Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Hooded Man cometh...

Fairbanks...but he won't be much like this. Sadly, real medieval outlaws weren't half so merry as Douglas Fairbanks and his pot of ale. 

He will be cometh-ing in my next novel, "Nowhere Was There Peace", due to be released by Fireship Press in the next few weeks. As part of the build-up to the release, I wanted to talk a little about some of the themes and characters. 

The title comes from the 15th century Scottish chronicler, Walter Bower, a canon of Inchcolm Abbey. He devoted much of his life to working on the Scotichronicon, a history of Scotland and the British Isles.

On page 355 of his work Bower writes of the pitiful state of England in the year 1266:

"Moreover all those who supported Simon in that battle were outlawed and disinherited, so that in the in following year within one week the king of England bestowed lands worth 17,560 nobles on others. The greater part of the disinherited infested the roads and streets and became robbers. Then a deadly struggle broke out between the king and the disinherited, in the course of which villages were burned, towns wrecked, whole stretches of land depopulated, churches pillaged, religious driven from their monasteries, clerics had money extorted from them and the common people were ruined. Nowhere was there peace, nowhere security..."

Bower is writing of the continuing unrest in England following the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. De Montfort's death was not the end of the civil wars, as the remainder of his supporters continued to hold out in the woods and wild places.

King Henry III, never the wisest of rulers, had provoked them into further rebellion by declaring that all those who had supported the Earl were to be stripped of their lands and goods. The "Disinherited", as they were termed, had little option but to snatch up their swords and carry on fighting.
EveshamThe death of Simon de Montfort at Evesham. After the battle the Lord Edward, Henry III's son, had De Montfort dismembered, his head stuck on a pole and his testicles hung either side of his nose. It didn't pay to mess with Ned...

So who is the Hooded Man? I refer of course to Robin Hood, England's most famous and enduring outlaw hero. I'm not the first to suggest that the legend might have originated from the bloody and dramatic years of the Baron's Wars, in which the common people of England were given a voice in government for the first time in history (albeit a small one). 

Returning to Bower, on page 353 under the year 1266 he makes the following reference to Robin Hood:

At this time there arose from among the disinherited and outlaws and raised his head that most famous murderer Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices. The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasms in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing [of them] more than in other romances. Yet some of his exploits thus recited are commendable, as is clear from what follows..."

Bower goes on to describe 'Robert Hood' hearing Mass and then beating his enemies in battle: the inference being that the penitent man shall always be saved.

On page 357:


In that year also the disinherited English barons and those loyal to the king clashed fiercely; amongst them Roger de Mortimer occupied the Welsh Marches and John d’Eyville occupied the Isle of Ely; Robert Hood was an outlaw amongst the woodland briars and thorns.  Between them they inflicted a vast amount of slaughter on the common and ordinary folk, cities and merchants..."

Bower describes a very different Robin to the jolly outlaw hero we are all used to seeing in films and novels. This one is a 'famous murderer' who helps to inflict a great deal of damage and slaughter on the country. As such, he is rather closer to the grim reality of medieval crime than Errol Flynn. 

The chaotic state of England at this time makes a perfect setting for fiction, and the rebellion of the Disinherited provided a number of ideal characters: bellicose, fiery men like John D'Eyville, the Lord Edward, Roger Mortimer etc all appear in my novel, burning and hacking their way through the pages as they did through life. The central character, Hugh Franklin, is fictional, a stonemason's son turned government agent who has to cope with the many dangers that this era can throw at him.

And what of not-so-merry Robin? Was Bower correct, did the real-life outlaw hero really exist at this time and fight alongside the Disinherited? The historian Maurice Keen thought that the times and the context would have suited a historical Robin Hood, but lamented the fact that there is no record of anyone called 'Robert Hood' among De Montfort's followers or the Disinherited.

As it happens, Keen was wrong:

The above is an extract from a 1269 Court of Inquisitions, in which local men of Cambridgeshire accused of having supported the Disinherited were summoned to explain their actions. This 'Robertus Hod' or Robert Hood was a townsman of Cambridge, probably one of those who joined the revolt after receiving a letter exhorting them to do so from John D'Eyville, leader of the rebels encamped in the Isle of Ely.

So is this man 'the' Robin Hood? It isn't easy to say. There are many theories as to the origins of the outlaw, and it may be that he is an amalgamation of history, myth and folklore. I put forward my own ideas in Nowhere Was There Peace, but you will have to wait for the book to find out what they are... 

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