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Author A E Chandler talks about Sherwood and Robin Hood

22nd October 2017

#TalkingLocationWith… author A E Chandler – Sherwood and Barnsdale, and Robin Hood!

Robin Hood

Barnsdale

Most people think Robin Hood lived in the forest. We see images of him, more often than not, standing in Sherwood. After all, the schoolbook rhyme says, “Robin Hood in Sherwood stood hooded and hatted, hosed and shod.” I read this line in the Exchequer Gate at Lincoln Cathedral while living in Nottingham and working on a master’s in medieval studies. Living and studying in Robin Hood Country was an invaluable experience, not least because it meant spending weekends travelling through the countryside.

My historical novel, The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood, blends true history with new stories, popular inaccuracies, and some almost forgotten medieval legends. What this means, in terms of location, is having Robin and his companions summer in Sherwood Forest and winter in Barnsdale. The medieval Robin Hood (as portrayed in the five medieval “ballads” known to have survived) lives in West Yorkshire’s Barnsdale, which was outside the authority of Nottingham’s sheriff, and not a forest at all.

“Ballad” descriptions like “In summer when the leaves spring / The blossoms on every bough, / So merrily do the birdies sing / In woods merry now” automatically conjure images of a forest. A forest in medieval England was not a cluster of trees, but any land under forest law, meaning that open fields and villages were once a part of Sherwood Forest – as was some of Nottingham.

Robin Hood

St Mary’s Abbey, York

While Sherwood at its peak spanned a vast area of land, Barnsdale (north of Doncaster, and about forty miles from Sherwood) covered only about four or five miles square, from Wentbridge to Skelbrooke north to south. With no fixed boundaries, it seems to have crawled northward from its original location, probably in the Skell river valley. Barnsdale was never a forest, nor probably a chase or park either, but a small tenancy, at most one tenth of a knight’s fee. The earliest sources to discuss its terrain (analyzed by Dobson, Taylor, Holt, and others) came a few centuries after the first Robin Hood stories, and seemingly disagree on what Barnsdale looked like. The authors might have had faulty senses of direction and been writing about different places. Even if Barnsdale hosted a thick covering of trees, which it probably didn’t, it wasn’t large enough to hide a band of outlaws.

Sherwood Forest

The Robin Hood in the medieval “ballads,” though, doesn’t hide. In one story, when the people of Nottingham see his men descending upon their city, they try to flee – even old women hobbling on crutches. In the fourteenth century, cities such as Whitby, Scarborough, and Colchester were all set upon by outlaws. Around the same time, people travelling through Barnsdale feared being robbed, and took precautions, such as more than doubling the number of their bodyguards.

Kirklees Priory

Despite Barnsdale being Robin’s universally acknowledged base of operations in the medieval period, despite it being described with more minute detail in the “ballads,” hosting more original stories, and providing a homey place for outlaws even without being a forest, the average person on the street, if asked, would tell you that Robin Hood lived in Sherwood. The reason for this misconception: money. Specifically tourism revenue. Even in the sixteenth century, tourism brought profits to an area and, even in the sixteenth century, Barnsdale lacked Nottingham’s resources. Nottingham and Sherwood were better set up to give travellers Robin Hood attractions, and they advertised. Barnsdale and the surrounding West Yorkshire countryside remain rural. If you’re looking for a Robin Hood experience, Yorkshire’s locations aren’t quite as easy to access, but they are more medieval.

Robin Hood and Friar Tuck at Fountains Abbey

  1. Sherwood Forest: Sherwood has three marked trails for visitors, the blue trail leading past Major Oak, a behemoth at least eight centuries old. To visit the forest, catch the Sherwood Arrow bus.
  1. Barnsdale: Travellers journeying the popular north-south road would have to pass right by Barnsdale, which meant plenty of opportunities for robbers.
  1. St. Mary’s Abbey, York: The Scarlet Forest includes a retelling of the medieval story of Little John accompanying a knight to confront the abbot here. Ruins of the church, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, survive and are free to visit.
  1. The Grave: Robin Hood is supposedly buried near West Yorkshire’s Kirklees Priory, now on private land. Tours are offered one weekend a year through Calderdale Heritage Walks
  1. Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire: In The Scarlet Forest a disguised Little John travels alongside a pair of monks from Fountains Abbey, while in one “ballad” an unnamed friar (later associated with Friar Tuck) meets Robin nearby. Fountain Dale in Sherwood was later named to associate Friar Tuck with this Nottinghamshire location.

Do connect with A E Chandler via the website and Google+. She is also a Goodreads author.

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