Little John

‘Robyn stode in Bernesdale
And lenyed hym to a tre,
And bi hym stode Litell Johnn,
A gode yeman was he.’

This is from the opening stanza of the ‘Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1400) and Little John appears as Robin’s right-hand man and faithful companion in all the very earliest surviving ballads. A play called ‘Robin Hood and Little John’, was registered in 1594 but sadly has not survived. Very little else is known about him. In the later tradition he is portrayed as a giant of a man, (in the broadside ballad of about 1650 he is described as being ‘seven foot high’) but there are no clues in the stories to his true identity. It is not even sure if the name ‘Little John’ was an alias.

During the 1620’s the Antiquarian Roger Dodsworth (1585-1624) mentioned the local tradition that a Little John was buried in the Peak District, at Hathersage in Derbyshire.

The modern gravestones replace what Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) had seen when writing in the late seventeenth century:

“The famous Little John lyes buried in Hathersage Church yard within 3 miles fro Castleton, in High Peake, with one Stone set up at his head, and another at his Feete, but a large distance betweene them. They say a part of his bow hangs in the said Church. Neere Grindleford Bridge are Robin Hood 2 pricks."

The bow was recorded as being made of spliced yew, 79in long (about 2 meters), tipped with horn, weighing 21lb and requiring a pull of 160ilbs to draw it. The bow and a cuirass of chainmail both said to have belonged to Little John were hung in Hathersage church chancel for many years, until they were removed by a William Spencer in 1729 and taken to Canon Hall near Barnsley in Yorkshire for better security. The cuirass was later lost!

In about 1950 a Mr. H. C. Haldane was photographed holding ‘Little John’s Bow’ outside Canon Hall in Barnsley. By this time the horn tips were missing and the ends were broken off. Engraved on the bow grip is the name of a Colonel Naylor, who shot an arrow from it at Cannon Hall in 1715.
Originally 'Little Johm’s Grave’ had been marked by a head and foot stone, both marked with the initials ‘I.L.’ as described by E. Hargrave in his ‘Anecdotes of Archery’ in 1792.

The grave was excavated by a Captain James Shuttleworth (d.1826) in 1784 and it is reported that he discovered a thigh bone of ‘twenty eight and a half inches long’ (71.25cm). This would make the person in the grave originally about eight feet tall!

A local story says: ‘James Shuttleworth took the bone to Cannon Hall to show his cousin. The two men then exhibited to an old huntsman who shook his head and told them that, ‘no good will come to either of ye, so long as ye keep dead men’s bones above ground.’ The huntsman was called Hinchcliffe who measured the bone and said the exact length was 28 1/2 inches.

James Shuttleworth took the bone back to Hathersage and hung it above his bed. After a series of accidents a nurse told him the same as the old huntsman, that he would never have luck as long as he kept dead men's bones out of their graves. So James sent the bone back to the Sexton with an order to put it back into the grave. But instead he displayed it in his window and charged sixpence for viewing. But one day a William Strickland, passing through Hathersage carried off the bone, on the pre-text of showing a friend, much to the dismay of the Sexton. He returned it to Canon Hall and buried it under a tree, it was lost forever.’

In 1847 the antiquary, Dr Spencer Hall, visited the last occupant of ‘Little John’s Cottage’ at Hathersage, Jenny Shard. She could recall the enormous thigh bone being brought into the cottage and being measured on her fathers tailoring board. Her father, she said, told her that Little John had died in that cottage and that he could trace it back as being Little John’s for ‘two hundred years’. Although Elias Ashmole only records a grave and a bow belonging to Little John at Hathersage. But the tradition remained prevalent and in 1876 a Dr Charles Cox , in his churches of Derbyshire wrote:

On the whole the evidence warrants us in assuming that a portion of the weapons and accoutrements peculiar to a forester were hung up in a church, that the said forester (both from the bow and the grave) was of exceptional stature, that both weapons and grave were popularly assigned to Little John more than 200 years ago, and that the said weapons must have belonged to a man of extraordinary fame or they would not have found such a resting place. This being the case, the opponents of the accuracy of the tradition seem to have far more difficulties with which to contend than those who accept it.’

In 1929 the ‘Ancient Order of Foresters’ repaired Little John’s traditional grave at Hathersage with two new stones, one at the head the other at the foot, 13 ft. 4ins apart. On the headstone it reads:
‘Here lies Little John the friend and lieutenant of Robin Hood.’

Scotland and Ireland also have traditions connected to Little John’s final days. In ‘Life in Old Dublin’ by James Collins, printed in 1913 we have : ‘poor Little John’s great practical skill in archery could not save him from an ignominious fate; as it appears from the records of the Southwell family he was publicly executed for robbery on Arbour Hill.'
Earlier in 1908 Reverend Cosgrave wrote:

‘To the west of this very old road lies Arbour Hill, famous for its memories of Robin Hood’s gigantic lieutenant humoursly called Little John’.

But Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618) relates in ‘Holinshed’s Chronicle’ (1577) that Little John stayed a few days in Dublin after Robin Hood’s death then fled to Scotland. The chronicler Hector Boece concurs with:

'In Murray land,' says Hector Boece, 'is the Kirke of Pette, quhare the bones of Litell Johne remainis in gret admiration of pepill. He hes bene fourtene feet of hicht, with squaire membres effering thairto. Six yeirs afore the coming of this work to licht (1520) we saw his henche bane, as meikle as the haill banes of ane manne; for we schot our arme into the mouthe thairof; be quhilk appeirs how strang and squaire pepill greu in oure regeoun afore thay were effeminat with lust and intemperance of mouthe.'

The information gleaned from all these accounts seem mercurial.

In one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1400) the Sheriff, impressed with Little John’s archery, asks him his name and where he was born, Little John replies

In Holderness, sir I was borne,
I wys al of my dame;
Men cal me Reynolde Grenelef
Whan I am at home.’

Holderness is an area around Beverley near Hull. Between 1318 and 1330 Sir Henry de Faucumberg like many of the Sheriff’s of the time, had been very unpopular and had many complaints of extortion and false imprisonment levied against him. Faucumberg was born in Holderness and is one of only two men to have been both Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and Sheriff of Yorkshire between 1250-1350.

In May 1323 the Archbishop of York, William de Melton describes a gang, including a ‘Little John’, that had stolen deer from his park in Beverley. Five years earlier a house owned by a Simon of Wakefield was broken into by ‘John le Litel’ and £138 was stolen. Could these two ‘Little John’s’ be one and the same person and be the original Little John?

Or could the legend have started around the life of John Petit (Little), King’s Mariner recorded between 1322-1325, who eventually found himself locked up in the Tower Of London?

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007

James Robertson Justice

With his booming laugh, full blonde beard, giant carcass and cavernous chest, James Robertson Justice was a perfect Little John. He was a natural extrovert with great energy and a treble ration of humour. ‘Jimmie’ was one of British cinemas most recognised screen personalities. Some references incorrectly give his birthplace as Scotland, but in fact, although a proud Scot ( he enjoyed practising his bagpipes) James Norval Harold Justice was born at 39 Baring Road, Lee, South London on 15th June 1907 to a distinguished Scottish legal family.

His father wanted him to work in the Foreign Service. He was educated at Marlborough College (he hated it) and also attended Bonn University in Germany for three years and came back speaking the language perfectly. (Later he could speak eight languages). He loved athletics, dancing, politics and gained two medical degrees. His love of sport led him to becoming a net minder for the London Lions in the British Ice Hockey Association. Working as a journalist for Reuters he then emigrated to Canada to teach, before joining the International Brigade in a spell of fighting against General Franco (where he grew his beard) in the Spanish Civil War.

Justice joined up at the outbreak of World War II and served in the Royal Navy reaching the rank of officer, but after being invalided out the service in 1943 his performing talents became noticed by director Harry Watt, who gave him some small parts in films at Ealing. A year later he made his first film, ‘Fiddlers Three’ a comedy about time-travellers in Rome. He played the part of a centurion.

One of his earliest films was his only ‘clean-shaven’ performance as Petty Officer Oats, alongside John Mills in ‘Scott of the Antarctic.’ But it had been Peter Ustinov, as a young film director, that had helped this unknown actor (with very little training) gain a two year Rank contract by casting him in the role of ‘thrash happy’ Dr Grimstone, alongside Anthony Newly in ‘Vice Versa’. He was later to play one of his best loved roles as the doctor in the Ealing Comedy ‘Whisky Galore’, where according to the script he had input in the dialogue and
casting locations.

This larger than life, snuff taking, charismatic character, soon began to appear in a steady flow of films as a major supporting player, with many roles set in historical times:

The Black Rose (1950)
David and Bathsheba (1951)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)
Les Miserables (1952)
The Story of Robin Hood (1952)
Rob Roy (1953)
The Sword and the Rose (1953)
Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Moby Dick (1956)

Ken Annakin recalled working with James Robertson Justice during the making of ‘The Story of Robin Hood’ . Justice he said could, with careful direction always be relied upon to ‘add verisimilitude’ (as he used to say) to any larger than life character. For three weeks he and Richard Todd rehearsed the famous quarter-staff fight scene on a wooden bridge built over the studio tank at Denham Studios. They rehearsed with Rupert Evans the most expert sword master and ‘period’ fight arranger in England at the time.
After a lot of lively exchanges of blows, Richard Todd was knocked into the water as scripted and Justice jumped in after him. Without a break they continued to parry and thrust, as choreographed, until Richard trod on a nail which penetrated his thin deer skin boot.

“Shit!” he yelled, and losing his balance, swiped James a mighty blow across the head.
Justice cried out “Foul, not fair!” and disappeared under the water only to reappear, spluttering “varlet!” still in character. “Have you no respect for the pate of a philosopher! If you’ve damaged the old brain box, Edinburgh University is going to lose its most distinguished Rector!”
It was true, Justice had just received a phone call in his dressing room, offering him the honour-something unheard of in the acting profession.

Ken Annakin made a number of films with James Robertson Justice and often looked forward to lunchtime breaks from filming, when the big man would tell stories of his exploits. Including the time he fled Arabia on a camel after penetrating a sheik’s harem and dropping his rifle in front of Hitler when the Germans marched into the Rhine.

It was during the 1950 General Election that he unsuccessfully fought a constituency for the Labour Party and became co-founder of the Severn Wildfowl Trust, ( now known as The National Birds Of Prey Centre) with his close friend Peter Scott, only son of Arctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott.

With the money earned from his movie success, Justice bought ‘The Bungalow’ on the Dornoch Firth, on the east coast of Scotland. Here he could enjoy his passion for nature, fly fishing, ornithology, hunting and particularly the ancient art of falconry. ‘Jimmie’ kept a live falcon in his dressing room at Pinewood!

He later taught ‘plants, beasts and royal falconry’ to a young Prince Charles.

Back home after his successful stint in Hollywood , Justice was to play a role that he will be forever remembered, the bombastic surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt. It was said that he basically played himself! The film, ‘Doctor in the House’, broke all box office records for a British film and made Dirk Bogarde a top Rank Organisation star in 1954. Five more 'Doctor’ films followed over the next sixteen years.

This type cast Justice and all his later roles would be in the ‘mould’ of Sir Lancelot, such as the character Lord Scrumptious in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’.

As the British film industry started to fade in the 1970’s, so did Justice’s health. After a series of strokes he died on 2nd July 1975 at King’s Somborne in Hampshire. He was bankrupt. A very sad end to a wonderfully, multi talented man. His ashes were interred at the ‘Bungalow’ in Spinningdale, at Dornoch Firth, in Scotland. But he left behind a legacy of over 85 movies.

A memorial service for him was later held at Winchester Cathedral.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

© Clement of the Glen

18. John Little Changes His Name

John Little stuck out his huge hand.
“I am your man,” he said.
“What say you lads,” winked Will Scarlet, “shall we christen our infant?”
After a short struggle, Robin’s men over powered the huge man and they carried him, kicking and struggling to the edge of the stream and threw him in. As he scrambled out Will Scarlet tapped him gently on the shoulder.
“John Little, I dub thee Little John.”
Will Scarlet,” said Robin, “you Christen like a true son of the Church.” His face then clouded over. “Would we had some man in holy orders to care for our souls and tend our wounds.”
“I know one,” said Little John grinning.
“He is a holy hermit who lives near Alford Abbey. But he’d sooner break heads than mend them, his name is Friar Tuck.”

Quarter- Staff

In the Disney live-action film and many other versions of the legend, Robin Hood engages with Little John in a quarter-staff fight on a narrow bridge (or a log) over a river. It is doubtful whether the tale about this duel is of medieval origin as the earliest evidence suggests the story was composed by a professional ballad writer and entered in the Stationers’ Registers as ‘Robin Hood and Little John’ on 29 June 1624.
In stanza 12 and 13 from the ballad we have:

Then Robin Hood stept to a thicket of trees,
And chose him a staff of ground oak;
Now this being done, away he did run
To the stranger, and merrily spoke:

Lo! See my staff is lusty and tough,
Now here on this bridge we will play;
Whoever falls in, the other shall win
The battle, and so we’ll away.

The popular old English quarter staff can trace its history right back to the very early martial arts of Asia and many other ancient cultures around the world. Simple to manufacture, the stout pole was usually between five and eight feet in length (sometimes with weighted tips, metal spikes or caps on the ends) and proved to be a popular weapon in the combat sports and summer games held during the early Middle Ages and again in Tudor times. It was an effective weapon due to its ease of use and long reach.

Dr Johnson (1709-1784) described the quarter staff thus:
“A staff of defence, so called, I believe, from the manner of using it; one hand being placed in the middle, and the other equally between the end and the middle.”

The sport was a favourite in country districts and was also taught in the schools of defence which existed in many towns. Made from various woods, including Oak, Ash, Hawthorn, Maple and later Bamboo, the art of wielding them needed a good deal of strength, dexterity and skill and also good coordination between eye, body and hand. When attacking, the latter hand shifted from one quarter of the staff to the other, giving the weapon a rapid circular motion, which brought the ends to bear on the adversary at unexpected points. Sometimes it was thrust like a spear or used in the form of a club.

In stanzas 17 and 18 from the ballad ‘Robin Hood and Little John’ we have:

The stranger gave Robin a crack on the crown,
Which caused the blood to appear;
Then Robin, enrag’d, more fiercely engag’d,
And follow’d his blows more severe.

So thick and so fast did he lay it on him,
With a passionate fury and ire,
At every stroke, he made him to smoke,
As if he had been all on fire.

Because of its use as a ‘less than lethal weapon’ in sporting pastimes, may have given rise to the common term, ‘giving quarter’.

© Clement of the Glen

17: The Fight On The Bridge

The fight was fast and furious, they struck and parried, then Robin got the first scoring blow catching the stranger in the ribs.
“Well done lad,” he said, “I’ll pay you back if I can.”
He attacked with a flurry of blows, but then the giant slowed down as if beginning to tire. Robin’s eyes gleamed and he moved in closer. But he had been tricked and like lightning the strangers staff caught Robin across his head and he toppled over backwards into the stream.
Robin bobbled up quickly to the surface, shaking off the water. The big stranger held out his staff and pulled Robin to the bank.

“Beat me with bowstrings,” spluttered Robin, If I ever dispute any bridges with you. You’ve cracked my head, soaked my hide and drowned my hunting horn.”
Pretending to blow it clear, he put the horn to his lips and managed to blow three loud blasts.

“I like a lad who can take his ducking,” said the giant.
“How are you known?” Asked Robin.
“I’m known as John Little,” replied the stranger, “I seek a proscribed and banished man called Robin Hood.”
“To what end?” Asked Robin suspiciously.
“To join him,” was the answer, “and I care not who knows it.”
“He’s not far off.” Answered Robin, wringing the water out of his clothes. Suddenly a band of men in Lincoln Green came over the hill. John Little gripped his quarter-staff tightly.

“How now, good Master Robin?” Asked Will Scarlet.
“Be you Robin Hood?” He asked in amazement.
“I be,” Robin replied.
“Would you be of a mind to join us?” Asked Will Scarlet, “you will eat fresh meat everyday, sleep soft and have money in your poke.”

16: The Giant Stranger

Robin went bounding off down the other side of the bamk and vanished through the trees. At the foot of the hill there ran a broad stream and on the other side appeared the reason for the signal arrow. A very tall, broad man with a quarter-staff was about to step onto a tiny footbridge.

Robin stalked him cautiously, then stepped forward.

“Stand aside fellow!” Called out Robin, “let the better man pass.”
“Then you stand aside!” Growled the stranger.
“Were you as tall as your pride Goliath,” said Robin, “this would bring you down.”
In a flash Robin fitted an arrow to his bow.
“An arrow against a staff is not a man’s game,” remarked the giant.
Robin lowered his bow. “My faith, no man put the coward’s name on me. Will you wait while I cut a cudgel?”
“Aye!” He chuckled as Robin lopped off a sapling of Ash with his sword.
“Come on little David,” said the stranger.
“You know how that bout ended,” said Robin as he raised his staff.

Patrick Barr

Patrick Barr, like Archie Duncan, transferred over from starring in Disney’s film version, The Story of Robin Hood in 1952 to television’s Adventures of Robin Hood in 1956. As we shall see, Disney’s Story and the much loved Adventures of Robin Hood have many connections. In this case, Patrick resurrected the role of King Richard the Lionhearted, in two episodes of the classic series.

Patrick (or Pat, as he was sometimes called) was born in Akola, India on 13th February 1908 and had his first brush with the legendry outlaw when he first appeared on the silver screen in 1932 as a torturer in the black and white short, The Merry Men of Sherwood.

During the 1930’s Patrick was very often cast as dependable, trustworthy characters and after six years of military service during WWII he continued to bring those qualities to his roles in a very long career in film and television. His early notable movies included The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940), The Blue Lagoon (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952).

In 1950 Patrick had appeared as the Earl of Northumberland in a television production of Richard II and it was in this medium that his popularity was mainly to grow, although he did continue to perform in some celebrated films. He appeared once again alongside Richard Todd in the classic war film, The Dambusters (1955), Saint Joan (1957), Next To Time (1960), The Longest Day (1962), Billy Liar (1963) The First Great Train Robbery (1979) and Octopussy in (1983).

His later television appearances included four episodes of Dr Who, three performances as Lord Boyne in The Secret of Boyne Castle for the Wonderful World of Disney in 1969 and three episodes of Telford’s Change in 1979.
Pat died aged 77 in London on 29th August 1985.

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007