Monday 16 May 2022

William and John: Part 6) Outlaws and Villains

We return to the story of Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe. Last time we concentrated on Sir John’s writings, specifically my theory that he wrote the original version of the Robin Hood ballad later printed as “The Geste of Robyn Hode”, the basis of every film and television version that are familiar today.

Today we look at characters in “The Geste” and discover how some of them can be connected to Sir John and Sir William.

First of all, forget about the characters who don’t appear in “The Geste” – Prince John, King Richard, Maid Marian, and Friar Tuck. They were added to the legends later. So, which of the remaining characters are connected to Sir John and Sir William? Below is a family tree to help explain those connections.


The man who appears in "The Geste" is the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, not the Sheriff of Nottingham. (See here for my own connection to the real Sheriff of Nottingham.) He is never mentioned by name, though historians suggest he may have been modelled on Sir Henry Fauconberg. When King Edward II visited Nottingham in 1324 to pardon outlaws, an event which features in “The Geste”, Sir Henry Fauconberg was the High Sheriff.

The Fauconberg family were related to the Nevilles. Sir William Neville’s aunt was married to Sir Walter Fauconberg, whose father leased a manor in Holderness, East Yorkshire, to his second-cousin (i.e. they shared one set of great-grandparents), who the father of High Sheriff Sir Henry Fauconberg.

As a supporter of King Edward in a rebellion of 1322 Sir Henry was rewarded by being appointed Commissioner of Array for Yorkshire, responsible for raising troops for battle. However, he got this appointment at the expense of his predecessor, Lord Waleys, the grandfather of Sir William Neville’s wife, Elizabeth. Lord Waleys’ manors were seized by the Crown and he had to pay a large fine. Even though he was pardoned by King Edward at Nottingham (as Robin Hood was in “The Geste”) in 1324 and had his manors returned, his appointments weren’t and he would have had no good feelings towards Sir Henry Fauconberg.

Other High Sheriffs have also been suggested as the model for Robin Hood’s archenemy.


In "The Geste" Little John says he is the disinherited heir of a manor in Holderness. Sir Henry Fauconberg had an older brother called Sir John who, for reasons that are not clear, was deprived of manors in both Holderness and Sherwood. However, there is an absence of any recognition between Little John and the High Sheriff when they meet in “The Geste”, though Little John was in disguise at the time and probably didn’t want to be recognised.


This character who doesn’t appear in “The Geste” yet is now an integral part of the legend and can be linked to the Fauconbergs. He first appears in a separate manuscript ballad dated to around 1475.

Historians suggest that Gisborne refers to a town in Lancashire just over the Yorkshire border. However, others have pointed out that in Sir John Clanvowe’s lifetime, Gisborne was also a name applied to the town of Guisborough in Northumberland. Guisborough was a familiar to Sir John Clanvowe and the Neville family as they would have passed through it on their way to the Neville estates in the north, and the lords of Guisborough at the time were the Fauconbergs. So, I believe Guy of Gisborne should today be called Guy of Guisborough.

Bearing in mind that Guy of Gisborne was a bounty hunter it would be the High Sheriff to whom he would have handed Robin Hood. With his Fauconberg connection Guy would be another suitably villainous addition to the ballads. Which makes me wonder, is the earliest surviving manuscript of “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” copied from one that Sir John Clanvowe wrote a century earlier?


Sir Roger of Doncaster and his mistress the Prioress of Kirklees murder Robin Hood in “The Geste”.

Doncaster is a Yorkshire town (and my birthplace) between Barnsdale and Sherwood. A family called de Doncastre lived in the area during the 1300s and some of them held judicial and manorial offices. For instance, Sir John de Doncastre was steward to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, an abbott from whom Robin Hood stole in “The Geste”.  Being in the abbot’s service, this would place Sir John, named as Sir Roger of Doncaster in “The Geste”, on the villains list. Sir John was also Steward of Wakefield in 1324, where manorial rolls include the name of a Robert Hode (Robert and Robin were interchangeable names).

Moving on to the Prioress of Kirklees, a noted historian called Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) formulated a theory about her in the 1830s. He said that Robin Hood was based on Robert Hode of Wakefield. "The Geste" says that the Prioress was “nye was of his kin", i.e. near kin to Robert Hode. Hunter suggested that the Prioress of Kirklees was called Elizabeth de Stainton, and that she was step-sister to Robert Hode's wife, Matilda.

The Staintons were landowners in Tickhill, a town 7 miles from Doncaster. It is interesting to note that one Sir John de Doncastre was Constable of Tickhill Castle from 1304, very likely the same man who was Steward of Wakefield, so he would have known the Staintons as well as Robert Hode of Wakefield.

There’s no contemporary record naming Elizabeth de Stainton as a Prioress of Kirklees. It has been assumed that she was appointed during a gap in the records between 1328 and 1350. But there’s a problem. The only records which mention an Elizabeth de Stainton say she was under 12 years old in 1347, making it impossible for her to be the Prioress of Kirklees between the above dates. Perhaps Joseph Hunter was wrong, or that the prioress is a general composite character.


Sir Richard at the Lee is a major character in later parts of "The Geste". He gives refuge to Robin Hood and his Merry Men after a battle with the High Sheriff. From this point until the end of the ballad Sir Richard is a companion of Robin Hood. A similar scenario had already appeared in the poem "Fulk le Fitz Waryn" dating from 1260. As mentioned in Part 5, Sir John Clanvowe was familiar with the legend of Fulk le Fitz Waryn and clearly used it as the basis for the story of Sir Richard at the Lee.


This character only appears briefly twice in "The Geste" as one of the Merry Men taking part in two archery contests; the famous contest at Nottingham Castle and one later in the forest against the king. "The Geste" implies Gilbert is the second best marksman in England after Robin Hood. It is surprising, therefore, that Gilbert doesn’t appear have his own set of folk tales and ballads. So, who was he?

I think the answer lies in "the White Hands". Among the many different feudal services in England was the presentation of white leather gloves (white hands?) at the coronation of the monarch by the Furnival family as lords of Farnham Royal in Buckinghamshire. After 1379 this hereditary service was vested in Joan Furnival who married Sir Thomas Neville, Sir William's nephew. During the visits of King Richard II to Nottingham Castle during the 1380s, when Sir William was its Constable, the Furnivals would have been expected to be present, as they were also the lords of Worksop in north Nottinghamshire.

Alternatively, could "white hands" actually be "white hounds"? In the 14th century "hand" and "hound" were often spelt and pronounced the same. Could the first printers of "The Geste" (c.1492-1534) have misinterpreted the word from the original manuscript and the actual name should read “Gilbert of the White Hounds”? This also fits the Furnivals. They had to give two white hunting hounds to the king as part of their feudal service as lords of Worksop. What better time and place to present them than during a royal visit to Nottingham Castle. But the Furnivals don't provide us with a Gilbert. However...

A white hound was the livery badge of the Talbot family, and this type of hound became so associated with them that it was named after them – talbot. The word talbot is still used in heraldry for a hunting dog and still appears as the Talbot’s crest. The feudal presentation to the king of white hounds, and also that of white gloves, passed from Joan Neville to her son-in-law, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury (whose father was Sir John Clanvowe’s cousin). There were three Gilberts in the Talbot family tree - the 1st, 3rd and 5th Barons.

Perhaps one of these Gilberts, even both the 3rd Baron Talbot and the young, future 5th Baron, was present with their famous white hounds when Sir John Clanvowe, as I believe, presented his ballad for the first time in front of the king and court at Nottingham Castle in the mid 1380s.

Perhaps we’ll never know if my theory is correct, but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest to me that I’m right.

That’s enough speculation. We return to established fact in the next and final part of the lives of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, in which we encounter pirates of the Mediterranean.