The Sheriff of Nottingham

Who can tell truly,
How cruel Sheriff’s are?
Of their hardness to poor people,
No tale can go too far.
If a man cannot pay,
They drag him here and there.
They put him on assizes,
The jurors oath to swear.
He dares not breath a murmur,
Or has to pay again.
And the saltness of the sea,
Is less bitter than his pain.

In Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham was played by Peter Finch who, as part of a long line of famous actors in that role, brought a snide threat, to the villainous character. But what was the real Sheriff of Nottingham like?

In fact the first Sheriff of Nottingham was not appointed until 1449, well after Robin Hood is supposed to have existed. It was Henry VI who in 1448 gave Nottingham a Royal Charter that gave it County Status and from 1449 the Mayor and Burgesses had the power to elect every year, two prominent Burgesses of the two old boroughs, to be Sheriff’s. (For a short time in 1682 it even had four).

These two Sheriff’s of Nottingham were intended to replace the High Sheriff who had since the Norman Conquest been the representative of the king’s government in sole charge of Crown Law. From 1155 this High Sheriff inherited the old Peveril estates and was until Elizabethan times the kings officer and representative of both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As the shire-reeve, the sheriff and his officials were responsible for dispensing justice in the county court as the highest law in the county, administering the king’s estates and collecting the income from the shire to pay into the exchequer. He also had to maintain a military force for the king. This power was very often exploited by many for their own financial gain. So it is this High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire who is linked with Robin Hood:

These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde
(A Gest of Robyn Hode)

Twice a year the High Sheriff made a tour of his county, where amongst many things he heard presentments of criminal activities. The sheriff and his bailiffs had to find and arrest suspects, which was not an easy task. If an accused failed to appear in court after four consecutive sessions to answer the charges he was outlawed, which up until the fourteenth century, meant he could be killed on sight.

When Henry II returned to England in 1170 after four years on the continent he commissioned an inquiry into the behaviour of his royal officials, known as The Inquest of Sheriffs. Almost all the sheriffs were removed along with their bailiffs after complaints against their conduct and accused of exploiting their power and maltreating the men of his realm. In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, Robert son of Ralph was removed, William son of Ralph came in. Some of these sheriff’s returned back to power eventually and their political power continued to trouble later monarchs. During the reign of Richard I (1189-1199) Ralph Murdoc was High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

After the loss of Normandy, King John (1199-1216) removed many of the old sheriffs and began to appoint new foreign agents, in his attempt to regain his families lands and repay the debts inherited from his brother Richard. These new sheriff’s’ were mercenary captains that became more like royal officials with an expense account.

Few of these foreign interlopers were more hated than the family of Gerard d’Athee, Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire between 1209-9 with his notorious distant cousin Philip Marc as his understudy. Philip Marc was castellan of Nottingham 1209, had custody of Sherwood Forest and held the office as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire between 1209-1224. His conduct included robbery, false arrest, unjust invasion of property and persistent attacks on local landed interests, both secular and ecclesiastical. As late as 1263 it was discovered that Marc had accepted an annual fee of £5 from the burgesses of Nottingham in return for his good will and the maintenance of their liberties.

By February 1213, feelings were running very high and King John summoned the sheriff’s to his side at Nottingham. Letters had been sent out stating that the king had heard many complaints, which have moved us not a little, of the extortion of the sheriff’s and their men.

The animosity felt for these foreign mercenaries later found its way into Magna Carta in 1215 and in article 50 of the charter it states:

We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard d’Athee………….Philip Marc and his brothers and his nephew, Geoffrey together with all their adherents, so that henceforth they shall have no office in England.

But King John defiantly re-appointed Marc as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in 1216.

Well over a century later, the corruptibility of local sheriffs had not gone away and in 1330 many were removed along with their subordinates for their habit of empanelling the jurors and summoning jurors of their choice, procuring wrongful indictments and making false returns. Four years later John de Oxenford, himself a Sheriff of Nottingham, was outlawed for not appearing to answer charges of taking bribes and making unlawful levies.

The early medieval ballads of Robin Hood do not give a name to the High Sheriff of Nottingham, but we do not have to look far to see the candidates that provided the centuries of deep seated hatred and loathing and prompted the minstrels to create the stories about his arch enemy.

Lye thou there, thou proude sherife,
Evyll mote thou cheve:*
There might no man to the truste
The whyles thou were a lyve.

*Evyll mote thou cheve:evilly must you end

(A Gest of Robyn Hode)

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007


Dave Overett said...

A good page. I am a Robin Hood book collector and RH devotee.
I seem to recollect in Hume's "History of England" , 1797, Richard I made Sheriff positions available for a substantial sum. The same with Forresters. This was based on the premise that you could almost do what you like as long as the King got the cash. Almost a franchise arrangement. Money of course was needed to fund the Crusades.

Clement of the Glen said...

Hi Dave, your comments are more than welcome. It is nice to get some feed-back, I get many visitors to this blog, but not many pluck up the courage to post.

How many antique Robin Hood books do you have? I have collected a few myself.

It was said at the time that Richard I would have sold London at the time of the Crusades, if he could have found a buyer!

Dave Overett said...

Just checking your blog as I've returned from a charity shop just now with 2 Disney cartoon editions. The first was RH and the Great Coach Robbery, Random House, 1974, and the other titled RH, and Published by Happy Time Books here in Australia. Total cost for the 2, 80 cents.

My total collection is about 110, though some are different editions of the same book and I have 20 books that date before 1940.

By the way I have a Little Golden Book of the Walt Disney RH with photos from the film throughout or as it says "illustrated with scenes from the film" It gives the author as Annie North Bedford.

Clement of the Glen said...

I have a copy of the Golden Book you speak of, retold by Annie North Bedford (interesting name). It comes under 'The Micky Mouse Club Book' printed by Simon And Schuster.

I will have to get around to counting some of mine, some are on the historical research, Holt, Keen, Valentine Harris etc. Others are childrens annuals and TV books such as Richard Green's Adventures of Robin Hood.

The pictures from the film in the Little Golden Book are very good. Do you have any others books based on Disney's Story of Robin Hood?

I will be shortly putting a piece on my blog about memorabilia from the film. Including records etc.

Thank you for posting Dave.