Albie recently sent this fascinating Nottinghamshire legend to me:
“Thought I’d relate a local 'legend' that came back to my attention recently. ...... As far as I am aware the tale has been known for many generations and dates back to medieval times at least. Some recent stories claim the king was Henry VIII but there is no record of him ever visiting Nottingham or Sherwood to hunt. The stories of it being Henry II go back much further; the story came back to me when someone said they had been to the King & Miller for a meal. It is one of those large 'diner' pubs. The story must go back to the 17th century at least but I've not found any details on exactly when it first appeared. The interesting thing is that the story mirrors some of the tales of Robin. The miller’s wife has also been associated with Maid Marion.
The play itself was written back in the 18th century, it was first performed on January 30th 1737 on Drury Lane. The author was a Mansfield man so he would have known all about the legend. I have attached a copy of the script which is preserved at the Bodleian Library I believe.
The legend also gave its name to the area now known as Kings Mill on the west side of Mansfield - this is also the location of the King & Miller pub in Sutton and is on the boundary between Mansfield and Sutton. The actual mill stood on the north east edge of Kings Mill reservoir which is used for leisure today. Kings Mill is known better these days for the large hospital that takes this name just across the road from the pub."
"Over 800 years ago King Henry II (father of kings Richard I and John) was out in Sherwood hunting with his nobles. As dusk approached the king became detached from the main party and soon became lost. Whilst he was looking for a path back to Nottingham he came across a miller named John Cockle. The king took some time to convince the miller he was not a gentleman robber and was a courtier. Eventually the miller took pity and invited the king back to his house. The miller said that the king would need to share his son's bed for the night and he would show him the way back to Nottingham the next morning. The miller's wife served a meal of venison pasties, hot-bag pudding and apple pie. The king had never tasted such food before and asked what meat was used in the pasties. After agreeing to keep the recipe a secret Henry was told that it was venison from the forest. Henry agreed to keep this a secret; the miller's family could be beheaded instantly for poaching the king's venison!
The family arose early the next morning and the miller prepared to show the king the way back to Nottingham. At this point a party of nobles arrived; they were in search for the missing Henry. They dismounted from their horses and knelt before the king. The awful truth suddenly dawned on the miller and his family. John Cockle bowed his head expecting the king to decapitate him on the spot. Instead the king touches the shoulders of the miller with his sword and knighted him as Sir John Cockle. Henry also granted the miller a rich living. The family were invited to court and were given an increase in their living to £300 a year on a promise they would never to steel deer in the future. Henry then appointed John Cockle as the Overseer to Sherwood Forest"
I'm not sure whether you will have heard this tale before but thought it might be of interest. The miller came from Mansfield and presumably the king would have been using the hunting lodge at Clipstone or Mansfield Woodhouse. The story varies somewhat between tellers but the basics are the same. And I think you will see a marked similarity from the legends of Robin Hood - could this have been a basis for some of the stories? Today, there are 3 pubs known as the King & Miller (Sutton-in-Ashfield, Sheffield and Retford) and an old inn of the same name was demolished in Mansfield town centre in 1959. There was also a play called 'The King & Miller of Mansfield' by Robert Dodsley which was performed at the Theatre royal in Drury Lane.”
Very special thanks to Albie for retelling this interesting story. This of course gripped my imagination and I attempted to dig a little deeper into this wonderful ancient legend:
HENRY, our royall king, would ride a hunting
To the greene forest so pleasant and faire;
To see the harts skipping, and dainty does tripping:
Unto merry Sherwood his nobles repaire:
Hawke and hound were unbound, all things prepar'd
For the game, in the same, with good regard.
All a long summers day rode the king pleasantlye,
With all his princes and nobles eche one;
Chasing the hart and hind, and the bucke gallantlye,
Till the dark evening forc'd all to turne home,
Then at last, riding fast, he had lost quite
All his lords in the wood, late in the night.
Wandering thus wearilye, all alone, up and downe,
With a rude miller he mett at the last:
Asking the ready way unto faire Nottingham;
"Sir," quoth the miller, "I meane not to jest,
Yet I thinke, what I thinke, sooth for to say,
You doe not lightlye ride out of your way."
The excerpt above is taken from a 17th century manuscript in the ‘Percy Reliques Collection entitled A pleasant Ballad of King Henry II and the Miller of Mansfield. There is an entry in the Stationers Registers to a ballad of ‘Miller & King’ dated December 14th 1624. Another is recorded on June 30th 1625. This popular broadside ballad survives in many various collections.
Henry VIII and the Miller of Dee
Down the centuries ‘king and subject’ has been a favorite theme with ballad-makers to represent the monarch conversing, either by accident or design with his humblest villager or tradesman. Besides the King and the Miller, we have many others that have survived, including John the Reeve, King Henry and the Soldier, A Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd, King James I and the Tinker, King William III and the Forester etc. Of the latter sort, are King Alfred and the Shepherd, King Edward IV and the Tanner, and King Henry VIII and the Cobbler. We could of course add to this ‘The King’s Disguise and Friendship with Robin Hood,’ which is possibly derived from the ‘Geste of Robyn Hood.’
The theme remained a popular one in the broadside press. The Stationers' Registers record fourteen king-commoner ballads between the years of 1578 and 1690; seven are extant. In some cases the later broadside ballads are clearly versions of the earlier poems, demonstrating the continuing popularity of these tales. New or original ballads on this old theme were also composed throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
By the sixteenth century this popular motif of an accidental encounter between monarch and commoner was transferred to the stage in the so-called ‘comic histories.’ Shakespeare went on to use this popular theme in three of his plays, Henry IV, Henry V, and As You Like It.
Theophilus Cibber (1703-1758) first produced Robert Dodsley’s satire on the court of King Henry II, The King and the Miller of Mansfield, at Drury Lane on 30 January 1737. The play was a great theatrical success, attracting thirty-seven performances in its first season alone, before going on to become one of the eighteenth century’s most frequently performed pieces of theatre. In this short, six-scene play, Dodsley transposes the court from London to his native Sherwood Forest, where a King, named “Harry”, and his courtiers lose contact with each other while out hunting. The king, wandering alone, meets one of his keepers, a miller called John Cockle, in the forest. Challenged by the miller, who does not know whom he is addressing, the king declares himself to be one, who has “the Honour to belong to the King as well as you and, perhaps, should be unwilling to see any wrong done him.” He tells the miller he came hunting with the king and “has lost his way.” The miller offers “such poor entertainment as a miller can give” for the night.
The sequel, Sir John Cockle at Court, a farce, appeared in 1738.
Mansfield is said to have derived its name from the little stream called the Maun, which runs gently through it. A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848) describes the particular area on the border between Mansfield and Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshie, ‘on the North East edge of Kings Mill reservoir stood The King's Mill'. It is said that in the days of King Henry II, this mill was occupied by John Cockle, who resided here with his wife, son and daughter Margery.
I have not managed to discover how and when Robert Dodsley (1703-1764) drew his inspiration for his play ‘The King & the Miller of Mansfield.’ But he undoubtedly heard the legend as he grew up in Nottinghamshire. He was born at Ratcliffe Gate, Mansfield in 1703 to parents who were certainly dissenters and probably Presbyterian. Since his father taught at the Mansfield Free School Robert received a good education.
Robert was apprenticed to a stocking weaver from where he ran away to London into domestic service as a footman. There he wrote collections of poems and plays gaining a considerable literary reputation by which he became a wealthy man. By 1735 he had used his wealth and influence to establish himself as the foremost publisher and bookseller of the day noted for suggesting and co-financing the first Dictionary of the English Language. He also campaigned for the freedom of the press even spending a short time in prison for some of his controversial publishing's.
His play ‘The King & the Miller of Mansfield’ was later performed all over the world and in 1762 a French composer used the story for an opera.