Matter of the Greenwood: The Sheriff of Nottingham - Evolution
We’ve looked at the possible historical origins of Robin Hood’s archenemy. What about his evolution in fiction?
N.B. this post has been updated to take into account recent additions to the mythos.
Content note: sexual assault.
Before any surviving mention of Robin Hood, there were outlaw romances, in which various authority figures played the antagonist. Early examples – the Gesta Herewardi, Eustache le Moine, and Fouke le Fitz Waryn – were based on historical figures and events, and their depictions of real people may have contributed to the character of the Sheriff as well as to Robin. But in none of these was the villain an English county sheriff. That detail first appeared around 1360, in The Tale of Gamelyn.
Gamelyn, although it became retroactively adopted into some versions of the canon, was not in origin a Robin Hood poem, and predates the earliest surviving ones. Its hero, disinherited and maltreated by his elder brother John, escapes to the forest, joining – and later succeeding – a “master king of outlaws”. John becomes the local sheriff; their middle brother Ote’s attempts to bring about a reconciliation fail, and he stands bail for Gamelyn, who returns to the forest to rob senior clergy, to whom the poet shows a savage antipathy. Ote is nearly hanged when Gamelyn is late in returning, but Gamelyn’s men rescue him and hang John and his justice; Ote’s representations to the King then secure his younger brother’s pardon and they are appointed as justices.
Ultimately, the poet’s enmity is only for clergy and not for the secular authorities: royal officials are the enemy not because of what they are, but because they are individually corrupt, and a happy ending is achievable without reform of the system. This is a marked difference from the early Robin Hood traditions, though the anti-clericalism and the use of a sheriff as principal villain connect them.
The Sheriff of Nottingham’s first appearance as an antagonist is in one of the earliest surviving Robin Hood ballads, Robin Hood and the Monk (c. 1450): but he has little to do there, and is hardly characterised. He comes into his own in the Gest, which took its current form most probably in the 1460s (though much of the text may have existed decades earlier, before being forged from separate ballads into a cohesive whole).
This Sheriff is there mostly as a comic butt, the victim of elaborate robberies and practical jokes. These include the first appearance of the famous silver arrow story, and at least one episode – where Little John enters his service in disguise, and leads him into a trap – apparently modelled on a passage from Fouke le Fitz Waryn, in which the victim is King John himself. This theme continues in Robin Hood and the Potter, a ballad probably dating from the early sixteenth century and the first known example of the later popular “Robin Hood meets his match” ballad type. (Its association with a document concerning the wedding feast of Henry VI in 1445 was once thought to date it quite precisely, but most modern scholars prefer a considerably later date.)
After duly losing his fight with the “proud potter”, Robin offers to exchange clothes with him and go into Nottingham to sell his pots: and this, despite Little John’s warning of the Sheriff’s hostility, they do. (The potter was encountered at Wentbridge in Yorkshire, a considerable distance from Nottingham: once again we find that either Robin and his associates were highly mobile or variant traditions had already become intertwined at an early date.) The outlaw entering his enemy’s domain disguised as a potter is a motif found in Le Roman d’ Eustache le Moine (<1284) and the Gesta Herewardi (c. 1120); even there it may hark yet further back, to the alleged exploits of Alfred the Great. Fouke, Eustace, and Robin all make quite a habit of going about in disguise.
Selling the pots for less than they are worth, Robin quickly clears his stock, then takes the last five to the Sheriff’s wife – the first of this character’s all too few appearances in the mythos (even today she is a rare sight). Pleased with his wares, she invites him to dinner, and he accepts. After dinner he goes with the Sheriff and his wife to an archery competition, where he cannot resist swearing that he could shoot better than any of the contestants: and after out-shooting them all, he tells the Sheriff that he has often shot against Robin Hood. Eagerly, the Sheriff requests the “potter”’s help in catching the outlaw, and Robin offers to take him to him at dawn the next day.
Before they depart, Robin takes leave of the Sheriff’s wife and gives her a golden ring. He then rides into the forest with her husband, and blows his horn, summoning his men. The frightened Sheriff is robbed of his horse and valuables and allowed to depart, returning to his wife’s scorn. Robin, meanwhile, asks the potter the total value of his pots, and is told “two nobles”, i.e. 13s. 4d.; if the earlier reference to Robin selling pots at three pence each when they were worth five holds good, he can only have made eight shillings, but he pays the potter ten pounds and tells him he is always welcome in the wood.
“Thus parted Robin, the Sheriff, and the potter,
Underneath the greenwood tree;
God have mercy on Robin Hood’s soul,
And save all good yeomanry!”
The tricking of the Sheriff here echoes the episode where Little John decoys him in the Gest. This ballad was later reworked as Robin Hood and the Butcher in the Elizabethan era, possibly for a butchers’ guild event; quite a few “compilation” novels, and the 1955-60 ITV Adventures of Robin Hood, have adapted one or the other of the ballads. But the Sheriff’s wife – despite appearing in Anthony Munday’s Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon – has never become a regular character.
Munday created for his play a fictional Sheriff, his Earl Robert’s former steward, Warman or Worman. It is typical of his conservative take on the legend that he should turn this villain into a servant – albeit one of technically gentlemanly rank – above his station. All of Munday’s antagonists, from Warman up to Prince John, are corrupt individuals and personal enemies of the hero: it is specific people, not the system, who are at fault in his Sherwood. When general classes of enemies are named, they are priests, usurers, and lawyers: middle class foes, disliked alike by the gentrified Robin and the groundlings who enjoyed the play. The aristocracy is safe from this outlaw. Blamed by Prince John for the Bishop of Ely’s escape from custody, Warman later has to flee to the greenwood, where he is accepted and forgiven by the outlawed Earl; in the sequel, The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, he notably refuses to have anything to do with the scheme to murder Robin, and pays for this loyalty with his own life.
There is no Sheriff in Martin Parker’s True Tale of Robin Hood (1632), and he plays less part in the seventeenth century ballad tradition than earlier. It is after Ritson’s publication of the Robin Hood ballads in 1795 that the Sheriff starts to be made use of by novelists and playwrights. In Edward Fitzball’s theatrical extravaganza Robin Hood, or, The Merry Outlaws of Sherwood (1860), he is a conniving forger who helps the illegitimate Sir Gilbert Pevys steal the Earl of Huntingdon’s estates. John B. Marsh, in The Life and Adventures of Robin Hood (1865), indulges his misplaced taste for comedic names, calling the Sheriff “Judas Shrimp”. (He is later replaced by a Saxon-hating forester named Gammer: which, meaning as it does “old woman”, is a curious name for a fierce young killer. The novel’s third Sheriff bears the equally absurd appellation “Inluck”.) In Reginald de Koven's operetta Robin Hood (1890), the scheming Sheriff is a wonderfully Gilbertian character, accorded some of librettist Harry B. Smith’s best lyrics:
“I never yet have made one mistake.
I’d like to, for variety’s sake”.
Nevertheless, the early twentieth century preferred other villains, keeping the Sheriff in a secondary role. It is not until the 1950s that he comes into his own as a principal antagonist once more, in the 1955-60 Adventures of Robin Hood on ITV. Alan Wheatley’s suave, dandyish, utterly unscrupulous Sheriff Montfichet, always brought down by his over-confidence and his tender spot for Marian, is a thoroughly memorable character; while John Arnatt’s daring, cunning, and sadistic Deputy Sheriff Ralph, introduced to the show in 1959, ratchets up the danger faced by the outlaws and makes the series darker and more tense. In the 1960 Hammer film Sword of Sherwood Forest, a semi-spin-off, however, the unnamed Sheriff (Peter Cushing – the character seems very similar to Ralph) is relegated once again to a secondary role. It is a striking mark of departure from the series, which never killed off a regular character, that Cushing’s Sheriff ends up dead. (Arnatt, incidentally, would play the Sheriff again in another Hammer offering, 1967's confused semi-comedic A Challenge for Robin Hood.)
British television continued to be the Sheriff’s domain. In Robin of Sherwood (1983-86), Nickolas Grace plays the sharp-tongued, wittily amoral Sheriff Robert de Rainault (his name lifted from Evelyn Charles Vivian’s 1927 novel The Adventures of Robin Hood), enjoying a sparring, power-imbalanced, faintly homoerotic double act with Robert Addie’s violent, blinkered, utterly humourless Gisburne, whom he peppers with one-liners. (“Never assume anything, Gisburne, except an occasional air of intelligence”.) In Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-94), series creator Tony Robinson plays the Sheriff as a sort of malevolent mirror to Marian herself, in that they are each the lone, constantly frustrated voices of rationality in their respective camps, both surrounded by idiots. In Robin Hood (2006-09), Keith Allen’s sardonic Sheriff Vasey is essentially a less intelligent, less witty version of de Rainault, complete with the apparent attraction to his put-upon lieutenant – but certainly more interesting to spend time with than most of the good guys. He is later replaced with Lara Pulver as Guy of Gisborne's sister Isabella, who is romantically involved with Robin. (Remarkably, this is not the first use of the very specific plotline in which a previous villain's sister, also the outlaw's lover, is appointed Sheriff: the same thing happens in the 2000 softcore porn film Virgins of Sherwood Forest. Historically, the only known female Sheriff in England before modern times was Nicola de la Haye, Sheriff of Lincoln 1214-26. This was because the shrievalty of Lincoln had - uniquely - become hereditary, and she inherited it for want of a male heir: though King John reportedly did personally ask her not to relinquish the position. Despite her location and time period being a good match, I have never come across de la Haye in any work of Robin Hood-related fiction.)
Hollywood, however, continued to look back to the Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn Robin Hoods. The Sheriff in Disney’s all-animal Robin Hood (1973), an obese wolf who commits more onscreen thefts than the hero, is very much in the shadow of Prince John. (Given that the film began life as a projected adaptation of Reynard the Fox, it is perhaps unsurprising that the character is a wolf, echoing Reynard’s traditional enemy Isengrim: but like Isengrim, he is mostly more buffoonish than menacing.) In Robin and Marian (1975), Robert Shaw is excellent as a wearily sympathetic Sheriff: he and Sean Connery’s Robin are two titans past their prime, locked in a struggle neither can still truly care about – but if there is a villain beyond the feudal system itself, it is still King John (Ian Holm). Sheriff Miter (Barry Stanton) in Robin Hood (1991) is a henchman to two newly invented villains. It is not until Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) that the Sheriff is allowed to be the principal antagonist of a big-screen take on the legend: and, like so much else in that film, this is owed to Robin of Sherwood. Nickolas Grace had drawn on Alan Wheatley’s performance but taken the Sheriff some way further than Wheatley ever did towards stealing the mantle of the trickster from Robin himself: and now Alan Rickman completed the process. Rickman’s Satanist Sheriff, attended by a witch and leading a white-robed conspiracy modelled on the Ku Klux Klan, rebels, flouts convention, subverts expectations, and gets all the best lines, while Kevin Costner’s frankly uninteresting Robin is firmly in the post-Munday, conservative, legitimist Ricardian mould. Rickman, recognising a preposterous pantomime villain when he sees one, attacks the part with relish, playing even the attempted rape of Marian for laughs. His performance rendered it perhaps inevitable that the Sheriff would be the weak link in 1993’s outright comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Roger Rees finding Rickman entirely unspoofable.
The 1990s and subsequent decades would see a trend for reimagining classic stories from the point of view of the traditional antagonist, and the Robin Hood mythos proved far from immune to this. Beginning with Richard Kluger’s rehabilitation of Philip Marc in The Sheriff of Nottingham (1992), a number of pro-Sheriff works appeared. These had a fundamental flaw at their heart: namely, that the Robin Hood legend, with a criminal as its hero, already presents a traditional villain’s point of view. To reverse it is merely to restore a more conventional perspective.
Michael Cadnum’s In a Dark Wood (1998), for which some critics have made unwarrantably extravagant claims of modern classic status, is at least interesting in its refusal to take simplistic moral stances, with Sheriff Geoffrey a flawed but sympathetic semi-protagonist (much of the story is told through the eyes of his young squire Hugh, a rather uninteresting stand-in for the presumed teenage readership); while Robin, though his men are a desperate crowd and lead an unenviable life in the dank, inhospitable forest, is a philosopher, an absurdist before his time, whose mockery of authority is a way of mocking the universe. Slowly, the two antagonists build up an uneasy mutual respect, ending in a tacit agreement to cease their feud, though Cadnum leaves open what will happen next. This ending is unsatisfying: but real life has no neat plots, and in fact it might appeal to Cadnum’s Robin, who appears to enjoy non sequiturs and loose ends, and the all-round messiness of human existence.
The blockbuster movie Robin Hood (2010) was originally reported to be taking the same angle. It was announced with the title Nottingham: a new version of the legend, which would be told from the Sheriff’s point of view, in the form of a murder mystery, as the embattled official sought to discover the identity of the mysterious archer while coping with the ever more burdensome demands of working for the despotic John. Over the course of a troubled pre-production, the story changed radically. At first it was announced that Russell Crowe would play both Robin and the Sheriff, perhaps as twin brothers; then they became the same man, one taking over the other’s identity; and, finally, it became a more conventional Robin Hood film, with Crowe as the hero and the Sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen) relegated to a minor role, as once again another villain takes centre stage.
Ben Mendelsohn's languid Sheriff in Robin Hood (2018) is once again the principal antagonist: but Mendelsohn's reasonably creditable performance has to struggle against a script that shows no understanding of how anything in the medieval world worked. The Sheriff reports to the Church rather than the Crown, while also commanding a council of nobles from all over England over whom he wields absolute power, including the ability to draft them into the army as common soldiers; and he has somehow turned Nottingham from an Italianate hill town before the Crusade to a Victorian industrial hellscape a few years later, neither bearing the slightest resemblance to any real part of twelfth century England. It actually feels appropriate that he wears a more or less modern suit, as it highlights the distance from medieval reality. The film is so forgettable, however, that in effect Prince of Thieves remains the only big movie to have given the Sheriff his due.