Sherwood the Royal Forest

Robyn hod in scherewod stod, hodud and hathud and hosut and schod
Four and thuynti arowus he bar in hits hondus.

This rhyme is scribbled in a manuscript from Lincoln Cathedral dated about 1410 and it is Sherwood Forest that is the backdrop to nearly all modern day productions of the Robin Hood legend. On a summer weekend approximately 40,000 tourists visit the remnants of what is now left of the most famous forest in the world, where, once amongst those beautiful woodland glades, its hard not to believe Robin Hood existed. But what was the medieval Sherwood Forest like?

In 1218 Henry III instructed a jury of knights and free men to set out and define the boundaries of Sherwood Forest. Its northern boundary was marked by the River Meden, twenty miles from Nottingham. From east to west it varied between seven and nine miles wide. From the River Trent between Gunthorpe and Wilford in the South, to Worksop and the River Meden in the North; from the Leen valley in the west to the Dover Beck in the East. The forest was roughly triangular in shape and occasionally there were slight changes to its boundaries, but during the thirteenth century it covered about 19,000 acres, (7,800 hectares) approximately a fifth of Nottinghamshire. Imagine the bird song! The name suggests ‘wood belonging to the shire’ and from ancient times Sciryuda, as it originally was called, had been divided; one part known as Thorneywood the other High Forest. The bounds of the Royal Forest of Sherwood were regularly perambulated.

Sherwood’s soil was sandy and infertile, consequently the trees, mainly of Birch and Oak grew to girth rather then height. It was this infertility that accounted for its survival as woodland. It did consist of areas of deep forest, but there were also large areas of pastureland and heath like Ashdown Forest in Sussex. But because of its red deer and its strategic position in the North Midlands, Sherwood was immediately afforested soon after the Norman Conquest and William I enforced the Laws of the Forest ruthlessly with savage penalties:

“Whoever shall kill a stag, a wild boar, or even
A hare, shall have his eyes torn out.”*

*Henry of Huntingdon (1137-1147)

Sherwood was a Royal Forest (Royal Forest covered one fifth of the land area of England at this time) and like many others it had its own laws, not based upon common law, ‘but solely on the kings will’. Richard Fitz Nigel in the Dialogus describes these laws, not based upon the common law of the realm,

“…..but upon the arbitrary decree of the king; so that what is done in
accordance with the forest law may be termed not ‘absolutely’ just but
‘just according to the law of the forest’.
The forest also are the sanctuaries of kings and their chief delight.
Thither they repair to hunt, their cares laid aside, in order to refresh
themselves for a short while.
There, renouncing the arduous, but natural turmoil of the
court, they breath the pure air of freedom for a little space; and that is why
those who transgress the laws of the forest are subject solely to
the royal jurisdiction.”

The term forest that we use today, did not necessarily mean an area of densely wooded land during the medieval period. Royal Forests usually included large segregated areas of wetland, heath or grassland, anywhere that was a safe refuge for the royal game, such as stags, harts and boars. In 1184, Henry I’s Assize of Woodstock was the first official act of legislation relating wholly to the Royal Forest. Forest offences would henceforth be punished not just by fines but by full justice as exacted by Henry I. No person shall have a bow, arrows or dogs within the Royal Forests. Dogs living near the forest had to be clipped, to prevent them from hunting. In each county with a Royal Forest there shall be chosen twelve knights to keep the venison and the vert. The twelfth chapter recommended the death penalty only for the third offence. There were two seasons for the royal hunting of the deer, November to February and June to September. But Summer was the best season when the deer was fat (or in grease).

It was the chief forester who had the responsibility of preserving the laws of the royal forest and in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries members of the distrusted and disliked Neville family held this post. The chief forester travelled the country holding forest eyres, or courts, in the different counties. From 1239 his job was divided and two justices were appointed, one for the forests north of the River Trent, one for those south. Sherwood’s forest courts during the early medieval period, were originally held at Mansfield where, between 1263-87 the average cases for trespass of venison were about eight a year. Illegal hunting was either quite small or, probably the efficiency of the foresters and verderers was poor!

At the king’s command, the chief forester protected the beasts of the forest, the red and fallow deer, the roe and wild boar. He earned a shilling a day and was permitted to have a bow bearer. Although the early Robin Hood ballads are deficient of any references to medieval forest law and its wardens, there does seem to be two allusions to this practice.

In stanza 9 of Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood says:

But Litull John shall beyre my bow,
Til that me list* to drawe.

*that me list=it pleases me

And stanza 5 of Robin Hoode his Death:

And Litle John shall be my man,
And beare my benbow by my side.

Below the chief forester came the wardens, then the verderers. But maintenance of the forest and its game was the task of the ordinary, riding and walking foresters.

On Palm Sunday 1194, Richard I , whilst staying in Nottingham rode off into Sherwood Forest to enjoy two days at the royal hunting lodge at Clipstone.

On the 3rd March, Richard King of England set out to see Clipstone and the forest of Sherwood, which he had never seen before and it pleased him much and he returned to Nottingham.

John Manwood (?-1610) a gamekeeper, forest justice and writer during the reign of Elizabeth I, is said to have found, in a tower of Nottingham Castle, an aunciente recorde which he included in his Forest Laws in 1598:

In anno domini King Richard being a hunting in the forest of Sherwood did chase a hart out of the forest of Sherwood into Barnsdale, in Yorkshire, and because he could there recover him, he made proclamation at Tickill and diverse other places that no other person should kill, hurt or chase the said hart, but that he might safely return into the forest again, which hart was afterwards called a hart-royal proclaimed.

Clipstone became the principal royal hunting lodge in Sherwood Forest and was later known as King John’s Palace. It was probably built in 1160 and eventually spread over an area of at least two acres. In the first year of his reign, King John took up residence here and by the fourteenth century it had been extended to include a number of chambers, Kitchen, King’s Kitchen, Great Hall, Queen’s Hall, Great Chamber, Great Gateway, Long Stable etc. Part of it still stands today. During this time all the English kings hunted there, Henry II at least twice, Richard I once, John six times and Henry III made three visits. Between the reigns of the three Edwards, the royal hunting in Sherwood reached its peak. With five visits from Edward I, his son Edward II came six times and Edward III was the most frequent visitor with nine visits. But alas, no document survives of any of these kings meeting Robin Hood in the royal forest!

After Richard’s coronation, Prince John received Clipstone and Sherwood Forest, which was formerly part of the old estates of William Peveril. At the time of the Norman Conquest, Peveril had been granted extensive properties in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, including the High Peak and Sherwood Forest. But in 1155 the possessions of this family were forfeited to the crown and were administered on behalf of the monarch, by the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Between 1212 and 1217 the notorious Philip Marc, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, had custody of Sherwood Forest. Marc came from Touraine, just south of Loire and together with Gerard De Athee, Brian De Lisle, Robert De Vieuxpont and others, became part of King John’s hated newly imported foreign agents. He was later condemned like others in Magna Carta, but was never removed from his position as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and Constable of Nottingham Castle. The protection racket passed down from Philip Marc and the successive Sheriff’s of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was not stopped until 1265.

One of the well documented criminal bands that terrorised Nottinghamshire and hid out in Sherwood Forest from 1328-1332 were the Coterel gang. Their leader James Coterel was said to have recruited twenty members of his outlaw band from Sherwood Forest and the Peak District. It was said, he and his brothers rode armed, publicly and secretly, in manner of war, by day and night and committed acts of murder, rape and extortion. But la compagnie sauvage, as the gang members were referred to, also served in Edward III’s wars against the French and Scots and some even later served in the government!

In 1328 John, James and Nicholas Coterel with their gang, robbed Bakewell Church of ten shillings. Sixty inhabitants of Bakewell were accused of aiding and abetting them. Two years later it is recorded that Sir William Knyveton and John Matkynson were murdered by the Coterel brothers who, by that time had links with another equally murderous and violent outlaw band, the Folville brothers of Leicestershire.

Members of the Coterel brother’s gang included an Oxford don, bailiffs, chaplains, vicars a knight, a soldier, and a counterfeiter. An ally of this infamous band of outlaws, was none other than Sir Robert Ingram, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

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