Matter of the Greenwood: The Deyvilles of Hood Hill

Over a period of more than a century, one family of minor Yorkshire landowners produced far more than its share of rebels and outlaws. Did they inspire the Robin Hood legend?


Content note: anti-Semitic violence.



A dashing outlaw, born to a noble family, ranges across North and Central England, hunted by a hapless Sheriff. He thumbs his nose at religious and secular authority alike, robbing bishops and other dignitaries; he remains at large for many years, and a daring disguise plot brings him face to face with the King himself...


Robin Hood? No. This is the story, as told in the highly mythologised version given by the eighteenth century Newgate Calendar (where I first discovered it), of Sir Joscelin Deyville (or Gosselin Denville as the Calendar renders his name), scion of a whole family of Robin Hoods. A near namesake, Oscar de Ville, wrote a thesis on the family's medieval misfortunes in 1995, to which I am heavily indebted here.


The Deyvilles came from Deville in Normandy; precisely when they arrived in England is unclear, but by the death of Henry I they were landholders in both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. In the First Barons' War (1215-17), John Deyville, then the head of the family, followed his lord, William de Mowbray, to war against King John: the war petered out after the King's death, and Deyville returned to respectability and government service under the regency government for the boy-king Henry III, serving on a tenurial commission in 1219. But his grandson, also John, who rebelled against Henry in the Second Barons' War (1264-66), would not be so lucky. That war ended not with the convenient death of a monarch and hasty reconciliation between warring parties, but with royalist victory and brutal suppression - resulting in the Revolt of the Disinherited, in which a number of stragglers remained thorns in the side of the government for years. John Deyville was one of them.


John Deyville is of interest in search of the Robin Hood legend for many reasons. One of the earliest chronicles to mention Robin Hood, Walter Bower's expanded translation of John of Fordun's Scotichronicon (1440, some decades after Fordun's original), identifies him explicity as a leader of the dispossessed after 1266. Moreover, it is at this time that the name "Hood" is first indisputably directly connected with the Deyville family: it was this John who, in 1264, received permission to build Hood Hill Castle near Kilburn in North Yorkshire. The Deyvilles had been landholders in the Kilburn area for over a century and seem to have acquired Hood Hill by 1191. What had stood there before is not known for certain: it is likely that there was some kind of dwelling, very possibly already fortified, by the early twelfth century, and that what was done in 1264 was the rebuilding of a decayed castle on a grander scale. It is even possible that work had already begun without licence, and the permission John gained was effectively retroactive.


Around the same time, John Deyville was raised to the rank of Baron. He had already been appointed Castellan of York, Keeper of the Northern Forests, and Keeper of the Peace for Yorkshire, all by the Montfortian faction against the desires of the Crown; King Henry ordered him to surrender the castle and city, but was ignored. He was, therefore, a solid Montfortian before open hostilities broke out.


The details of the origins and course of the Second Barons' War need not concern us much here: a summary will suffice. High inflation, widespread debt, King Henry's refusal to listen to advice or honour agreements with his barons, and his reliance on "foreign" favourites (meaning men from the same southern French background as his wife, Eleanor of Provence, as opposed to England's traditional elite and their relatives from northern France), all played their part; as did the unexpected emergence of one of those "foreigners", Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, as leader of the discontented. After many turns of fortune, including the capture and dramatic escape of Henry's eldest son and chief commander, Edward of Westminster, Earl of Chester, de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265. The war did not formally end for many months afterwards, but Evesham was the last major battle, and there was little doubt after it of the royalists' victory.


Seizures of rebel land by those close to the King began almost immediately, with little formal backing. Meanwhile, Simon de Montfort the Younger took up the leadership of the rebels, holding Kenilworth Castle against a royalist siege from June 1266. On 31st October, the King offered terms in the Dictum of Kenilworth, reversing the worst of the seizures and promising mercy; and in December the besieged accepted them, formally ending the war. But these were not the only stragglers. "Sir John Deyville with many other knights to woods and fields," wrote the chronicler Robert of Gloucester: he and many of his kinsmen, with a considerable following, repaired to the fens of Axholme, and then to the Isle of Ely where Hereward the Wake had so long resisted William the Conqueror's armies two centuries before. Among the rebels at Ely was a certain Robert Hod, although sadly very little is known beyond his name. Rebellion flared up at the same time in other parts of England: this was the period of Roger Godberd, a recently popular candidate for "the real Robin Hood", who roamed over southern Nottinghamshire and northern Leicestershire from his base in Charnwood Forest; and ballad hero Adam de Gurdon in Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire, who was later said to have surrendered after being bested by Prince Edward single combat - just as Robin Hood is out-buffeted by "Edward our comely King" in The Little Gest of Robin Hood, the earliest full account of his adventures (c. 1465, printed by c. 1500).


Though "The Song of the Barons" celebrates Deyville as a man "who loved not treason nor guile", these were hardly rebels of noble spirit. De Montfort is called "The Father of Parliament", but is at best the father of the House of Lords: the Commons were inconsequential before the fourteenth century. When he had sway over the country, he ruled as a dictator. The combination of xenophobia and revolt against debt in his cause made it especially dangerous to the Jews, and John Deyville is recorded as expelling Jews wherever he found them. But there was widespread and justified discontent with Henry's rule, which manifested itself in laments sung after de Montfort's death: and to many, John Deyville must have appeared a hero.


The exact circumstances in which Deyville's rebellion ended are not recorded: but on 1st July 1267, he entered the King's peace and agreed to pay the heaviest fines levied on any baronial rebel for his part in the Revolt of the Disinherited. There ends his part in the war - in contrast to Roger Godberd, who remained at large until captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1271. But some fifty years later, another King, Edward II, would antagonise his subjects almost as much, and another Deyville - Joscelin, from a cadet branch of the family - would oppose him.


Edward had inherited from his father a war in Scotland against a determined guerrilla enemy, and limited resources with which to pursue it. Nevertheless, even after his disastrous defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, he had refused to make peace with the Scots, who now raided at will into the north of England. The lords and people of the North, seeing their King powerless to protect them by force and unwilling to seek peaceful means, grew increasingly discontented; a series of bad winters, famine, and rebellion in Ireland, added to their woes - while, like his grandfather, Edward remained autocratic and dependent on favourites. Ultimately, in 1322, the King's cousin Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, led a major revolt against him, ending in defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Edward's progress through the North after the battle may well have provided the basis for the King's progress in the Gest, which led to suggestions that the King's valet Robin Hod was a Lancastrian rebel encountered and pardoned in 1323, and the Gest a broadly accurate account: but it has since been discovered that this Robin was in Edward's service before the rebellion.


Joscelin Deyville and his brother Robert were at the head of a sizeable band of robbers from 1317 if not earlier; they reportedly went about in monks' habits, which echoes Robin Hood's frequent disguises in the ballads. Like the legendary outlaw, he seems to have had a particular animus to senior clerics, being involved in robberies perpetrated against the Bishop of Durham and two visiting cardinals: but the patronage of Lancaster, to whom he was a close aide, brought him repeated pardons - but ultimately doomed him. Captured by the King's forces after Boroughbridge, he was put to death like his master the Earl.


His legend, however, had only just begun. Around 1587, Anthony Munday included him anachronistically in his play John a Kent and John a Cumber, set in early thirteenth century Wales; his "Gosselen Denville" is a nobleman within the law, but does at one point take part in what looks like a robbery ("For in plain terms," says his ally John a Kent, "speed what your speed may be, / Such coin you have, it must and shall with me"). In 1714, Alexander Smith's Lives of the Highwaymen recorded Deyville's myth, adding to his real crimes a robbery perpetrated against King Edward himself; and turning his end into a desperate last stand against the Sheriff of York's men at the house of his mistress, a publican's wife. Like Adam de Gurdon, Deyville seems to have assimilated some of the by then existing legend of Robin Hood - but such relationships are complex, and that does not mean their real exploits played no part in inspiring that legend in the first place.


​ So: was either of the Deyville outlaws "the" Robin Hood? There are two major problems with this. Firstly, neither of them was called Robert or Robin: they did both have younger brothers called Robert who fought alongside them, but these Roberts were never leaders of the Deyville gangs. The second problem is the existence of the surname variously spelled "Robehod", "Rabunhod", etc. - even "Robynhoud" in at least one case. This appears disproportionately (though not exclusively) applied to criminals and fugitives, as if it was a byname for them - and is first attested, explicitly applying to a thief who had another name (William le Fevre), in 1261/2, before either of them rebelled. So, while they may have influenced the legend - and I believe both did - it seems likely that neither of them originated it.


We don't know for certain if any Robert Deyville was outlawed before 1261. We do, however, know that the John Deyville who rebelled in 1215 had an adult son named Robert (the father of the John who supported de Montfort): and this Robert is missing from the record throughout the First Barons' War and for some years afterwards. As the son of one rebel and a relative and associate of many others, he was almost certainly an opponent of King John. Some rebels of this period, like those fifty years later, conducted their war in guerrilla style from the woods and fens. The time period also makes him an exact contemporary with Matilda FitzWalter, traditionally identified with Maid Marian; St Robert of Knaresborough, a plausible original for Friar Tuck; and Philip Mark, the most notoriously cruel and corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham.


This isn't the place to deal with those characters - look out for them in subsequent instalments. But while I make no assertion that Robert Deyville was the one and only true original of Robin Hood - too big a claim to make for anybody - there is very little doubt in my mind that the legend as we have it owes much to the century-long troublemaking tendencies of the Deyvilles of Hood Hill.

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