Sherwood Forest is a royal forest in Nottinghamshire, England, famous by its historic association with the legend of Robin Hood. The area has been wooded since the end of the Ice Age (as attested by pollen sampling cores).
Today, Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve encompasses 423.2 hectares, 1,045 acres (4.23 km2), surrounding the village of Edwinstowe, the site of Thoresby Hall. It is a remnant of an older, much larger, royal hunting forest, which derived its name from its status as the shire (or sher) wood of Nottinghamshire, which extended into several neighbouring counties (shires), bordered on the west along the River Erewash and the Forest of East Derbyshire. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, the forest covered perhaps a quarter of Nottinghamshire in woodland and heath subject to the forest laws.
Evidence of flint tools shows some use of the Sherwood area by prehistoric hunter-gatherers. By the 9th century, farming communities were making a greater impact on the Sherwood landscape. Most of these communities still exist today. Names ending in ‘by’ like Thoresby, are Scandinavian in origin, ‘thorpe’ as in Gleadthorpe are Danish, and ‘feld’ (field) as in Mansfield, are Roman whilst ‘tun’ (ton) as in Clipstone are anglo-saxon. This was Clippes hamlet or manor. The name ‘Sherwood’ was first recorded in 958 when it was called Sciryuda, meaning ‘the woodland belonging to the shire’.
Historically there were two different definitions of Sherwood. One was the great swath of woodland and heath found on the quickly draining poor sand-lands running up the centre of Nottinghamshire. The other was the Royal Forest of Sherwood, which comprised the royal manors and was subject to Forest Law. Before 1066 many of these manors were held by Edward the Confessor. Royal manors provided the King with his main power base so were very important. After the Norman invasion, these royal manors formed the core of the Royal Forest.
The legal term ‘Forest’ meant an area subject to special laws designed to protect the valuable resources of timber and game (vert and venison). These laws were strictly and severely imposed by agisters, foresters, verderers (wardens) and rangers, who were all were employed by the Crown. It was Henry II who, in 1180, enclosed the Royal Hunting Park of Clipstone and made the manor at Kings Clipstone, which later became known as King John’s Palace, a royal residence.
In the 1200s, popularly thought to be the time of Robin Hood, Sherwood covered about a fifth of Nottinghamshire. The main London to York road, the Great North Way, ran straight through Sherwood, and travellers were often at the mercy of robbers living outside of the law (outlaws). The 1630 map of Kings Clipstone shows the Forest to the east of Kings Clipstone reduced to rabbit warrens and scrubby heathland called the ‘Shrogges’, a local dialect word.
** – Robin Hood – **
Robin Hood is a legendary heroic outlaw originally depicted in English folklore and subsequently featured in literature and film. According to legend, he was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. In some versions of the legend he is depicted as being of noble birth, and having fought in the Crusades before returning to England to find his lands taken by the Sheriff. In other versions this is not the case and he is instead born into the yeoman class. Traditionally depicted dressed in Lincoln green, he is said to have robbed from the rich and given to the poor.
Through retellings, additions, and variations a body of familiar characters associated with Robin Hood have been created. These include his lover, Maid Marian, his band of outlaws, the Merry Men, and his chief opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff is often depicted as assisting Prince John in usurping the rightful but absent King Richard, to whom Robin Hood remains loyal. A common theme of the story is that Robin is a champion of the common people fighting against injustice, whilst remaining loyal to the rightful ruler. He became a popular folk figure in the Late Middle Ages, and the earliest known ballads featuring him are from the 15th century.
There have been numerous variations and adaptations of the story over the last six hundred years, and the story continues to be widely represented in literature, film and television. Robin Hood is considered one of the best known tales of English folklore. The historicity of Robin Hood is not conclusively proven and has been debated for centuries. There are numerous references to historical figures with similar names that have been proposed as possible evidence of his existence, some dating back to the late 13th century. At least eight plausible origins to the story have been mooted by historians and folklorists, including suggestions that "Robin Hood" was a stock alias used by outlaws in general who did not want to reveal their identity.
The historicity of Robin Hood has been debated for centuries. A difficulty with any such historical research is that Robert was a very common given name in medieval England, and 'Robin' (or Robyn), was its very common diminutive, especially in the 13th century. The surname Hood (or Hude, Hode, etc.) was also fairly common because it referred either to a hooder, who was a maker of hoods, or alternatively to somebody who wore a hood as a head-covering. Unsurprisingly, therefore, medieval records mention a number of people called 'Robert Hood' or 'Robin Hood', some of whom are known to have fallen foul of the law.
Another view on the origin on the name is expressed in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica which remarks that 'hood' was a common dialectical form of 'wood'; and that the outlaw's name has been given as 'Robin Wood'. There are a number of references to Robin Hood as Robin Wood, or Whood, or Whod, from the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest recorded example, in connection with May games in Somerset, dates from 1518.
Leaving aside the reference to the "rhymes" of Robin Hood in Piers Plowman in the 1370s, the first mention of a quasi-historical Robin Hood is given in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle, written in about 1420. The following lines occur with little contextualisation under the year 1283:
The next notice is a statement in the Scotichronicon, composed by John of Fordun between 1377 and 1384, and revised by Walter Bower in about 1440. Among Bower's many interpolations is a passage that directly refers to Robin. It is inserted after Fordun's account of the defeat of Simon de Montfort and the punishment of his adherents. Robin is represented as a fighter for de Montfort's cause. This was in fact true of the historical outlaw of Sherwood Forest Roger Godberd, whose points of similarity to the Robin Hood of the ballads have often been noted.
Bower writes: 'Then [c. 1266] arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.
The word translated here as "murderer" is the Latin sicarius (literally "dagger-man"), from the Latin sica for "dagger". Bower goes on to tell a story about Robin Hood in which he refuses to flee from his enemies while hearing Mass in the greenwood, and then gains a surprise victory over them, apparently as a reward for his piety.
Another reference, discovered by Julian Luxford in 2009, appears in the margin of the "Polychronicon" in the Eton College library. Written around the year 1460 by a monk in Latin, it says: 'Around this time [ie reign of Edward I], according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.''
In a petition presented to Parliament in 1439, the name is used to describe an itinerant felon. The petition cites one Piers Venables of Aston, Derbyshire, "who having no liflode, ne sufficeante of goodes, gadered and assembled unto him many misdoers, beynge of his clothynge, and, in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that countrie, like as it hadde be Robyn Hude and his meyne." The name was still used to describe sedition and treachery in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his associates were branded "Robin Hoods" by Robert Cecil.
The early ballads link Robin Hood to identifiable real places. In popular culture, Robin Hood and his band of "merry men" are portrayed as living in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire. Notably, the Lincoln Cathedral Manuscript, which is the first officially recorded Robin Hood song (dating from approximately 1420), makes an explicit reference to the outlaw that states that "Robyn hode in scherewode stod." In a similar fashion, a monk of Witham Priory (1460) suggested that the archer had 'infested shirwode'. His chronicle entry reads:
Specific sites in the county of Nottinghamshire that are directly linked to the Robin Hood legend include Robin Hood's Well, located near Newstead Abbey (within the boundaries of Sherwood Forest), the Church of St. Mary in the village of Edwinstowe and most famously of all, the Major Oak also located at the village of Edwinstowe. The Major Oak, which resides in the heart of Sherwood Forest, is popularly believed to have been used by the Merry Men as a hide-out. Dendrologists have contradicted this claim by estimating the tree's true age at around eight hundred years; it would have been relatively a sapling in Robin's time, at best.
** – Merrie Men (and Woman) – **
In the early tales, Little John is shown to be intelligent and highly capable. In "A Gest of Robyn Hode", he captures the sorrowful knight and, when Robin Hood decides to pay the knight's mortgage for him, accompanies him as a servant. In "Robin Hood's Death", he is the only one of the Merry Men that Robin takes with him. In the 15th-century ballad commonly called "Robin Hood and the Monk", Little John leaves in anger after a dispute with Robin. When Robin Hood is captured, it is Little John who plans his leader's rescue. In thanks, Robin offers Little John leadership of the band, but John refuses. Later depictions of Little John portray him as less cunning.
The earliest ballads do not feature an origin story for this character. According to a 17th-century ballad, he was a giant of a man who was at least seven feet tall, and introduced when he tried to prevent Robin from crossing a narrow bridge, whereupon they fought with quarterstaves, and Robin was overcome. Despite having won the duel, John agreed to join his band and fight alongside him. From then on he was called Little John in whimsical reference to his size and in a play that reversed his first and last names (as his proper name was John Little). This scene is almost always re-enacted in film and television versions of the story. In some modern film versions, Little John loses the duel to Robin.
Starting from the ballad tradition, Little John is commonly shown to be the only Merry Man present at Robin Hood's death. Despite a lack of historical evidence for his existence, Little John is reputed to be buried in a churchyard in the village of Hathersage, Derbyshire. A modern tombstone marks the supposed location of his grave, which lies under an old yew tree. This grave was owned by the Nailor (Naylor) family, and sometimes some variation of "Nailer" is given as John's surname. In other versions of the legends, his name is given as John Little, enhancing the irony of his nickname. According to local legend, Little John built himself a small cottage across the River Derwent from the family home. The site now has a 15th century Grade 2 listed ex-farmhouse and barn built on it, called Nether House at Offerton.
The character entered the tradition through these folk plays, and he was originally partnered with Maid Marian: "She is a trul of trust, to serue a frier at his lust/a prycker a prauncer a terer of shetes/a wagger of ballockes when other men slepes." His appearance in "Robin Hood and the Sheriff" means that he was already part of the legend around the time when the earliest surviving copies of the Robin Hood ballads were being made.
A friar with Robin's band in the historical period of Richard the Lion-Hearted would have been impossible because the period predates friars in England; however, the association of the Robin Hood with Richard I was not made until the 16th century; the early ballad A Gest of Robin Hood names his king as "Edward".
What follows is a story which includes different versions of the legend. He was a former monk of Fountains Abbey (or in some cases, St Mary's Abbey in York, which is also the scene of some other Robin Hood tales) who was expelled by his order because of his lack of respect for authority. Because of this, and in spite of his taste for good food and wine, he became the chaplain of Robin's band. In Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, he was specifically sought out as part of the tale of Alan-a-Dale: Robin has need of a priest who will marry Allan to his sweetheart in defiance of the Bishop of Hereford.
A later ballad, Robin Hood and the Newly Revived, ascribes an origin story to him. Robin finds a finely dressed young man shooting deer in Sherwood, and offers to let him join the band; they quarrel and fight. Robin asks who he is; he says he is Young Gamwell, who killed his father's steward and fled his father's estate to seek out his uncle, Robin Hood. Robin makes him welcome and renames him Scarlet. This story, more or less, is the common origin story for Will Scarlet, although variations occur.
Traditionally, when the outlaws are depicted as being middle-aged, Scarlet is often depicted as young or youthful, sometimes in his late teens. In the traditional tales, he is hot-headed and tempestuous, but has a love of fine elegant clothes and is often seen wearing red silk. He is the most skilled swordsman of the merry men whilst Robin Hood is the most skilled archer and Little John the most skilled staff wielder. In some tales, Scarlet uses two swords at the same time (this was parodied in the movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights).
According to local tradition, Will Scarlet was killed after a battle with the Sheriff's men and is buried in the churchyard of the Church of St. Mary of the Purification, Blidworth in Nottinghamshire. The apex of the old church spire stands in the graveyard and is popularly referred to as a monument to Will Scarlet, whose grave is otherwise unmarked.
Both a "Robin" and a "Marian" character were associated with May Day by the 15th century, but these figures were apparently part of separate traditions; the Marian of the May Games is likely derived from the French tradition of a shepherdess named Marion and her shepherd lover Robin, recorded in Adam de la Halle's Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, circa 1283.
It isn't clear if there was an association of the early "outlaw" character of Robin Hood and the early "May Day" character Robin, but they did become identified, and associated with the "Marian" character, by the 16th century. Alexander Barclay, writing in c. 1500, refers to "some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood". Marian remained associated with May Day celebrations even after the association of Robin Hood with May Day had again faded. The early Robin Hood is also given a "shepherdess" love interest, in Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage (Child Ballad 149), his sweetheart is "Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses". Clorinda survives in some later stories as an alias of Marian.
The "gentrified" Robin Hood character, portrayed as a historical outlawed nobleman, emerges in the late 16th century. From this time, Maid Marian is also cast in terms of a noblewoman, even though her role was never entirely virginal and she retained aspects of her "shepherdess" or "May Day" characteristics; in 1592, Thomas Nashe described the Marian of the later May Games as being played by a male actor named Martin, and there are hints in the play of Robin Hood and the Friar that the female character in these plays had become a lewd parody. Robin was originally called Ryder.
In the play, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon by Anthony Munday, which was written in 1598, Marian appears as Robin's lawfully-wedded wife, who changes her name from Matilda when she joins him in the greenwood. She also has a cousin called Elizabeth de Staynton who is described as being the Prioress of Kirklees Priory near Brighouse in West Yorkshire. The 19th century antiquarian, Joseph Hunter, identified a Robert Hood, yeoman from Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the archives preserved in the Exchequer, whose personal story matched very closely the story of Robin in Anthony Munday's play, and this Robert Hood also married a woman named Matilda, who changed her name to Marian when she joined him in exile in Barnsdale Forest (following the Battle of Boroughbridge) in 1322, and who also had a cousin named Elizabeth de Staynton who was Prioress of Kirklees Priory. If these parallels are not coincidental, then the Marian of Robin Hood fame, whose origins may be distinct from the Marian of the May games or of Monday's play, may derive all her roots from her association with the historical Robert Hood of Wakefield.
In an Elizabethan play, Anthony Munday identified Maid Marian with the historical Matilda, daughter of Robert Fitzwalter, who had to flee England because of an attempt to assassinate King John (legendarily attributed to King John's attempts to seduce Matilda). In later versions of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is commonly named as "Marian Fitzwalter."
In Robin Hood and Maid Marian (Child Ballad 150), Maid Marian is "a bonny fine maid of a noble degree" said to excel both Helen and Jane Shore in beauty. Separated from her lover, she dresses as a page "and ranged the wood to find Robin Hood," who was himself disguised, so that the two begin to fight when they meet. As is often the case in these ballads, Robin Hood loses the fight to comical effect, and Marian only recognizes him when he asks for quarter. This ballad is in the "Earl of Huntington" tradition, a supposed "historical identity" of Robin Hood forwarded in the late 16th century.
** – Visiting – **
There are a number of excellent, if somewhat lengthy, walks through and around Sherwood Forest.
** – Edwinstowe, Sherwood Forest & Major Oak circular – **
Almost six miles long, this walk is classified as Easy, with an ascent of 250 feet. The walk should take about two and a half hours.
Sherwood Forest in the heart of Nottinghamshire is famous for its connection with the legends of Robin Hood. This walk explores some of the woodland including the ancient the Major Oak using a number of easy to follow tracks and paths. The start is the large pay and display car park (grid ref. SK626676) close to the visitor centre just off the B6034 on the north side of Edwinstowe, which lies on the A6075 between Ollerton and Mansfield. After parking follow the Greenwood Walk and then Clipstone Walk west for just over a mile to reach a broad open "avenue" running north to south (grid ref. SK606670). Turn left here and continue walking until you reach the A6075 (grid ref. SK606663). Turn right along the A6075 for about 250 metres and then right onto the Robin Hood's Way (grid ref. SK604662) following the green arrows, passing a memorial to reach a T-junction (grid ref. SK590666). Turn right staying on the Robin Hood's Way for a mile to reach a T-junction (grid ref. SK598661). Leave the Robin Hood's Way, first going left and then right. After 250 metres you reach a fork. Continue straight ahead here ignoring the right-hand path (grid ref. SK600683). After 600 metres you cross the Robin Hood's Way (grid ref. SK606685). After 200 metres take the right fork following a bridleway. After just over a kilometre you reach a junction (grid ref. SK616678). Go left here (do not fork right uphill) and keep straight ahead to the Major Oak (grid ref. SK620679) and continue back to the visitor centre and the car park.
** – Merrie Men Walk – **
Enjoy a fascinating and enchanting walk among the age-old oaks of this legendary forest. The distance is 5.5 miles (8.8km) and the minimum time is about 2 hours 30 minutes. The ascent/gradient is 278ft (85m) and the level of difficulty is classified as Easy. The paths are easy woodland tracks and wide forest rides and the landscape is beautiful mixed woodland, more open to north. Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 270 Sherwood Forest with the start/finish SK 626676. Dog friendliness, on a lead around the visitors' centre, otherwise excellent. There is parking at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre (pay-and-display) and public toilets at Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre.
** – Facilities – **
On arrival in the welcome area, you’ll find all you need to fuel your day out. There’s lots to see and learn here, from the wonderful wildlife that makes its home in Sherwood Forest, to the legend of Robin Hood and his infamous gang of outlaws.
Many visitors choose to go-it-alone and head off to see what they can find – but if you want some inspiration, pick up a trail guide – whether you’re inspired by the great oaks or on the hunt for Robin Hood, find the trail which best suits. Whichever you choose, there’s lots to find out about the wonderful wildlife, legends and oak trees which fill the forest. Families can also hire fun backpacks for their youngsters to help them enjoy a number of different activities, depending on the season. Speak to staff in the welcome area to get one.
The Visitor Centre is the best place to start your journey. Brand new for summer 2018, the centre has been built by the RSPB and designed to provide a warm and welcoming gateway to Sherwood’s legendary landscape, and help to inspire the 350,000 annual visitors to enjoy and celebrate the forest’s rich and diverse woodland, wildlife and heritage.
It’s home to the on-site café, where you’ll find freshly made produce, from sandwiches and jacket potatoes, to homemade pies, or children’s take-out picnic boxes for any young adventurers too eager to wait.
There’s the Sherwood Shop with something for every budget – including pocket money shoppers – and gifts for all tastes and occasions. The place to pick up your Robin Hood and Sherwood mementos, as well as items from the RSPB range. And the toilet facilities are here too, with a Changing Places facility for users with disabilities, and their carers.
Grab refreshments and head out to the amphitheatre whilst you plan your next move, or let the children explore the exciting Robin Hood play area before you begin your forest adventure. From here, Sherwood Forest is yours to explore… The visitor centre is open 10am – 5pm from March to October, and 10am – 4:30pm from November to the end of February. If you are interested in finding out about becoming an RSPB member, and helping protect and care for this special forest, you can ask any of the staff members around the site. Benefits include not just free parking at Sherwood, but more than 200 reserves around the country.
Don't forget to check out the Robin Hood Festival, now in its 34th year! Each summer, this week long festival transports you back to the time of Robin Hood, with storytelling, medieval music and performances each day. You can also get involved in nature related activities organised by the RSPB, plus things like pony rides, archery, crafts, and check out scuffles between Robin and the Sheriff! Please check the listing for what is happening this year. The historic village of Edwinstowe is close at hand too, plus a craft centre just across the square from our visitor centre. Walk around the village and you’ll uncover dozens of places which also play a part in the story of Sherwood, such as the nearby St Mary’s Church, which famously lays claim to hosting Robin and Marian’s wedding.
As well as disabled toilets, they also have a large Changing Places facility at the visitor centre, which includes a hoist, shower, toilet and changing facilities for the comfort of their disabled users and their carers. Most standard disabled toilets are not big enough to cater for people who may need their carer’s assistance. This will be opening at the end of August 2018.
You’ll find ample parking available at Sherwood in the main car park, just across the road from the visitor centre. The car park is accessed via the entrance on the B6034, and it’s open from 10am – 5pm in summer and 10am – 4.30pm in winter. Park up and follow the signs across the road and on to Forest Corner, where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the visitor centre through the trees.
Parking costs £4 for non-members, and is chargeable for anything up to a full day, and is free for RSPB members. Being an RSPB member also allows you free parking and entry to 170 other reserves across the country, as well as supporting their vital work to give nature a home. Accessible parking for any visitors with disabilities is available adjacent to the new centre.
Location : Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire, NG21 9HN
Transport: Mansfield (7 miles) OR Nottingham (both National Rail) then bus;. Bus routes: Stagecoach 'The Sherwood Arrow' stops at the visitor centre.
Opening Times Visitor Centre: Daily, 10:00 to 17:00, March to October; 10:00 to 16:30, November to February.
Tickets : Free; see above for car park.
Tel: 01623 824643