|Nottingham Castle gatehouse, part of the medieval castle that survives.
Nottingham Castle reopened to the public last month after a £30 million pound make-over (of the parts not protected by law). As regular readers may recall, I worked there for seven years as a gallery assistant and tour guide (winning the Best Guided Tour in the UK award in 2003 by “Good Britain Guide”).
2021 is an anniversary year for Nottingham Castle, because 640 years ago Sir William Neville was appointed Constable of Nottingham Castle. In the previous chapter I described how he and his partner Sir John Clanvowe acquired positions at the court of King Richard II. Today I’ll explore their connection to Nottingham.
Sir William’s first appointment which brought him to Nottingham was as Justice of the Forest North of the Trent in May 1381. The office, one of two English Justices of the Forest (the other being South of the Trent) were the chief magistrates of forest law. Sir William's appointment covered the forests of Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, and Knaresborough and Inglewood Forests in Yorkshire.
The medieval idea of a forest is different to ours today. A forest was not just trees, as you imagine Sherwood Forest to be. The word derives from the Latin for “outside”, so a forest included open fields, meadows, rivers, villages, and occasionally a small town. What united them was that the area covered by forest law, where the king had sole rights of hunting, hence they are called royal forests.
Being Justice of the Forest meant you only had to carry out your duties once every three years, but the actual performance of these duties would take many months as the Justice was required to sit and judge the accumulated violations of forest law and review the forest’s administration. If anyone poached deer or took wood for fire without permission within a royal forest, the Justice presided over their case. In modern versions of Robin Hood it is often the Sheriff of Nottingham who arrests and presides over the court in Sherwood Forest, but in real life he had no authority there. He couldn’t arrest Robin Hood for any law he broke in Sherwood Forest. That was the job of the Foresters. In 1387 Sir William Neville resigned from this appointment.
Often accompanying the office of Justice of the Forest North of the Trent was the constableship of Nottingham Castle. Unlike the Justice, this was a full-time position. Sir William Neville was appointed as Constable in November 1381. Nottingham was a royal castle and his appointment was a further sign of the king's favour, and William was appointed for life. Sir William would travel between Nottingham and his Yorkshire estates all the time.
But what is a constable? Basically, it’s the general manager of a castle. He kept the castle running when the king wasn’t in residence, and ensured that everything the king wanted when he was in residence was available. As a royal residence Nottingham Castle was visited by King Richard II every year that Sir William was Constable.
One of the most well-known events of King Richard's reign was the Peasant's Revolt of June 1381. Neither Sir William nor his partner Sir John Clanvowe had any real part in it. The revolt was partly a response to the changing social make-up after the Black Death, and partly due to growing support for Lollardy, an early form of Protestantism. There was also a political move against the king who was giving too much importance to his friends and advisers. By 1385 a political group called the Lords Appellant had been formed which openly criticised the king.
Through the influence of the Lords Appellant the parliament of 1386 took away the powers of the 19-year-old King Richard and put them into the hands of commissioners. Richard retaliated by going on a journey around the country to gather support against the commission. At Nottingham Castle in August 1387 he gathered his supporters at a Great Council. A group of judges pronounced the Lords Appellant commission as treasonable.
The king made an error of judgement in thinking that the supporters who gathered at Nottingham Castle were powerful enough to defeat the Lords Appellant, who issued a reciprocal accusation of treason against members of the court, including Archbishop Alexander Neville, the younger brother of Sir William Neville. Sir William had neither the political power nor resources to openly support his brother against the charge. Sir William Neville was wise to not openly declare his own views, which would be to his advantage. As constable of a royal residence he was required to support the king, but he was perhaps remembering the earlier crisis surrounding the impeachment of his brother Lord Neville for the failure of the military campaign in northern France in 1376.
The king reluctantly agreed to arrest the named traitors and bring them to trial at the so-called "Merciless Parliament" in February 1388. Archbishop Neville was found guilty of treason. Only his position as a clergyman protected him from execution. He ended his days in exile as a parish priest in France.
Several courtiers who weren’t charged with treason were, however, banished from court. Sir John Clanvowe was one of them. He disappears from court records for a while, perhaps returning to estates in Herefordshire and Wales. Sir William, however, earned the trust of the victorious Lords Appellant. They awarded him an annuity out of the forfeited estates of the traitors.
The power of the Lords Appellant lasted less than two years. After Richard II regained his personal rule on reaching 21 years of age, Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville were again regular attendees at court, and for a few brief years Richard was secure on his throne.
Earlier I mentioned Lollardy as being a cause of the Peasants Revolt. Both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were prominent Lollard supporters, members of a small group of courtiers called the Lollard Knights. I wrote about this several years ago, so I’ll direct you over to those articles where you can read more.
While visiting his royal residence in Nottingham King Richard II would have been entertained with lavish banquets, jousts and entertainment. Sir John Clanvowe was a poet and it is my belief that on one occasion he produced a new ballad to be recited in front of the king and the court at one of those banquets. It featured a well-known character in a new setting, not unlike modern reboots of films and television series. Sir John used personal knowledge and the family backgrounds of himself, Sir William Neville, and the king to give local interest to his ballad. That well-known character was Robin Hood. Most of what is familiar to us about this legendary outlaw comes from the ballad I believe was written by Sir John Clanvowe, and I’ll explain more about it in the next chapter of the lives of Sir William and Sir John.
However, you’ll have to wait a while for that. I’ll explain why in a couple of weeks, but look out for 26th October, Robin Hood Day, when his connection to Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville will be explained.