Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Good Sheriff of Nottingham

Leon Unczur as the Sheriff of Nottingham

I was pleased to have seen the Queen twice during her Diamond Jubilee. I saw her at the Thames River Pageant and when she visited Nottingham. I must say that I felt as much pleasure at seeing our Lord Mayor welcoming the royal party because he’s an old friend of mine, Leon Unczur. During my 7 years working at Nottingham Castle Leon, as Chairman of the Community and Leisure Services of the city council, was also my boss. He had already entered the history books as the first openly gay Sheriff of Nottingham, and now he also holds the record as the first openly gay Lord Mayor of Nottingham, a fact he readily admits to at public events.

Every summer the Robin Hood Festival takes place in Sherwood Forest. This year’s festival began yesterday and runs until Sunday. In view of Leon’s unique appointments I thought I’d look at the Sheriff of Nottingham rather than Robin Hood and how as the Sheriff Leon has embraced the lgbt community, and learn that the Sheriff could never have actually met the famous outlaw.

First the historical background. The first Sheriff of Nottingham was created by royal charter on 28th June 1449. Until 1835 there were 2 Sheriffs because, technically, Nottingham consisted of 2 boroughs – an Anglo-Saxon one centred on St. Mary’s Church, and a Norman one centred at the castle. Several of my ancestors have held the office of Sheriff and Mayor over the centuries, giving me a hereditary right to sit on the steps of the council house, and drive my geese over Trent Bridge!

The legends of Robin Hood that are popular today are all set in the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, which was 1189-1199. So unless Robin lived to be over 250 years old he couldn’t possibly have lived to fight the first Sheriff of Nottingham in 1449. So why the confusion?

The early ballads DO feature a sheriff, but he’s the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, a much more older royal appointment. There still is a High Sheriff, appointed annually, and at the moment he is C. P. L. Francklin. He should be the rightful centre of attention.

Another confusion arises when we read the oldest surviving ballad of Robin Hood, probably written in the 1380s and printed in the 1490s, called “The Geste of Robin Hood” (“Geste” basically means “song”). In that ballad the king isn’t Richard the Lionheart. Historians generally agree that the king is Edward II. The High Sheriff featured in “The Geste” is never mentioned by name. One name that crops up a lot in historical research is Sir Henry Fauconberg. He was High Sheriff in 1323 at the same time as Edward II came to Nottingham Castle to pardon outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Sound familiar? That’s one of the “happy endings” of modern versions of the legend.

In some of my previous posts (here and here) I’ve given my theory that “The Geste of Robin Hood” was originally composed by Sir John Clanvowe, the “wedded brother” of the Constable of Nottingham Castle.

Over recent years the Labour-run city council has shown less interest in heritage, even refusing to rescue the only specific Robin Hood attraction, the Tales of Robin Hood, from closure. When Leon Unczur was first appointed as Sheriff of Nottingham he headed a special commission aimed at improving the tourist experience of Nottingham and Robin Hood in particular. As with all local politicians, nothing has yet been decided about how this can be done. But as an ambassador for the city Leon has been outstanding. His involvement in the lgbt community in the city has also been outstanding. In his first year of office he opened the city’s first exhibition for LGBT History Month (he said in his speech that this was a greater pleasure than any of his other official invitations), and he has opened Nottingham Pride in 2009 and 2010. As Lord Mayor, dressed in full ceremonial robes, he opened Nottinghamshire Pride a couple of weeks ago.

I can’t resist reproducing this part of an interview with Leon that appears on the “Robin Hood: Bold Outlaw” website.

“My partner and I were at a luncheon [in Manchester]. And of course, my partner knows an awful lot of people in Manchester and he’s well known up there. I’m well-known down here. But I was talking to somebody who was a director of a housing association – which is charitable housing – and I think he was rather surprised because he didn’t know who I was. He just knew who my partner was, but I knew so much about housing. After 20 minutes he said ‘what job do you do?’ And I said ‘I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham’. And he looked at me as if to say “we’ve just had a reasonably intelligent conversation for 20 minutes, now you’re taking the rye.’ And then my partner had to point out, ‘No, Gerald, he really is the Sheriff of Nottingham. He really does exist.’ And I think that’s often the case.”

For the full interview go here. http://www.boldoutlaw.com/robint/unczur.html

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