Robin Hood's Death at Kirklees

In about 1138 Robert Le Fleming, Lord of the Manor of Wath and Clifton founded the Cistercian Nunnery of Kirklees (near Brighouse, West Yorkshire), within the western end of Wakefield Manor. It was a very small house; the church itself was only c.80 ft long, consisting of a nave and a chancel of about the same width, without aisles or transepts. It was said that Kirklees possessed a Holy Relic, a ‘Singalum’ reputed to be the girdle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the Dissolution, Kirlees contained only seven nuns.

It was in this small nunnery, 20 miles from Barnsdale, that Robin Hood is said to have been murdered. In the Geste of Robyn Hode (C.1450), Feeling ill, Robin Hood visits Kirklees to be let blood by his relative, the Prioress.

Syr Roger of Donkestere,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe.

Cryst have mercy on his soule,
That dyed on the rode !
For he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god.

Very little documentation survives of the early days of the nunnery, but in 1306 Archbishop Greenfield wrote to the house bidding them to take back Alice Raggid, who several times had been led astray by the temptations of the flesh, she, “deceived by the allurement of frail flesh, in great levity of mind hath gone forth from her house and hath wandered in great peril having long ago put off her religious habit.’

Professor John Bellamy discovered in 1985 that a Roger de Doncaster had been a chaplain in that area and was sent in 1306 by the Archbishop of York to be a priest of Ruddington church near Nottingham. It is about this time that we start to have evidence of the names of the Prioresses of Kirklees. About 1306 Margaret de Clayton was confirmed and from 1307-50 Alice de Scriven remained Prioress.

In 1315 the Archbishop of York wrote to the Prioress saying that public rumour had reached his ears, “that there are scandalous reports in circulation about the nuns at Kirlees and especially about Elizabeth de Hopton, Alice le Raggede and Joan de Heton, and that they admit both clergy and laymen too often into secret places of the monastery and have private talks with them, from which there is suspicion of sin, and great scandal arises; he commands the prioress to admonish the nuns and especially those above named that they are to admit no one, whether religious or secular, clerk or laymen, unless in a public place and in the presence of the Prioress or Sub Prioress or any two other of the ladies. He specially warns a certain Joan de Wakefield to give up the private room, where she persists in inhabiting by herself. He refers also to the fact that these and other nuns were disobedient to the Prioress, ‘like rebels refusing to accept her discipline and punishment.’’’

Joan de Heton was later convicted of incontinence with a Richard de Lathe and Sir Michael ‘called the Scot’ a priest. Alice le Raggede was also convicted of incontinence with a William de Heton of Mirthfield. Later in 1337 a letter from the Archbishop of York to the Prioress states that Margaret de Burton, a nun had sinned and would only be allowed to return to the priory if she would prostrate herself before the gates and undergo the prescribed penance.

At the Dissolution in 1539 Joan Kyppes (Kypac) the last prioress of Kirklees surrendered the nunnery at the value of £29.8s. 6d. Three years later the King’s Antiquary John Leland (1506-52) spent six years on a tour of England collecting material and visited Kirklees describing it thus :

‘Monastrium monialium ubi Ro. Hood nobillis ille exlex sepultus.’

'The monastery where the famous noble outlaw Robin Hood is buried.'

In 1565 the Armytage family took up residence in the Mansion House at Kirklees built from the stones of the plundered Nunnery and a local public house, nearby is named after three of the evicted nuns. The only remaining relic of Kirklees Nunnery is the Oat House, which was re-built on the original site in late medieval times. Although listed, it is in a derelict condition but has interesting ornamental foliated work carved into the beams, including a hound and stag.

The room in which Robin Hood is said to have died

It is in the upper room, which is reached by an outside staircase, where Robin Hood is thought to have breathed his last. Unfortunately the site of Robin’s grave is about 650 yards away, almost twice the longbow range of a skilled archer!
In the very damaged ballad ‘Robin Hoode his Death’ (which was rescued from being thrown on a fire by Thomas Percy) dated from about the mid seventeenth century, we can see more details of the mysterious death of the famous outlaw, which must have been known to the compiler of the ‘Geste’.

The ballad begins:

‘I will never eate nor drinke,’ Robin Hood said,
‘Nor meate will doo me noe good,
Till I have beene att merry Church Lees,
My vaines for to let blood.’

Eileen Power in her book ‘Medieval Nunneries’ notes that in all the ballad and folk song literature of England and Scotland this ballad has remarkably, the only reference to a nun!

Upon reaching Church Lees, (Kirklees) Robin gives the Prioress twenty pounds in gold and promises her more if she needs it.

And downe then came dame prioresse,
Downe she came in that ilke,
With a pair off blood irons [lancing knives] in her hands
Were wrapped all in silke.

‘Sett a chaffing-dish to the fyer,’ said dame prioresse,
‘And strpp thou up thy sleeve:’
I hold him but an unwise man
That wil noe warning leeve [believe].’

Shee laid the blood irons to Robin Hoods vaine,
Alacke, the more pitye!
And pearct the vaine, and let out the bloode,
That full red was to see.

And first it bled, the thicke, thicke bloode,
And afterwards the thinne,
And well then wist good Robin Hoode
Treason there was within.

The manuscript is badly damaged, but after a fight with ‘Red Roger’ Robin tries to escape from Kirklees, through a ‘shot window.’ Little John asks Robin’s permission to burn the nunnery to the ground but:

‘That I reade not,’ said Robin Hoode then,
'Litle John, for it may not be;
If I shold doe any widow hurt, at my latter end,
God,’ he said, ‘wold blame me;

‘But take me upon thy backe, Litle John,
And beare me to yonder streete,
And there make me a full fayre grave,
Of gravell and of greete [grit].

‘And sett my bright sword at my head,
Mine arrows at my feete,
And lay my vew-bow [yew-bow] by my side,
My met-yard [measuring rod] wi ………………………

(Half a page is missing)

Richard Grafton (1511-1572), King’s Printer to Edward VI wrote in his chronicle that, ‘the sayd Robert Hood, being afterwards troubled with siknesse came to a certain nunry in Yorkshire called Birklies [Kirklees] where desyryng to be let blood, he was betrayed and bled to death..........The prioress of the same place caused him to be buried by the highway side, where he had used to rob and spoyle those that paused that way. And Upon his grave the sayd prioress did lay a very fayre stone, where in the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldsborough and others were graven. And the cause why she buried him there was, for that the common passengers and travailers, knowing and seeing him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their journeys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlawes. And at either ende of the sayd tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seene at theis present.’

I will include more details of Robin’s tomb in a later post, but in 1706 the gravestone of a prioress of Kirklees was discovered. On the gravestone was carved the figure of a cross of Calvary and around the margin the following inscription in Norman-French in Lombardic letters:


'Sweet Jesus of Nazareth Son of God, take mercy on Elizabeth Stainton, Prioress of this house.'

Unfortunately there was no date on the stone. It lies about eighteen yards from the east end of the priory church. As it is the only grave discovered other than the traditional site of Robin’s, it probably led to the belief that she was the prioress who bled the outlaw to death.

From the style of the grave cross and its monastic lettering it has been dated to the fourteenth century and it is believed that Elizabeth was one of four daughters of a John de Staynton who lived at Woolley, near Wakefield in Yorkshire.

In about 1631, probably the greatest ballad-monger, Mathew Parker (c.1600-56) produced ‘The True Tale of Robin Hood.’ It was entered to Francis Grove at Stationers Hall on the 29th February 1632. Parker included at the end of the ballad:

‘the epitaph which the said Prioress of the monastery of Kirkes Lay in Yorkshire set over Robbin Hood, which, as is before mentioned, was to bee reade within these hundred years, though in old broken English, much to the same sence and meaning:

Decembris quarto die 1198 anno regni Richardi Primi 9
Robert Earle of Huntington
Lies under this stone
No archer was like him so good:
His wildnesse named him Robbin Hood
Full thirteen years, and something more,
These northerne parts he vexed sore
Such outlawes as he and his men
May England never know again.'

I will continue on the subject of Robin Hood’s Grave Stone very soon.


Clement of the Glen said...

"Robin Hood's Death at Kirklees"


Robin Hood Places
Robin Hood Ballads

Azul said...

El 4 de diciembre :(

Avalon said...

Cool bunch of info.

It is interesting when one compares fact to ballad (oral history). It never ceases to amaze me when one states a theory with fact, another can dispute his fact with a completely different theory with their own fact.
Sadly, we will never find the truth.

Have you ever noticed that many of the Great Outlaws, like Robin Hood and Jesse James, were said to have suffered death at the hands of a relative or close friend? I wonder sometimes if it is because we, their fans, just cannot bear to believe the enemy could actually overcome the hero? I would (and probably truly do) believe that Robin was in his nineties and someone (like the Prioress) weak and someone that Robin trusted, crept into his trust and caused his death. But like King Arthur etc, he makes one last stand but doesn't allow Little John to punish her, then dies a noble death. Ok....I am a silly-hearted dreamer.

Looking forward to your future posts on the subject.

Clement of the Glen said...

You are right Avalon; it has often been the stock tradition to have the hero finally betrayed by his own kith or kin. Even the legend of Robin’s last arrow seems to have been borrowed from ancient mythology.

But what stands out for me is why the minstrels chose the tiny nunnery Kirklees, as the place of his demise. Could there be a grain of truth in that?

paulalofting said...

When they are referring to incontinence, do they mean adultery? Great stuff by the way clement!

Anonymous said...

It was not Elizabeth de Stainton it was Dame Mary Startin--see the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society

Anonymous said...