Sunday, 19 July 2015


Empyrean as a lecture night has run in Nottingham for over twenty years now attracting some of the most credible, exhilarating and knowledgeable speakers in the Midlands. In October I attended the insightful and educational presentation by Doctor Tony Rotherham, one of several persons currently acting as an unofficial Robin Hood in Nottingham. Tony Rotherham is a man of considerable versatility himself, starting his career in 1978 he has a vast amount of television and film experience. He has appeared as an extra, while providing combat tuition and stunt work in over twenty films.

Having a doctorate in history he is an acknowledged authority upon the subject of the historical Robin Hood or perhaps we should say, Hoods. As from the historical perspective, we can deduce that there were many over the course of the later Medieval Period. Although some Robins may have been the peoples’ hero, the majority and certainly the earliest were not. The earlier Robins lived up to the title hood in a more modern sense, they were cutthroats and vicious robbers. Not necessarily anti-establishment figures or folk-heroes heading some localised peasants’ revolt.

In discussing the sentimentalisation of perceived anti-establishment figures, Doctor Rotherham touched upon the rather idealised and romanticised reinvention of not just Robin Hood but Dick Turpin, William Bonnie and the equally controversial Ned Kelly. In referring to the core elements of this sentimentalism, it is natural to refer back to the Victorian Romanticism of British history. Which at the time included the re-creation of the tartan, Scott’s Ivanhoe and his literary portrayal of Robin and ultimately, Victoria and Albert’s own romantic imagery.


To truly explore man, myth and history is was necessary for Doctor Rotherham to take us through a tangled yarn of mixed fibres, unpicking each mysterious weave and then knitting them back together, to produce numerous single threads, each worthy of research. This was done with consummate skill by an historian truly in love with his subject.


Throwing in such wonderful enigmatic names as Robert De Quirm, Fitzhugh and Fitzwarren, exploring alternative given names including the less glamourous Norbert, it soon became apparent that the man is obscured by myth and the mists of time. Was he minor nobility? How important were the Forestry Laws post the conquest? Why was he made an outlaw, literally worth six pennies if brought in dead, the enigmatic ‘wolfs’ head’ of the old laws.


Even the disputed origin of Lincoln Green, which I have heard some claim is actually Lincoln Grain, was explained and it is a term of much later origin than the historical Robin Hood. Taken from a white faced woodland sheep, bred for its meat. The fleece was poor, cheap and the woollen cloth died to that of a red brown colour. Possibly a more practical colour than actual green for a woodland outlaw or forester.


In English Law a forest is a managed hunting preserve and Sherwood at its height covered three hundred and seventy five square miles, a rich hunting ground for an enterprising outlaw. Connected or within reach of other forests, it is plausible that Hood and his one hundred and forty strong private army, could have dominated their own fiefdom, preying on the travellers frequenting the important trade routes through the forest of the time.


Since there existed a form of state compensation, in which the exchequer would reimburse the victim half of their losses, it should be no wonder that the authorities of the time wanted to end the outlaw threat. Here Doctor Rotherham makes an astute and much overlooked observation. At this time the historical Robin Hood, a vicious gangster type individual, would have been an indiscriminate threat to rich and poor alike. The real hero of the time was not Robin Hood but the maligned Sheriff of Nottingham and Derbyshire (the latter county was not important enough to have its own sheriff). Although one cannot help wonder if many false claims were made, after all who would know?  I cannot imagine Robin Hood leaving the forest to say; “Well actually my Lord Sheriff, I did not rob him.”


The later romanticisation of the stories has changed the focus onto the Outlaw but historically, the Sheriff represented the powers of law and order. He was attempting to keep the peace and protect both person and property. In looking at the stories from this perspective, it is important to observe as did the good doctor, that for all their significance which cannot be ignored; the Robin Hood Ballads written quite late, are not an historical record. They cannot be accepted as historical evidence any more than we can regard a film starring Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner, as a documentary on life in Medieval England.


In looking at later variants of Robin Hood and his band, Doctor Rotherham briefly mentioned a female Robin taking a different role to that of Marion, who in the stories and plays, is of French origin, representing a conjoined symbolism of both the Virgin Mary and the Queen of the May.


Equally mention is made of the key figures from the Merry Men, meaning a household. So we have Little John or John Naylor, a maker of nails. William Scarlett or Scathlock, meaning redheaded. It is worth noting that both Naylor and Scarlett are common surnames in this area still.


We even have an early description of Robin Hood dating to 1210. He is a tall dark haired man, with a cruel scar running from the left eye to his mouth. This does not sound like the kind of person you would want to meet in a dark twitchel, never mind Sherwood Forest.


Although we have made mention of the Victorian Romanticism and Scott’s Ivanhoe, the change from common cut throat to folk hero appears to have come about in the fifteenth century but why? Although later Robin Hood figures may have been of a more sympathetic ilk than the earlier and may even deserve the to be seen as heroic defenders of the poor. This returns us to where we began, with other outlaws and why are they changed to represent anti-establishment figures? This question is left unanswered but does it recognise some primitive human need for such a hero? Is this why Robin Hood has endured, because you cannot pin him down, because he remains an outlaw, forever hunted but never found?

Doctor Tony Rotherham will be appearing at Pagan Pride Nottingham (UK) on the 2nd August 2015.


  1. Very interesting. but the writer needs to brush up on his grammar. The very first sentence "...has ran in Nottingham..." should be "has run".