Was Robin Hood’s grave grabbed?

Russell Crowe is one of a long line of actors who have played Robin Hood on the big screen.
Russell Crowe is one of a long line of actors who have played Robin Hood on the big screen.
  • Four new Robin Hood films are lined up by Hollywood, all set in Sherwood Forest. But were the outlaw’s haunts actually further north? Roger Ratcliffe reports.
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The scene is a long, straight road through the lush Barnsdale Forest north-west of Doncaster and the time is the early 14th century. Two travel-weary Benedictine monks from the prosperous St. Mary’s Abbey in York are accosted by a band of outlaws and robbed at arrow-point. Their money is then gifted to a down-on-his-luck knight to pay off his debts to the abbey.

Cut to present-day California and the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank. In the back-lot of the famous Walt Disney studios a team of arborists, carpenters and set designers is recreating the sun-dappled greenwoods of the type which covered much of medieval England and harboured the outlaws who took from the rich to give to the poor.

But there is one crucial difference. The forthcoming Disney movie Nottingham and Hood, first of a major new Pirates of the Caribbean-like franchise by the studio, will not be set in Barnsdale Forest but 30-odd miles down the A1 in Nottinghamshire. For like all of the 68 Robin Hood films and TV series made in the past century or so Hollywood prefers to tell the story of Robin of Sherwood rather than Robin of Doncaster.

That seems unlikely to change. Three other films are in various stages of development – one by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way – and all stick to the now-traditional plot of the good Robin Hood versus the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

So what is the evidence that Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman? It rests on a series of ballads, or long poems, which language analysts have dated to around the year 1400.

The earliest of them, A Gest of Robyn Hode, told of the outlaw and his companion “Lytil John” operating in “Barnysdale”. And the specific place in Barnsdale Forest where the monks of St. Mary’s Abbey were robbed was said to be “the Saylis”. Today, there is a still a wood corresponding to that name next to the A1, the modern name for the same north-south route taken by medieval travellers.

That is the starting point for historians who believe the outlaw’s life has been misrepresented by film makers. And it is crucial to the case put forward by the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, founded back in the 1980s by a district nurse, Barbara Green.

Over the years Barbara and other members have promoted the idea that the outlaw’s connection with Sherwood Forest was less documented than his life further north. Barbara points out the numerous places in Yorkshire that have been linked to Robin Hood for centuries, and the corresponding near-complete lack of locations associated with the outlaw in Nottinghamshire.

“For me, my interest began with the evidence that he died at Kirklees Priory, not far from my home in Brighouse,” Barbara says. “There was even an actual grave with an inscription to look at. That was a far stronger link to Robin Hood than anything found in Sherwood Forest.”

The Society’s case has been supported by several historians, not least the late James Holt, Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at Cambridge. In his book on the outlaw published in 1982 he wrote that the evidence for Robin in Barnsdale was stronger than anything that located him further south.

Professor Holt examined the area round the Saylis, now known as Sayles Plantation outside the village of Wentbridge, and concluded: “For Robin and his men the setting was ideal, and this is registered in the legend. The scene is still almost as it is described in the Gest and it survives in the medieval place names.”

This part of the legend as told by the ballad happens to correspond with a rare commodity in the Robin Hood story, historical fact. The road through Barnsdale Forest was a notoriously dangerous route. In the 1300s – around the time Robin Hood is believed to have been active here – two Scottish Bishops who had been taken prisoner were being escorted south to Winchester gaol, and 20 extra guards were required to get them safely through Barnsdale.

But the story told in the Gest has been embellished over the years. Many film storylines now pack an extra punch by setting the story in the late 12th century and weaving in the tale of the Crusader king Richard the Lionheart going off to reclaim the Holy Land from the Saracen invaders. According to this version, while Richard is absent his nobleman friend, Robin of Huntingdon aka Robin Hood, is deprived of his family estate by bad King John. This is not supported by the evidence, according to Barbara, for the simple reason that everything known about Robin Hood suggests he lived one century later in the reign of Edward II.

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s obsession with the Lincoln Green-clad outlaw shows no signs of abating, and the first film, Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1908) set the template for everything that followed: the outlawed son of a nobleman hiding in Sherwood Forest with Maid Marian and his band of followers, fighting injustice while being pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

By 1938 the story was considered good enough for Warner Brothers to produce what at that time was the most expensive film ever made, the roles of Robin and Marian taken by Hollywood’s swashbuckler-in-chief Errol Flynn and screen beauty Olivia de Havilland. Since then the list of leading men and woman cast for the parts reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who. Most recently they were played by Russell Crowe and Kate Blanchett.

The forthcoming Nottingham and Hood from the Disney Studios, although portraying the outlaw as more of a rascal, remains faithful to the template. Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, the writer of the script, Brandon Barker, says he came across the controversy over Robin Hood’s real home when doing his research but decided to keep to the Hollywood line. “I don’t think Yorkshire would fly with an audience in general, even if it were accurate. Sherwood Forest is pretty much cemented to the legend of Hood even though it may be just a myth. I think the Merry Men would be lost without old Sherwood Forest.”

Certainly, a script which set Robin Hood in the forests around Doncaster would be difficult to sell to Sally Joynson, chief executive of Screen Yorkshire, which promotes film making in the region. She believes that Sherwood Forest is now too entrenched in people’s minds.

“A different geographical location would not get me hugely excited,” she says. “I’d hate to lose the great tradition of Robin and Sherwood Forest and that intrinsic relationship with the baddie, the Sheriff of Nottingham. If those elements were removed it would leave filmmakers a lot of work.”

What is certain, though, is that the fighting over the corpse of the outlaw, between those who buy the Nottingham story and those who believe he was a Yorkshireman, will go on forever. How appropriate, then, that an excavation of the burial site at Kirklees Priory in the 18th century is said to have found no traces of human bones.

So was Robin Hood’s grave robbed? And if so, by whom? It sounds like the storyline of another Hollywood blockbuster coming to a cinema near you. Only you can bet the grave will be in Sherwood Forest.