Today, I’m republishing a historical essay of mine about a real-life model for the legend of Robin Hood, back in the 11th century and the period of the Norman Conquest. It was inspired partly by research I conducted for the third volume of my big historical fantasy novel, Forest of Dreams, and partly by the fact my husband comes from Worcestershire, an area of England I’ve come to know quite well.
Wicked Sheriff and Outlaw Lord
by Sophie Masson
The legend of Robin Hood is the quintessential English myth. In it, we find all the elements that make up the English—as opposed to the Celtic British—character in the ancient land that the Celts called Logres. Combining ancient magical and symbolic aspects with the trauma of the Norman Conquest, Robin Hood’s legend still has many reverberations in modern England. It could be said, for instance, that the vicious class conflict which characterised English social life–and which still reverberates throughout it to this day–had its origins in the almost total destruction of the native English-speaking Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and its almost complete replacement by French-speaking Norman nobles. This produced a vast gulf of misunderstanding between the two peoples which became, in effect, class-based, for ‘ordinary people’ tended to be native English, whilst ‘the upper crust’ traced its origins to foreign despoilers!
As well as preserving the memory of the hideous physical and moral destruction wrought on Anglo-Saxon culture by the Conquest, the legend of the greenwood lord Robin Hood and his merry men is a perfect distillation of that light, lively and melancholy English spirit which had its most gifted and brilliant expression in the work of William Shakespeare. The slanting, ambiguous, mischievous light of the greenwood and its magic is more powerful, in the end, than the shadow of the castle stronghold in the stories of Robin Hood: an ancient light, that predates the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, and even the Celts, and symbolises the enduring nature of the land.
It’s always a hard one, conquest. The attempt to brutally suppress a vanquished culture and replace it wholesale usually leads to it haunting the landscape, and the cultural psyche, in a way that eventually takes its toll on the confidence and identity of the conquerors themselves. It’s been the same story all over the world, including of course in Australia. In England, it happened to the Normans. . .
In the year of Our Lord, 1066, thousands of men came ashore at Pevensey under Duke William of Normandy’s lion flag. Attired for battle, William’s warhosts were attracted by the prospect of more loot and plunder than their Norse ancestors(the word ‘Norman’ comes from ‘Norse’ itself) could ever have dreamed was possible, and also by the joy of teaching their arrogant Anglo-Saxon rivals a lesson they
wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Lots of men there, twitching with excitement, the thrill of the hunt and of the fabulous rewards promised to them: landless sons, and illegitimate ones; adventurers and pirates and those who followed along just to see what would happen. Like the wolf in the fable, however, they must have a good reason for gobbling up their prey. And so they had it, not one, indeed, but several. Political reason: hadn’t Harold pledged support to William’s right of kingship in England, before Edward the Confessor had died? Religious reason: the Pope had given his blessing to the invasion, because the English Church was going its own way far too often. Cultural reason: the Norse thirst for gold and blood, only thinned a little by la douce France, was rising high. No doubt many of the French breathed a sigh of relief when the Norman army was gone. Personal reason: Duke William, driven by his illegitimacy, driven to conquer England and make it his own, though always his heart stayed in his green Norman fields.
That gathering of men, that roundup of reasons, was to have a far-reaching effect. Those warriors twitching to be gone to battle weren’t to know it: but this was to be the last conquest of England, because it was the most traumatic. And in its trauma would be born the greatest of the English legends: that of the outlaw Robin Hood, and his arch-enemy, the wicked Sheriff. Generations and generations into the future, the affrontement of Saxon and Norman would become metamorphosed into the age-old conflict of freedom and tyranny, of nature and authority, of summer and winter, of wild magic and castle law. And men who were once opponents would become reconciled within it. For the terrible crucible of history distils some potent brews, and the tale of the wicked sheriff and the outlaw lord was one of the most potent of all. And it is fascinating to peer into that crucible of time and watch the ingredients of legend being cooked up before your very eyes.
There, among those men on the English shore, are many who will leave the imprint of their characters and presence on legend. There are the powerful ones, first: greedy Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William’s half-brother, notorious even amongst the Normans for his rapacity and lust, the epitome of a corrupt and oppressive Church; there is the honourable Ralph de Todeni, or Raoul de Conches,
magnanimous when it suited him; there is complex William the King himself, moneybags, tough warrior, harsh legaliser, driven bastard, nature-lover, faithful husband, cold in judgement, the man to whose bureaucratic instincts avant l’heure we owe the inestimably precious Domesday Chronicle, yet the man of whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sadly wrote:
He had castles built
and wretched men oppressed. .
He was fallen into avarice,
and he loved greediness above all.
He forbade hunting the stags,so also the boars
he loved the stags so very much,
as if he were their father. .
Alas, woe! that any man should be so proud,
raise up and reckon himself above all men.
But it was not only the powerful who made that part of the legend, for if that was not so, the legend would not have become so ingrained. Oppression must be localised and personalised before it becomes more than just a distant story. And so, William’s followers, great and small, in all the corners of that green and pleasant land, all did their bit to help it along.
Urse d’Abetot, or d’Abitot(the medieval chroniclers are notoriously cavalier about names!)was just one of those petty followers. Urse hailed from a tiny place called Saint Jean d’Abetot, on the white cliffs of the Seine near Le Havre. From being a very minor lord in Normandy, a vassal of the powerful Tancarville family, who were chamberlains to William himself, and a mere mention in the invading fleet’s roll call, Urse went on to become Sheriff of the rich Western Midlands county of Worcestershire, and through the marriage of his daughrer Emmeline, allied to one of the greatest of Norman families, the Beauchamps, from whom past and present royal families are descended in one way or the other. Such were the rich rewards of conquest for the conquerors.
Urse bursts into history fully-fledged, as it were, as a perfect example of Norman rapacity, arrogance and violence. His name means Bear, and it is hard to avoid the image of him rampaging heavily through the older culture, looking neither to right nor left as he swipes this hive of honey, and that one, and that one, squashing all the bees in the process. Being no respecter of Anglo-Saxon persons, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he managed to grab one-sixth of the county of Worcestershire for his personal holdings: not only from banished and dispossessed English thanes, or lords, but also from the Church. Illiterate himself, he showed his contempt for the highly literate and cultured monks at Worcester(it was here that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was in part written) by building his castle in such a way that his latrines and drains overflowed onto the monastery cemetery. For this, Urse achieved the distinction of being cursed by the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who was also the protector of the Worcester monks. Alas, poor Ealdred: the curse has ever been the last refuge of the powerless and vanquished! Ealdred’s words, as recorded by William of Malmesbury, can’t have made the Bear tremble too much:’Thou are called Urse. Have thou God’s curse!’
Sure it is, anyway, that Urse lived on for a good many more years of despoiling(he was Sheriff for 40 years!), whilst Ealdred died only a year after the Conquest. But later, maybe those words came back to haunt Urse, for his only son Roger, the inheritor of all his lands, was banished and disinherited by King Henry I, William’s son, for killing a servant of the King(and thus ensuring that Urse’s heir would now be his daughter Emmeline). The violence displayed by Urse and Roger seems to have lived on in the family: a d’Abitot was one of the four knights who rushed off to Canterbury to answer King Henry II’s exasperated question, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’
Like thugs loyal to their gang leader, men like Urse took their vassalage seriously. An eager servant of William, the Sheriff of Worcester helped put down the 1067 rising of the Welsh and the English, as well as the later revolt of the Norman Earl of Hereford. And it was in that 1067 rebellion that we come to the other face of the Robin Hood legend, that of the outlaw lord. For one of the leaders of that rebellion in the West was Prince Eadric of the Magonsaeton tribe of that part of what had once been West Mercia: a famous figure who is known as Edric Silvaticus, or Edric of the Woods; and as Edric the Wild.
Even today, there are stories about Edric in the West Midlands, particularly in Shrosphire, where he had most of his lands; but he also held some in adjoining Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Edric is rumoured to have married a fairy wife, and to sleep under the ancient lead mines of the Stiperstones, waiting for the call that England is in danger again. What is known of Edric’s real history is just as extraordinary. A wild-tempered, darkhaired man who may well have been half-Welsh and half-English, he was the nephew of the infamous Edric Streona, who earlier on in that turbulent century had been instrumental in bringing England to the brink of ruin. Streona was a consummate politician who attempted to play off Saxons and Danes against each other, for his own gain. All these efforts came to naught in the end. For hated and reviled as a traitor by his own people, he was executed by orders of the ferocious English-born Viking ruler, King Canute. Edric the Wild’s own father, Aelfric, was not associated with this, however; and the family were undisturbed in their western lands.
All English thanes who had fought against William at Hastings were dispossessed of all their lands. In this way the new King sought to make an example to all who might try to rebel. Those who had fought against him to protect their lands were, in a neat bit of doublespeak, called traitors, and thus unworthy of holding land at all. In this way he hoped to break the backbone of resistance in England. Many of the dispossessed lords, witnessing the total collapse of their country, did in fact give up, and fled England: some of them ending up as far as Byzantium. Others made whatever accomodations they could with the invaders. Still others took to the woods and harassed the Normans. In the North of the country, this resistance was so strong that William determined to put a stop to it; the subsequent Harrowing of the North was a wound that bled for generations. But in the end, no matter what measures the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy took to protect and fight for their lands, all failed. By 1086, the time of the Domesday Book, there was only a tiny handful of landholders with Anglo-Saxon names left in the whole of England.
Edric the Wild, meanwhile, had not been at Hastings, for whatever reason. He was not dispossessed of his lands immediately. But he did not lie quietly under the Norman yoke and refused to submit to William. Almost immediately, in fact, he gathered support from two erstwhile enemies of his, the Welsh princelings Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, and descended on Herefordshire, harrying the Norman marcher lords in every direction. The historical record is silent on whether Urse the Sheriff met Edric of the Woods in armed combat; but one can certainly assume that their forces would have affronted each other. Edric and his allies were not successful in destroying Norman rule in the Borders; but they harried and harassed the thinly-stretched garrisons in the heavily wooded region to such an extent that William offered him peace.
In 1070 Edric was reconciled to William, but this was not a popular outcome amongst his people, and no doubt the name of the traitor Streona was much bandied about. Whether the old fox William and the lame wolf Edric really trusted each other is open to question: but as William had the reputation of keeping to his promises, and as his ‘protection’ was perhaps preferable to his agent, Urse’s naked rapacity, Edric agreed to keep quiet for the time being. In some ways, this part of the story is like the episode in Robin Hood when the outlaw is lured to the court and made soft with promises and protection by the King, who sees in this a better, more subtle way of keeping Robin under control than the Sheriff’s blunt, brutal approach, which has been a failure. Certainly ordinary people saw it that way, judging by the Shropshire legend of Edric—he is not allowed to die, but must be forever watchful against enemies, because he must expiate his crime of parleying with the invader instead of fighting him.
What happened after this is not entirely clear. But what is certain is that by the time of the Domesday Book, Edric was not a landowner any more. In fact Urse had some of the English thane’s former holdings. What happened to Edric? He must have been outlawed. Did he take part in the earl of Hereford’s rebellion in 1075, and was he punished for that by being deprived of his lands? It seems extraordinary that he might have joined up with a Norman, however rebellious; but those were extraordinary times, when ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ was the only constant. He had engaged in woodland guerilla warfare before; there is no doubt that his cognomen Silvaticus was given for good reasons. Whatever, though, he lost out, like all the other thanes: the outlaw lord brought low not by the wicked sheriff, but by the inexorability of authority, and the crushing of time itself.
And so, Urse prospered, whilst Edric vanished; yet it is not as simple, and saddening, as that. For though it seems as if in this story the wicked Sheriff won, in fact the outlaw lord did not lose. For Edric’s family did not disappear: and the Savages, as they were then called, intermarried in later times with some of the great aristocratic families of England—including the Beauchamps. And their descendants included the Kings of England.
But there was more: for Urse himself, and his deeds, and his glory, were forgotten, doomed to remain as footnotes in history; whilst Edric was immortalised in legend as the consort of an elf princess, leader of a ‘wild hunt’, and became a kind of spirit of the land. A wryly melancholic, truly English, ending worthy of Shakespeare himself.