Trial By Battle : 26th March 1956

After seeing the recent pages of Laurence’s excellent picture strip from Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), I was reminded of an article I wrote way back in 2006 for ‘The Sherwood Forrester’, an online magazine produced by The Adventures of Robin Hood Appreciation Society.

In that year I had been given the box set of the classic TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1958), which I was thoroughly enjoying watching again after many, many, years. Not only was I thoroughly impressed by the quality of the writing and acting, but also the respect it gives to the legend.

As many of you regular readers know, there are quite a few connections between this wonderful, black and white television series and Disney’s Technicolor masterpiece that preceded it. Some of the actors from the movie appeared in certain episodes, including Hubert Gregg and Patrick Barr, who recreated their roles for the small screen. Some familiar props were used, including the highly decorated chairs that also found their way into the ‘Robin of Sherwood’ TV series thirty years later.

But what surprised me most of all was the ending to an episode called ‘Trial by Battle’, episode 27 in series 1, which was first shown on 26th March 1956. In the final scene Robin is held down on his sick bed and he is forced to eat some broth from a wooden spoon by the determined Maid Marian and his band of outlaws. Sound familiar?

In this episode we also see Hal Osmond (Midge the Miller in Disney's Story of Robin Hood) playing the King's Comissioner and a highly decorated chair used in the Disney movie.


Maid Marian is doomed to hang,
Brave knights it seems are all too few,
Of course it’s Robin Hood at last,
Who proves her champion true.

We journey with Friar Tuck on his obstinate ass into Sherwood Forest and to the outlaws’ camp. He is absolutely furious about being left out of Robin’s confidence and upon hearing his plans to ambush the King’s Commissioner at Pilgrims Cross Roads from the gossiping regulars of the Blue Boar Tavern.

At the camp in the greenwood, Maid Marian confirms that the King’s Commissioner is due to arrive at Nottingham Castle to examine the accounts of the shire. But Robin is as surprised as Friar Tuck to hear this ‘rumour’. So the outlaw band set off to the crossroads to ‘make sure the right outlaw’s way-lay the King’s Commissioner.’

As Robin and his band witness the melee through the trees, they soon realise that this is no ‘honest robbery’, but murder their laying on their heads. The outlaws join the fight to protect the Commissioner and a swordfight ensues between Robin and Sir Gyles of Wren.

Upon hearing this character’s name, I was immediately drawn to the ancient ballad of ‘Robin and Gandelyn’. The subject of this mysterious and eerie poem is the traditional New Year’s hunting of the wren, called Wrennock of Donne, in vengeance of the robin murdered at midsummer. Coincidence?

Sir Gyles of Wren wounds Robin and he stumbles against a rock, luckily Little John intervenes with his quarter staff and drives the evil knight away. The King’s Commissioner identifies Robin Hood and the distinguished guest is taken to the outlaws’ camp.

With birds chirping merrily in the trees, Marian, Robin (with his left arm in a sling) and his men sit with their invited guest at the feasting table in the greenwood. I couldn’t help noticing the eye contact between Robin and Marian during the scene when King’s Commissioner refuses to consume the royal venison and drink the wine. To Little John and Friar Tuck’s astonishment the guest explains the biological effect to the stomach and digestion this food can have. To which Friar Tuck rather squeamishly asks for a scrap of dried bread.

Hal Osmond as the King's Commissioner

“I carry my own diet,” said the Commissioner and brought out a bag of eggs and nuts. So when he is asked to pay his way, he firmly refuses, grabbing his sword, saying he ‘will give up not one jot of the king’s property, certainly not to outlaws!’

Robin, now assured of the Commissioners determination to defend the monarch’s interests with his life, orders his men to accompany him back to his horse. “Now I begin to see why Sir Gyles could contemplate murder!” said Marian. “He’s too honest to be long in Nottingham Castle,” said Robin who then asks Marian, as she is going to have her accounts read, to keep a watchful eye on him. But Marian is concerned about leaving Robin with a serious wound to his upper chest. Robin, after giving Marian a reassuring kiss warns her to take a dagger for her own protection.

Within the grey shadowy walls of Nottingham Castle, Sir Gyles of Wren and the Sheriff are deep in conversation. “No! I will not risk everything to correct your blundering stupidity, blusters the Sheriff. “Don’t stir your bile, Sheriff”, growls Sir Gyles, “he’s got to go one way or another.” But the Sheriff, who is obviously involved in the plot to kill the King’s Commissioner, is concerned about ‘the shadow of suspicion.’ Marian, meanwhile, is following the Commissioner’s every move and when she offers to fill his flagon his frustration boils over. Sir Gyles then intervenes with: “Commissioners of the Exchequer get over sensitive about poison, you baggage*!”

(*An unusual term that was used in Romeo and Juliet: ‘Hang thee young baggage, disobedient wretch.’ Capulet to Juliet Act 3 Scene 5).

The Disney chair behind Maid Marian (Bernadette O'Farrell)

This abusive term used at Lady Marian, angers the rather foppish Sir Walter of the Glen (played by Nicholas Parsons). But Sir Gyles dismisses Sir Walter’s anger. “Any knighthood or womanhood that can’t stomach my language, I’d have my doubts about, particularly a minx that uses a dagger at her girdle. Afraid of the Sheriff, my girl?”

Sir Gyles then moves behind Marian and in front of Sir Walter. He carefully places his arms around her and sneeringly says, “Maybe you’re planning to do the Commissioner in at that, eh?” While Sir Walter protests, Sir Gyles, holding Maid Marian closely, slyly slips her dagger out of its scabbard.

The Sheriff intervenes, apologizing to the Commissioner (who is beginning to show signs of a heavy cold) for the unrest, and suggests he puts off reading the documents till tomorrow. But he insists on being conducted to the room containing the shire accounts.

Sir Walter touchingly attempts to comfort the Lady Marian after her treatment by Sir Gyles. But Marian is preoccupied by the sudden disappearance of the evil knight whom she suddenly sees making his way up the torch lit steps towards the Commissioner’s room. So in a moment of panic she rushed up the winding castle stairs, through the open door, into his room, only to find the poor man lying dead by the fireplace.

Her beautiful face is frozen with shock as she suddenly realises her ornate dagger is missing and as she attempts to remove it from the Commissioner’s back the booming voice of Sir Gyles is heard. “Hold!” The Lady Marian froze with the dagger in her hand. Sir Gyles, Sir Walter and the Sheriff then entered the room. “How could you!” barked Sir Gyles. “You’re inhuman. How could you kill this poor little man?”

The Sheriff immediately jumps to Marian’s defence, astonished that Sir Gyles could accuse the Lady of such a thing. But the evil knight points out that Marian was removing her dagger from the Commissioner’s back. He then threatened the Sheriff that if he didn’t report this, he would inform Prince John of ‘a few other matters he would be interested to hear.’

So reluctantly the Sheriff orders Lady Marian Fitzwalter to stand trial before her peers for the murder of the Commissioner of the King’s Exchequer. The first half of the episode finishes with a close up the beautiful Marian looking frightened and very vulnerable.

Gathered in a rather cramped shadowy courtroom, Sir Gyles informed the jury how he witnessed Lady Marian drawing the dagger out of the Commissioner’s chest. She stood looking vulnerable, flanked closely by two armed guards and immediately replied, telling the members of the court how Sir Gyles had put his arms around her and stolen her dagger.

But the concerned Sheriff reminded her that there was no evidence that the dagger was ever stolen and that witnesses had established that the dagger was in her possession before the Commissioner had retired for the evening. When he then asked her why she had decided to wear such a weapon, she mistakenly revealed that she already knew that Sir Gyles had attempted to murder the commissioner once before.

Anxiously the Sheriff glanced at Sir Gyles and then lowered his voice and asked her where she had heard this information.  Realising what she had said Marian tried to cover her tracks by nervously saying that it must be Sir Gyles because he had succeeded in murdering the Commissioner in the castle.   Once more Lady Marian pleaded to the Sheriff that her dagger had been stolen.   “When did you notice its loss?” asked the Sheriff.   “When I drew it out I realised,” she replied.   “So you admit that you drew out the dagger!”   There was silence and then the Sheriff rose to his feet…..   “Milords," Marian interrupts," I can read my judgement and doom on your faces, but I will not be hanged on the word of a murderer. I challenge Sir Gyles to defend the truth of his cause, in trial by battle.”   “So be it!” announced the apparently relieved Sheriff. “By the Moot Court of Nottinghamshire, that Sir Gyles of Wren will meet the champion of Marian Fitzwater in trial by battle one week hence from this day!”

Friar Tuck visits Maid Marian in her cell

In her cell, Marian is visited by Friar Tuck, who in a hushed voice informs her that she can’t rely on Robin because his wound had not healed. Marian breaks down: “I expect I always counted on Robin, without knowing it. You take it for granted he will be there if you need him. I felt so brave, but now I am frightened.” In desperation Friar Tuck visits Sir Walter, but he had been recently ambushed by four knights who had broken his legs. His next visit was the Lord of Drune, who admitted to the Friar of selling his soul to the Devil. His lands would be forfeit if he defended the Lady Marian.

Back at the camp, an anxious Friar Tuck tells the outlaws the grave news around the flickering campfire. Robin lying on his sick bed overhears this and weakly staggers to his feet. He awkwardly removes his blanket and slips unnoticed out the camp.

Maid Marian faces the executioner

The drum beats menacingly slowly as the Lady Marian is led from her cell towards the long black shadow of the executioner. She suddenly sees her accuser, who sneeringly asks her, “Frightened, girl? No champion? I hear there is a plague of palsy in the knee among the flower of knighthood!” A desperately concerned Sheriff tells Marian he hasn’t slept for a week with worry. He advises her to confess her guilt and she will only lose her lands and live under house arrest as his prisoner. “Marian,” he pleads, “I claim to be no better than the evil times we live in, but I am no worse. Would marriage to me be so harsh a sentence?” “When I am married,” she replied, “I will be bound to my husband with something stronger than chains!”

With the shadow of the executioner behind him, the Sheriff announces to a gathering, consisting of some ashamed and embarrassed knights that he will call for Lady Marian’s Champion three times before divine providence. Disguised as a pilgrim, a worried Little John informs Friar Tuck that Robin had visited an apothecary during the evening and when told to lie down had gone off.

On the third and final call, to Marian’s surprise, a rustic appeared from the crowd and announced himself as Hugh son of Tom, freeman and freeholder on the land of Fitzwalter. As he approaches her she eventually sees through his disguise and realises it is Robin. Marian tells ‘Hugh’ that she can’t allow him to fight as she had heard he had been ill. But the rustic replies, “Sickness of the body can be cured, but sickness of the heart, to let you die without raising my hand, I could never endure.” So a relieved Marian, with a sparkle in her eye announces her acceptance of her new found champion.

Robin, with his left arm almost motionless, eventually manages to back Sir Gyles into a wood pile and with superb swordsmanship flicks the murderer’s sword from his hands. Sir Gyles immediately cries craven. The Sheriff’s face cannot hide his relief. “Lady Marian,” he announces, “You are now free and innocent before Heaven and man.” There is much rejoicing, but Robin’s weakness shows through and he begins to stumble. But help is at hand as the disguised outlaws rush to his aid and he is led away.

Robin defeats Sir Gyles

This wonderful episode ends in a similar way to the final scene in Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood, where Robin is held down on his sick bed and he is forced to eat some broth from a wooden spoon by the determined Maid Marian.

Robin is forced to eat broth

Writer: Arthur Behr (Waldo Salt)

Director: Terence Fisher

Richard Greene (Robin Hood)
Bernadette O’Farell (Maid Marian)
Alexander Gauge (Friar Tuck)
Alan Wheatley (Sheriff)
Archie Duncan (Little John)

Guest stars:
 Arthur Skinner (Outlaw), John Dearth (Outlaw), Willoughby Gray (Earl of Drune), Charles Stapley (Outlaw), Nicholas Parsons (Sir Walter of the Glen), John Longden (Sir Gyles of Wren), Barry Shawzin (Sir Hubert the Stout), Hal Osmond (King's Commissioner)


Clement of the Glen said...

‘The Sherwood Forrester’

The Adventures of Robin Hood Appreciation Society.

Trial By Battle : 26th March 1956

Hal Osmond
Archie Duncan

Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952)

robin hood said...

This remains such a wonderful series.

Check your Facebook pages. I know of at least 1 more Robin Hood movie which uses this chair. (Couldn't paste a link here).

Also, Terence Fisher was the director of the early (and best) Hammer Horrors. I think this chair also appears in some of them.

Clement of the Glen said...

I grew up watching this series, and even today it still has charm and warmth. The writing by many of those black-listed American writers is superb.

Many thanks Robin for the pictures on my FB page. I wonder if the chair still survives in some props department somewhere? It would look very good in my dining room!!

Neil said...

I always think that Alexander Gauge was a very good Friar Tuck. He died quite young though in the late fifties. He was also in Pickwick Papers along with our own Friar Tuck in the title role also in 1952. Golden film era really.