Robin Hood’s Grave

Anon. 'Robin Hood's Death and Burial' ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)
Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)

Last Thursday (2nd July 2015), I and the other delegates to the International Association for Robin Hood Studies got the chance to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.

According to the legend, in old age Robin Hood fell ill and went to visit his cousin, who was the Prioress of Kirklees, so that he could be bled. However, his cousin conspired with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. So she opened a vein, locked Robin in the upper room of the gatehouse, and let him bleed to death. This is how the story is recounted in one of the earliest Robin Hood texts, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450):

Yet he was begyled, I wys, through a wycked woman, the pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of kynne.

For the love of a knyght, Syr Roger of Donkester, that was her owne speciall, full evyll mote they fare.

They toke togyder theyr counsell, Robyn Hode for to sle, and how they myght best do that dede, his banis for to be.

Than bespake good Robyn, in place where as he stode, to morrow I muste to Kyrkesley, craftely to be leten blode.

Syr Roger of Donkestere, by the pryoresse he lay, and there they betrayed good Robyn Hode, through theyr false playe.

Cryst have mercy on his soule, that dyde on the rode, for he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.

The Gatehouse - the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.
The Gatehouse – the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.

Later Robin Hood texts would expand upon the story of the death even further. The ballad Robin Hood’s Death and Burial says that in his dying moments, Robin sounded his bugle horn and Little John came running. John wanted to burn down the priory in revenge for Robin’s death, but, noble to the end, Robin commands him not to, for:

I never hurt woman in all my life, nor man in woman’s company.

Instead, Robin wishes John to help him fire one last arrow, and where the arrow falls, says Robin, is the spot that should mark his grave:

Lay me a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, and lay my bent bow by my side, which was my music sweet, and make my grave of gravel and green, which is most right and meet.

The arrow falls over a mile away from the priory, and the spot, legend has it, is now marked by the grave that now stands to this day.

(c) Stephen Basdeo
(c) Stephen Basdeo

On the grave itself there is an epitaph which reads (in a text which is supposed to resemble Middle English):

Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.

You may be able to see this epitaph on the accompanying picture, though you may have to enlarge it.

Now, there have been doubts about this grave for a great number of years. The earliest reference to the existence of this grave is in the year 1610 – quite a few years after Robin Hood, if he ever existed, actually lived!

Thomas Percy, the editor of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), admitted that the grave and the epitaph was suspicious.

Joseph Ritson, on the other hand, in his Robin Hood (1795), seemed to think that it was genuine enough.

The current structure around the grave actually dates from the 1850s, so what you’re seeing in the picture is not a medieval structure.

Whether there is a Robin Hood buried under there cannot be said. It’s around the right location for a grave of the famous outlaw (if he existed), and no one has ever disturbed the soil to see if anyone is buried under there.

Most modern researchers tend to take the grave with a pinch of salt, unless they’re a big part of the ‘real Robin Hood’ industry (a bit like the Jack the Ripper industry).

All doubts aside, it was an enjoyable visit, and it’s nice to see where Robin might have died, had he existed.

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Robin Hood’s Garland (1856)

When you begin researching the original Robin Hood ballads, the names of a few late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century antiquarians become familiar to you. The likes of Thomas Percy, an Irish Bishop who rescued a collection of manuscripts from a house fire, and without whose efforts the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ (c.1450) would have remained unknown to us. Another, and perhaps more famous antiquarian, is Joseph Ritson, who in 1795 published Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. His really is a fine collection, doing exactly what it says on the tin, comprising examples of the earliest medieval ballads down to compositions from the eighteenth century. Later on, in the nineteenth century, John Gutch would expand, and critique Ritson’s work and methodology with A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode: With Other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman (1847). Finally, most Robin Hood scholars will be familiar with the work of Professor Francis J. Child in the 1880s, who collected a total of 37 extant ancient and modern Robin Hood ballads, and whose collection of Robin Hood material is said to be the most extensive.

Life and Ballads of Robin Hood (1859)As an avid ebayer,  I managed to pick up the following second hand book from 1865 entitled: The Life and Exploits of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood’s Garland (1859). It is, despite its relatively small size, a lengthy work at 447 pages (longer than the 1823 edition of Ritson’s anthology), and as far as I can ascertain contains more examples of Robin Hood ballads than either Percy, Ritson, or indeed Child. It even has examples of early eighteenth century satirical ballads such as the (it seems hitherto untapped by Robin Hood Scholars) one entitled ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’. There is also a scholarly critique of the existing theories surrounding Robin Hood’s birth, exploits, noble descent, etc., as well as the script for one of the fifteenth century May Games. It is, despite its small appearance, one of the most comprehensive collection of materials pertaining to Robin Hood, containing 45 ballads, poems or songs about the outlaw.

I have yet to fully explore some of the (hitherto unknown to me) treasures contained in this little book, but I was surprised when I did not find this work referenced in the works of modern historians and literary critics such as Dobson and Taylor’s Rymes of Robin Hood, Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood, or Stephanie Barcziewski’s Myth and National Identity. Although, given the fact that some cheap nineteenth-century chapbooks such as the one i am speaking ofabove were sometimes published under different titles, it is entirely possible that this work has been scrutinised before by historians. At the very least, however, at my next PhD supervision meeting with Prof. Hardwick and Dr. Mitchell I’ll have an interesting talking point!