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Matter of the Greenwood: The Sheriff of Nottingham - Origins

Content note: murder of hostages.

Robin Hood’s most famous enemy has always been the Sheriff of Nottingham. In early sources, he is never given a name, instead known solely by his office. This has left the character open to a considerable degree of speculation, and several real sheriffs have been put forward as the original. But does any stand up to examination?

The title is sometimes dismissed as anachronistic, on the grounds that the city of Nottingham had no sheriff of its own until 1448/9. However, it would be perfectly natural for the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire to have been colloquially referred to as “the Sheriff of Nottingham”: and county sheriffs went back to pre-Conquest times.

Intriguingly, there is a tantalising possible clue to the Sheriff’s identity in the very first known explicit reference to Robin Hood, one which has not been picked up on by any theorist or writer of fiction to my knowledge. Famously, William Langland in Piers Plowman (c. 1377) has Sloth declare “I ken not perfectly my paternoster as the priest it singeth, but I ken rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester.” Whether these are supposed to be the same or related rhymes, or whether those of “Randolf” (a variant of the Norman name Ranulf) are entirely separate, is unclear. However, three Ranulfs had held that title, the most famous being Ranulf de Blondeville (1172 – 1232), who lived through the era conventionally associated with the outlaw hero and was a sometime adversary of the very Robin Hood-like Fouke FitzWaryn. De Blondeville is usually assumed to be the Ranulf referred to, whether or not the rhymes associated him with Robin.

But what of the other two, Ranulf le Meschin (1074 – 1129) and Ranulf de Gernon (c. 1100-53)? This is where the possible pointer to the Sheriff comes in. William Peverel the Younger, Sheriff of Nottinghamshire 1129-53 (one of the longest serving in history), murdered Ranulf de Gernon with poisoned wine in 1153. It is remarkable that such a character, a natural fit for a villain if ever there was one, has never (that I know of) been used in the role – especially since one of his confederates was a Robert FitzOdo, a name associated since the eighteenth century with Robin Hood. (Le Meschin has no such direct connection with the legend: though his wife Lucy was the daughter and widow of two Sheriffs of Lincoln who had both clashed with Hereward the Wake.)

The Little Gest of Robin Hood tells us little. Like many early sources, it seems rooted more in Yorkshire than in Nottinghamshire (a subject for another time): the Sheriff’s base in Nottingham would seem anomalous if it were not so consistent across the tradition. Only two men held both shrievalties simultaneously. The first was Hugh fitz Baldric in 1069-81, while the Sheriffs of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire were battling Hereward; but although William Malet, Hugh’s predecessor as Sheriff of Yorkshire, did clash with Hereward, there is no record of Hugh himself facing any famous outlaws. (Admittedly the eleventh century is much more sparsely documented than the later Middle Ages, leaving plenty of room for speculation.) The second was Henry de Fauconberg in 1329-30, having held office in each county separately for various earlier terms since 1318. (Theories connecting Robin Hood with the Lancastrian rebellion of 1322 have favoured de Fauconberg, who was in office at the time.) Eustace de Lowdham, Sheriff of Yorkshire 1225-26, served as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire 1232-33, having been Deputy Sheriff 1213-14, under the notorious Philip Marc. The mysterious “Hobbehod”, a Yorkshire outlaw identified by some as the original Robin Hood, was outlawed during de Lowdham’s term in office in York.

(One possible clue from the Gest does come in the following verse:

“These bishops and these archbishops,

Ye shall them beat and bind:

The High Sheriff of Nottingham,

Him hold ye in your mind.”

Is this perhaps a hint that the Sheriff was himself a senior clergyman? It was rare for such offices to be combined, but in the early 1270s the shrievalty of Nottingham was held by Walter Giffard, Archbishop of York – and he was the Sheriff who captured the Montfortian rebel Roger Godberd, a perennially popular candidate for the “real Robin Hood”.)

However, although almost every crooked Sheriff with Yorkshire links has been eagerly sought out, the Gest itself and other medieval ballads tell us absolutely nothing about the Sheriff’s personal corruption. He is the antagonist merely for doing his duty and pursuing outlaws, albeit with an occasional hint of sadistic pleasure. This is one reason why the Sheriff has been so hard to pin down to one historical figure – his behaviour is entirely typical of his office.

The 1473 folk play Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham adds no clues; but in the ballad version of the same story, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (whose dating is contentious, but probably roughly contemporary with the play), we find the Sheriff hunting outlaws in Barnsdale – that is (despite the attempts of some Nottinghamshire partisans to identify it with Sherwood’s Bassetlaw) in Yorkshire. This has fed speculation that one of the men mentioned above must have been the “real” Sheriff – Lowdham has proven a popular choice, the argument being that he remained known as “the Sheriff of Nottingham” even after moving north (surely a stretch, especially since he had not in fact served as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire yet, only as Deputy). However, it seems more likely that two originally separate strands of the tradition have been combined here. Notably, when the Sheriff flees, it is “towards his house in Nottingham” – a considerable distance from Barnsdale on foot if the city is meant! “Nottingham” might here imply the whole shire; or this episode might have been transposed from an originally more southerly location. (It is worth contrasting with the Gest, in which Robin spends a lot of time in Yorkshire but never encounters a royal official outside Nottinghamshire.)

The association, dating to the Sloane Life of Robin Hood (c. 1600), between Robin and the town of Loxley (in Yorkshire, but near the Nottinghamshire border), does draw a potential link with another historical Sheriff, who like William Peverel has yet to make it into fiction. In the 1240s, a Robert de Loxley had been in court in Huntingdon and Nottingham: and he appears to have been a neighbour of Roger de Lovetot, who would later serve as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire 1255-58. The de Lovetot family’s landholdings included Loxley, neighbouring Bradfield, and Worksop in Sherwood. In 1247, a year subsequently associated with the death of Robin Hood, de Loxley disappears from the record. (One document makes it appear that de Lovetot acquired his land, but this seems not to have been the case – the lands in question had apparently belonged to a Thomas de Loxley.)

Robert de Loxley was associated with the Meveril family, who were able to call on the help of outlaws when they wanted to intimidate jurors. He seems also to have gone by the name de Ferrers, meaning that he was probably a kinsman of the Montfortian rebel Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, who has been proposed as a yet another original for Robin Hood. However, this connection also undermines the link to the Yorkshire Loxley, as the holdings of the de Ferrers family make it more likely that his name derived from a village of the same name in Staffordshire. This is a tangled web. The de Lovetot family appear to have been closely and perhaps corruptly involved in local politics, and have a number of potential connections to the Robin Hood legend – they were related to the Vavasour family into which the famous Marcher outlaw Fouke fitz Waryn married, and to the Fitzwalters, and to the Earls of Huntingdon. However, it is impossible to establish the significance, if any, of these connections.

It is not even certain whether, during the period most classically popular as a setting for the Robin Hood legend – King Richard’s absence in 1189-94 – there actually was a Sheriff of Nottinghamshire after Ralph Murdac’s term ended in 1190. William de Wendenal was Castellan of Nottingham and may have acted as Sheriff, but it is equally possible that Prince John simply took over the role’s responsibilities (and revenues) himself. (Murdac is a secondary villain of Henry Gilbert’s well researched and influential novel Robin Hood (1912). However, Gilbert has him die in office: it is now known that Murdac outlived his term as Sheriff by several years, a fact probably not available to a writer in 1912. Murdac shows up again – anachronistically still Sheriff in 1194 – in the graphic novel Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood (2009).)

One need not, however, stray too far beyond that period to find an historical Sheriff widely considered a very good fit indeed. Philip Marc, whose remarkably long term covered the years 1208/9-24, was notorious in his time for cruelty and corruption, and so unpopular that his dismissal was a specific demand of the barons at Runnymede in 1215. (He was one of only four officials so named: the outbreak of the First Barons’ War saved him). As we have already discussed, some of the best candidates for several other mythos characters flourished in the 1210s, which makes Marc all the more interesting.

Unlike most historical holders of the office, Marc has made some impact on fiction. In Robin of Sherwood (1983-86), he briefly supplants the fictional Sheriff de Rainault in the 1986 episode “The Sheriff of Nottingham”, only to be killed after a few days in office. Lewis Collins takes a camp relish in the role and is thoroughly enjoyable. (Interestingly, Marc is not the only historical Sheriff to appear in the programme – William Briwerre or Brewer, a crony of King John who shows up in “The Time of the Wolf” (1986), was Sheriff in 1196 – 1200 and again in 1203. The show, however, does not refer to this.)

In 1992, Marc very surprisingly became a hero, the protagonist of Richard Kluger’s novel The Sheriff of Nottingham. Kluger’s Mark (as he spells it) is not King John’s zealous and merciless enforcer, but a man guilty of no more than attempting to reconcile a scrupulous legalism with loyal service to a monarch who does not deserve him, and succeeds with hardly a moral compromise to his name. Kluger himself refers to Mark within the text as a “paragon” distinguished by “unalloyed goodness”. Whatever the problem, it is almost certain that this version of Mark will find a way to be both obedient and just – save once. Not even Kluger, ingenious though he is at justifying Mark’s every action and putting off the blame onto others (either the King, or people close to the Sheriff who betray him), can escape the fact of the slaughter of 28 Welsh hostages in retaliation for Llywelyn ap Iorwerth’s revolt in 1212. Even here, however, Kluger takes pains not only to stress that the Sheriff had no choice, but to credit him with choosing to spare Llywelyn’s son Gruffudd (John’s own grandson via his illegitimate daughter Joan, the Welsh prince’s wife). This is the one moment of rebellion the perfect Mark is allowed, invented to redeem his acquiescence in the judicial murder of the rest.

Robin Hood is a minor character in this drama, and never really an antagonist. He begins as a hard-drinking rogue with the unlikely name of Stuckey Woodfinch: personal names more Dickensian than medieval are a weakness of Kluger’s, surprising in a work otherwise distinguished by the meticulousness of its research. He wins the silver arrow before ever stepping outside the law, and first enters Sherwood as an unofficial forester under an agreement with the Sheriff. Even as he and his gang grow more and more lawless, Mark retains a fondness for him, and occasionally persuades him to return his loot. There is little here to suggest why the Sheriff would be remembered as the outlaw’s greatest enemy; Kluger’s throwaway comment about Alan a-Dale blackening his name in chansons rings false.

But then, so does the entire premise of the novel. Its depiction of both the social and political history of the era is accomplished and authentic, apart from some of the names; it is well written, the only stylistic weakness being a tendency to stiltedness in dialogue. Ultimately, however, Kluger’s portrait of Philip Marc is utterly implausible, at odds with everything that is known about the real man.

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