The legend of Robin Hood has him and his Merry Men based in Sherwood Forest. But a closer look at the medieval tales suggests his hiding place was in a different forest.
By Lauren Goodall
Robin Hood can be listed alongside King Arthur and the Loch Ness Monster as one of the most famous legends in British history. Even those who have never read about his adventures or watched him on the big screen know that the outlaw robbed from the rich to give to the poor, wore Lincoln green, lived with his band of ‘Merry Men’ and defended himself with a bow and arrow. Perhaps the most famous element of the legend is the rivalry between Robin and the sheriff of Nottingham. The enmity between these two characters is at the centre of many Robin Hood tales and has led story-tellers to locate Robin’s hideout firmly within Sherwood Forest. However, the earliest fans of the outlaw are unlikely to have associated him with Sherwood or even Nottinghamshire in general. Indeed, for audiences in the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, Robin probably lived in Barnsdale, a forest just north of Doncaster.
The notion that Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman is based on evidence from the earliest surviving stories. Although a number of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century poems, chronicles and legal records contain brief references to ‘Robyn Hode’, ‘Rabunhod’ and the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’, the first extant narratives all date after 1450. These narratives take the form of ballads and present a version of the outlaw which is quite different from the one that exists in contemporary popular culture. Three of the ballads (Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne) are short stories that would have taken between ten and fifteen minutes to read aloud, the fourth ballad (A Gest of Robin Hood) is much longer and may be an edited compilation of multiple shorter stories. Of these four ballads, only Robin Hood and the Monk mentions Sherwood Forest, the other three are set much further north, in the area between Pontefract and Doncaster.
In Robin Hood and the Monk, we are first introduced to the outlaw in an unnamed forest. Robin is upset as it has been more than a fortnight since he last heard Mass; he therefore resolves to travel to Nottingham that day to attend church. Unfortunately, the outlaw is spotted by a ‘great-headed monk’ and cast into prison by the sheriff of Nottingham. Upon learning of their master’s capture, Little John and the rest of the ‘Merry Men’ devise a plan to free him. Three murders, a drunken meal and a visit to the king later, the sheriff discovers Robin has escaped and makes ‘a cry throughout all the town, Whether he be yeoman or knave, That could bring him Robin Hood, His reward he should have’. The sheriff and his men search Nottingham but Robin is already ‘in merry Sherwood, as carefree as a leaf on a tree’. The Robin Hood of this ballad therefore lives exactly where we might expect: in Sherwood Forest, near the town (now city) of Nottingham.
The second pre-Reformation ballad, Robin Hood and the Potter, is more ambiguous when it comes to the location of the outlaw’s hideout. In the opening scene, Robin spots a potter travelling through an unnamed forest and jokingly comments that he has seen the man pass through several times before, yet ‘he was never so courteous a man, One penny of toll tax to pay’. Little John bets his master forty shillings that he will not be able to force the potter to part with his money, explaining that he once fought the man in Wentbridge and lost to him. Robin accepts the wager but is unable to beat the potter and instead enters into a ‘fellowship’ with him. The outlaw swaps clothes with his new ally and travels to Nottingham with a cart full of the potter’s merchandise. Robin uses his disguise to lure the sheriff of Nottingham into the (still unnamed) forest in order to steal from him. Given that the sheriff appears as the principal antagonist and the majority of the action takes place in Nottingham, it might be reasonable to assume that Robin lives in Sherwood. However, in light of the context provided by the remaining two ballads, the fact that Little John mentions Wentbridge makes it more likely that Robin goes head-to-head with the potter in Barnsdale.
The two remaining ballads, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and A Gest of Robin Hood, both explicitly link the outlaw to Barnsdale in Yorkshire. In the opening scene of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, the outlaw and his ‘Merry Men’ are out searching for the titular antagonist. They come across a man wearing a sword and dagger by his side and Little John unintentionally insults his master by suggesting that Robin waits ‘under this trysting tree, And I will go to the strong yeoman over there, To know his true meaning’. Affronted, Robin chastises John, who returns to ‘Barnsdale’ in a sulk, only to discover that ‘two of his own fellows, Were slain both in a forest glade’. That John is returning to his ‘fellows’ in Barnsdale suggests that this is where he and his master live, a fact later confirmed when the outlaw refers to himself as ‘Robin Hood of Barnsdale’. It is also important to note that the person responsible for killing Robin’s men is none other than the sheriff of Nottingham, who, when John arrives, is chasing Will Scarlett through Barnsdale Forest with 140 of his men.
The last, and longest, of the pre-Reformation ballads is entitled A Gest of Robin Hood. The Gest is the only ballad which is printed (as opposed to existing in manuscript form) and is the most substantial and complex of the four stories. In the opening scene, the audience is treated to a lengthy description of the ‘proud outlaw’ who ‘stood in Barnsdale’. As the story proceeds, several place names and landmarks are mentioned which confirm Barnsdale’s location in Yorkshire; for example, whilst disguised as ‘Reynold Greenleaf’, Little John tells the sheriff of Nottingham that he was born in Holderness. Moreover, the abbot of St Mary’s in York serves as the principal antagonist during the first part of the ballad and Robin is murdered in the west Yorkshire borough of Kirklees by the local prioress. Other geographical references help locate the outlaw’s hideout more specifically in the forested area around the village of Wentbridge. In the opening scene of the Gest, the outlaw sends his men to the ‘Sayles’ to look out over ‘Watling Street’ and find someone who will eat with him. The Sayles Plantation is an area of high ground about five hundred yards east of Wentbridge from which it is possible to view part of ‘Watling Street’. ‘Watling Street’ here erroneously refers to the Great North Road, now the A1, which cut through Barnsdale, but does not go near Sherwood Forest. Later in the ballad, when ‘Sir Richard at the Lee’ is returning to Robin’s hideout to pay the debt he owes, he is held up by a wrestling match taking place in Wentbridge, again implying that the outlaw lives near the Barnsdale village.
It is important to note that, although the Robin Hood of the Gest lives in Barnsdale, his principal rival is still the sheriff of Nottingham. During the story, Little John becomes the sheriff’s man (using the pseudonym Reynold Greenleaf) and leads him into the forest where he is captured by Robin and made to swear an oath not to harm the outlaw or his ‘Merry Men’. The sheriff later breaks this oath and ambushes Robin whilst he is attending an archery contest in Nottingham. Towards the end of the Gest, Sir Richard’s wife appeals to Robin when her husband is arrested for helping him and the outlaw enters Nottingham, frees the knight and beheads the sheriff.
It is not clear why the sheriff of Nottingham so relentlessly pursues a criminal who lives outside of his jurisdiction, nor is it clear why Robin is so often in a town he lives over fifty miles north of, but the presence of the sheriff in the two ballads which explicitly link Robin to Barnsdale rather than Sherwood has implications for the outlaw’s location in Robin Hood and the Potter. As mentioned above, the rivalry between Robin and the sheriff of Nottingham in the Potter has often led readers to assume the outlaw’s hideout is in Sherwood. However, the fact that the sheriff is present in every ballad irrespective of whether Robin lives in Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire, combined with the fact that Little John claims to have fought the potter in Wentbridge, suggests that the outlaw and his ‘Merry Men’ live in Barnsdale Forest in this ballad as well.
Thus, in three of the four original Robin Hood stories the outlaw is a Yorkshireman who lives near the village of Wentbridge in Barnsdale. Robin never once sets foot in Sherwood Forest, yet the rivalry between him and the sheriff of Nottingham is still at the centre of all three ballads and the outlaw is often in Nottingham attending archery contests and rescuing his men. This somewhat contrived link between the two counties perhaps provides further evidence that the ‘Robin Hood’ of the ballads never really existed. Indeed, is it not more plausible that the legend is based on stories about multiple different medieval outlaws, all of whom operated in the north of England far from the centre of power?
Lauren Goodall is a postgraduate student at the University of East Anglia.
Top Image: Robin Hood Statue in Nottingham – photo by Arran Bee / Flickr