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.
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.'
‘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