Was national legend Robin Hood the outlaw of the Forest of Rutland?

Photo: RTreaderpixKarenParsons30'Rutland Times readers pictures. Picture taken at Barnsdale Woods.'Karen Parsons, Claresholm Close, Oakham. ENGEMN00120121127174304
Photo: RTreaderpixKarenParsons30'Rutland Times readers pictures. Picture taken at Barnsdale Woods.'Karen Parsons, Claresholm Close, Oakham. ENGEMN00120121127174304

Robin Hood, like King Arthur, is one of our most precious national legends but despite intensive scrutiny by historians for centuries he remains elusive. Did he really exist at all?

Not only is he dubious historically but he has no geographical limits. At one time he may be in Sherwood Forest yet a day or so later he may be found in Delamere Forest in Cheshire, Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire, Ashby de la Zouch or the Vale of Belvoir.

It is not surprising, then, that Robin has been located in Rutland. Indeed, an attempt has been made to suggest he was a Rutlander or as they were known, a Raddleman.

The evidence seems strong. A 15th century rhyme mentions two locations and though we all know that the favoured Barnsdale is near Doncaster, Rutland does have its own Barnsdale Wood. This was part of the great Forest of Rutland in medieval times, which stretched from Knossington in the north through the Forest of Lyfield to Rockingham Forest in the south.

The rhyme is:

Little John and Robin Hood

Outlaw robbers although good

In Inglewood and Barnsdale

They used to carry out their deeds.

Also, a little to the east of our Barnsdale is the lost village of Ingthorpe which might be the Inglewood of the rhyme. Certainly, between 1150 and 1350 Rutland had thirteen deer parks – quite a number for such a small area. Many of these are still visible on John Speed’s colourful county map in 1611.

Conveniently also, Exton, Barnsdale and Whissendine deer parks were owned by the Earls of Huntingdon and we all know that Robin Hood was the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon. Indeed, from the 11th century, much of Rutland had been owned by the Earls of Huntingdon. As Domesday shows, by the Saxon Earl Waltheof, then by his widow, Countess Judith, and then by his successors for many centuries.

Then there is the mysterious ‘Robin Hood’s Cave’ once situated in Barnsdale Wood, which was part of Exton parish. Legend reports that it was a hideout for Robin and his Merry Men. In 1939 it was filled in and now lies beneath Rutland Water but it was shown on many old maps. A ‘Robin Hood’s Stone’ was to be found at Belmesthorpe at one time and we can still see the venerable Domesday Oak at Edith Weston – perhaps our equivalent to the Major Oak of Sherwood Forest.

So, Rutland has the place-names, the locations, the Huntingdon connection and a popular belief. It was also a renowned royal hunting area and the hunting tradition has been a very powerful influence for centuries.

It may be that Robin Hood did visit Rutland, it is only thirty miles from Nottingham. We shall never know but it might help the tourist industry. What is historically certain is that we did have our own outlaw and his name is Peter de Neville.

The first recorded warden of the Royal Forest of Rutland was Hasculf of Allexton in 1130. Allexton is a small village on the border of Rutland and Leicestershire near Uppingham, at the foot of Wardley Hill.

Peter de Neville was his great-grandson and also warden, keeping up the family tradition. Surviving documents give a very good picture of successive wardens and how they conducted their business.

It appears that Peter became warden in 1249, following four generations in the office. Additionally, he was Keeper of Sauvey Castle (now a lonely mound near Withcote) and a favourite of Henry III whom he assisted in a variety of ways. However, in 1269, the Pleas of the Forest indicate that trouble was brewing. The list of Peter’s wrongdoing occupies three rolls of parchment: taking trees unlawfully; damaging underwood; allowing pigs loose in the forest; levying tolls wrongfully; causing damage by pasturing his animals and spoiling the deer park at Ridlington; stealing parcels of land from others; keeping the proceeds of fines for himself; extorting money; wrongfully imprisoning people at his gaol in Allexton and many other crimes.

He was eventually ordered to appear before the ageing Henry III at Westminster but he seems to have escaped punishment and was restored as warden. Yet he did not learn his lesson for only five years later, in 1274, he was declared an outlaw and his lands were seized. To-day, the signs of his moated enclosure and fishponds can be seen opposite the church near the river in Allexton.

It is not clear what happened next to Peter. Did he disappear into the forest as all outlaws should? Nothing is known about him although a report suggests he may have been in Shropshire for a time. However, he was dead by 1276. Eventually, his son, Theobald, recovered his father’s lands and, in 1300, became warden, following on from four generations in that post.

So, the good outlaw, Robin Hood, may have been in Rutland: that is dubious. What is certain is that we did have Peter, the bad outlaw, in Rutland. Unfortunately, the latter does not enhance the county’s reputation as much as Robin and so we must keep it secret.

What happened to the great forest of Rutland? In 1269 it covered all the southern half of the county. By the 15th century it had shrunk to a narrow belt six kilometres wide on the heavy clay-lands of the western border.

To-day, there are remnants in the north such as Barnsdale Wood, Armley Wood, Hambleton Wood, Cold Overton Park Wood, Lady Wood, Owston Woods, Launde Park Wood, Prior’s Coppice near Braunston, and in the south Wardley Wood, Stoke Dry Wood, Allexton Wood, Park Wood, Bolt Wood and Great Merrible Wood. As some names suggest there are several former deer parks in this list which, even to-day, can still be identified by the remains of banks and ditches marking their extent.

This is all we have left to remind us of a wilder time in which outlaws roamed the greenwood.

Acknowledgements to Mel Price, Rutland Magazine and Tim Clough, Rutland Record.