In the recent BBC Robin Hood series created by Dominic Minghella and Foz Allan, one of the best loved and enigmatic characters was that of Sir Guy of Gisborne played by Richard Armitage. Like Basil Rathbone before him, in the classic Hollywood blockbuster The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Armitage played the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s evil henchman who secretly is in love with Maid Marian. Thus an intriguing love triangle is formed between him, the beautiful Marian, and the outlaw Robin Hood. In his leather clad outfit, Armitage’s portrayal of the dark, complex and mysterious knight was in my opinion one of the best I have seen. But the BBC series didn’t stop with just Sir Guy though, and even introduced his sister!
Another hugely popular interpretation of Guy of Gisborne was accomplished by the late Robert Addie, in an earlier TV series of the 1980’s, ‘Robin of Sherwood’. Like Rathbone before him, Addie was an accomplished swordsman but also a competitive archer and a very experienced horseman.
There may have originally been independent medieval tales of Sir Guy in circulation, and elements of his death may contain links to pre-Christian tradition. In the archaic and very violent ballad ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,’ (c.1475) he wears ‘capull hyde, top and tayle and mayne.’ This appears to be a complete horse’s skin and indicate a symbolic link to an ancient Germanic horse deity or ‘man-animal’.
In this surviving medieval ballad, Guy of Gisborne is a bounty hunter who attempts to capture Robin. But the outlaw foils the attempt and kills him brutally, by beheading him, sticking his head on the end of his bow, disfiguring his face and gouging out his eyes!
We are of course at the mercy of what has survived down the centuries. The Scottish poet, William Dunbar (1460?-1520?) wrote in his 'Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins' in 1508:
'Was never weild Robeine under beache,
So bauld a bairne as he;
Gy of Gisburne, na Allane Bell,
Off thocht war nevir so slie.'
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
A fragment of a genuine medieval Robin Hood play is written on the upper half of a half sheet of paper (8’’x10’’) containing household accounts from East Anglia dated May 1475-August 1475 and is kept at Trinity College, Cambridge. This verse play of twenty-one lines is possibly founded on the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,’ unfortunately the villain is not mentioned by name.
But where is Gisborne, and who was Sir Guy?
Professor J. C. Holt in his groundbreaking book ‘Robin Hood’ (Thames & Hudson Second Addition 1988) agrees with the great ballad collector Francis J. Child, and suggests ‘the villain takes his name from a village known as Gisburn (Gisburne), ten miles from Wyresdale, to the east of Bowland Forest.’ This is seven miles from Cltheroe on the borders of Lancashire, which seems far removed from other sites associated to the legend.
But many years ago I stayed in York, quite near St. Mary's Abbey. It was while I was there that I bought a book on the many once magnificent Yorkshire Abbeys and discovered that the town and priory of Guisborough was once known as Gisborne!
Robert de Bruce (d.1141) a Yorkshire baron founded the priory in 1129 for canons of the order of St. Austin on the south slopes of the North York Moors and dedicated it to St. Mary. All through its history the Bruce’s and their dependants were strong and generous supporters of the priory and many family descendants were buried there, including another Robert de Bruce, (1210-1295) the 5th Lord of Annandale, known as the ‘Competitor’ who by 1300 was claiming the crown of Scotland. Robert was son of Robert Bruce, 4th Lord of Annandale and Isobel of Huntingdon. It was his grandson, also known as Robert de Bruce (1274 –1329), who did become King of Scotland, and was the legendary victor at Banockburn.
The connections between Robin Hood and the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce are numerous and the Bruce family held the Earldom of Huntingdon for a long period.
Sadly, in the reign of Edward I (1289), the monastery was accidentally destroyed by fire, when all the books, relics, and goods were burnt.
The attractive market town itself may possibly have been built on an old Roman settlement, as many remains have been found in the area. The Domesday Book mentions three manors and a church in ‘Ghigesburg,’ and although Saint Nicholas Anglican Church has the de Brus cenotaph, today it contains nothing older than 1500.
In the year 1195, the town is known as 'Giselburn', indicating the name’s original meaning, 'rushing brook', from the words 'gisel burna', the town being sited on such a stream. Robert de Bruce’s brother William became the first prior and the name Gisborne appears to have been used sometimes as an alternative for Guisborough.
The first recorded spelling of the surname is shown to be that of Walter de Gisburn (also known as Walter Hemingford/Hemingburgh an Austin canon (c1280 – 1350). In 1302, he was sent with two other monks by his prior to confer with the Archbishop of York as to some disorders that existed at Gisburn.
Walter wrote the history of the Priory of St Mary's, Gisburn, during the reign of King Edward III. In most manuscripts of his chronicle he is described as Walter de Gisburn he was certainly at Gisburn in 1297 (Chron. ii. 130, 131), and was sub prior in 1302.
“ in that year was founded our house at Gysseburne by Robert de Bruys.”
“That he should be buried in our house at Gysseburne, next to his father.”
At the Dissolution, Guisborough Priory was looked upon as the fourth richest monastery in Yorkshire, forty nine miles from York. From a manuscript in the Cottonian Library it is said:
.... “the prior kept a most pompous house, insomuch that the towne, consystinge of 500 householders, had no lande, but lived all in the abbey."
At the dissolution the annual revenue was to the amount of £628. 3s. 4d.
And in the priors Will he writes:
......."all my half year's pension which was due unto me at the feast of the Annunciation last past out of the possessions of the late Monastereye of Gisborne dissolved."
One of the benefactors to Guisborough or Gisborne Priory was the Lascelles family of Lincolnshire and a Picot de Lascelles gave to the Priory, sometime before 1229, a bovate of land at Aylesby in Lincolnshire.
A John de Lascelles was steward of Sherwood Forest and on the 7th July 1277 it was he whom, according to an enquiry held in 1287:
“...came to Salterford and there found Robert the Monk and Robert of Alfreton with bows and arrows; and he seized them and took them to Blidworth to hold them in custody until the morrow. And later that night twenty men armed with bows and arrows came to where the aforesaid men were under arrest, broke down the entrance to the building, sorely beat a certain Gilbert, page of the aforesaid John the Steward, who was keeping guard over the men, and released them from custody. Later all the aforesaid men attacked the chamber where the said John de Lascelles lay and broke the doors and windows of the said chamber. In which matter an enquiry was made by the foresters, verderers, regarders and other officials of the forest.”
They were too late and by the time the jury met, three of the accused had fled into Yorkshire, five could not be found and only a handful were captured. Perhaps Lascelles arranged for the three that had escaped into Yorkshire to be hunted down by a hired mercenary from Gisborne Priory or village, perhaps someone known as Guy?
‘I dwell by dale and downe,’ quoth Guye,
‘And I have done many a curst turne;
And he that calles me by my right name
Calles me Guye of good Gysborne.’
'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' (c.1475)
Ó Clement of the Glen (2010-2011)