Sherwood Forest extended for thirty miles northward from Nottingham, skirting the great north road on each side. It was formerly divided into Thorny Wood and High Forest, and in one of these divisions were nineteen towns and villages, including Nottingham; and this great woodland, almost unbroken, extended to Derbyshire and Yorkshire, nearly joining the famous forest of Barnsdale.
There is little or nothing left now of Sherwood Forest; the land has been cleared of the beautiful old trees that once bordered the road from Mansfield to Nottingham, the only ones now remaining being the gigantic old trees that are to be found in the woods of Birkland and Bilhagh, and the oaks in Welbeck Park. Many of these aged trees are hollow, but they still put forth the tender green foliage of spring.
How beautiful those English woods must have been when Robin Hood and his archers dwelt in the forests; the oaks, the silver birches, the ashes, the elms, and the beeches growing close together; or in groups as they were wont to stand; with the rich undergrowth, the long trails of honeysuckle, or traveller's bower, the thistles, the foxgloves, and the primroses and bluebells of the spring beneath them. A thousand birds sang in the trees; the dappled deer bounded beneath them, and the rill trickled musically between the sedges. The trees made a natural fortress, for their entangled boughs, Camden tells us, "were so twisted together that they hardly left room for a person to pass."
There was much game, too, in the forest coverts; the deer, the hare, the marten; the quail, the rail, the pheasant, the woodcock, and the heron. There were foxes, of course, and even the wolf might have been found in Sherwood down to the thirteenth century.
There are also a number of caverns in that part of the country, especially near Nottingham, and there is a cave traditionally connected with Robin Hood himself It is a curious hollow rock in the side of a hill near Newstead, known as Robin Hood's stable.
This remarkable man, whose memory was so long and dearly treasured by the English people, lived, some traditions say, in the reigns of John and Henry III., others in those of Henry III. and Edward I. He and his followers haunted Sherwood and Barnsdale.
These men were outlaws, but probably only on account of having in some way broken the terrible game-laws of the Conqueror, or resented by a blow some insult from their superiors offered to a wife or sister. Men fled from mutilation to Robin Hood, and he sheltered them.
There were persons also of gentle and even noble birth amongst them; for after the battle of Evesham, in Henry III.'s reign, all who were on Montfort's side had their lands confiscated; and a much less offence than rebellion would, in his father John's reign, have justified a man in seeking shelter in the greenwood.
In the forests Robin Hood reigned an independent sovereign; at perpetual war with the king of England and his barons, but friend and father to the poor and destitute. When molested in one place he retired to another.
"It is not," says Mr. Ritson, "at the same time to be concluded that he must in this opposition have been guilty of manifest treason or rebellion; as he most certainly cannot be justly charged with either. An outlaw, in those times, being deprived of protection, owed no allegiance; his hand was against every man, and every man's hand was against him. These forests, in short, were his territories; those who accompanied and adhered to him, his subjects."
"The world was not his friend, nor the world's law. . . . The deer with which the royal forests then abounded (every Norman king being like Nimrod, 'a mighty hunter before the Lord') would afford our hero and his companions an ample supply of food throughout the year, and of fuel for dressing their venison, or for other purposes of life; they could evidently be in no want." The rest of their needs were, doubtless, supplied by the spoil of fat abbots or rich Norman nobles, and partly by selling venison or other game in the village.
In his way Robin was a religious man. Friar Tuck, his bluff chaplain, said mass daily to the outlaws, and Robin was very devout and reverent. A great reward had been offered by John for his apprehension, but no traitor was to be found in his band, or amongst his poor neigbbours. Unhappily, however, he became ill with fever, and desirous of being bled, he applied to the Prioress of Kirklees Nunnery, in Yorkshire (his relation), to bleed him, women in those days being great in leechcraft. But the base woman, either desiring the reward, or in revenge for his robberies of Churchmen, was treacherous. She welcomed him to the shelter of her roof, and bled him to death! But ere life was quite extinct, his faithful archers, alarmed at his not returning to them, had entered the nunnery and stood beside his bed. They came too late, save to receive his last words, and the ballad tells us that they were these:-
The grave where he lies has still its pilgrims; the well of which he drank still bears his name, and within this century his bow and some of his broad arrows were to be seen at Fountain's Abbey, the spot memorable in ballad literature for his adventure with the curtail friar.
Little John, it is said, survived but to see his leader buried; his grave is claimed by Scotland as well as England, but tradition inclines to the grave in the churchyard of Hathersage. All we can learn more is that the place long continued "celebrated for the yielding of excellent whetstones."
So popular were Robin Hood and his men that annual processions were held in honour to his memory, "to gather for him" it was called, and it was, of course, a time of merriment and sports.
Latimer was very indignant at having, on one occasion, to give way to the outlaw's memory. In his sixth sermon before young Edward VI., he told a story of bow, wishing to preach in a village church, he found the door locked, and the people gone abroad to gather for Robin Hood. He adds bitterly, " under the pretence of gathering for Robin Hood - a traitor and a thief - to put out a preacher!"