One for the Rat

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (November 2011)

I made a visit to what is left of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire last week. 

Sherwood Forest was one of the King’s largest hunting properties, many miles of deer park which was not all thick woodland. Some was open heath and grassland. At its largest it covered one fifth of the county of Nottinghamshire. The name Sherwood is first recorded in 958AD in the form Sciryuda meaning Woodland belonging to the Shire. 

What remains of this ancient woodland is today a National Park and Site of Special Scientific interest which contains more very old and massive oak trees than I have ever seen in one place before. Trees such as the 800 year old Harold in Essex which I mentioned here a year or two ago are relatively commonplace there, and dwarfed by the Major Oak which is thought to be 1000 years old.

One of the legends is that the famous outlaw Robin Hood and his band of Merrie men would hide inside the Oak’s hollow trunk from the Sheriff of Nottingham and his men. If Robin Hood really existed, the best sources point to whoever the real man was behind the legend living some time during the 13th century. At that time the oak was only 150-200 years old. It would have been big but not so big as to have the current hollow in the trunk. And while that hollow would today take a couple of small (and very friendly) men, and the Sheriff probably hadn’t been to Specsavers, it wouldn’t provide much cover.

But it’s a great story. The other snag is the distance between the oak and the nearby village of Edwinstowe (where Robin and Maid Marian are said to have married) and Nottingham Castle where the Sheriff held court. The RAC routefinder quotes 19.9 miles and 40 minutes to drive on a clear road. The sources also give places and events in Yorkshire to the characters of the legend and you can see that the area covered by legend was vast, even by today’s standards. Roman Roads and the route that became known as the Great North Way crossed the forest giving a series of travellers upon which outlaws and later highwaymen could prey and the outlaws themselves could travel.

But the Merrie men and Maid Marian would not have been popping in and out of the castle (back way) and the hollow oak several times in the course of an afternoon as they do in some of the films.

The ballads of Robin Hood were being sung during the 14th century, and other stories written down during the 15th century which suggests that, as the information board in the visitor’s centre writes, if he existed it was some time in the previous century.

Hood, Hodd, Hudd, and variants were and remain real surnames, and Robert, and its diminutive Robin are popular Christian names. Alternative names for the red breasted bird in mediaeval manuscripts was the roddake or robertus. Real people existed and are mentioned in the court rolls with names such as Adam Hood whose son Robert was born in Wakefield Yorkshire in 1280 and who married Matilda Hood in 1316. A Robyn Hood was a porter at the court of Edward II in 1323. It is also in this period that ‘hood’ which my dictionary says is from the old English root hod, related to old German huot meaning hat, became a generic term for an outlaw.

For example William de Fevre was declared an outlaw in 1261. Within a year court records were describing him as William Robehood.

Through that we get the modern US usage hoodlum (which my dictionary defines as from German dialect haderlump, a ragged good for nothing, which looks to me like the same root for head-covering) and have come full circle with the modern British teenage ‘hoodie’, anorak hood up giving an air of menace even in mild weather.

No one has yet made a serious connection of the phonetic similarity between the crime of robbery or robbing (as in robbing the rich to give to the poor) and the name Robin. What if it wasn’t a name but a description or insult? As in “Stop thief! That robbin(g) hood(lum) hath just stolen my moneybags.”

Maybe not.

Maid Marian also began to appear in the stories at about this time. It wasn’t until the early 16th century that the outlaw of Sherwood Forest was specifically linked with the reigns of King Richard I and his brother King John. The idea that Robin was really the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon was part of a play of 1593, and thus a very late idea.

That idea was used to good effect in one of my favourite TV series, Robin of Sherwood which ran in the mid 1980s. When dark haired Michael Praed who played Robin wanted to leave for a career on Broadway and ultimately a role in Dynasty his character died, calling noble Robert of Huntingdon, played by blond Jason Connery, son of Sean, to step forward to lead the Merrie Men, and console the widowed Marian.

Edwinstowe gets its name from King Edwin of Northumbria who was killed in battle nearby. The original St Mary’s church was built over where his body rested temporarily in the 7th century. The current church dates from the 1100s. I couldn’t get inside but this photograph above is of the exterior; my husband looked for a green man carving but there doesn’t seem to be one. The statue below of Maid Marian accepting Robin’s proposal of marriage is modern, and rather sweet. Robin’s appearance follows the Errol Flynn school of jaunty beard.

The trade in Lincoln green cloth seems to be a bit mysterious and no two sources agree on what shade of green it was, if it was a specific shade peculiar to Lincoln at all. Some even say the original shade was red, or scarlet (and one of the closest of Robin’s men was Will Scarlett) although by the Elizabethan period it was described as ‘the colour of new leaves’. There seems to be a consensus that green cloth was first dyed blue with woad, then over dyed yellow using weld or something similar. Kendal in the northwest was also noted for producing a green cloth.  The use of green was generally supposed to be a camouflage in the forest, but browns and greys would have been cheaper, more common, and just as effective in all weathers. Therefore some point out that Robin has been a name associated with the fairies since early times, (cf Robin Goodfellow)and green is the fairies colour, and thus an unlucky colour for ordinary mortals. Which brings me back to the Green Man theme.

Whatever the truth, and in my opinion oral tradition as strong as the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur would not have endured so were there not a fundamental truth to them, Sherwood Forest is a powerful place in which to walk.  From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow.

One for the rat, and one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.



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