Will Scarlet



“Rake away the gold leaves, roll away the red,
And wake Will Scarlett from his leafy forest bed.”
(Alfred Noyes, Sherwood 1904)

Overlooking the village of Blidworth in Nottinghamshire stands the church of St. Mary of the Purification. Up until the reign of Richard III (1483-1485) the medieval church on this site, was known as the Chapel of St. Lawrence. It was at one time completely surrounded by Sherwood Forest and can trace its history right back to Saxon times and even the Druids. At Blidworth Dale, King John had a hunting seat and nearby is Queens Bower, the site of a Tudor encampment during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Blidworth and St. Mary’s church have many connections to the Robin Hood legend and near a hill on which the village stands is a cave, where the outlaws are said to have stored their food. One of the local traditions states that Will Scarlet knew every path through these parts of the forest and lies buried in an unmarked grave against the old church wall, after being killed by one of the sheriff’s men. Today, in the churchyard, under some old yew trees, an apex stone originally part of the collapsed fragments of the old medieval church tower, acts as a tombstone to Robin’s loyal henchman.

In Disney’s Story of Robin Hood (1952), it was Anthony Forwood who played Robin’s cousin Will Scarlet. The character never develops in the movie and remains merely a member of the ‘merrie’ men who helps rescue Scathelok and Stutely from Nottingham Square. But it is interesting to note that all three of these characters are probably variations of just one original shadowy member of Robin Hood’s medieval band of outlaws.

Robyn stode in Bernesdale,
And lenyd hym to a tre;
And bi hym stode Litell Johnn,
A gode yeman was he.

And also dyd good Scarlok,
And Much, the myller’s son;
There was non ynche of his bodi,
But it was worth a grome.

Will Scarlok, (Scalok, Scadlock, Scatheloke, Scathelok, Scarlet, Scarlett) is one of the most mysterious of all Robin’s men. His name, like Little John and Much the Millers Son, could be an alias and all three appear as early as stanza 4 in the Gest of Robyn Hode. He appears by the side of Robin Hood in most of the early ballads. In Robin Hoode his Death as Will Scarlett he advises his leader to take fifty of his best bowman to Church Lees, when Robin is ill and needs to be ‘let blood.’


But Robin is scornful and tells him that if he is afraid he should stay at home!

And thou be feard, thou William Scarlett
Att home I read thee bee:
And you be wrothe, my deare master,
You shall never heare more of mee.

It is as Will Scadlock that he informs Robin Hood of the ‘curtall frier’ in the ballad
The famous Battle between Robin Hood and the Curtall Fryer:

God blessing on thy heart, said Robin Hood,
That hath such a shot for me;
I would ride my horse a hundred miles,
To finde one could match thee.

That caused Will Scadlock to laugh,
He laught full heartily:
There lives a curtal friar in Fountains Abby
Wil beat both him and thee.

Will Scarlet’s background, like Robin and the rest of his band, is never explained, so it was left to the later ballad makers to construct a popular story around his origins for the new expanding printing presses. In Robin Hood and the Newly Revived Robin discovers a ‘
deft young man as ever walkt on the way’:

His doublet it was of silk, he said, His stockings like scarlet shone, And he walkt on along the way, To Robin Hood then unknown.

Robin watches the smartly dressed, young stranger shoot deer and is impressed with his skill:

Well shot, well shot,quoth Robin Hood then,

That shot it was shot in time;
And if thou wilt accept of the place,
Thou shalt be a bold yeoman of mine.

But the young man rudely tells Robin to go away and eventually a swordfight ensues.


The stranger he drew out a good broad sword,
And hit Robin on the crown,
That from every haire of bold Robins head
The blood ran trickling down.

God a mercy, good fellow! quoth Robin Hood then,

And for this thou hast done;
Tell me, good fellow, what thou art,
Tell me where thou doest woon.

The stranger then answered bold Robin Hood,

I’le tell thee where I did dwell;
In Maxfield was I bred and born,
My name is Young Gamwell.

Young Gamwell had killed his fathers steward and fled to the ‘English wood’ to seek his uncle, Robin Hood. After much rejoicing the two of them make their way back to Little John.

I met with a stranger, quoth Robin Hood then,

Full sore he hath beaten me:
Then I’le have a bout with him, quoth Little John,
And try if he can beat me.

Oh no, quoth Robin Hood then,

Little John, it may [not] be so;
For he’s my own dear sisters son,
And cousins I have no mo.

But he shall be a bold yeoman of mine,

My chief man next to thee;
And I Robin Hood, and thou Little John,
And Scarlet he shall be.

As themes were re-worked and adapted in the later tales, names became changed and new elements introduced. In this case it seems the character Gamwell, later to become Will Scarlet, has been re-moulded from Gamelyn an outlaw in the earliest surviving English outlaw ballad, the Tale of Gamelyn (c.1350). In turn the name Gamelyn possibly evolved from the servant Gandelyn, in the mysterious old English carol about the New Year Wren hunt, Robyn and Gandelyn.


A later variation of the story of Robin Hood finding his long lost cousin, can be found in The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood (c. 1846). By this time, when the stranger introduces himself, his name had transformed into Gamble Gold!

We come across Scadlock with Robin Hood and Little John in the unusual ballad Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon (c.1660) in which he helps free the city of London by slaying the Prince of Aragon and an infidel Turk, marries a princess and finds his long lost noble father. In the much earlier Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne it is as Scarlett that he is pursued by the sheriff’s men:

And Scarlett a ffote flying was,
Over stockes and stone,
For the sheriff with seven score men
Fast after him is gone.

The prolific Tudor playwright Anthony Munday (c.1553-1633) settled upon using both characters, a Scarlet and a Scathlock- the sons of Widow Scarlet- for his influential production The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington in (c.1600). A device also used by Howard Pyle in his classic Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), where we find a Will Scarlett and a
Will Scatheloke.

The character Will Stutely/Stutly appears in only two prominent later ballads, Robin Hood and Little John, where he Christens the giant stranger (a role played out by Will Scarlet in The Story of Robin Hood) and the other is the story of his freedom from the gallows in Robin Hood rescuing Will Stutly. On both occasions his name seems to be yet another derivation from Scathelok/Scarlet. The evidence of the evolution of this, was later found amongst the recently discovered ‘Forresters Manuscript,’ where the tale of this outlaws rescue from the hangman's noose is known as Robin Hood and Will Scathelok.

The anonymous compiler of the Sloane Manuscript (included on this blog under Robin Hood History) writing in about 1600 added to all this confusion with Scarlock included in a role later played out by Alan-a-Dale:

Scarlock, he induced, upon this occacion: one day meting him, as he walked solitary, and lyke to a man forlorne, because a mayd to whom he was affianced was taken from by the violence of her friends, and giuen to another that was auld and welthy.

The cross-over between Will Scarlet and Allan-a-Dale re-appears yet again in the Warner Brothers 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. Patric Knowles, dressed in red, plays a rather dandy Will Scarlet to Errol Flynn’s Robin and during the fight scene with Little John, thinks nothing of picking up his lute and strumming a merry tune.


So the malleable character of Will Scarlet continues to show his various faces down the centuries. In more modern times we have seen the flamboyant Patric Knowles version, to the dark, (scarlet inside) menacing, Ray Winstone portrayal in TV’s Robin of Sherwood 1984.

More recently Christian Slater, with his Californian twang, played Will Scarlet as a maladjusted teenager in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves 1991. Slater explains his character in the movie:

Several things were put into the script after I was cast. For instance, the fact that Robin Hood recently screwed up my life when I was younger. His father dated my mother and I was the result. I came forth into the world as Robin’s half-brother. There is one point in the film when I have to tell Robin the truth. So it adds an edge to the whole movie for me.

There is disagreement surrounding the historical meaning of the unusual name, Scatheloke. Jim Lees (Mr Robin Hood) in his book The Quest For Robin Hood explains that the nickname is derived from scathe– to burn or harm, and locke meaning hair. So from this we get red head! But Professor Stephen Knight interprets the name in a more dramatic fashion. He says that it is more likely to mean lock-smasher, a name very appropriate for a hunted outlaw.

Which brings us to any historical evidence for a real outlaw with that name. There have been a number of interesting, although rather vague discoveries. A Schakelock is recorded in Scotland in 1305 and in December 1316 a Schakelock is mentioned as a soldier in Berwick town garrison. In November, two years later a William Scarlet is listed amongst the pardons for felonies.

In the Wakefield Court Rolls in Yorkshire an Adam Schakelok is recorded on 10th April 1317 as holding land at Crigleston and in the Assize Rolls a person known as W. Shakelok/W. Scathelok is recorded between the years of 1372 and 1381.

But the most fascinating discovery is the William Shyreloke, a novice of St. Mary’s Abbey York (the very abbey at the heart of the epic poem, the Gest of Robyn Hode) mentioned between 1286-7. According to Abbey documents he was thrown out because of a crime imputed to him!


© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007

(To see all posts about Will Scarlet please click on the label marked Will Scarlet in the right-hand panel or below).

3 comments:

Clement of the Glen said...

Will Scarlet
Will Scarlet's Grave

Adele Treskillard said...

Clement of the Glen,

This is fascinating! I always suspected that Scathelocke's name might be pronounced "Sha-th-lock" but was never too sure. Because, in old Anglo-Saxon spelling, scop, scip etc were to be pronounced shop, ship etc. And I was further put on the trail by this short Scots rhyme:

Bonny Willie, pretty Willie, Bonny Willie Sha.

What'll all the lasses dae (do)
When Willie gangs awa'? (goes away)
Some'll leuch, (laugh), some'll greet (cry),
Sim'll dae naething at aa' (some'll do nothing at all)

Bonny Willie, pretty Willie, Bonny Willie SHA.

*Pretty is northern dialect for strong and good looking.

One other point: I seem to recall that -lok means man or being, that is, when it is used on the end of Scots words. Like, gloke/cloke- man. There's tons of examples. I don't know where the idea of burning comes from here; the closest I can think of in old dialect would be lowe, fire, lilly, very bright, but probably not -lok.

Anyhow, Will Gamwell/Sha used to be called Sweet Wilkin. Like:

Oh Robin lend to me thy bow/Sweet Robin lend to me thy bow/For I must now a hunting with my lady goe/With my sweet lady goe. Robin: And whither will thy lady goe/Sweet Wilkin tell it vnto me/And thou shalt haue my hawke, my hound, and eke my bow/to wait on thy Lady.

And another, from 'Jock'll be married':

And there will be Saundy (Little John) the suitor,
And Will wi' the meikle mou', (the muckle, amazing mouth) ...

Your reference to where Will Scarlett is possibly buried is interesting, espescially the legend of him knowing all the woods around there.

Smiles from Sherwood,

Adele : )

The Bearded Blogger said...

Will Scarlet (or Will Scathelock, or whatever name he goes by) has always been one of my favorite characters from the Robin Hood stories, perhaps equal to Robin himself. his many changes over the years, and the mysterious roles he plays in the stories give him a depth of character most of the other outlaws lack.