Friday, 30 June 2017

Hands off Robin Hood!


Every now and then the controversy of Robin Hood’s home county is re-kindled like a forest fire between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. At the time of writing, it’s crackling away again with local Nottinghamshire headlines such as ‘Yorkshire - hands off Robin Hood’. As a Yorkshireman living in Nottinghamshire I always find this vaguely amusing.

About 20 years ago there was a UK magazine called Encounters. I wrote features for this colourful publication, which was run by none other than Uri Geller. (Yes, OK, Uri Geller … well, it seemed a good idea at the time …) Specialising in historical mysteries, I sold them a feature on Robin Hood. A few hundred yards from my house in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, stands an oak tree. It isn’t an old tree. It was planted by the local council in the 1980s. But at its base, set into the paving stones, is a brass plate with the legend ‘This oak tree marks the spot of the original oak which was the historical central point of Sherwood Forest.’ You’ll have to drive a couple of miles to get to the forest as it stands today, with its major tourist attraction, the Robin Hood visitor centre and the 600 year old Major Oak (pictured below) . But a millennium ago, Mansfield’s town centre was the beating heart of a woodland labyrinth where outlaws hid.

It happens wherever I go. Sitting in the kitchen in a Normandy farmhouse, enjoying a glass of Calvados, the farmer asks where I live in England. When the location ‘Nottinghamshire’ comes up, the French all smile and exclaim “Aaah! Robin Hood!’  On a sleeper train from St. Petersburg to Tallin in 2004, the Russian border guards, rifling through my luggage, examined my passport. They pointed at my address.

   “Nottinghamshire?” said their sergeant. “Yes,” I replied, “Nottinghamshire.” The three previously stern visages broke into a wide smile. Almost in unison, they exclaimed

    “Kevin Costner - Robin Hood!” There followed a half hour interrogation about the legendary outlaw. The same happened in a bar in Berlin, in Nice in the South of France, and in Munich. Everyone knows something about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is an international brand, a historical Coca Cola, an engine of myth and legend every bit as universal as Ford Motors, the Titanic and the Holy Grail.

There are many books on Robin Hood. Most of them are slim souvenir tourism volumes, while thicker tomes utilise academic rigour to prove or disprove this outlaw’s existence. Yet what occupies fans of the myth around the world are the many mysteries, the tangled roots of the legend, the characters, the arguable chronology, the locations, even the artefacts. This book intends to draw all these strands together, and include the latest research, with interviews with the most prominent Hood historians still ploughing this fascinating furrow.

In a 21st century world of greed and avarice, where the old Barons and Sheriffs have been replaced by robber bankers and corporate pirates, the spirit of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, is as relevant today as it was in Sherwood centuries ago.



The remains of the ‘Fifteen Foresters’

One of the most mystifying occurrences relates to the ballad in which Robin kills the ‘Fifteen Foresters’ who refused to pay him the wager that he won fairly with his archery skills. The last verse states: “They carried these foresters into fair Nottingham, as many there did know; They digged them graves in their church-yard and they buried them all in a row”. Then, according to the historian Joseph Ritson, the following extract appeared in a Sheffield newspaper The Star’ on April 23, 1796: “A few days ago, as some labourers were digging in a garden at Fox-lane, near Nottingham, they discovered six human skeletons entire, deposited in regular order side by side, supposed to be part of the fifteen foresters that were killed by Robin Hood.” The news story goes on to say that the garden stood on the site of an ancient church that had been dedicated to St Michael and had been totally demolished in the Reformation, so no doubt the bones had been properly buried in the churchyard. The proprietor of the garden ordered the pit where the bodies were found to be filled up, “being unwilling to disturb the relics of humanity and the ashes of the dead!” The original site of St. Michael’s church and its graveyard secrets have never since been discovered.

Robin Hood’s possessions and The Knights Templar

The location of Nottingham’s St Ann’s Well in the Wells Road, St Ann’s, is the site of a buried “treasure” connected to the Robin Hood legend. Known over the centuries as Robynhode’s Well, this holy well was linked to a charitable hermitage run by the Brothers of Lazarus, who were associated with the Knights Templar. Its spring water was believed to have substantial healing properties; and an additional attraction was a selection of artefacts, including Robin Hood’s bow, cap, chair, arrows, boots and bottle.
Another Robin Hood Well
 by the A1 in Yorks

      During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in England and remained so until 1825, when it had its liquor licence withdrawn and the Robin Hood artefacts were eventually sold at auction to Lionel Raynor, a famous actor on the London stage (and he was born in Yorkshire).

     Before moving to America, he was said to have offered the items to the British Museum but they can find no record. A tea room operated on the site until 1855 and when the buildings at the well site were subsequently demolished, the town council commissioned a gothic style ornamental monument to mark the spot; but in 1887 it was taken down by the Great Northern Railway to accommodate the 30ft deep foundations of an essential bridge. A century later, local historian David Greenwood sank a shaft behind The Gardeners public house which had been built at the site and confirmed that the well was still there, saying: “It’s a treasure trove waiting for the next person with the nerve and the money to fully excavate it.”

Friar Tuck and Robin’s Cave

Another local story, that claims to have located Robin Hood’s hideout, is highlighted in actor Sir Bernard Miles’ 1979 book about the outlaw hero, ‘Robin Hood: His Life and Legend’. In the epilogue, he refers to an incident in the 1820s when, somewhere near Bolsover in Derbyshire, two pitmen were sinking a shaft for a new coalmine when the earth alongside them fell away revealing a yawning gap through which there was a fireplace full of wood ash, cooking pots and utensils, blacksmiths tools and a storeroom with sacks and barrels.

      Against one wall was a rack of bows, broadswords and quivers full of arrows and at the end of one of the galleries was a tiny chapel with a cross still on the altar. The miners then found a skeleton wrapped in an old woollen habit, lying at the base of a flat wall with one hand holding a crucifix and the other a chisel. A long list of names was roughly scratched on the cavern wall and painfully scored at the bottom was: “I was the last – Michael Tuck.” The skeleton was supposedly Friar Tuck’s, who appeared to have just managed to crawl there and scratch these few words before he collapsed and died. As the two miners climbed out of the shaft they had cut, to tell the world about what they had found, it triggered a huge rock fall that totally buried everything under hundreds of tons of stone, and the story of their amazing discovery became just another local legend. However, Sir Bernard claimed that Robin’s cave is still there, only a little way below the ground, close to one of the worked-out pits and that “one fine day it will be found again”.

The Missing Manuscript

For many years, Nottingham historian and Robin Hood enthusiast, Jim Lees, worked tirelessly to prove that the legendary outlaw was born in Nottingham and believed that a lost ancient manuscript was the missing link in the quest. The authentic, historical document was said to record a court appearance by Robert de Kyme, a nobleman born in what is now known as Bilborough – and actually referred to him as Robin Hood. Mr Lees stated that the ancient court record was the most conclusive piece of evidence in existence that proved that “Robin Hood was real, that he was a local man and that Robin Hood was only a nickname.” He said that Robert de Kyme was well documented in local archives and he was 99% certain that de Kyme and Robin Hood were one and the same, as their lives ran virtually parallel.

The missing document was believed to be in the possession of a former research scholar who had previously been at the University of Nottingham and who they only knew as a Mr McJohnson. Having failed on numerous occasions to track down the elusive academic, with the technological birth of the internet Mr Lees enlisted the help of his nephew, Robert Henshaw, and put out a global appeal to try to make contact with Mr McJohnson and hopefully trace the whereabouts of the vital document that he believed held the key to historically proving that Robin Hood really had existed and was born in Nottingham. However, the task proved to be the proverbial “needle in a haystack” and to date, neither Mr.  McJohnson or the ancient manuscript have ever come to light.

Little John’s longbow

Local tradition has it that Little John’s Cottage was once situated on Peafield Lane, between Mansfield Woodhouse and Edwinstowe, near the site of the old Roman Road, but its precise location cannot be authenticated. Mockingly called Little John because of his tall, heavy stature, he was in fact John Nailer (Naylor), a nail maker originally called John of the Little. After Robin Hood’s death at Kirklees Abbey in Yorkshire, Little John returned to the village of Cromwell, near Newark, where he was said to have been given lands by Alan-a-Dale.
His grave (above) is in Hathersage in Derbyshire in the churchyard of St Michael’s and All Angel’s – but his trusty longbow is another of those “lost treasures” of the Robin Hood legend that seems to have disappeared.

The 6ft 7in bow was made of spliced yew, tipped with horn and needed a pull of 160 pounds to draw it. Originally brought to Cannon Hall, near Barnsley, in 1729 it apparently hung on display there until the late 1960s, when on the death of the last owner of the hall, a Mrs Elizabeth Frazer it was given to the Wakefield Museum. However, Mrs Frazer’s son later took it to a manor house in Scotland where he died in 2004 and the current whereabouts of the bow remain a mystery.

If Dracula’s a National Treasure … Is Robin Hood?

The Transylvanian government secured a European Council-funded programme to develop a strategy for Romania’s huge tourist potential, and had identified Dracula as a separate national tourist asset (alongside Black Sea beaches, mountains and spas). This had brought about a World Dracula Congress in Bucharest, attended by historians, folklorists and “vampirologists” from all around the globe. Recognising the value of an international brand name such as Dracula, the Transylvanian Society of Dracula had established itself as a non-profit- making organisation, and to fund its activities it offered Dracula Tours. These range from a Grade One Tour (suitable for “balanced, classical minds, interested in the Gothic approaches to issues of broader existence”) to Grade Three tours, reserved for true initiates.

‘Quality Merchandise’

    The organisation also produced a collection of quality merchandise aimed at tourists, that encompassed the finest Romania had to offer in silverware, glass, and china and so on. All of this was discreetly hallmarked with the Dracula logo –a dragon in the shape of the letter D. From a completely opposite marketing perspective, I later read about the tiny community of Hell, in southeast Michigan, USA, that uses all the benefits of its iconic name with the obvious word-play on “going to Hell” or “going through Hell”. A convenience store and bait shop also served as the Post Office, where you could get letters hand-stamped with a “From Hell” postmark, or a message to let the world know that you’ve been “to Hell and back”.

They even sold tiny baseball bats engraved with “A Bat Out of Hell”! Whatever you might think of these two extremely different approaches, they both in their own way make the absolute most of their legendary associations – which is a conundrum that Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire are still struggling with.

Robin on the Catwalk?

In 1938 when the classic Errol Flynn movie The Adventures of Robin Hood was breaking box office records and receiving Oscar nominations, Hollywood's fashion conscious designers were quick to adapt the influences of the iconic Robin Hood hat into stylish millinery that tastefully complemented the tailored suits and smart dresses being paraded on the catwalks.

Originally used by medieval foresters as practical, working headgear, the traditional features of the hooded cowl and the long pointed brim with decorative feather were interpreted into fashionable feminine hats and hoods that appeared in films of the era.

They often also became a focal point of consumer advertising in magazines and on billboards (one of the most famous designs was used to promote Craven A cigarettes).

In more recent times the Robin Hood "brand" was even developed by Far Eastern fashion
entrepreneurs into the Robin Hood of China casual clothing range, featuring jeans, sweaters, jackets and leisure wear accessories that carried the image of Robin shooting an arrow as the trademark embroidered logo.

Apart from always being in the Top Ten designs for fancy dress (hired or homemade), Robin is also a popular theme in the world of canine couture.

That's right – dressing up your pet pooch is a passion with certain sectors of America's doggy-doting community and among the selection of themed apparel for dogs on the internet is – you guessed it – the obligatory Robin Hood outfit.

It seems that even now, many centuries after their medieval origins, hats, hoods (and tights) can still set the fashion.

I spent a lot of time on the Uri Geller piece visiting archaeological sites such as King John’s hunting lodge, and in my search for characters I visited various Nottinghamshire churches. I didn’t really feel convinced of Robin’s historical reality. But one winter afternoon, in a church in Blidworth with the wonderful name St Mary of the Purification, which I had been told was a place Friar Tuck once preached, I entered and found two plasterers at work repairing the fabric of one of the walls. I asked them if they knew the building had any connections to Friar Tuck. They shook their heads.
Will Scarlett's grave?

“No,” said one of them, “but you’ll find Will Scarlett’s grave in the churchyard…” I was amazed. I asked him whereabouts it was. "You can’t miss it - it’s the stone monument with the yew tree growing over it.” And sure enough, there it was. Of course, there was no name on it to identify it with Will Scarlett, but it shifted my doubt yet again. To this day I still believe there’s more to the legend of Robin Hood than we’ll ever know.


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