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The Woodland Hero of Hallamshire

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One of the unsettled minor problems of English history arises in connection with Hallamshire during the period when our knowledge of the district is very slender, that is, during the days when the Furnivals were its lords. That problem is the story of Robin Hood, or Robin o' th' Wood, the romantic outlaw. Was there ever a Robin Hood? If so, where did he live, and when?

According to one set of inquirers into the truth that can be gleaned from the dark past, there never was a Robin Hood, but stories in rhyme were made in abundance for hundreds of years about a character that had no existence. According to another set of inquirers, there did live in the thirteenth century a forest robber about whom, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many ballads were made, ascribing to him romantic adventures, and surrounding him with lawless followers, who robbed the rich, were kind to the poor, and protected women with a fine chivalry. If it be true that these rhymed stories have been made around the character and doings of a real man, then the evidence is strong that this genuine Robin Hood was a Hallamshire man.

This is a controversy on which, like the character of Mary, Queen of Scots, this book will "take sides." It will be argued here that there -was a Robin Hood. It has become a fashion with one group of historians to throw doubt on every statement brought to us from the past, unless it is confirmed by written evidence handed along from the time concerned. The more these critics can deny, the more pleased they are. They doubt whether there ever was a British King Arthur. They have killed William Tell in Switzerland. They would make Robin Hood a myth. Some of them would even sweep Shakespeare out of existence as a writer, notwithstanding the evidence of his forty plays. In reading after such writers we must remember that they are bent on slaughter, and we must suspect them, accordingly, of plotting the destruction of men of the far-off past in whom others have a strong belief.

What are the facts about Robin Hood? In the fourteenth century, that is in 1377, to be exact, we know on written evidence that there was a great deal of ballad literature about Robin Hood circulating throughout the country by memory; and, when printing was introduced at the end of the Fifteenth century, one of the first books to be printed was a rhymed story of the outlaw, taken from the many separate ballads that had been composed about his adventures. The writer of the poem Piers the Plowman makes one of the characters say (in 1377) that though he cannot repeat the Lord's Prayer he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood. These rhyming stories of life "under the greenwood tree." were acted throughout the land at the May Day festivals. Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and Little John were popular characters who could not be omitted. Of course, the stories were added to as time went on, and were differently dressed up in words, for each of them comes to us in somewhat different forms, but they all present the same characters - real, uniform, and convincing - whatever part of the country may be described as the scene of a particular adventure. Robin Hood himself is a real man, not a fabled hero, and such sentiments as hatred of oppression, kindness of heart, generosity, dislike of luxury, scorn for the swagger of authority, are always seen in him. We can hardly imagine the complete idea of such a man growing in many districts by chance, without a real man as starting-point, and a man, too, of strong and attractive character.

But what most impresses any one who visits the kind of haunts where Robin Hood must have lived, if he roamed throughout the forests as an outlaw, is the great number of caves and rocks and trysting places that bear his name, though they are in lonely parts of the land where few people go even now.

Nothing lasts so long as names in a lonely land. A hill, a tree, a house, a field, a ford, will keep its name for a thousand years if the men of the district are few, and all pass by the place sometimes. When they pass they hear and remember its name. There is nothing to cause a change, but everything to preserve, by names, the few faint memories of the moor or forest. You see a little farmhouse hidden in a fold in a remote valley. Ask for its name, and then look in Domesday Book, and there is the name recorded more than 800 years ago.

Why should it change? It does not change. It has been handed on, as a matter of course, by word of mouth, as certainly for a thousand years as for a hundred years. It is the flocking together of crowds of strangers, as in cities, that causes names to be changed and memories to be lost; but the names of outlandish places are lasting as the very hills themselves.

If this be so, and we find Robin Hood's haunts named, in a scattered way, all over the wildest parts of the ancient forests, surely that is a reason for supposing that there was a real Robin Hood, and that he frequented the remote parts where he was least likely to be found, often changing his hiding places, and puzzling completely those who tried to seize him in the name of the law.

People who sit in libraries with books, weaving fancies out of their own minds, may think there was no Robin Hood, but that he has grown out of the imaginations of people in past days, and is only a tradition, but they would feel quite differently if they sought out his caves and other lonely resorts, and knew how simply the belief in his doings has been told from generation to generation by people whose forefathers have always lived near these romantic spots.

Not only books, but the story of the bare hills and woods themselves, and the transmitted memories of men tell us there was a real Robin o' th' Wood, who was an outlaw and forest-robber, and gathered about him a band of men like himself; and that the common people sympathized with him in those days of harshness and oppression, and quietly favoured him when they could, and he, in return, kept up a good character for kindness towards them. And so the memory of him was preserved in their simple poems, and the places he frequented were named after him, and are so named till now.

If this is so, then in all probability Hallamshire was his birthplace, for tradition says he was Robert of Loxley, a village at the Sheffield end of the ridge of Kirk Edge, which will soon be swallowed up by the growth of the city between the Don and the Loxley valleys. We may dismiss the idea that he was a nobleman in disguise, as some of the later ballads would make out. Sir Walter Scott's account of Locksley, the bowman, in Ivanhoe, is the much more likely picture; and the time of Robin's roamings through the forests was probably the reigns of Richard the Lion-hearted and John, as it was placed by Scott. The town of Sheffield does not come into the Robin Hood ballads as Nottingham does, but it would not be likely to do so, for Sheffield was then a feudal stronghold which the outlaw would avoid, and Nottingham was a much older, larger, and richer place, that would have more cause to fear the snares of robber bands.

Through Sherwood Forest between Nottingham and Worksop, Barnsdale Forest between Doncaster and Pontefract, the Forest of Galtres which extended nearly to York, Pickering Forest, Needwood Forest in Staffordshire, Charnwood in Leicestershire, and the Peak Forest in Derbyshire, Robin Hood seems to have been at home, but probably nowhere quite so near to home as in the woodlands around Sheffield. Just over the ridge that bounds the city on the Derbyshire side, his huge companion, Little John, is supposed to be buried in Hathersage Churchyard. Among the Stanage rocks above Hathersage is one of Robin's reputed caves. He himself is said, in the ballads, to have met his death by treachery in Kirkless Abbey between Wakefield and Halifax, and to be buried there in accordance with his dying command to Little John.

Lay me a green sod under my head,
And another at my feet;
And lay my best bow by my side,
Which was my music sweet;
And make my grave of gravel and green,
Which is most right and meet.

If Robin Hood was indeed a Hallamshire man - and Hallamshire has the greatest claim to his birth - he was the most widely known, through all time, of all her sons, because he appealed most strongly to the imagination of the average man and woman.

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