Robyn Hod & the Shryff off Nottynham

Posted on Nov 22, 2011

Robyn Hod & The Shryff off Nottyngham

©2011 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

(This text is excerpted and altered from a longer talk on Robin Hood and the forest which I gave recently. )

1. Forest Law and possible origins of Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a mutable, fluid and nostalgic figure. He is many things:  a yeoman, an outlaw, a nobleman, a peasant, a thief, and a philanthropist. He is cheeky, violent, wily, manly, spiritual, lawless and fair. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor but more often he steals from the rich and gives to himself. The only aspect of Robin Hood that seems static is that he lives in the forest.

And there are 2 forests — the forest of the imagination and the real, actual forest.  In order to contextualize Robin Hood, this talk hopes to delineate issues regarding both of these forests. I’ll be discussing Forest Law and Spring ritual as a portal to the play fragment Robyn Hod & the Shryff of Nottingham.

It’s worthwhile to imagine the industry taking place within the forest boundaries to fully understand the space in which the legend of Robin Hood transpires. The forest was the heart of rural medieval England. First, people lived in them – barons as well as peasants and poorer landowners. Butchers grazed their beasts there, so there were cattle, swine, and other farm animals moving through them, as well as herders looking after these beasts. People relied on wood fuel for heat and for cooking — so imagine people gathering dry branches and cutting trees at least through three seasons. Carpenters relied on the timber for ship-building, house framing, barrel-making and more. Iron-mongers and glass-makers built hearths in situ where they could locate charcoal. Seasonally, people gathered nuts, kept bees and trapped birds. Hunters and their dogs moved through the forest in search of venison. The medieval forest begins to feel like a crowded and lively place.

After 1066 when William the Norman conqueror realized he might have all the forests of England for his own sporting ground, Forest law came into effect. It became illegal to take so much as a branch from the crown’s forests. The forest shifted from a commons, and an actual physical place to a legal entity. Venison seems to have taken on an almost divine status – its attachment to the crown attributing it with a particular sacred value.


“On 11 June 1248 James of Thurlbear, a forester came into the park of Brigstock about the first hour [i.e., just after sunrise] and found …John the son of Stephen Cut of Slipton, carrying a doe’s fawn. And the said James arrested him, and caused Richard of Aldwinkle the verderer to be summoned.

He came the next day ‘and questioned the said John…and he said that he had no accomplices.’

The Poacher was sent to Northampton to be imprisoned. And the sheriff was then Alan of Maidwell. And the skin of the aforesaid fawn was delivered to John Lovet, verderer, to have before the justices of the forest.”  (The Royal Forests of England, Raymond Grant, Sutton, 1991, p. 47)

This decision on the poacher would have been made at a Forest Eyre. Prior to 1212, summonses were sent out months ahead of them, and landowners, verderers, foresters, knights, and the accused etc. from jurisdictions around the offense would have been obliged to attend. The Eyres were juried by 12 knights or other men of status, and were designed to extract fines from as many offenders as possible (this as opposed to prison sentences – fines being more lucrative to the Crown).

The Crown had men whose sole job it was to chase deer back into the forest. It is safe to assume some general mayhem & corruption at every level of forest governance and also among the people who despised the laws.

“At the Somerset Forest Eyre held at Ilchester in 1270 it was presented that a fawn had come out of Exmoor Forest and had been taken by Henry Boniface, Richard Absalom and Thomas son of Henry of Bossington.

They appeared, and because it is proved that they took the fawn outside the forest bounds, and carried it to their houses in the township of Bossington, which is within the forest, going through the forest with the same fawn, therefore they are committed to prison. They were brought out and made fine by ten shillings. “(same, p. 56)

It becomes easier to see how an anti-hero like Robin Hood could enter the public imagination, and how this figure might be embraced by wide factions of society. Whether he existed or not  RH becomes a symbol of righteous resistance, the forest becomes the ideal to be defended and occupied, the deer, a symbol of common right,  rather than divinely sanctioned meat, and the sheriff, the crown and the clergy the oppressors of truth. Robin Hood was a common hero, easy to relate to by anyone (in other words, everyone) who had profited from the forest or been ‘wronged’ via Forest Law.

The stories of Robin Hood are so entrenched that there are still those searching for proof of his existence. And finding him – were it even possible beyond conjectural citations – only gets one so far. It matters less that there might have been an actual Robin Hood, than that people want there to have been one. And this is because RH is an object of nostalgia – in other words even if he had existed, the meaning pinned to him and developed from him is not real, and that is far more interesting and complex a place to investigate than whether an outlaw by the name of Hode really slewed and smote in the forests at Nottingham.


Interestingly, by the time of the play fragment – roughly 1475 – the contested spaces had largely been disafforested,  the Kingdom leasing or selling back rights to the people – and by that we can assume the rich people:


“At the Parliament of 1389 the gentry complained that ‘Artificers and Labourers’ kept greyhounds and other dogs , and destroyed the game in their parks and warrens. As a result the right of hunting and taking game was reserved by statute for the upper classes.” (p. 172)

Clearly, in 1389, the common man still had metaphoric need of Robin Hood. Perhaps we still have need of him.


2. The Death-Resurrection-Triumph Theme & May Games Timing of Robin Hood


The Play:

Syr sheryffe for thy sake   Robyn hode wull y take.
I wyll the gyffe golde and fee   This be heste þu holde me.
Robyn hode ffayre and fre   vndre this lynde shote we.
with the shote y wyll   Alle thy lustes to full fyll.
Have at the pryke.   And y cleue the styke.
late vs caste the stone   I grunte well be seynt Iohn.
late vs caste the exaltre   have a foote be fore the.
syr knyght ye haue a falle.   And I the Robyn qwyte shall
Owte on the I blowe myn horne.   hit ware better be vn borne.
lat vs fyght at ottraunce   he that fleth god gyfe hym myschaunce.
Now I haue the maystry here   off I smyte this sory swyre
This knyghtys clothis wolle I were   And in my hode his hede woll bere.
welle mete felowe myn   What herst þu of gode Robyn
Robin hode and his menye   wt the sheryffe takyn be.
sette on foote wt gode wyll   And the sheryffe wull we kyll
Be holde wele ffrere tuke   howe he dothe his bowe pluke
3eld yow syrs to the sheryffe.   Or elles shall yor bowes clyffe.
Now we be bownden alle in same   ffrere [T]uke þis is no game.
Co[m]e þu forth þu fals outlawe .   Þu shall [be] hangyde and y drawe.
Now allas what shall we doo   we [m]oste to the prysone goo
Opy[n] the yatis [faste] anon   An[d la]te theis thevys ynne gon

(The text in the play might have been spoken by various players, read in front of the action, or some variation. No one knows as there is no stage direction. The back of the manuscript shows what appears to be fundraiser accountings of what Stephen Knight calls play-games — Robin Hood plays enacted to raise money for road or church repairs. These plays were always held at Whitsun (The Pentacost), and were apparently widespread, being condoned by household and church as a way of possibly reining in the energy of the community, as well as, raising funds for needed repairs. This is all conjecture, since there are no clear records. The text of the play is interstitial to the action, since there would have been various bouts: wrestling, stone throwing, axle tossing, and sword play. I should love to know how the players recreated Robin Hood smoting off the head of the knight and putting it in his hood. Not the most valiant behaviour, I might add.)


Knight and Ohlgren quoting David Mills:

“..a good part of the play’s impact derives “from the comic social inversion of the knight’s defeat, and the further part from the recognition and dramatic frustration of the ‘death-resurrection-triumph’ pattern of hero-combat plays.” (Intro to Robin Hood & Other Outlaw Plays, TEAMS)

I would say that this, assuming Mills is right about there being anything intrinsically comic to the inversion (which is debatable), combined with the living history of the harshness of the Forest Laws, actually provides a very full scaffolding for the entertainment — if you discount the social amusement of dressing up, or seeing people you know, with their own complex, one assumes non-Hoodish personalities, playing the villain-hero. Oh, and the church’s participation, as well as, the status conveyed to Robin Hood  (the local actor) and the chaotic ritual itself.  One starts to have a pretty complex matrix of context to imagine what this was.

The Death-Resurrection-Triumph theme is thought to be a vestige of ancient fertility ritual.  And Knight certainly positions Robin Hood as a Summer Lord or King of May (Note: Wikipedia writes of the King of the May: “He would bring fertility to the village, and during the time that he was in power, he could impregnate any woman in the village. At the end of his “reign,” he would be ritually sacrificed and a new King of the May would be chosen. According to J.G. Frazier’s The Golden Bough, this type of custom was derived from earlier Indo-European tree worship fertility rituals.”). If one considers the reliance on the forest, and the obvious corollary with the greenwood’s fertile rebirth each spring, one can easily see how. This story theme has a disguised hero returning from away, or the underworld (think Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Beowulf), fighting or having his strength tested, and triumphing. In some cases, the hero must be rescued in order that he can return. Either way, the analogy is one of resurrection. The return is, in the context of seasonal regeneration, the most important aspect of this story.

Ludmila Zeman’s wonderful illustration of Gilgamesh embracing Enkidu’s corpse

Notice in Robyn Hode & the Shryff off Notyngham, the test of strength, the triumph in the first half, and the rescue in the second – the theme is messily presented as if it had lost something in the translation but it is still recognizable. Still, the theme is age worn, and traditional, and by the late 1400s Robin Hood would not have been considered original either, if in fact he ever was a truly original character – real or imagined. By the time of the play, circa 1475, he was familiar, and a favourite, possibly the half remembered vestiges of any number of wild men and forest heroes. I can’t help but wonder if Pan and Faunus figure. The traceability is impossible but one greenwood seems to want to recall another, and the insistence of the play-games at May when the forests would be (in the words of Dickon from the Secret Garden) ‘wick’ or newly alive, does suggest a rebirth correlation – at the very least a connection between celebration/feasting and rebirth.

Wyntoun, Langland, and Bower (early chroniclers of Robin Hood) speak of a hero that is not theirs, that belongs to the foolish. But with these plays, a different meaning – a sanctioned usage – occurs. Someone from the household has written the text down, as a basic form, perhaps to maintain the story exactly each year, but clearly also to profit from it.

“Some forests were wild and represented danger to travelers. Owners of woods with highroads running through them were obliged to clear a specified stretch of land on either side to make it more difficult for robbers to lurk.”[From ‘The Medieval English Forest’, Journal of Forest History, Jean R. Birrell, 1980, p. 84)

An accounting of money received is on the back of the Shyrff script, suggesting that the play was busked locally to fundraise (or in Robin Hood terms – rob!) , perhaps for road and church repairs – though the purpose of the funds is not noted. Still, the landowner reined the story to his profit, thus subverting the subverted, and handily co-opting the power of the story, and subjugating the players to boot. But it is possible that the carnival or pageantry of RH play-games might have been deadly serious to the community.

The play-games’s tests of strength, its vestiges of ancient stories and perhaps even tournament, and that general physical mayhem do seem to have something of the comic to them, but it is a comedy that lends status to the player, as one surmises from the adopting of Robynhod as surname  (first citation of Robynhod as a surname is one Gilbert, 1296) – the figure Robin Hood clearly held meaning & value beyond the play.

They may also have been more than just May Games, and their secular nature certainly points to this. They are stories emerging not out of church even if the church might benefit from them – a detail that in itself is fascinating.

The play-games are interstitial. They are performative as 1. sylvan/town-based theatrics, 2. playing within plays, 3. fundraisers/robberies, 4. May Games, 5. status conveyors, 6. parade/pageantry, 7. feasts – incorporated into play.  They are also intrinsically marginal. They have not the code of scripture or the mnemonic tradition of the other stories we have seen. They do not glorify a knight. The play-games don’t seek social status for Robin Hood (the figure not the actor).

But because of the inversion, one mustn’t assume comedy.  Certainly, as Knight writes: “the men who wait patiently over the years to play Robin are important figures in the community and have almost always served as churchwarden. This is some way from communal resistance to improper authority: it is rather a way of exercising inherent authority within the area.” But if this is true, the reverse is also true. The players and the spectators may have felt equally that they were inserting a common and dangerous element into a condoned event. So, who is subverting whom? Who is the brunt of this joke?

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