The medieval town of Nottingham is beautifully reconstructed in Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood and the film also has one unique historical detail not included in other movies about the hero. The Sheriff has his own house in the town.

This is reflected in the fifteenth century ballad Robin Hood and the Potter, where Robin Hood dressed as a potter rides to Nottingham and sells five penny potts for the price of 3d:

Yn the medys of the towne,

There he schowed hes ware;

‘Pottys! pottys!’ He gan crey foll sone,

‘Haffe hansell ffor the mare!’*

Ffoll effen agenest the screffeys gate

Schowed he hes chaffare;#

Weyffes and wedowes abowt hem drow,

And chepyd ffast of hes ware.

*you will have a present the more you buy

# chaffare: merchandise

The screffeys gate (the sheriff’s gate) suggests the sheriff’s house, known in Nottingham as the Red Hall, near Angel Row, a manor house in the Norman borough of the town where Bromley House now stands.

Robin Hood’s links with Nottingham and its sheriff, go back to the very earliest surviving ballads. Robin Hood and the Monk, preserved at Cambridge University, is one of the most distinguished and oldest and has about 2,700 words. In the tale, Robin Hood regrets not having been to hear Mass for a fortnight, so he decides to go to Nottingham, only accompanied by Little John.

Whan Robyn came to Notyngham,

Sertenly withouten layn,

He prayed to God and myld Mary

To bring hym out save again.

He gos in to Seynt Mary chirch,

And kneled down before the rode;

Alle that ever were the church within

Beheld wel Robyn Hode.

Rising 126 feet, in the heart of the old Lace market, St Mary’s Church is the finest medieval building in Nottingham. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, although a religious building was on the site well before the Conquest.

The original settlers around what is now known as Nottingham seemed to have occupied an outcrop of sandstone to the east. The earliest recorded name for what is now Nottingham is the Celtic, Tuigobacu, which means Cave Dwellers. (the caves were still being occupied during the medieval period). The modern name first appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 868 A.D: a Danish Army spent the winter in Snotta ing ham ‘a village belonging to Snotta’. The hame (home) of the ing (people) of Snot (The Wise). This original village seems to have been at the first point where the River Trent could be crossed safely.

Towards the end of the ninth century, Snotingehame was fortified with a ditch around the settlement, a rampart and a wooden palisade. In about 920 King Alfred The Great’s son, Edward the Elder built a fort at West Bridgford and a bridge over the River Trent. So the Tenth Century saw Nottingham become one of England’s new trading town’s its population grew to several hundred and the town’s western limit reached as far as Bridlesmith Gate.

After the Norman Conquest, King William ordered a castle to be built on the huge rocky red sandstone, on the site of the original Danish tower, to the south-west of the settlement. Sparing the local Saxons of the loss of their homes and property rights. It was originally made of wood and later re-built in stone in the twelfth century. Nottingham Castle remained outside the towns boundaries until the nineteenth century.

So a Norman settlement grew up around the shelter of the new wooden castle, leaving the Saxons largely undisturbed in their area around St. Mary’s Hill. For administrative purposes, two boroughs were set up, one French and one English, each had its own language and customs with a boundary wall running through the market place. To this day two maces are borne before the Sheriff of Nottingham, representing these two boroughs. The church of St. Peter was founded alongside St. Nicholas, both were in the French borough, whilst the pre-conquest church of St. Mary’s , visited by Robin Hood, was in the English.

Under this Norman protection in 1086 the two boroughs had between 600-800 people. The first of the Plantagenet king’s, Henry II commenced to re-build the castle and its fortifications around the town in stone. He also gave Nottingham its first Royal Charter in 1154 allowing the Burgesses (leading citizens) to try thieves, levy tolls on visiting traders and hold markets on Fridays and Saturdays. This charter also gave them the monopoly in the working of dyed cloth within a radius of ten miles.

The Market Square (the largest in England) quickly became a focal point of the town, it also had an annual fair and from 1284 Edward I permitted extra fair days and one of these days became what we now know as Goose Fair, when people from as far away as Yorkshire would come for the two day event.

During the medieval period, Nottingham’s main industry was wool manufacture. But there were many craftsman in the town and some of those occupations can be identified by the remains of its old street names, such as Wheelwright Street, Pilcher Gate, Boot Lane, Bridlesmith Gate, Blow Bladder Street, Gridlesmith Gate, and Fletcher Gate.

Because of its royal castle, Nottingham now gained importance. Almost all the medieval kings were visitors at one time or another. The importance of the castle is no better illustrated than by the continuous disputes over its ownership during the reign of Richard the Lionheart and his brother John. It was also under King John that the castle witnessed one of its most ghastly chapters, when in about 1212 he allegedly hung twenty eight young sons, of Welsh noble families, from the castle ramparts. Today, the area is still said to be haunted by the cries of the young boys.

As the power base of the midlands and the north, the monarch mobilized armies there, kept court, summoned councils and parliaments, or simply rode forth to enjoy the hunting in the vast woodland of Sherwood Forest that came to the edge of the common fields bordering the town.

The harsh laws of the forest were often a cause of tension and no more so, than in August 1175, when Henry rode into Nottingham in a rage accusing local people of breaking those laws. His son Richard I later set the cruel penalty for killing the king’s deer as mutilation by removal of the offenders eyes and testicles. The only authority in the town during this period was that of the king, via his chosen nobleman, the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007

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