The Ancient Forests and Robin Hood

The same combination against the power of the Crown which produced the great charter of our liberties, relieved the people from many regal oppressions by a charter of the forests. We cannot look upon an old forest without thinking of the days when men who had been accustomed to the free range of their green woods were mulcted or maimed for transgressing the ordinances of their new hunter-kings. Our poet Cowper put his imagination in the track of following out the customs of the Norman age in his fragment upon Yardley Oak, which was supposed to have existed before the Normans:

“Thou wast a bauble once; a cup and ball,

Which babes might play with; and the thievish jay,

Seeking her food, with ease might have purloin’d

The auburn nut that held thee, swallowing down

Thy yet close-folded latitude of boughs

And all thine embryo vastness at a gulp.

But fate thy growth decreed; autumnal rains

Beneath thy parent tree mellow’d the soil

Design’d thy cradle; and a skipping deer,

With pointed hoof dibbling the glebe, prepared

The soft receptacle, in which, secure,

Thy rudiments should sleep the winter through.”

But the poet’s purpose failed. England is full of such natural antiquities of the earliest period: “Within five and twenty miles of St. Paul’s, the Great Western Railway will place us in an hour (having an additional walk of about two miles) in the heart of one of the most secluded districts in England. We know nothing of forest scenery equal to Burnham Beeches (Fig. 476). There are no spots approaching to it in wild grandeur to be found in Windsor Forest; Sherwood, we have been told, has trees as ancient, but few so entirely untouched in modern times. When at the village of Burnham, which is about a mile and a half from the Railway station at Maidenhead, the beeches may be reached by several roads, each very beautiful in its seclusion. We ascend a hill, and find a sort of table-land forming a rude common with a few scattered houses. Gradually the common grows less open. We see large masses of wood in clumps, and now and then a gigantic tree close by the road. The trunks of these scattered trees are of amazing size. They are for the most part pollards; but not having been lopped for very many years, they have thrown out mighty arms, which give us a notion of some deformed son of Anak, noble as well as fearful in his grotesque proportions. As we advance the wood thickens; and as the road leads us into a deep dell, we are at length completely embosomed in a leafy wilderness. This dell is a most romantic spot: it extends for some quarter of a mile between overhanging banks covered with the graceful forms of the ash and the birch; while the contorted beeches show their fantastic roots and unwieldy trunks upon the edge of the glen, in singular contrast. If we walk up this valley, we may emerge into the plain of beeches, from which the place derives its name. It is not easy to make scenes such as these interesting in description. The great charm of this spot may be readily conceived, when it is known that its characteristic is an entire absence of human care. The property has been carefully preserved in its ancient state, and the axe of the woodman for many a day has not been heard within its precincts. The sheep wander-through the tender grass as if they were the rightful lords of the domain. We asked a solitary old man, who was sitting on a stump, whether there was any account who planted this ancient wood: ‘Planted!’ he replied, ‘it was never planted: those trees are as old as the world!’ However sceptical we might be as to the poor man’s chronology, we were sure that history or tradition could tell little about their planting.” We visited this place in 1841, and this slight notice of it already published may as well be transferred to these pages. But England has a store of popular associations, with her old oaks and yews in the vast collection of Robin Hood Ballads.

If there be one district of England over which more than over any other Romance seems to have asserted an unquestionable supremacy—“This is mine henceforth, for ever!”—and over which she has drawn her veil of strange enchantments, making the fairest objects appear fairer through that noble medium, and giving beauty even to deformity itself, it is surely Sherwood Forest. If there be one man of England whose story above the stories of all other men has entered deeply into the popular heart, or stirred powerfully the popular imagination, there can be no doubt but it is the bold yeoman-forester Robin Hood. Who, in youth, ever read unmoved the ballads in which that story is chiefly related, absurd and untrue as undoubtedly many of them are? Who now can behold even a partial reflex of the lives of these joyous inhabitants of the green woods, such, for instance, as ‘As You Like It’ affords, without a sigh at the contrast presented to our own safer, more peaceable, but altogether unromantic pursuits? It is well, perhaps, that there is now no banished duke “in the Forest of Arden, and so many merry men with him,” living there “like the old Robin Hood of England;” for there would be still “young gentlemen” too glad to “flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” But, perhaps, the most decisive proof of the inherent interest of the lives of the Forest outlaws, is not that such interest should simply still exist so many centuries after their death, but that it should exist under the heavy load of mistakes and absurdities that have so long surrounded and weighed it down:—all honour to those whose unerring perceptions and stedfast faith have kept that interest alive! The philosopher has once more condescended to learn from the people whom he should teach. What they would not “willingly let die” under so many circumstances adverse to preservation, he now, in our time, discovers is fit to live, and forthwith satisfactorily proves what millions never doubted, that Robin Hood was worthy of his reputation—that he was no thief or robber, no matter how these epithets might be qualified in Camden’s phrase of the “gentlest of thieves,” or Major’s of the “most humane and prince of all robbers.” Altogether the treatment during late centuries of the story of Sherwood Forest has been at once curious and instructive. The people wisely taking for granted the essentials of that story as handed down to them from generation to generation, and which described Robin Hood as their benefactor in an age when heaven knows benefactors to them were few enough, and which at the same time invested him with all the attributes on which a people delight to dwell, as mirroring, in short, all their own best qualities—hatred of oppression, courage, hospitality, generous love, and deep piety; taking all this, we repeat, for granted, they have not since troubled themselves to ask why they continued to look upon his memory with such affectionate respect. On the other hand, our historians, who were too philosophic (so called) to regard such feelings as in themselves of any particular importance, if they did not even think them decisive against the man who was their object, never condescended to inquire as to his true character, but were content to take their views of him on trust from some such epigrammatic sounding sentences of the older writers as we have already transcribed. And what is the result when they are suddenly startled with inquiry by an eminent foreigner, Thierry, putting forth a strangely favourable opinion of the political importance of Robin Hood?—why, that without referring to a single new or comparatively inaccessible document, a writer in the Westminster Review for March 1840 (to whom every lover of Robin Hood owes grateful acknowledgments) has shown that there can be no reasonable doubt whatever that it is the patriot and not the freebooter whom his countrymen have so long delighted to honour. Of this more presently.

The severity of the old forest laws of England has become a byword, and no wonder when we know that with the Conqueror a sovereign’s paternal care for his subjects was understood to apply to red deer, not to Saxon men; and that accordingly, of the two, the lives of the former alone were esteemed of any particular value. But it was not the severity merely that was, after the Conquest, introduced (whether into the spirit or into the letter of the forest laws is immaterial), but also the vast extent of fresh land then afforested, and to which such laws were for the first time applied, that gave rise to so much opposition and hatred between the Norman conquerors and the Saxon forest inhabitants; and that in particular parts of England infused such continuous vigour into the struggle commenced at the invasion, long after that struggle had ceased elsewhere. The Conqueror is said to have possessed in this country no less than sixty-eight forests, and these even were not enough; so the afforesting process went on reign after reign, till the awful shadow of Magna Charta began to pass more and more frequently before royal eyes, producing first a check, and then a retreat: dis-afforesting then began, and the forest laws gradually underwent a mitigating process. But this was the work of the nobility of England, and occupied the said nobility a long time first to determine upon, and then to carry out: the people in the interim could not afford to wait, but took the matter to a certain extent into their own hands; free bands roved the woods, laughing at the king’s laws, and killing and eating his deer, and living a life of perfect immunity from punishment, partly through bravery and address, and still more through the impenetrable character of the woods that covered a large portion of the whole country from the Trent to the Tyne. Among the more famous of the early leaders of such men were Adam hell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley (Fig. 479), the heroes of many a northern ballad. But as time passed on, and Normans and Saxons gradually amalgamated, and forgot their feuds of race in the necessity for resisting the oppressions of class, such a life would cease to be honourable; liberty would become licence—resistance to government rebellion. Assuredly the memory of Robin Hood would not have been treasured as it was by our forefathers, if, whilst the country was gradually progressing onwards to peace, order, and justice, he had merely distinguished himself by the exercise of excellent qualities for a very mischievous purpose. What was it then that justified such a man in establishing an independent government in the woods, after so much had been done towards the establishment of a more regular authority, and after the people generally of England had patiently submitted, and began in earnest to seek an amelioration of their condition in a legal and peaceable way? It was, in a word, the overthrow of the national party of united Englishmen at the battle of Evesham in 1265, when Simon de Montfort and a host of other leaders of the people fell; when the cause that had experienced so many vicissitudes, and which had assumed so many different aspects at different times, was apparently lost for ever; and when the kingly power, unrestrained by charters—since there were no longer armed bands to enforce them—rioted in the degradation and ruin of all who had been opposed to it. In a parliament called almost immediately after this event, which sat at Winchester, and consisted of course entirely of nobles and knights who had been on the victors’ side, the estates of all who had adhered to the late Earl of Leicester (Montfort) were confiscated at one fell swoop. It is important to mark what then took place. “Such measures,” writes Dr. Lingard, whose sympathies are all on the royal side, “were not calculated to restore the public tranquillity. The sufferers, prompted by revenge, or compelled by want, had again recourse to the sword: the mountains, forests, and morasses furnished them with places of retreat; and the flames of predatory warfare were kindled in most parts of the kingdom. To reduce these partial, but successive insurrections, occupied Prince Edward [himself one of the popular party till he found popular restrictions were to be applied to his reign as well as his father’s] the better part of two years. He first compelled Simon de Montfort [son of the late earl] and his associates, who had sought an asylum in the Isle of Axholm, to submit to the award which should be given by himself and the King of the Romans. He next led his forces against the men of the Cinque Ports, who had long been distinguished by their attachment to Leicester, and who since his fall had by their piracies interrupted the commerce of the narrow seas, and made prizes of all ships belonging to the king’s subjects. The capture of Winchelsea, which was carried by storm, taught them to respect the authority of the sovereign, and their power by sea made the prince desirous to recal them to their duty and attach them to the crown. They swore fealty to Henry; and in return obtained a full pardon, and the confirmation of their privileges. From the Cinque Ports Edward proceeded to Hampshire, which, with Berkshire and Surrey, was ravaged by numerous banditti, under the command of Adam Gordon, the most athletic man of the age. They were surprised in a wood near Alton. The prince engaged in single combat with their leader, wounded and unhorsed him; and then, in regard of his valour, granted him his pardon. Still the garrison of Kenilworth [the Montfort family seat] continued to brave the royal power, and even added contumely to their disobedience. To subdue these obstinate rebels, it was necessary to summon the chivalry of the kingdom: but the strength of the place defied all the efforts of the assailants; and the obstinacy of Hastings, the governor, refused for six months every offer which was made to him in the name of his sovereign.” At length it became necessary to offer something like terms of accommodation; there was danger in such long and successful resistance. So it was declared that estates might be redeemed at certain rates of payment, the highest being applied to the brave Kenilworth garrison, who were to pay seven years’ value. They submitted at last. Others still held out, hoping perhaps to see a new national organization, and at all events determined to refuse submission so long as they could. Such were the men who maintained their independence for nearly two years in the Isle of Ely; above all, such were the men who maintained their independence for a lifetime in the forest of Sherwood and the adjacent woodlands. Fordun, the Scottish historian, who travelled in England in the fourteenth century diligently collecting materials for his great work, which forms to this day our only authority for the facts of Scottish history through a considerable period, states, immediately after his notice of the battle of Evesham, and its consequences to all who had been connected, on the losing side, with the general stream of events to which that battle belongs, “Then from among the dispossessed and the banished arose that most famous cutthroat Robert Hood and Little John.” If any one rises from the perusal of the mighty events of the reign of Henry the Third with the conviction that Simon de Montfort, to whom in all probability England owes its borough representation, was a rebel instead of a martyr, as the people called him, and that the words so freely used by Dr. Lingard, of pirates, banditti, and rebels, were properly applied to Simon de Montfort’s followers, then also they may accept Fortran’s opinion that Robin Hood was a cut-throat,—but not else; they will otherwise, like ourselves, accept his fact only, which is one of the highest importance, and beyond dispute as to its correctness, however strangely neglected even by brother historians. Fordun’s work was continued and completed by his pupil, Bower, Abbot of St. Colomb, who under the year 1266, noticing the further progress of the events that followed the battle of Evesham, says, “In this year were obstinate hostilities carried on between the dispossessed barons of England and the royalists, amongst whom Roger Mortimer occupied the Marches of Wales, and John Duguil the Isle of Ely. Robert Hood now lived an outlaw among the woodland copses and thickets.” It is hardly necessary after this to add that the one, and there is but one undoubtedly, ancient ballad relating to Robin Hood, the ‘Lytell Geste,’ furnishes an additional corroboration of the most satisfactory character; it relates, as its title-page informs us, to “Kynge Edwarde and Robyn Hode and Lytell Johan.” We may here observe that this ballad, one of the very finest in the language, which for beauty and dramatic power is worthy of Chaucer himself, about whose time it was probably written, has shared Robin Hood’s own fate: that is, enjoyed a great deal of undiscriminating and, therefore, worthless popularity. It has simply been looked on as one of the Robin Hood ballads, whilst it in fact stands out as much from all the others by its merits as by its antiquity, and its internal evidence of being written by one who understood that on which he wrote: which is much more than can be said for the ballad doers of later centuries, when Friar Tuck and Maid Marian first crept into the foresters’ company, when the gallant yeoman was created without ceremony Earl of Huntingdon, and his own period put back a century in order that he and the Lion Heart might hob and nob it together. Here then we see the origin of Robin Hood’s forest career; we see him—the yeoman—doing what the few leaders of the people, the knights and barons whom Evesham had spared, everywhere did also, resisting oppression; the difference being that they fought as soldiers with a better soldier, Prince Edward, and failed; and that he fought as a forester in the woods he had probably been familiar with from boyhood, and succeeded. Without exaggerating his political importance, it is not too much to say that but for Edward’s wisdom in conceding substantially, when he became king, what he had shed so much blood to resist whilst prince, that little handful of freemen in Sherwood Forest might have become the nucleus of a new organization, destined once more to shake the isle to its very centre. Edward prevented this result; but, nevertheless, they found their mission. They enabled their leader to become “the representative and the hero of a cause far older and deeper even than that in which De Montfort had so nobly fallen; we mean the permanent protest of the industrious classes of England against the galling injustice and insulting immorality of that framework of English society, and that fabric of ecclesiastical as well as civil authority, which the iron arm of the Conquest had established. Under a system of general oppression—based avowedly on the right of the strongest—the suffering classes beheld, in a personage like Robert Hood, a sort of particular Providence, which scattered a few grains of equity amid all that monstrous mass of wrong. And when, in his defensive conflicts, the well-aimed missile entered the breast of some one of their petty tyrants, though regarded by the ruling powers as an arrow of malignant fate, it was hailed by the wrung and goaded people as a shaft of protecting or avenging Heaven. The service of such a chieftain, too, afforded a sure and tempting refuge for every Anglo-Saxon serf who, strong in heart and in muscle, and stung by intolerable insult, had flown in the face of his Norman owner or his owner’s bailiff—for every villain who, in defending the decencies of his hearth, might have brained some brutal collector of the poll-ta,—for every rustic sportsman who had incurred death or mutilation, the ferocious penalties of the Anglo-Norman forest laws, by ‘taking, killing, and eating deer’ ” (Westminster Review).

Figure spread at pages 116 and 117:

The forest of Sherwood, which formerly extended for thirty miles northward from Nottingham, skirting the great north road on both sides, was anciently divided into Thorney Wood and High Forest; and in one of these alone, the first and smallest, there were comprised nineteen towns and villages, Nottingham included. But this extensive sylvan district formed but a part of Robin Hood’s domains. Sherwood was but one of a scarcely interrupted series of forests through which the outlaws roved at pleasure; when change was desired, either for its own sake, or in order to decline the too pressing attentions of the “Sheriff,” as they called the royal governor of Nottingham Castle and of the two counties, Notts and Derby, who had supplanted the old elective officer—the people’s sheriff. Hence we trace their haunts to this day so far in one direction as “Robin Hood’s Chair,” Wyn Hill, and his “Stride” (Fig. 486) in Derbyshire; thence to “Robin Hood’s Bay,” on the coast of Yorkshire, in another, with places between innumerable. But the “woody and famous forest of Barnsdale,” in Yorkshire, and Sherwood, appear to have been their principal places of resort; and what would not one give for a glimpse of the scene as it then was, with these its famous actors moving about among it! There is little or nothing remaining in a sufficiently wild state to tell us truly of the ancient royal forest of Sherwood. The clearing process has been carried on extensively during the last century and a half. Prior to that period the forest was full of ancient trees—the road from Mansfield to Nottingham presented one unbroken succession of green woods. The principal parts now existing are the woods of Birkland and Bilhagh, where oaks of the most giant growth and of the most remote antiquity are still to be found: oaks against which Robin Hood himself may have leaned, and which even then may have counted their age by centuries. Such are the oaks in Welbeck Park (Fig. 480). Many of these ancient trees are hollow through nearly the whole of their trunks, but their tops and lateral branches still put forth the tender green foliage regularly as the springs come round. Side by side with the monarch oak we find the delicate silver-coated stems and pendent branches of the lady of the woods; and beautiful is the contrast and the harmony. But everything wears a comparatively cultivated aspect. We miss the prodigal luxuriance of a natural forest, where every stage upward, from the sapling to the mightiest growth, may be traced. We miss the picturesque accidents of nature always to be found in such places, the ash key for instance, of which Gilpin speaks (Forest Scenery), rooting in a decayed part of some old tree, germinating, sending down its roots, and lifting up its branches till at last it rends its supporter and nourisher to pieces, and appears itself standing in its place, stately and beautiful as that once appeared. Above all we miss the rich and tangled undergrowth; the climbing honeysuckle, the white and black briony, and the clematis; the prickly holly and the golden furze, the heaths, the thistles, and the foxgloves with [their purple bells; the bilberries, which for centuries were wont to be an extraordinarily great profit and pleasure to the poor people who gathered them (Thornton); the elders and willows of many a little marshy nook; all which, no doubt, once flourished in profusion wherever they could find room to grow between the thickly set trees, of which Camden says, referring to Sherwood, that their “entangled branches were so twisted together, that they hardly left room for a person to pass.” It need excite little surprise that the outlaws could defend themselves from all inroads upon such a home. The same writer adds, that in his time the woods were much thinner, but still bred an infinite number of deer and stags with lofty antlers. When Robin Hood hunted here, there would be also the roe, the fox, the marten, the hare, the coney, as well as the partridge, the quail, the rail, the pheasant, the woodcock, the mallard, and the heron, to furnish sport or food. Even the wolf himself may have been occasionally found in Sherwood, down to the thirteenth century; in the manor of Mansfield Woodhouse a parcel of land called Wolf huntland was held so late as Henry the Sixth’s time by the service of winding a horn to frighten away the wolves in the forest of Sherwood. We must add to this rude and imperfect sketch of the scene made for ever memorable by Robin Hood’s presence and achievements, that in another point it would seem to have been expressly marked out by nature for such romantic fame. Caverns are found in extraordinary numbers through the forest. Those near Nottingham are supposed to have given name both to the town and county; the Saxon word Sno-dengaham being interpreted to mean the Home of Caverns. There are similar excavations in the face of a cliff near the Lene, west of Nottingham Castle. Above all, there is a cave traditionally connected with the great archer himself. This is a curious hollow rock in the side of a hill near Newstead, known as Robin Hood’s Stable, but more likely from its aspect to have been his chapel. It contains several passages and doorways cut in the Gothic style, out of the solid rock; and there are peculiar little hollows in the wall, which might have been intended for holy water. Robin Hood’s devotion is attested in a thousand ways by tradition, ballad, and sober history. Thus the ‘Lytell Geste’ observes:—

A good maner than had Robyn

In londe where that he were,

Every daye or he woulde dyne,

Three messes wolde he here.

Fordun’s illustration of Robin Hood’s piety is an exceedingly interesting anecdote, and one that assuredly would not have found its way into his work unless from his full conviction of its truth. “Once upon a time, in Barnsdale, where he was avoiding the wrath of the King and the rage of the Prince, while engaged in very devoutly hearing mass, as he was wont to do, nor would he interrupt the service for any occasion—one day, I say, while so at mass, it happened that a certain Viscount [the sheriff or governor, no doubt, before-mentioned], and other officers of the King, who had often before molested him, were seeking after him in that most retired woodland spot wherein he was thus occupied. Those of his men who first discovered this pursuit, came and entreated him to fly with all speed; but this, from reverence for the consecrated host, which he was then most devoutly adoring, he absolutely refused to do. While the rest of his people were trembling for fear of death, Robert alone, confiding in Him whom he fearlessly worshipped, with the very few whom he had then beside him, encountered his enemies, overcame them with ease, was enriched by their spoils and ransom, and was thus induced to hold ministers of the church and masses in greater veneration than ever, as mindful of the common saying,

‘God hears the man that often hears the mass.’

The life in the forest must indeed have been steeped in joyous excitement. No doubt it had its disadvantages. Winter flaws in such a scene would not be pleasant. Agues might be apt occasionally to make their appearance. One feels something of a shivering sensation as we wonder,

—————— When they did hear

The rain and wind beat dark December, how

In that their pinching cave they could discourse

The freezing hours away.

Yet even the rigours of the season might give new zest to the general enjoyment of forest life; we may imagine one of the band singing in some such words as those of Amiens:

Under the greenwood tree

Who loves to lie with me,

And tune his merry note

Unto the sweet bird’s throat,

Come hither, come hither, come hither:

Here shall he see

No enemy

But winter and rough weather.

And that very thought would ensure such enemies, when they did come, a genial and manly reception. But reverse the picture, and what a world of sunshine, and green leaves, and flickering lights and shadows breaks in upon us—excitement in the chace, whether they followed the deer (Figs. 485 and 487), or were themselves followed by the sheriff, through bush and brake, over bog and quagmire—of enjoyment in their shooting and wrestling matches (Fig. 484), in their sword-fights (Fig. 483), and sword-dances (Fig. 489); in their visits to all the rustic wakes and feasts of the neighbourhood, where they would be received as the most welcome of guests. The variety of the life in the forest must have been endless. Now the outlaws would be visited by the wandering minstrels, coming thither to amuse them with old ballads, and to gather a rich harvest of materials for new ones, that should be listened to with the deepest interest and delight all England through, not only while the authors recited them, but for centuries after the very names of such authors were forgotten. The legitimate poet-minstrel would be followed by the humbler gleeman, forming one of a band of revellers (Fig. 490), in which would be comprised a taborer, a bagpiper, and dancers or tumblers, and who, tempted by the well-known liberality of the foresters, would penetrate the thick wood to find them. And great would be the applause at their humorous dances and accompanying songs, at their balancings and tumblings; wonderful, almost too wonderful to be produced without the aid of evil spirits, would seem their sleight-of-hand tricks. At another time there would be suddenly heard echoing through the forest glades the sounds of strange bugles from strange hunters. Their rich apparel shows them to be of no ordinary rank. How dare they then intrude upon the forest king? Nay, there is not any danger. Are there not lady hunters (Fig. 481) among the company? and what says the ballad, the truth of which every one attests?—

Robyn loved one dere lady,

For doute of dedely synne;

Wolde he never do company harme

That any woman was ynne.

So their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers hunt freely through Sherwood in their company, safe from the sudden arrow, aye, though even the hated sheriff himself be among them. But there were occasions when the forest would present a much more extraordinary scene than any we have yet referred to. For scores of miles around, what preparations are there not made when the words “Robin Hood’s Fair” spread from mouth to mouth, and the time and place of it being held become known! Thither would resort all the yeomen and yeomen’s wives of the district, each one hoping to get a “Robin Hood’s pennyworth,” as the well-understood phrase went, in some courtepy or hood, in handkerchiefs telling their goodness by their weight, in hats, boots or shoes, the spoil of some recent campaign, and bespeaking their general excellence from the known quality of their recent owners. Thither would resort the emissaries of more than one priory and respectable monastery, to look after some richly-illuminated Missal or MS. that they had heard were among the good things of the fair, or to execute the High Cellarer’s commission to purchase any rare spices that might be offered. Knightly messengers too would not be wanting, coming thither to look after choice weapons, or trinkets, or weighty chains of gold: perhaps even the very men who had been despoiled, and whose treasures had contributed so largely to the “fair,” would be sending to it, to purchase silently back some favourite token at a trifling price, hopeless of regaining it by any other mode. Of course the Jews would flock to Sherwood on such occasions from any and all distances. And as the fair proceeded, if any quarrels took place between the buyers and sellers, a Jew would be sure to be concerned. Even whilst he laughed in his heart at the absurd price he was to give for the rich satin vest, or the piece of cloth of gold of such rare beauty that the forester was measuring with his long bow, generally of his own height, for a yard, and even then skipping two or three inches between each admeasurement, the Jew would be sure to be haggling to lower the price or to be increasing the quantity; till reminded that he was not dealing with the most patient as well as with the most liberal of men, by a different application of the tough yew. Then the adventures of the forest!—indigenous and luxuriant as its bilberries; how they give a seasoning, as it were, to the general conjunction of life in the forest, and prevented the possibility of its ever being felt as “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable!” Were recruits wanted?—there was a pretty opening for adventure in seeking them. They must be men of mark or likelihood who can alone be enlisted into brave Robin’s band, and severe accordingly were the tests applied. In order to prove their courage, for instance, it seems, from the later ballads, it was quite indispensable that they should have the best of it with some veteran forester, either in shooting with the bow, or playfully breaking a crown with the quarter-staff, or even by occasionally beating their antagonists when contending with inadequate weapons.

Robin Hood himself should appear from these authorities to have been almost as famous for his defeats, as other heroes for their victories. We suspect that what little portion of truth there is in the tradition thus incorporated into the ballads, may be explained by imagining a little ruse on his part in these recruiting expeditions. When he met with some gallant dare-devil whom he desired to include among his troops, what better method could he devise than to appear to be beaten by him after a downright good struggle? He to beat Robin Hood! It was certainly the most exquisite and irresistible of compliments. The promise of a sergeant in later days to make the gaping rustic commander-in-chief was nothing to it. But suppose we now look at two or three of the more interesting adventures which are recorded in the ‘Lytell Geste’ as having actually taken place, and which, be it observed, may possibly be as true, bating a little here and there for the poetical luxuriance of the author, as if Fordun had related them: ballads in the early ages were histories. In one part of this poem we find a story of the most interesting character, and told with extraordinary spirit, discrimination of character, and dramatic effect. Whilst Little John, Scathelock (the Scarlet of a later time), and Much the Miller’s son, were one day watching in the forest, they beheld a knight riding along:—

All dreari then was his semblaunte,

And lytell was his pride;

Hys one fote in the sterope stode,

The other waved besyde.


Hys hode hangynge over hys eyen two,

He rode in symple aray;

A soryer man than he was one

Rode never in somers day.

The outlaws courteously accost and surprise him with the information that their master has been waiting for him, fasting, three hours; Robin Hood, it appears, having an objection to sit down to dinner till he can satisfy himself he has earned it, by finding strangers to sit down with him—and pay the bill. Having “washed,” they dine:—

Brede and wyne they had ynough,

And nombles [entrails] of the deer;

Swannes and fesauntes they had full good,

And foules of the revere:

There fayled never so lytell a byrde

That ever was bred on brere.

After dinner the Knight thanks his host for his entertainment, but Robin hints that thanks are not enough. The Knight replies that he has nothing in his coffers that he can for shame offer—that, in short, his whole stock consists of ten shillings. Upon this Robin bids Little John examine the coffers to see if the statement be true (a favourite mode with Robin of judging of the character of his visitors), and informs the Knight at the same time that if he really have no more, more he will lend him.

What tydynge, Johan?”—sayd Robyn:

Syr, the Knyght is trewe enough.

The great outlaw is now evidently interested; and, with mingled delicacy and frankness, inquires as to the cause of the Knight’s low estate, fearing that it implies some wrong doing on his part. It comes out at last that his son has killed a “Knyght of Lancastshyre” in the tournament, and that, to defend him “in his right,” he has sold all his own goods, and pledged his lands unto the Abbot of St. Mary’s, York; the day is now nearly arrived, and he is not merely unable to redeem them before too late, but well nigh penniless into the bargain. We need hardly solicit attention to the mingled pathos and beauty of what follows:—

What is the somme?”sayd Robyn;

Trouthe then tell thou me.

Syr,” he sayd, “foure hondred pouude,

The Abbot tolde it to me.”


Now, and thou lese thy londe,” sayd Robin,

What shall fall of the?

Hastely I wyll me buske,” sayde the Knyght

“Over the salt see;


And se where Cryst was quycke and deed

On the mount of Calvarè.

Farewell, frende, and have good day,

It may noo better be——”


Tears fell out of his eyen two,

He wolde have gone his waye—

“Farewell, frendes, and have good day;

I ne have more to pay.”


Where be thy friendes?” sayde Robyn.

“Syr, never one wyll me know;

Whyle I was ryche enow at home,

Crete bost then wolde they blowe,


“And now they renne awaye fro me,

As bestes on a rowe;

They take no more heed of me

Then they me never sawe.”


For ruthe then wepte Lytell Johan,

Scathelocke and Much in fere [in company];

Fyll of the best wyne,” sayd Robyn,

For here is a symple chere.

Before many hours the Knight was pursuing his way with a full pocket and a full heart to redeem his lands. We must follow him to York. The day of payment has arrived. The chief officers of the Abbey are in a state of high excitement, on account of the value of the estates that will be theirs at nightfall if the Knight comes not with the redemption money. The Abbot cannot repress his anticipations:—

“But he come this ylke day,

Dysheryte shall he be.”

The Prior endeavours to befriend the absent Knight, but is answered impatiently—

Thou arte euer in my berde,” sayde the Abbot,

By God and Saynt Richarde.

And then bursts in a “fat-headed monk,” the High Cellarer, with the exulting exclamation—

He is dede or hanged,” sayd the monke,

By God that bought me dere;

And we shall have to spende in this place

Foure hondred pounde by yere.”

To make all sure, the Abbot has managed to have the assistance of the High Justicer of England on the occasion by the usual mode of persuasion, a bribe; and is just beginning to receive his congratulations when the Knight arrives at the gate. But he appears in “symple wedes,” and the alarm raised by his appearance soon subsides as he speaks:—

Do gladly, Syr Abbot,” sayd the Knyght;

I am come to holde my day.

The fyrst word the Abbot spoke,—

Hast thou brought my pay?


Not one peny,” sayde the Knyght,

By God that maked me.

Thou art a shrewed dettour,” sayd the Abbot;

Syr Justyce, drynke to me.”

The Knight tries to move his pity, but in vain; and after some further passages between him and the Abbot, conceived and expressed in the finest dramatic spirit, the truth comes out in answer to a proposition from the Justice that the Abbot shall give two hundred pounds more to keep the land in peace; the Knight then suddenly astounds the whole party by producing the four hundred pounds.

Have here thy golde, Syr Abbot,” sayd the Knyght,

“ Which that thou lentest me;

Haddest thou ben curteys at my comynge,

Rewarde sholdest thou have be.”


The Abbot sat styll, and ete no more

For all his ryall [royal] chere;

He cast his hede on his sholder,

And fast began to stare.


Take [give] me my golde agayne,” sayd the Abbot,

Syr Justyce, that I toke the.

Not a peny,” sayd the Justyce,

By God that dyed on a tree.

A twelvemonth afterwards, and on the very day that the Knight has fixed for repaying Robin Hood, a magnificent procession of ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical retainers is passing through the forest; and being stopped by the outlaws, who should be at the head of the whole but our friend the fat-headed monk, the High Cellarer of St. Mary, York! Now Robin Hood’s security, the only one that he would take from the Knight, had been that of the Virgin—what more natural than that he should think the High Cellarer of the Virgin’s own house at York had come to pay him his four hundred pounds! It is in vain the holy man denies that he has come for any such purpose. At last, driven to his shifts, he ventures a lie when the actual state of his coffers is inquired into. His return, in official language, is twenty marks. Robin is very reasonable, and says, if there really be no more, not a penny of it will be meddled with.

Lytell Johan spred his mantell downe

As he had done before,

And he tolde out of the monkes male

Eyght hundreth pounde and more.

No wonder that Robin exclaims—

Monk, what told I thee?

Our Lady is the trewest woman

That ever yet founde I me.

All this is told with a more exquisite humour than our own partial extracts can do justice to. Anon a second, and to archer eyes still more attractive pageant, appears. It is the good and grateful Knight at the head of a hundred men clothed in white and red, and bearing as a present to the foresters a hundred bows of a quality to delight even such connoisseurs in the weapon, with a hundred sheaves of arrows, with heads burnished full bright, every arrow an ell long, y-dight with peacock plumes, and y-nocked with silver. The Knight had been detained on his way; the sun was down; the hour of payment had passed when he arrived at the trysting-tree. His excuse was soon made to the generous outlaw. He had stayed to help a poor yeoman who was suffering oppression. The debt was forgiven; the monks had paid it. doubly.

The ballads of Robin Hood which, century after century, followed the ‘Lytell Geste’ are, at any rate, evidences of the deep hold which this story of wild adventure, and of the justice of the strong hand, long retained upon the popular mind. We have already mentioned how unequal these later productions are to that ancient ballad which professes to tell the doings of ‘Kynge Edwarde and Robyn Hode and Lytell Johan.’ Many of these ballads were reprinted by a scrupulous antiquary, Ritson; and most of them are to be found in some collection with which the lovers of early poetry are familiar. A very neat abridgment of some of the more striking of these stories was published in ‘The Penny Magazine,’ in a series of papers written by the late Mr. Allan Cunningham. To these sources we may refer our readers. But as the ballad poetry of a country is amongst the most curious of its records—as the ballads of ‘Old England,’ even though they may have been written in the reign of Elizabeth, or even later, reflect the traditions of the people, and in many cases are founded upon more ancient compositions that have perished, we shall, in each period into which our work is divided, present one or two ballads entire, without any very exact regard to the date of their publication, provided they bear upon the events and manners of the age of which we are treating.

The first ballad which we select for this purpose is from a collection printed in 1607, called ‘Strange Histories, or Songes and Sonets, of Kings, Princes, Dukes, Lordes, Ladyes, Knights, and Gentlemen; very pleasant either to be read or songe, and a most excellent warning for all estates.’ Of this curious book there are only two original copies known to be in existence; but it has been recently reprinted by the Percy Society. The principal author of these poems is held to have been Thomas Delaney, who acquired great popularity by his books for the people in the end of the sixteenth century, and is spoken of by a contemporary as “the ballading silk-weaver.” The subject of the ballad which we now print is an interesting event connected with the Norman conquest. We modernize the orthography, for there is no advantage in retaining the antique modes of spelling when they have no reference to the date of a production, or to the peculiarities of its metre. ‘The Lytell Geste’ could not be thus modernized with the same propriety.