of their trunks, but their tops and lateral branches still put forth the tender green foliage regularly as the spring comes round. But it is not the Forest. Nature no longer holds her sway. Everywhere the work of cultivation is seen. We miss the prodigal luxuriance of a natural forest, where every stage upward, from the sapling to the mightiest growth, may be traced. We miss the tangled undergrowth, the climbing honeysuckle, the heath, the thistles, and the entangled branches; and we recognise that Art and not Nature has been at work. Camden says of Sherwood that "the entangled branches were so twisted together that they hardly left room for a person to pass."

The part of Sherwood Forest in the parish of Mansfield extended to about 2,630 acres. It was enclosed in the years 1852 and 1853. Allotments were made of an extensive recreation ground, used as a racecourse and rifle range; about ten acres for a public cemetery; and about 300 cottage gardens for the use of the poor. One quarter of the remainder was allotted to the Duke of Portland, as lord of the manor, and the remainder divided amongst the largest landowners.

Thoroton's account of the High Forest is as follows:—"The Forest of Sherwood extends itself into the Hundreds of Broxtowe, Thurgarton a Lee, and Bassetlawe. When the Forest of Shirewoode was first made I find not; the first mention that I do find is in Henry II.'s time; but I conceive it a forest before, for William Peverell, in the first year of Henry II., which is mistaken for the fifth year of King Stephen, doth answer de Placitis Forestae in this county."

In the Domesday Survey the Forest of Sherwood is not mentioned as such, though there is no doubt of its existence at that time. The earliest express notice there is of it by name is, as is stated by Thoroton in his valuable work on the county, to be found in the reign of Henry II., when William Peveril the younger answered respecting the plea of the Forest. He appears to have had the whole profit and control of the district under the Crown. These lapsed to the king upon the forfeiture of his possessions, and were for some time administered by the sheriffs of the county, in whose accounts they appear, with payments for foresters and other officers.

Thus far can we trace the antiquity of the Forest, which was undoubtedly of very great extent. It was the last forest that remained under the superintendence of the Chief Justice in Eyre north of the Trent, or which belonged to the Crown in that part of England. Many perambulations of the Forest made in the different reigns are preserved among the records in the Tower and in the Court of Exchequer. The first perambulation was made in the 28th year of King Edward I., the second in the 30th year of King Henry VIII., the third in the 14th year of King Charles II.

The following incident is related respecting the last visit of Charles I. to Sherwood Forest:— "I will write you news from the Court at Rufford, where the loss of a stag and the hounds hunting a fox instead of the deer put the King, our master, into a marvellous chafe, accompanied with those ordinary symptoms better known to you courtiers, I conceive, than to us country swains; in the height whereof comes a clown gallopping in and staring full in his face. 'S'blood,' quoth he, 'am I come 40 miles to see a fellow? ' And presently in great anger turns about his horse, and away he goes faster than he came; the oddness whereof caused his Majesty and all the company to burst out into welcome laughter, and so the fume for the time was happily dispersed." The writer of the quaint epistle was one of the guests invited to Rufford to meet and help entertain his Majesty, and the clown referred to evidently had an idea until that time that kings were different to ordinary mortals.

The Forest is described in a survey made in the year 1609 as being divided into three parts or districts, called respectively the north, the middle, and the south. The north, which more nearly relates to the portions of the districts outside, included Carburton, Gledthorpe, Warsop with Nettleworth, Mansfield Woodhouse, Clipstone, Rufford and Edwinstowe, the Hays of Birkland and Bilhagh, the towns of Budby, Thoresby, Paverelthorp (Palethorp), and Ollerton. The south part contains the towns of Nottingham, part of Wilford, Lenton, Radford, Sneinton, Colwick, Stoke, Carlton, Gedling, Burton with Bulcot, Gunthorp, Caythorp and Lowdham, Lambley, Arnold, Basford, Bulwell, Bestwood Park, Woodborough, Calverton, and Saunterford Manor. The middle portion of the Forest is that in which Mansfield is situated, and is, therefore, of the most importance in the history of this town. It consisted of Mansfield with Pleasley Hill, Skegby, Sutton, Hucknall, Fulwood, part of Kirkby, Blidworth, Papplewick, Newstead, part of Linby, and part of Annesley. The total quantity of ground in the Forest, according to that survey, is as follows :—

    A. R. P.
Enclosures   44,859 1 10
Woods   9,486 0 23
Wastes   35,080 2 6
Parks   5,711 3 36
  Total 95,137 3 35

According to this survey, there were found to be in Birkland 21,009 oak trees, and in Bilhagh 28,900, the trees at that time being past maturity; that is to say, they must have been from a thousand to fifteen hundred years old. Seventy-seven years later a further survey was made, when it was found that there were 12,516 sound trees and 923 hollow or decayed in Birkland. In Bilhagh there were 21,080 sound and 2,797 hollow trees. This shows that the number of trees cut down in the interval had only been 2,593, a very reasonable number indeed. A further survey was made in 1790, when the two woods only contained between them 10,117 trees, the estimated value of which was £17,147 15s. 4d. At that time, the timber in these woods was considered to belong to the Crown. How it was lost will appear later on. On the north side of Harlowe Wood there formerly stood a large square pillar, on which there was a brass plate with an engraving. According to tradition, which is no doubt correct in this instance, this pillar was formerly the place where the Forest officers of the Crown assembled on Holy Rood Day each year, early in the morning, to receive the charge of the Lord Chief Justice in Eyre, to view fences and take an account of the deer, in order to make their presentments at the Swanimote Court, which was held on that day at Mansfield by a steward appointed by the Lord Chief Justice in Eyre. Half-a-century ago, a remnant of this custom was annually preserved in the shape of a dinner at the Eclipse Inn, West Gate, Mansfield, on Holy Rood Day; which, however, has long since ceased to exist The stone is still standing in a field, though the plate has long since been removed. It is much weather-worn, but looks like lasting for centuries.

Mr. Harrod states that so late as the beginning of the eighteenth century the Forest was full of trees. Dr. Wylde, prebend of Southwell, assured him he had often heard his father, William Wylde, of Nettleworth, who died in the year 1780, in the 83rd year of his age, say that he well remembered one continuous wood from Mansfield to Nottingham. Since that time, the Forest has been pretty much cleared. The woods that remain are Birkland, Bilhagh, some scattered trees called Mansfield Wood, part of Harlowe Wood, and Thieves Wood. The three last are the property of the Duke of Portland. A few single trees are left in different parts of the Forest, among which are some remarkable for their antiquity. An oak on the west side of Clipstone Park is called "The Parliament Oak," from a traditional account of a Parliament or meeting having been held under it in the reign of King John, or probably Edward I. The two kings resided in the Palace of Clipstone. Near the north end of Clipstone Park is a large tree called the Broad Oak, which measured 27 feet 8 inches in circumference; and near Blidworth was, until two years ago, when it succumbed to old age, an elm called Langton Arbour. There are other famous trees in the park attached to Welbeck Abbey, which are invariably pointed out to visitors to that majestic seat of the Portlands.

In 1623, Sherwood Forest had a very narrow escape from being consumed by fire. The only account of the occurrence is a letter written to a friend by an eye-witness, preserved in the British Museum—Reg. 17, A. xviii., f. 24. The writer says:—"Vpon Munday, the 23 of August, beinge Bartholume eve, aboute nounetide as it shoulde seeme the brackin and lin and trees together wereof a flam that it caused such an extreordenary smoke and the wind bringing of it to vs warde: (i.e., to Newark, seven or eight miles distant) that it made such a greet mist in the aire that it did darken the sonne withall: that many peepell did come out of ther houses in greete wonderinge at such a sudden and feerfull fire: and most did coniecture it to be the sonne in the cliptes and others said noe it smellt like fire: the which proufed the most trueste: for persently vpon came ther commande from the Justeses to rayse the cuntery ther aboute: And to bringe pickaxes spades and shouelles to make dikes and trenches to breeke the fire in the forreste: And such a fire as never knowne in mannes memory: beinge 4 mile longe and a mille and a hallfe ouer all at once: And had it not plesed the Lorde to turne the winde at an instant when it was sesinge vpon a greet and longe wood that was betweene Mancefellde and Nottinggame: which if it had taken houllde but the Lord prevented it, which to my knowelege which afterwards I did see: did run up vnder the hy trees above a stones cast which if it had got vp into the bowes and branches of the greet trees it was thought it wulde have brunte vp all the cuntry before it as far as Nottingegame." The poor deer, it seems, escaped the flames, and were seen collected together for mutual protection, for the writer tells us that "ridinge on my way through the forrest homeward I saw of the other side of the sellfe sam hill a grete herde of faire red deere, and amongst them 2 extreordanary greet stags, the which I never saw the like."

Towards the close of the last century the state of the Crown lands, or the claims of the Government on the domains of royalty, in various parks, chases, manors, &c. of the country, having begun to attract a good deal of public attention, owing to the rapacity of the owners of large estates in enclosing them, a committee was sent out in 1792, under the authority of Parliament, to make strict enquiry into these matters, in order to ascertain what was still remaining unalienated from the Crown, and the value of the possessions so unappropriated. We have frequently seen instances of gross misappropriation of the property of the Crown by individuals of high standing in this country; and the commissioners who arrived at Mansfield in the summer of 1792, in pursuit of their task, brought to light some others which are not unworthy of notice here. A subject which attracted the attention of the commissioners was a claim set up by the Duke of Portland to the two tracts of land in the parish of Edwinstowe, called the Hays or Walks of Birklands and Bilhagh, containing together about 1,500 acres. In the seventh year of the reign of King Charles I., the Manor, with all its rights, &c, excepting great trees, being timber, growing upon the Hays of Birkland and Bilhagh, which were uniformly called the King's Hays, was granted to two individuals; two years afterwards it, along with Carburton, was purchased by the Marquis of Newcastle, and eventually became the property of the Portland family, who, not content with the manorial rights of Edwinstowe, now laid claim to the entire soil of the manors or royalties of Birkland and Bilhagh. In addition to this claim to the Hays, just stated, the Duke had taken possession of two other woodland tracts, "No Man's Wood" and Lyndhurst Wood, both the property of the Crown, and of which no grant had ever been made. When, therefore, the Parliamentary Commissioners arrived, as before stated, at Mansfield, in 1792, and proceeded to claim these different lands on the part of the Crown, they received, through their surveyor, a note from the Duke's agent, informing them, in substance, that the Duke of Portland had been allowed undisturbedly to exercise the rights of ownership so long that he was protected by the Act of the ninth year of George III., cap. 16, from recovery, and therefore he should maintain the ownership entire. The claim set up, however, was so monstrous that, to save appearances, the commissioners agreed at last to enter into parley with His Grace on the subject, and finally determined to recommend that a Bill should be brought into Parliament, authorising the Crown to sell the Hays in dispute to the Duke at a fair price, which, they calculated, when cleared of the timber (which they still reserved to the Crown), would be ten shillings an acre. But there is reason to believe nothing further was done in the business, as a careful search of the journals of the Commons for at least ten years afterwards does not furnish the fact that ever such a Bill was introduced. The oaks on these Hays were valued in gross in 1788 at no less a sum than £17,147.

About 1825, the late Duke of Portland exchanged the Manor of Edwinstowe, except the Hay of Birkland, which is still in the possession of the family, with Earl Manvers, for the Manor of Holbeck. In this way the property of the State has been allowed to become the property of those whose only claim to it is that their ancestors took possession when no one was taking notice, and have managed to retain possession in spite of all enquiries and commissions. The title of the Bentincks to the property is now beyond dispute. Further particulars of the jobbery of great men in connection with the partition of the Sherwood Forest may be seen in the "Annals of Nottinghamshire." According to White's History of Worksop (page 199), the portions of the Forest known as Birkland and Bilhagh were granted to the Duke of Portland about 1804, in exchange for the perpetual advowson of St. Mary-le-Bone, London.

Birkland was afterwards conveyed by the late Duke to the late Earl Manvers, in exchange for the Manors of Holbeck and Bonbusk, which are near to the Duke's domain at Welbeck.

The following enclosures have been made since the survey of 1609; the first four by the survey of Mr. James Dowland, and the last by Mr. Jonathan Bailey, late of Nottingham :—

Arnold Forest, by Act of Parliament, in 1789 ... 2,280
Basford Forest 1792 ... 1,158
Sutton in Ashfield 1794 ... 2,608
Kirkby in Ashfield Forest 1795 ... 1,941
Lenton and Radford Forest 1796 ... 261

Mr. William Howitt, in his "Account of Sherwood Forest," says:—"The great woods have fallen under the axe; and repeated enclosures have reduced the open forest to that part which formerly went by the name of Hye Forest—a tract of land about ten miles long by three or four wide, extending from the Nottingham Road, near Mansfield, west, to Clipstone Park, east. This tract is, for the most part, bare of trees. Near Mansfield there remains a considerable wood—Harlowe Wood, and a fine scattering of old oaks near Berry Hill, in the same neighbourhood ; but the greater part is now an open waste, stretching in a succession of low hills and long winding valleys, dark with heather."

Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest.—No account of the Sherwood Forest would be complete if reference were not made to Robin Hood. Opinion is divided as to the personality of Robin Hood; but the weight of evidence is in favour of him having been something more than a myth. Assuming for the purpose of this work that he was a reality, there is no doubt he paid frequent visits to Mansfield. It is on record not to be disputed that, on some alterations being made in the walls of an old inn at Mansfield, the remains of a man having a bow and quiver and other relics of a forest habit about him were found, built up in what had once been a sort of chimney. In the life of Robin Hood, and the numerous poetic effusions regarding him, there are not a few relating to the town of Mansfield. The first I have found is in Drayton's "Polyolbion" (song xxvi.):—

"The merry pranks he play'd would ask an age to tell,
And the adventures strange that Robin Hood befel,
When Mansfield many a time for Robin hath been laid,
How he hath cousen'd them that him would have betray'd;
How often he hath come to Nottingham disguis'd,
And cunningly escap'd, being set to be surpris'd."

In the first part, or "Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon," supposed to have been written by Skelton, and performed at the Court by command of Henry VIII., Little John is made to address Robin Hood thus:—

"Now must your honour leave these mourning tunes,
And thus by my areede you shall provide ;
Your plate and jewels I'll straight pack up,
And toward Nottingham convey them hence.
At Rowford, Sowtham, Wortley, Hothersfield,
Of all your cattell money shall be made,
And I at Mansfield will attend your coming;
Where weele determine which waie's best to take."
Robert: "Well, be it so, a God's name, let it be;
And, if I can, Marian shall come with mee."

Further on Robin Hood rescues some of his men from the custody of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and makes the acquaintance of Friar Tuck, when this dialogue takes place:—

Scarlet: "This for our good, our scathe let Scathelock tel In merry Mansfield, how it once befel."
Scath. : "In merry Mansfield, on a wrestling day,

Prizes there were, and yeomen came to play, My brother Scarlet and myselfe were twaine; Many resisted, but it was in vaine, For of them all we wonne the mastery, And the gilt wreathes were given to him and me. There by sir Doncaster of Hothersfield, We were bowraid, beset, and forst to yield; And so borne bound from thence to Nottingham, Where we lay doom'd to death till Warman came."

Locally there are highly interesting relics of the existence of Robin Hood and his merry men. At Fountain Dale, two miles from Mansfield, the residence of Mr. J. A. Need, is the veritable Friar Tuck's Island, the scene of the famous rencontre between Robin Hood and the Curtail Friar, or, as he is better known, Friar Tuck. The legend runs that on one occasion Robin Hood was admiring the skill of Little John in the use of the arrow, and said he would ride his horse a hundred miles to find one who could match him. Will Scarlet (or Scadlocke) laughed heartily at this, and told the leader of the outlaws that at Fountain Dale (near Mansfield) there lived a Curtail Friar who could beat Robin Hood and his yeomen all set in a row. Robin Hood lost no time in setting off for Fountain Dale, where he saw the Friar, who, instead of wearing the garb of peace, "had on a harnesse good—on his head a cap of steel, broad sword and buckler by his side." Robin Hood, delighted at the prospect of defeating so militant a son of the Church, leaped off his horse and demanded of the Friar that he should carry him across the moat, which he did, and then retaliated by ordering Robin to carry him back. Robin acceded to the request, and on arriving at the starting point again demanded that the Friar should carry him to the island once more. The Friar, however, probably tired of the sport, only carried the outlaw to the middle of the moat and dropped him in. After this they fought with might and main

"From ten o' th' clock that very day
Till four i' th' afternoon."

The Friar appears to have had the best of the struggle, for Robin Hood at length craved the boon of blowing three blasts on his horn, which was granted. In response to the call, half-a-hundred yeomen appeared upon the scene. The Friar retaliated by "whuteing whues three" (whistling three times), when up came half-a-hundred dogs, who caught the arrows of Robin Hood's men in their mouths. To make a long story short, when the dogs were getting the best of the fight, Little John obtained the mastery, and, before the Friar cried peccavi, killed half-a-score. The Friar then gave in, became domestic chaplain to the outlaws, though, as the last verse of the narrative goes,—

"This curtal fryer had kept Fountaines dale
Seven long yeeres and more,
There was neither knight, lord, nor earle,
Could make him yield before."

In all probability the cell of the Friar was on this island; but, if so, it has long since disappeared. In the wood, however, in another part of the grounds, are the ruins of an ecclesiastical edifice, said to be the remains of the ancient parish church of Blidworth. This, some are inclined to think, is really what remains of the Friar's cell or hermitage, one of many connected with Newstead Abbey, which were scattered about the Forest. Near to the ruins of the hermitage is what is called Robin Hood's Well— a receptacle without any water. It may have been a well at one time from which the outlaw drank, or it may not. At any rate, the present erection is decidedly modern. It is situated in a most beautiful spot, where nature reigns supreme.

One other point of interest there is in the grounds, and that is a stone cross removed from another site more than half-a-century ago. The Rev. R. L. Whitworth, rector of Blidworth, states that formerly, at Blidworth Rocking, or Feast, a cradle was carried in procession, in honour of the presentation of the infant Saviour in the Temple, as done at the present day in some villages in Lower Austria. Great licence prevailed, and forest sports degenerated into rude and dangerous quarrels. One proved fatal to a noted descendant of Robin Hood, known as Tom Leake. He fell in a desperate encounter near the intersection of the parishes of Blidworth, Farnsfield, and Oxton. A cross and memorial stone were erected, the former being afterwards removed to Fountain Dale, where it now stands, with this inscription:—

"Hoc crucis fragmen
Traditum a sylvicolis monumentum
Loci ubi in singulari certamine
Gladiator ille insignis
Tho. Leake
Mori occubuit
Anno mdcviii.

Ab antiqua sede remotum
h. p. c.
Joannes Dovvnall
Prid. Non. Sext. mdcccxxxvi."

A slab of black marble was removed into the church, and encased in the monument known as Will Scathlock's. It is thus inscribed:—

"Here rests T. Leake whose vertues weere so knowne
In all these parts that this engraved stone
Needs navght relate but his vntimely end
Which was in single fight whylst youth did lend
His aide to valour. Hee with ease o'er paste
Many slight dangers greater than this laste
But willfvlle fate in these things governs all
Hee towld out three score years before his fall
Most of wch. tyme he wasted in this woode
Mvch of his wealth and last of all his bloode.
a.d. 1608."

The author of this history is indebted to the owner of the estate for a most enjoyable visit and "a personally conducted tour" through the woods and glades haunted by the spirits of the merry outlaws. Mr. Need contemplates excavations some day on Friar Tuck's Island, with a view to antiquarian discoveries. The moat still exists, and is full of water.

Robin Hood certainly died, whether he lived or no, for just outside Huddersfield, at Kirklees Priory, the residence of the Armytages, is the spot where the mortal remains of Robin are understood to have been deposited. The inscription on the tombstone, which is let into the wall of a small quadrangle, protected by an iron railing, and covered over at the top by a stout network of iron wire, is as follows:—

"Hear Underneath dis laitil Stean
Laz Robert earl of Huntington
Neer arcir ver az hie sa geud
An pipl Kauld him robin heud
Sick utlauz az he an iz men
Vill england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 Kal Dekembris 1247."

Dr. Whitaker says:—"That the story is substantially true; that an outlaw and deer-stealer of that name, or one resembling it, did really exist in the beginning of the 13th century, and commit many of the outrages imputed to him, on the confines of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire; that in the general want which prevailed at that time of medical assistance, except from females, he should have applied to a nun of this house for phlebotomy; and that a nun should have thought herself, instead of being guilty of the basest treachery, meritoriously employed in suffering a mischievous patient to bleed to death, are characteristic and probable circumstances almost impossible to have been invented. With respect to the general proof of his existence and adventures, the testimony of Piers Ploughman, within 120 years of his decease, appears to be decisive. At that time many persons must have been alive who had either conversed with the companions of these adventurers, or they must have known them to have been a fiction. For these reasons, I have not a doubt that this celebrated outlaw lived the life and died the death which tradition has uniformly delivered from age to age."

The Rev. Joseph Hunter, assistant keeper of the Public Records, went very fully and carefully into the evidence of the reality of Robin Hood, publishing the result of his researches in a "Critical and Historical Tract." In his opinion, Robin Hood was neither a Saxon malcontent nor the hero of a poet's romance; nor yet was he a goblin or a myth. He was, in all probability, exactly such a person as the popular songs described him—an English yeoman, an outlaw living in the woods, and noted for his skill in archery. He considers that Robin Hood was one of the "contrariants" or malcontents of the reign of Edward II., and that he was still living in the early years of Edward III.; but that his birth must be carried back to the reign of Edward I., and fixed in the decenary period, 1285 to 1295; that he was born in a family of some respectability and station, seated at Wakefield or in villages round, and that he at last resorted to the prioress of Kirklees, his own relative, for surgical assistance, and in that priory he died and was buried.