Matter of the Greenwood: Guy of Gisburne


Content note: violence including mutilation.


Image: Paul Dickey as Sir Guy in the 1922 film Robin Hood.


In modern times, Guy of Gisborne or Gisburne (or occasionally Gisbourne) has settled pretty firmly into the role of secondary villain of the Robin Hood story, usually as a lieutenant to the Sheriff of Nottingham - when he appears at all. However, the character has a surprisingly varied history. His first definite appearance by name is in a list of stout fighting men composed by William Dunbar around 1500. "Wild Robin" is named first; the other outlaw hero Adam Bell also appears, along with the now forgotten figures "Roger of Clekkinslewch" and "Simon's sons of Quhynsell". It has been suggested that this means a separate ballad cycle existed about him - as was probably the case for George a-Green, another legendary character now remembered mostly for his encounter with Robin Hood, and who will certainly merit an article here some day. However, there is far more substantial evidence in George's case than Guy's, and it is more likely that Dunbar was thinking of one particular ballad, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. The ballad has no provenance before the 1640s, but its language and spelling are archaic, and it is generally accepted as of medieval origin: though it will probably never be dated precisely. Francis James Child argued that it must pre-date the folk play Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, which is clearly a version of the same story, but his arguments for this are no longer accepted: though it still might be earlier. The play is attested as performed in Norfolk in 1473: like all the surviving mummings of Robin Hood, it seems to have been associated with the May Games that marked the coming of summer. (Such plays existed by at least the 1420s, but Sheriff is the oldest we have - and, indeed, the oldest English-language drama on any secular subject. The famous mummings of St George, usually associated with Christmas but sometimes performed at other festivals, do not survive in any versions earlier than the 1730s, though their origins are likely to be far older. Amusingly, the 1985 Robin of Sherwood episode "The Lord of the Trees" features the outlaws performing a St George mumming for a summer festival.) The play does clearly rely on its audience's familiarity with the story, which would otherwise be difficult to follow - even allowing for the fact that the text appears to be incomplete. The surviving plot goes as follows: the Sheriff engages an unnamed knight to capture Robin Hood; the two meet, and compete at archery, stone-throwing, caber-tossing, and wrestling, before a sword-fight, which results in the knight's death; Robin disguises himself in his enemy's clothes; then the story becomes confused, but apparently he and some of the other outlaws are captured, then rescued by their comrades. This is roughly the story of the ballad as well, though the ballad version is far more detailed. In that, Robin has dreamt that two yeomen beat and disarmed him; Little John dismisses the dream and the two set out together into the wood, where they encounter “a wight yeoman… And he was clad in his capul-hide, / Top, and tail, and mane.” The meaning of this extraordinary horse-skin costume is never explained; some have detected shamanistic overtones. John offers to discover the stranger’s business, but Robin, taking the offer as an impugnation of his courage, quarrels with him, and John storms off to Barnsdale. (Apparently the woodland in which the yeoman was encountered was not part of the latter.) There John discovers that two of the outlaws have been killed, and Scarlet is fleeing from the Sheriff of Nottingham and his “seven score men”; he takes up his bow and shoots “good William a Trent”, a follower of the Sheriff, though it is remarked that, the bow being made of new wood, he shot inaccurately: presumably his target was the Sheriff himself. (What a Nottinghamshire official was doing in Yorkshire is never explained. Perhaps two variant legends have been combined here.) John is captured and bound to a tree, the Sheriff swearing to hang him. Meanwhile, Sir Guy (“yeoman” or not, he is accorded the knightly title in the text) asks Robin to guide him through the wood, as “I seek an outlaw… / Men call him Robin Hood”. The two find time, however, to compete in shooting at a garland over an immense distance: Guy’s arrow falls within the garland, but Robin’s splits the slender stick which holds it up. Only after these feats do they ask each other’s names: “‘I dwell by dale and down,’ quoth Guy, ‘And have done many a cursed turn; And he that calls me by my right name Calls me Guy of good Gisborne.’ ‘My dwelling is in the wood,’ says Robin, ‘By thee I set right nought: My name is Robin Hood of Barnsdale, A fellow thou hast long sought.’”

Having identified one another as apparently long-standing enemies, the two instantly draw their swords and set to. After two hours, Robin stumbles and is wounded:

“Robin thought on Our Lady dear, And soon leapt up again, And thus he came with an awkward stroke; Good Sir Guy he has slain.” He cuts off his enemy’s head, mocking him as “traitor all thy life”, and sticks it on the end of his bow before mutilating the face “that he was never on a woman born / Could tell who Sir Guy was”. Although there is a practical motive for rendering the corpse unrecognisable, there is a ritualistic feeling to this piece of butchery, a reminder of the violent times from which the legend derives. Robin changes clothes with the corpse and, wrapped in Sir Guy’s horse-hide, sets off for Barnsdale, apparently now aware of the discomfiture of his men. Presenting himself to the Sheriff, he declares that he has slain Robin Hood, and asks as his only reward that he should be allowed to execute Little John as well. Telling the soldiers to stand back so that he can hear the prisoner’s confession – an odd touch: priests were sometimes given the honorific "Sir", but there has been no other reason to regard Sir Guy as a cleric: but dispensations had been given since the time of the Black Death for lay people to hear confessions when no priest was available – he quickly frees and arms John. Despite still having overwhelming superiority of numbers, the Sheriff immediately turns tail and flees (“towards his house in Nottingham” – quite a distance from Barnsdale, although possibly “Nottingham” here implies the whole shire rather than the city) on realising that he has two outlaws to deal with; John, however, shoots him, “and cleft his heart in twain”.

The fact that all the May Games involve combats which Robin wins with some difficulty (he loses one wrestling fall to the knight, and in the later plays can beat neither Tuck nor the Potter without help), combined with their performance at a spring festival, has lent ammunition to those who favour a mythological explanation for Robin’s legend. It is argued that Robin is a spirit of summer who, after appearing vanquished, overcomes winter in the person of the knight, the potter, or the various other antagonists of the ballads. In the case of the May Games this is surely a real element: Robin has appropriated older ritual combats, just as St George did: but the fact that so many ballads depict his defeat, followed by the voluntary submission of the antagonist, does not fit this pattern well. Also, the Sheriff of Nottingham himself, a major presence from the beginning of the ballad tradition, is no personification of winter, but a quite realistically drawn royal official; and it is precisely the earliest ballads which eschew the simple combat-plot in favour of more complex stories to whose extraneous details it is much harder to attach mythological explanations. Mythology is an ingredient of the Robin Hood legend: it is not the whole. Nevertheless, if any antagonist in the early material does read like the Winter King of pagan interpretations, it is surely Sir Guy. What of more mundane historical explanations? It is unclear precisely where "Gisborne" is supposed to be located. There is a Gisburne in Lancashire, but Guisborough in Yorkshire was also routinely called "Gisburne" in the Middle Ages. No historical Guy of Gisburne is known, but there are at least two people who might have influenced the character. A Robert de Gysebourne lived in the Sherwood area in the late 1260s, precisely when Walter Bower says Robin Hood flourished, and may have been a royal official; but a more likely inspiration is John de Gysburne, a rich merchant who first appears as a bailiff in York in 1357, later serving several terms as Mayor in the 1370s and 1380s. By that time the legend was well established and "Robin Hood" had become a by-name for outlaws and insurrectionists: and it was apparently adopted as an alias by one Robert Dore, who hailed from Wadsley in West Yorkshire, very close to Loxley. De Gysburne was unpopular and in constant strife with the guilds and his political rivals, and Dore's rebellion seems to have been connected with these troubles: the record of his pardon in May 1382 is associated with those of known ringleaders of an orchestrated riot that had driven de Gysburne out of the city in November 1380. The name "Guy" may have been chosen purely for alliteration: though Robin the shepherd in French pastourelles, whose influence on the legend we have looked at before, occasionally has a love-rival named Guiot. The ballad remained obscure, and Guy likewise, until 1795, when Joseph Ritson published his collection of Robin Hood ballads. After that, retellings of the ballad story became common in "compilation" novels, which strung together prose versions of the ballads into loose accounts of Robin's life; but nobody expanded on Sir Guy's role until 1890, when Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith produced Robin Hood: A Comic Opera. Robin Hood's main villain is the Sheriff of Nottingham: but to his dim-witted henchman, to whom the Sheriff plans to marry off Marian in order to steal her lands, Smith gave the name "Guy of Gisborne". Smith's Guy is a weedy figure with none of his ballad original's menace, but his successors in the twentieth century owe their prominence almost entirely to this version. In 1922, Allan Dwan's epic silent film Robin Hood elevated Guy (a slimy Paul Dickey) to the role of chief henchman to Prince John (Sam De Grasse), while William Lowery's Sheriff is a very minor character. Guy's death, his back broken by Robin (Douglas Fairbanks) against a stone pillar in a surprisingly brutal scene, is the climactic defeat of evil, although the Prince remains the main villain. The 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood goes a step further: Basil Rathbone's sneering, arrogant Guy is the Castellan of Nottingham (Melville Cooper's pompous Sheriff apparently answering to him) and the leading villain of the film. Rathbone has enormous fun with the role, making a much more credibly dangerous figure than the somewhat pathetic Dickey; his brilliantly choreographed final duel with Errol Flynn's Robin was deservedly named the greatest screen swordfight of all time by Empire magazine in 2005. He was not yet, however, usually the Sheriff's sidekick. In the 1955-60 ITV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Sheriff's blandly unintelligent lieutenant was named Howard; the series never bothered to cast a regular actor, and Howard was played by no fewer than eighteen different men in five years. Henry Gilbert in his 1912 novel, and Evelyn Charles Vivian in 1927, had made Gisburne steward to a different villain, the Abbot of St Mary's: and this is how Robert Addie's Gisburne starts out in the 1984-86 fantasy series Robin of Sherwood, which draws on Vivian as much as Vivian does on Gilbert. However, he soon transfers to the service of Nickolas Grace's Sheriff, beginning a perfect double-act between Grace as the sharp-tongued, wittily amoral Robert de Rainault, and Addie as the violent, blinkered, utterly humourless Guy, whose unpleasantness barely conceals the pain of a profoundly damaged young man. Although it was Smith and de Koven who first placed Guy in this role, it is after Robin of Sherwood that it becomes the norm: sinister Michael Wincott in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and in particular the brooding Richard Armitage (in a leather duster typical of the series' wildly anachronistic approach to costuming) in the 2006-09 BBC Robin Hood, are heavily indebted to Addie. The latter series even raids Robin of Sherwood for plot elements, lifting the Sheriff’s betrayal of Guy in the 2009 episode “Cause and Effect” pretty much directly from “The Time of the Wolf” (1986), and many details surrounding a hitherto unrevealed connection between Robin and Guy in “Bad Blood” (2009) from “The Cross of St Ciricus” (1986). There are still exceptions. Ramsay Gilderdale's infuriatingly childish Guy in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-94) is the spoilt nephew of King John; in Paul C. Doherty's detective novel The Assassin in the Greenwood (1993), Guy is a mercenary captain sent for by the protagonist Hugh Corbett after the Sheriff's death to root out an outlaw supposed to be the returned Robin, only to perish with all his men in a scene which seems to owe more to Robin Hood and the Valiant Knight than to Guy's own ballad. Overall, however, Guy appears to have settled into the sidekick role, with many versions (for instance Stephen R. Lawhead's Raven King trilogy) wearing their debt to Robin of Sherwood on their sleeves. The horse-hide clad mercenary of the medieval ballad seems to have been completely supplanted.

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