Robin Hood and Little John by Frank Goodwin, early 1900s

In Nottinghamshire, it is hard to escape the legend of Robin Hood, but in Yorkshire the authorities have renamed the former Robin Hood Airport. 

Our little Yorkshire hideaway is mere miles from the former RAF base that was named Robin Hood Airport by Doncaster city council, until a rebranding exercise in December 2016 downgraded the outlaw image and replaced it with the prosaic title of Doncaster Sheffield Airport. At least folks flying on cheap charter holidays will stop trying to find the airport in Nottinghamshire.

The justification for the original name, which was opposed in a petition signed by over 11 thousand people, was that the area was in the former forest of Barnsdale, in mediaeval times contiguous with the larger Sherwood Forest, with links to the 1500s legend which placed Robin’s birthplace in Loxley, near Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest

Sherwood Forest, or what remains of it, is one of the local spots we take visitors if the weather is nice. A pleasant walk along well-maintained paths through the open woodland brings us past ancient oaks, many propped up or banded to keep them from falling. The shining centrepiece of the forest is the Major Oak, claimed as shelter for Robin’s merry men. But that myth has been put to rest by experts who say the tree is a mere 800 years old, which makes it a sapling in the outlaw’s era. Still, it is the oldest oak in the forest and one of the oldest trees in England.

The forest was once royal property, as all such lands were reserved as hunting grounds for the exclusive use of the king and court. At the time, it covered almost a quarter of the county in woodland and heath, but through grants to court favourites and acquisitions by an avaricious church, the forest shrank to about 500 acres. After the dissolution of the monasteries the land was handed over to five dukes, and these properties have been named The Dukeries. Just over a thousand acres of this land is back in public ownership or under public management, and the forest is being slowly restored, but it was never the tightly treed woodland of the movies, more an open hunting and pastureland or commons, where farmers were allowed to graze their sheep and cattle.

Robin Hood and Little John fight on in Sherwood Forest

Nevertheless, the legend of Robin is strong here and a statue of him and Little John fighting on the bridge stands at the park entrance.

The historic city of Nottingham has few links to the story left. Nottingham Castle, built in 1068 on a well defended rocky outcrop looking over the river, was later abandoned and largely demolished in 1649. A ducal residence rose on the site, but that was burned down and the current building housing the museum and art gallery is relatively modern. It’s neither very well run or notable and without the historic connections, not worth a visit.

A portion of the old walls still stand, near Maid Marian Way, and beneath the raw rock a tableau was erected in Robin’s honour. It was unveiled by the then Princess Elizabeth in 1949 to celebrate the city’s quincentenary. A statue by acclaimed sculptor James Woodford depicts him with bow drawn. Another bucolic scene shows him relaxing with some of the merry men, including Friar Tuck. Bass relief plaques surround the small monument, detailing scenes from Robin’s life, including his fight with Little John, his marriage to Maid Marian officiated by King Richard the Lionheart, and shooting an arrow to mark his final resting place.

James Woodford’s Robin beneath the walls of Nottingham Castle

So who was this Robin Hood, whose legend has become so firmly fixed in both history and modern stories? Certainly he was nothing like the Hollywood depictions. The 1938 movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, cements him as a staunch defender of downtrodden Saxons. Robin and Marian, 1976, stars Sean Connery as Robin and Audrey Hepburn as Marian, finding love in old age. Kevin Costner romped his way through a thoroughly inaccurate Prince of Thieves in 1991. Russell Crowe in the 2010 epic war drama Robin Hood, with Cate Blanchett in the distaff role, gives the story a bloodthirsty twist. A review in The New York Times said the film “made a hash of history.” Over the years there have been many television adaptations, including my teen years favourite The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Green, which ran from 1955 to 1959, and was probably more notable for the catchy theme song – “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen; Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men; feared by the bad, loved by the good; Robin Hood, Robin Hooood” – than for the acting.

In several Robin Hood legends, and in fact, King Richard the Lionheart returns from the Crusades and finds Nottingham Castle occupied by supporters of Prince John, including the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was besieged by Richard and, after a sharp conflict, was captured. In these legends, Nottingham Castle is the scene of the final showdown between the sheriff and the outlaw. The historical problem is that Richard ruled from 1189 until his death in 1199, well before Robin was around.

An illustration from the early 1400s by Gaston de Foix shows Robin hunting

The first clear reference to our hero comes in Rhymes of Robin Hood, an alliterative poem by Piers Plowman, thought to have been composed in the 1370s, though no original copy survives. Little John, Much the miller’s son and Will Scarlett are all present, although not Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. The next mention of the outlaw hero comes in a ballad written sometime after 1450 which mentions Robin, Nottingham, the sheriff and the enmity between them. It is around this time that he is depicted as wearing Lincoln green and his skills as an archer and swordsman are portrayed, as well as his penchant for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. By late-medieval years he was firmly established as a popular folk hero. The Lincoln Cathedral Manuscript, which is the first officially recorded Robin Hood song, from approximately 1420, makes an explicit reference to the outlaw that states: “Robyn hode in Scherewode stod.” Fragments of an early text, Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, date from around 1475, include the first reference to Friar Tuck, and confirm that no one knew how to spell in those days. In 1500 a collection of separate stories that attempted to unite various legends into a continuous narrative became the first printed version under the title of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Interestingly, the language of the latter tale is written with a northern voice, giving more credence to Yorkshire’s claims on Robin.

King Richard oversees the historically impossible marriage of Robin and Marian

Maid Marian doesn’t show up in the legends until about 1283 and is often personified as a shepherdess or character in May Day festivities. Alexander Barclay, writing in about 1500, refers to “some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood,” whatever that means. A gentrified Robin Hood arrives in the late 16th century, when Maid Marian is also cast in terms of a noblewoman, even though her role was never entirely virginal and she retained aspects of the shepherdess. In The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon a 1598 play by Robert Munday, Marian appears as Robin’s lawfully-wedded wife, who changes her name from Matilda when she joins him in the greenwood.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, founded in 1189

It’s all good fun and we repair to England’s oldest pub for lunch and a few beverages. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem dates back to 1189, well before Robin was around. Otherwise he would have enjoyed a pint in this tiny tavern built into the very rock of Nottingham Castle. Its first recorded use is as a brewery, from the days when water was dangerous to drink and everyone had beer for breakfast. A passage hacked out of the sandstone rock runs up into the castle grounds and was probably a means of hauling up ale for the troops. Now it climbs out of one of the snug rooms that make up the pub. It’s entertaining to hear about the history of the place, the ghosts and characters that have inhabited it over the centuries, and its modern incarnation. The name is thought to come from its popularity as a starting point for pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

We enjoy a fine Dorset cider, a huge plate of fish and chips with mushy peas and a starter of tiny whitebait. Something doesn’t agree with me and the next day I break out in a nasty red rash. Perhaps it is Will Scarlett Fever?

Categories: Travel

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