|“Robin Hood and his Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart” by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870). This painting was always on display at Nottingham Castle in my time there.|
When I worked at Nottingham Castle the last weekend in October was the annual Robin Hood Pageant. The grounds were filled with craftsmen, re-enactors and jousting contests. Sadly, the last pageant at the castle was in 2018. To remind me of those happy days I’ll continue telling the lives of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville. In the previous article Sir William had been appointed Constable of Nottingham Castle.
You can’t think about Nottingham Castle without thinking of Robin Hood. I believe Sir John Clanvowe wrote the ballad “The Geste of Robyn Hode”, printed posthumously between 1493 and 1534 (“geste” means “adventure”). It contains a remarkable amount of similarities to people, places and events in the lives of Sir John, Sir William, and William's wife Elizabeth le Waleys.
I wrote a small e-book called “Robin Hood – Out of the Greenwood: His Gay Origins Revealed” in which I go into much more detail about my theory. You can purchase it from Amazon here. There is only room for a very brief explanation of my theory on this blog.
The earliest reference to Robin Hood as a subject of ballads is in "Piers Plowman, a poem written around 1377. One line says: “But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf, Earl of Chester", indicating that “rhymes”, or ballads, about Robin Hood were well known. Unfortunately no-one wrote those ballads down, meaning everything we know about Robin Hood the outlaw hero was written after 1377. Before then, many legal documents record Robin’s as a common alias adopted by criminals. "Piers Plowman" is the first time Robin is associated to ballads.
The other man mentioned with Robin in "Piers Plowman" was a real person, Randolf de Blundeville, 6th Earl of Chester (b.1170). By 1216 Randolf was the greatest magnate in all England and virtual ruler of Cheshire. He also appears in another ballad, probably written in 1260, named after another folk hero, "Fulke le Fitz Waryn". Its plot bears more than a passing resemblance to "The Geste of Robyn Hode”. The synopsis of both are interchangeable and goes like this -
The outlaw hero has a right-hand man called John who waylays travellers in a forest and brings them back to the camp for a meal with the hero. They pay for the meal with their valuables. One of the hero’s companions assumes a false identity in the presence of the hero’s archenemy. The disguised companion lures the archenemy into the forest where the hero kills him. The king hears about the outlaw hero and comes to deal with him in person. The king’s men injure one of the hero’s companions who begs to be killed. The hero seeks refuge with a friendly knight. The king can’t find anyone willing to help him find the hero, but eventually he finds and pardons the outlaw.
Historians are convinced that “The Geste of Robyn Hode” (which I’ll just refer to as “The Geste” from now on) was influenced by “Fulke le Fitz Warine”. The real Fulk FitzWarin was a popular folk hero in the county where Sir John Clanvowe was born and raised. I believe he based “The Geste” on “Fulke le Fitz Waryn” and moved the action from his home county to Nottinghamshire.
Elizabeth le Waleys, the wife of Sir John’s partner Sir William Neville, (explained here) was step-niece to King Robert the Bruce of Scotland whose ancestor Prince David of Scotland was married to the sister of Randolf, Earl of Chester.
The few surviving ballads about Robin Hood date from the 1400s. Scholars of language and grammar use in “The Geste” suggest it was originally written before 1400. The same grammar is used in "Piers Plowman" and Sir John Clanvowe’s own poem "The Boke of Cupide" throughout, suggesting it was written in their lifetime. The language in "The Geste” is also consistent with Sir John's Lollard writing (explained here) - another clue linking Sir John to “The Geste”.
"The Geste" is composed of four interwoven plotlines. The first and last are set in Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire. The plotlines in the middle takes place in a forest in Nottinghamshire. Sherwood is never mentioned, it is only implied by us today because it is the only forest in Nottinghamshire. A manuscript from around 1410 contains the line "Robin Hood in Sherwood stood." However, another document of 1429 says "Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood”. Both are used in a similar fashion to someone today saying “Is the Pope Catholic?” meaning something is blatantly obvious. This suggests the locations were interchangeable. There’s much rivalry today between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire over which county Robin Hood comes from. The answer is, both. The forests were a short distance from each other, and the main road from London to York runs through both.
The author of “The Geste” shows a geographical knowledge of specific locations in both areas. Sir William Neville’s wife Elizabeth owned several manors in Barnsdale, and William himself was Constable of Nottingham Castle. Sir John Clanvowe would have known both areas well, and my theory is that he used this knowledge of both areas to write “The Geste”.
It’s difficult to imagine Robin Hood without King Richard the Lionheart and his brother, the evil Prince John. One read of "The Geste" and you are struck by the absence of both. The only king mentioned is Edward. Before 1400 there were only three kings called Edward – a father, son, and grandson - who reigned beween 1272 and 1377. But which King Edward is featured in “The Geste”?
Edward II was the most frequent to visit Nottingham and is the most widely accepted candidate by modern historians. One visit of note was in 1323-4 when he came in pursuit of outlaws whom he later pardons, as King Edward does in “The Geste”. One of those pardoned was Sir Richard le Waleys, Elizabeth le Waleys’ grandfather.
One interesting fact is the presence of a real man named Robin Hood in documents relating to this visit. Robin is one of Edward's porters, but about six months later he leaves the king's service. In "The Geste" Robin Hood joins the king's service after being pardoned and leaves a year later. Was this Robin Hood the man who was turned into an outlaw hero by ballad writers, and was the man whose “rhymes” became widely known by the time “Piers Plowman” was written in around 1377?
This is just an outline of some of my research. Historians of medieval literature agree that “The Geste” was written by a competent author, someone writing in the late 1300s whose work was considered worthy of saving and printing in the 1490s. None of the known English writers or poets of the late 1300s can be connected to “The Geste” in as many different ways as Sir John Clanvowe, either directly or through his partner Sir William Neville and William’s wife Elizabeth.
In the next part of “William and John“, published some time next year, I’ll continue to look at the Robin Hood connection and some of the famous characters in “The Geste” and reveal more family ties to Sir John, Sir William and Elizabeth, including Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.