The tale of the notorious outlaw has lived on long after he and his band of merry men have gone, but in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire, traces of the peoples’ bandit still bring him to life.
To many people, Robin Hood belongs more to Hollywood than Sherwood. Numerous film adaptations, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, or, most recently, Kevin Costner, make it easy to forget that the story of Robin Hood is one of the most enduring legends in Great Britain. With roots reaching back to the 14th century, the tale of Robin Hood is nearly as ancient as the medieval romances of King Arthur and his knights.
The thorny question of whether or not Robin Hood ever really existed cannot be answered with absolute certainty. Three 15th-century historians–Andrew of Wyntoun, Walter Bower, and John Major–each attempted to discover the ‘real’ Robin Hood, and all three reached different conclusions, variously placing Robin’s actions from the late-12th to the late-13th centuries in both Yorkshire and Cumberland. Later historians have discounted all three conclusions.
As the years went by, Robin Hood’s birthplace became fixed at Locksley, and he was thought to be the rightful Earl of Huntingdon during the reign of Richard I. Others identified him with Robert Fitzooth, Lord of the manor of Loxley in Warwickshire during the reign of Henry III, whose family tree stretches back to one of William the Conqueror’s barons. The earliest written tales actually place Robin in Barnsdale, but as time wore on, Nottinghamshire became the more accepted setting for his activities, and today it is this part of England that claims him as its own.
In the past 100 years, several serious historians have searched court and church records and other historical documents and have found numerous people called ‘Robert Hood’, ‘Robyn Hode’, or ‘Robin Hood’, some of whom were in fact outlaws. None of these discoveries offer any conclusive evidence, but they do add to the scope and mystery of the legend.
On a recent journey to England we set out to confront the outlaw on his own turf. Harbouring no illusions that we would be able to unravel the mysterious origins of the legend, we instead visited places with Robin Hood associations, where his origins are less important than the legacy he left behind.
We began our quest in Nottingham and worked our way north, towards Edwinstowe and the Sherwood Forest Country Park. Arriving in Nottingham on a chilly afternoon, we headed straight for Nottingham Castle. Unfortunately, the Duke of Newcastle destroyed most of the fortifications in 1679 to make way for an elegant palace that now serves as a museum and art gallery. Only Edward’s Tower, the Black Tower, the Gatehouse, and parts of the ancient curtain wall and moat remain. Just outside the massive walls, we came upon a statue of Robin with his bow drawn and arrow fixed upon some unknown enemy. While this is a modern addition to the castle, its placement beneath the foreboding stone walls seems to put Robin Hood in an appropriate context.
According to the legend, Robin and his men only rarely visited Nottingham. On one of these occasions, Robin and a few of his supporters participated in an archery match, a scheme the Sheriff of Nottingham had cooked up to catch the cunning outlaw. Disguised in tattered clothes, Robin Hood won the competition and the sheriff unknowingly handed him the prize. In another instance, Robin Hood and his band swept into Nottingham just in time to rescue Will Stutely, one of his ‘merry men’, from the hangman’s noose.
Many Nottingham landmarks date back to the Middle Ages. Robin Hood was thought to have prayed at the medieval church of St. Mary, and to have visited the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn, which dates from 1189 and is built directly into the Castle Rock. The Sheriff and his men would surely have lifted a few pints of ale at this pub as they discussed ways to exact revenge on Robin and his followers. Subterranean passages (now closed) lead from the inn to the Castle.
The 15th-century Severn’s building across from the castle now houses the Nottingham Lace Centre. Although it was constructed after Robin Hood’s time, this building provides a well-preserved example of medieval architecture. Ye Olde Salutation Inn, a timber-framed alehouse on Maid Marion Way, sits on the spot where a pub existed in Robin Hood’s days.
From Nottingham we headed eight miles north to the village of Papplewick. This short drive passes through suburbs and farmland, but in Robin’s day, it was part of Sherwood Forest. The king’s verderers, or forest wardens, were based in Papplewick. These feared lawmen had the authority to enforce the strict laws against poaching, felling trees, or even possessing a bow and arrows.
From the centre of Papplewick, we walked north until we saw a sign on the left marked, ‘Public Footpath to Linby’. A quarter of a mile further on, through hedges and green fields, we saw the steeple of the 12th-century Church of St. James. According to the tales, the young minstrel Alan-a-Dale loved the fair maiden Ellen, but her father had promised her hand to an elderly wealthy knight. On the day of the wedding, Robin Hood dressed as a harpist and entered this church. When the ceremony was about to begin, he blew his horn, signalling his men to dash into the church and stop the wedding. Friar Tuck then presided over the marriage of Alan-a-Dale and the lovely Ellen.
If you are lucky enough to find the church open, look for the tombstones in the chapel, some of which date back 500 or 600 years. One gravestone, called the Forester’s Stone, has a bow, arrow, bugle, and belt clearly engraved on it.
Driving a few miles north, we came upon the Greenwood Craft and Garden Centre, which also serves as the entrance to the Portland Training College for the Disabled. In this unlikely spot, the Friar Tuck Trail begins. The trail meanders for 212 miles through lovely ancient forests, grasslands, and heaths. Along the way, it passes by a relic associated with one of the most memorable tales in the Robin Hood legend. At approximately the halfway point of the walk stands a crudely built wooden shelter known as Friar Tuck’s Hut. Its age and significance are not known, but Friar Tuck is said to have lived just a short distance up the path, and the hut stands on the spot where Robin supposedly first met the jolly friar, and where they had their famous altercation when Robin tried to cross the river.
After leaving Friar Tuck’s Trail, we moved on to Blidworth. Robin Hood’s trusted henchman, Will Scarlet, is said to be buried in the yard of the Church of St. Mary of the Purification. (We searched the sprawling graveyard but could not find any gravestones older than 200 years.) It is also thought that Robin Hood picked up Maid Marian from a nearby cottage and took her to their wedding in Edwinstowe.
Before we followed in his footsteps, however, we made a made a quick side trip to Old Clipstone, in search of King John’s Palace. We had been told to watch just before we entered the town for the ruins of the King’s royal hunting lodge. We drove up and back several times without spotting what we were looking for, and finally walked through a field to ask some boys where the King’s Palace was. They directed us to another field, but we still couldn’t find the palace. Finally, we entered an adjacent pub and asked the barmaid. She kindly walked outside, pointed to the neighbouring farm, and said, ‘There’s not much to see, but there it is.’ It was on private land, the barmaid told us, and the farmer doesn’t like visitors. Even with her pointing the way, we couldn’t recognize any ruins.
We turned away, disappointed. After all, the Sheriff of Nottingham spent much time here. Richard the Lionheart came for a summit when he returned from the Crusades, and Edward II often celebrated here with his royal retinue after a day of hunting in the nearby woods. Local legend says that Robin Hood even broke into the palace one night to free a group of villagers who were being held hostage.
Lastly, we turned towards the village of Edwinstowe, which is really the centre of the Robin Hood legend, being the gateway to Sherwood Forest. As soon as you enter this quaint village you begin to notice references to Robin Hood, such as the Maid Marian Restaurant, Friars Lodge Guest House and Robin Hood Plaice fish and chips. Almost every child we saw under the age of ten was walking around with a plastic bow and arrow and a green feathered Robin Hood cap. In the centre of town stands St. Mary’s Church, where Robin and Marian were wed.
Most of the accepted versions of the Robin Hood legend centre around what used to be known as the Forest of Sherwood. This huge tract of dense forest, once the private domain of the Norman kings, stretched along the entire western part of Nottinghamshire. Sadly, the centuries have taken their toll on this once-virgin forest, and only a small portion remains, hardly enough to conceal Robin and his merry men for very long.
The Sherwood Forest Country Park and Visitor Centre lies just up the road from St. Mary’s Church. Here you can enter the remaining portion of Sherwood Forest and see some of the ancient oaks, beeches, and silver birch trees that were common in Robin Hood’s time. The most popular attraction is the Major Oak, an enormous tree thought to be anywhere from 400 to 1,500 years old. Legend tells of Robin Hood and his men hiding among the massive branches of this sturdy tree.
Walking through Sherwood Forest at sunset, we could feel an air of mystery, as if the ancient trees had a story to tell, if only we could hear. We had spent the better part of two days visiting places that were part of the Robin Hood legend, and had at last arrived at the place he called home. Looking at the dense undergrowth, it was easy to see how Robin and his merry men, in a time when Sherwood was far more expansive, could have avoided capture there.
After immersing ourselves in the life and times of Robin Hood, we found it hard to believe that he never existed. Granted, the story may have been stretched and romanticized through the centuries, but when you see the influence this legend has had–and continues to have–you can almost feel his lingering presence.