The name ‘Sherwood’ was first recorded in 958AD when it was called ‘Sciryuda’ meaning the woodland belonging to the shire. However, evidence of flint tools suggest the area is likely to have been inhabited far earlier by prehistoric hunter-gatherers. During the late Iron Age and Roman periods, human habitation and farming was more common and, by the 9th century, farming communities were making a greater impact on the Sherwood landscape. Many 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.
Sherwood became a royal hunting forest after the Norman invasion of 1066 and was popular with many Norman kings, particularly King John and Edward I. The ruins of King John’s hunting lodge can still be seen near the Nottinghamshire village of Kings Clipstone.
In the 1200s, popularly thought to be the time of Robin Hood (more on him later), Sherwood covered about 100,000 acres, a fifth of the entire county 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 the law. Hence the name ‘outlaw’.
However, medieval Sherwood was not, as many imagine, a continuous swathe of dense virgin forest. It comprised birch and oak woodland, interspersed with large areas of open sandy heath and rough grassland. Sherwood also contained three royal deer parks, near Nottingham Castle, Bestwood and Pittance (Clipstone) Park.
Medieval woodland was by no means wild. It was a productive resource that was carefully managed. Landowners got the most value from their woodland by using techniques such as ‘coppicing’ and ‘pollarding’ to produce poles and laths for building. ‘Underwood’ (twigs, brushwood etc) was collected and sold for domestic fuel, and the woodland supported several industries, such as charcoal burning and the stripping of oak bark to use in tanning leather. The autumn crop of acorns produced in oak woodland was used to feed pigs. Cattle, sheep and deer grazed ‘wood pasture’.
Tradition tells that Robin Hood was an outlaw who poached the king’s deer in the royal hunting forest of Sherwood and fought with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Stories relate how travellers through the forest provided rich pickings for the gentleman robber and his band of ‘merry men’.
Historians have a problem tracing the origins of Robin Hood. There were no eye-witnesses, no-one wrote about meeting him and there is no account of his deeds. However, here is some evidence historians use in trying to uncover the real Robin:
c.1450 - The six original tales
The earliest written tales indicate that medieval people had a firm idea of what Robin Hood meant to them.
1377 - ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’, by William Langland
This long poem contains the earliest reference to the existence of the tales of Robin Hood. It includes the line:
‘I do not know my paternoster as the priest sings it.
But I do know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf, earl of Chester.’
1323 - Robin Hood, a porter
In 1323 King Edward II passed through Nottingham on his tour around England. Amongst his servants was a man named Robin Hood, employed as a porter. Some early historians thought this might be the original Robin Hood, but now we know of earlier ‘Robins’.
1261 - William Robinhood, outlawed
From the mid-1200s the nickname Robin Hood was given to known outlaws. As an example, William, son of Robert the Smith, was outlawed in 1261. He reappeared in the records in 1262. But by this time the royal official had changed his name to William Robehod or “Robinhood”.
1225 – Robert Hod, fugitive
In 1225 a man fled from justice in Yorkshire. He was recorded as Robert Hod, fugitive. He reappears in 1227 called “Hobbehod”. Could he be our man - spending his days robbing travellers through Sherwood Forest between Nottingham and Yorkshire?