B ECAUSE of the hardness towards the English people of William the Conqueror, and of William's successors to several generations, many an Englishman exiled himself from town and passed his life in the greenwood. These men were called "outlaws." First they went forth out of love for the ancient liberties of England. Then in their living in the forest, they put themselves without the law by their ways of gaining their livelihood. Of such men none were more renowned than Robin Hood and his company.
We do not know anything about Robin Hood, who he was, or where he lived, or what evil deed he had done. Any man might kill him and never pay penalty for it. But, outlaw or not, the poor people loved him and looked on him as their friend, and many a stout fellow came to join him, and led a merry life in the greenwood, with moss and fern for bed, and for meat the King's deer, which it was death to slay. Tillers of the land, yeomen, and some say knights, went on their ways freely, for of them Robin took no toll; but lordly churchmen with money-bags well filled, or proud bishops with their richly dressed followers, trembled as they drew near to Sherwood Forest—who was to know whether behind every tree there did not lurk Robin Hood or one of his men?
One day Robin was walking alone in the wood, and reached a river spanned by a very narrow bridge, over which one man only could pass. In the midst stood a stranger, and Robin bade him go back and let him go over. "I am no man of yours," was all the answer Robin got, and in anger he drew his bow and fitted an arrow to it, "Would you shoot a man who has no arms but a staff?" asked the stranger in scorn; and with shame Robin laid down his bow, and unbuckled an oaken stick at his side. "We will fight till one of us falls into the water," he said; and fight they did, till the stranger planted a blow so well that Robin rolled over into the river. "You are a brave soul," said he, when he had waded to land, and he blew a blast with his horn which brought fifty good fellows, clad in green, to the little bridge. "Have you fallen into the river that your clothes are wet?" asked one; and Robin made answer, "No, but this stranger, fighting on the bridge, got the better of me, and tumbled me into the stream."
At this the foresters seized the stranger, and would have ducked him had not their leader bade them stop, and begged the stranger to stay with them and make one of themselves. "Here is my hand," replied the stranger, "and my heart with it. My name, if you would know it, is John Little."
"That must be altered," cried Will Scarlett; "we will call a feast, and henceforth, because he is full seven feet tall and round the waist at least an ell, he shall be called Little John."
And thus it was done; but at the feast Little John, who always liked to know exactly what work he had to do, put some questions to Robin Hood. "Before I join hands with you, tell me first what sort of life is this you lead? How am I to know whose goods I shall take, and whose I shall leave? Whom I shall beat, and whom I shall refrain from beating?"
And Robin answered: "Look that you harm not any tiller of the ground, nor any yeoman of the greenwood—no knight, no squire, unless you have heard him ill spoken of. But if bishops or archbishops come your way, see that you spoil them, and mark that you always hold in your mind the High Sheriff of Nottingham."
This being settled, Robin Hood declared Little John to be second in command to himself among the brotherhood of the forest, and the new outlaw never forgot to "hold in his mind" the High Sheriff of Nottingham, who was the bitterest enemy the foresters had.
Upon a time it chanced so,
Bold Robin in forest did spy
A jolly butcher, with a bonny fine mare,
With his flesh to the market did hie.
"Good morrow, good fellow," said jolly Robin,
"What food hast thou? tell unto me;
Thy trade to me tell, and where thou dost dwell,
For I like well thy company."
The butcher he answer'd jolly Robin,
"No matter where I dwell;
For a butcher I am, and to Nottingham
I am going, my flesh to sell."
"What's the price of thy flesh?" said jolly Robin,
"Come, tell it soon unto me;
And the price of thy mare, be she never so dear,
For a butcher fain would I be."
"The price of my flesh," the butcher replied,
"I soon will tell unto thee;
With my bonny mare, and they are not dear,
Four marks thou must give unto me."
"Four marks I will give thee," said jolly Robin,
"Four marks shall be thy fee;
The money come count, and let me mount,
For a butcher I fain would be."
Now Robin he is to Nottingham gone,
His butcher's trade to begin;
With good intent to the Sheriff he went,
And there he took up his inn.
When other butchers did open their meat,
Bold Robin got gold and fee,
For he sold more meat for one penny
Than others did sell for three.
Which made the butchers of Nottingham
To study as they did stand,
Saying, "Surely he is some prodigal
That has sold his father's land."
"This is a mad blade," the butchers still said;
Said the Sheriff, "He is some prodigal,
That some land has sold for silver and gold,
And now he doth mean to spend all.
"Hast thou any horn-beasts," the Sheriff asked,
"Good fellow, to sell to me?"
"Yes, that I have, good Master Sheriff,
I have hundreds, two or three.
"And a hundred acres of good free land,
If you please it to see:
And I'll make you as good assurance of it,
As ever my father made me."
The Sheriff he saddled his good palfrey,
And with three hundred pounds of gold,
Away he went with bold Robin Hood,
His horned beasts to behold.
Away then the Sheriff and Robin did ride,
To the forest of merry Sherwood;
Then the Sheriff did say, "God keep us this day
From a man they call Robin Hood."
But when a little farther they came,
Bold Robin he chanced to spy
A hundred head of good red deer,
Come tripping the Sheriff full nigh.
"How like you my horn-beasts, good Master Sheriff?
They be fat and fair to see";
"I tell thee, good fellow, I would I were gone,
For I like not thy company."
Then Robin set his horn to his mouth,
And blew but blasts three;
Then quickly anon there came Little John,
And all his company.
"What is your will?" then said Little John,
"Good master, come tell unto me";
"I have brought hither the Sheriff of Nottingham
This day to dine with thee."
Then Robin took his cloak from his back
And laid it upon the ground;
And out of the Sheriff's portmanteau
He took three hundred pound.
He then led the Sheriff through the wood,
And set him on his dapple grey;
"Commend Robin Hood to your wife at home,"
He said, and went laughing away.
Now Robin Hood had no liking for a company of idle men about him, and sent off Little John and Will Scarlett to the great road known as Watling Street, with orders to hide among the trees and wait till some adventure might come to them; and if they took captive earl or baron, abbot or knight, he was to be brought unharmed back to Robin Hood.
But all along Watling Street the road was bare; white and hard it lay in the sun, without the tiniest cloud of dust to show that a rich company might be coming: east and west the land lay still.
At length, just where a side path turned into the broad highway, there rode a knight, and a sorrier man than he never sat a horse on summer day. One foot only was in the stirrup, the other hung carelessly by his side; his head was bowed, the reins dropped loose, and his horse went on as he would. At so sad a sight the hearts of the outlaws were filled with pity, and Little John fell on his knees and bade the knight welcome in the name of his master.
"Who is your master?" asked the knight.
"Robin Hood," answered Little John.
"I have heard much good of him," replied the knight, "and will go with you gladly."
Then they all set off together, tears running down the knight's cheeks as he rode, but he said nothing, neither was anything said to him. And in this wise they came to Robin Hood.
"Welcome, Sir Knight," cried he, "and thrice welcome, for I waited to break my fast till you or some other had come to me."
"God save you, good Robin," answered the knight, and after they had washed themselves in the stream they sat down to dine off bread, with flesh of the King's deer, and swans and pheasants. "Such a dinner have I not had for three weeks and more," said the knight. "And if I ever come again this way, good Robin, I will give you as fine a dinner as you have given me."
"I thank you," replied Robin, "my dinner is always welcome; still, I am none so greedy but I can wait for it. But before you go, pay me, I pray you, for the food which you have had. It was never the custom for a yeoman to pay for a knight."
"My bag is empty," said the knight, "save for ten shillings only."
"Go, Little John, and look in his wallet," said Robin, "and, Sir Knight, if in truth you have no more, not one penny will I take; nay, I will give you all that you shall need."
So Little John spread out the knight's mantle, and opened the bag, and therein lay ten shillings and naught besides.
"What tidings, Little John?" cried his master.
"Sir, the knight speaks truly," said Little John.
"Then tell me, Sir Knight, whether it is your own ill doings which have brought you to this sorry pass."
"For an hundred years my fathers have dwelt in the forest," answered the knight, "and four hundred pounds might they spend yearly. But within two years misfortune has befallen me, and my wife and children also."
"How did this evil come to pass?" asked Robin.
"Through my own folly," answered the knight, "and because of my great love I bore my son, who would never be guided of my counsel, and slew, ere he was twenty years old, a knight of Lancaster and his squire. For their deaths I had to pay a large sum, which I could not raise without giving my lands in pledge to the rich Abbot of St. Mary's. If I cannot bring him the money by a certain day they will be lost to me for ever."
"What is the sum?" asked Robin. "Tell me truly."
"It is four hundred pounds," said the knight.
"And what will you do if you lose your lands?" asked Robin again.
"Hide myself over the sea," said the knight, "and bid farewell to my friends and country. There is no better way open to me."
At this tears fell from his eyes, and he turned him to depart. "Good day, my friend," he said to Robin, "I cannot pay you what I should—" But Robin held him fast. "Where are your friends?" asked he.
"Sir, they have all forsaken me since I became poor, and they turn away their heads if we meet upon the road, though when I was rich they were ever in my castle."
When Little John and Will Scarlett and the rest heard this they wept for very shame and fury.
"Little John," said Robin, "go to my treasure chest, and bring me thence four hundred pounds. And be sure you count it truly."
So Little John went, and Will Scarlett, and they brought back the money.
"Sir," said Little John, when Robin had counted it and found it no more and no less, "look at his clothes, how thin they are! You have stores of garments, green and scarlet, in your coffers—no merchant in England can boast the like. I will measure some out with my bow." And thus he did.
"Master," spoke Little John again, "there is still something else. You must give him a horse, that he may go as beseems his quality to the Abbey."
"Take the grey horse," said Robin, "and put a new saddle on it, and take likewise a good palfrey and a pair of boots, with gilt spurs on them. And as it were a shame for a knight to ride by himself on this errand, I will lend you Little John as squire—perchance he may stand you in yeoman's stead."
"When shall we meet again?" asked the knight.
"This day twelve months," said Robin, "under the greenwood tree."
Then the knight rode on his way, with Little John behind him, and as he went he thought of Robin Hood and his men, and blessed them for the goodness they had shown towards him.
"To-morrow," he said to Little John, "I must be at the Abbey of St. Mary, which is in the city of York, for if I am but so much as a day late my lands are lost for ever, and though I were to bring the money I should not be suffered to redeem them."
Now the Abbot had been counting the days as well as the knight, and the next morning he said to his monks: "This day year there came a knight and borrowed of me four hundred pounds, giving his lands in surety. And if he come not to pay his debt ere midnight tolls they will be ours forever."
"It is full early yet," answered the Prior, "he may still be coming."
"He is far beyond the sea," said the Abbot, "and suffers from hunger and cold. How is he to get here?"
"It were a shame," said the Prior, "for you to take his lands. And you do him much wrong if you drive such a hard bargain."
"He is dead or hanged," spake a fat-headed monk who was the cellarer, "and we shall have his four hundred pounds to spend on our gardens and our wines," and he went with the Abbot to attend the court of justice wherein the knight's lands would be declared forfeited by the High Justiciar.
"If he come not this day," cried the Abbot, rubbing his hands, "if he come not this day, they will be ours."
"He will not come yet," said the Justiciar, but he knew not that the knight was already at the outer gate, and Little John with him.
"Welcome, Sir Knight," said the porter. "The horse that you ride is the noblest that ever I saw. Let me lead them both to the stable, that they may have food and rest."
"They shall not pass these gates," answered the knight, sternly, and he entered the hall alone, where the monks were sitting at meat, and knelt down and bowed to them.
"I have come back, my lord," he said to the Abbot, who had just returned from the court. "I have come back this day as I promised."
"Have you brought my money? What do you here without it?" cried the Abbot in angry tones.
"I have come to pray you for a longer day," answered the knight, meekly.
"The day was fixed and cannot be gainsaid," replied the Justiciar; "I am with the Abbot."
"Good Sir Abbot, be my friend," prayed the knight again, "and give me one chance more to get the money and free my lands. I will serve you day and night till I have four hundred pounds to redeem them."
But the Abbot only swore a great oath, and vowed that the money must be paid that day or the lands be forfeited.
The knight stood up straight and tall: "It is well," said he, "to prove one's friends against the hour of need," and he looked the Abbot full in the face, and the Abbot felt uneasy, he did not know why, and hated the knight more than ever. "Out of my hall, false knight!" cried he, pretending to a courage which he did not feel. But the knight stayed where he was, and answered him, "You lie, Abbot. Never was I false, and that I have shown in jousts and in tourneys."
"Give him two hundred pounds more," said the Justiciar to the Abbot, "and keep the lands yourself."
"No, by Heaven!" answered the knight, "not if you offered me a thousand pounds would I do it! Neither Justiciar, abbot, nor monk shall be heir of mine." Then he strode up to a table and emptied out four hundred pounds. "Take your gold, Sir Abbot, which you lent to me a year agone. Had you but received me civilly, I would have paid you something more.
Now have I kept my day!
Now shall I have my land again,
For aught that you may say."
So he passed out of the hall singing merrily, leaving the Abbot staring silently after him, and rode back to his house in Verisdale, where his wife met him at the gate.
"Welcome, my lord," said his lady,
"Sir, lost is all your good."
"Be merry, dame," said the knight,
"And pray for Robin Hood.
But for his kindness, we would have been beggars."
After this the knight dwelt at home, looking after his lands and saving his money carefully till the four hundred pounds lay ready for Robin Hood. Then he bought a hundred bows and a hundred arrows, and every arrow was an ell long, and had a head of silver and peacock's feathers. And clothing himself in white and red, and with a hundred men in his train, he set off to Sherwood Forest.
On the way he passed an open space near a bridge where there was a wrestling, and the knight stopped and looked, for he himself had taken many a prize in that sport. Here the prizes were such as to fill any man with envy; a fine horse, saddled and bridled, a great white bull, a pair of gloves, and a ring of bright red gold. There was not a yeoman present who did not hope to win one of them. But when the wrestling was over, the yeoman who had beaten them all was a man who kept apart from his fellows, and was said to think much of himself. Therefore the men grudged him his skill, and set upon him with blows, and would have killed him, had not the knight, for love of Robin Hood, taken pity on him, while his followers fought with the crowd, and would not suffer them to touch the prizes a better man had won.
When the wrestling was finished the knight rode on, and there under the greenwood tree, in the place appointed, he found Robin Hood and his merry men waiting for him, according to the tryst that they had fixed last year:
"God save thee, Robin Hood,
And all this company."
"Welcome be thou, gentle knight,
And right welcome to me."
"Hast thou thy land again?" said Robin,
"Truth then thou tell me."
"Yea, for God," said the knight,
"And that thank I God and thee."
"Have here four hundred pounds," said the knight,
"The which you lent to me;
And here are also twenty marks
For your courtesie."
But Robin would not take the money. Then he noticed the bows and arrows which the knight had brought, and asked what they were. "A poor present to you," answered the knight, and Robin, who would not be outdone, sent Little John once more to his treasury, and bade him bring forth four hundred pounds, which was given to the knight. After that they parted, in much love, and Robin prayed the knight if he were in any strait "to let him know at the greenwood tree, and while there was any gold there he should have it."
Now the King had no mind that Robin Hood should do as he willed, and called his knights to follow him to Nottingham, where they would lay plans how best to take captive the felon. Here they heard sad tales of Robin's misdoings, and how of the many herds of wild deer that had been wont to roam the forest in some places scarce one remained. This was the work of Robin Hood and his merry men, on whom the king swore vengeance with a great oath.
"I would I had this Robin Hood in my hands," cried he, "and an end should soon be put to his doings." So spake the King; but an old knight, full of days and wisdom, answered him and warned him that the task of taking Robin Hood would be a sore one, and best let alone. The King, who had seen the vanity of his hot words the moment that he had uttered them, listened to the old man, and resolved to bide his time, if perchance some day Robin should fall into his power.
All this time and for six weeks later that he dwelt in Nottingham the King could hear nothing of Robin, who seemed to have vanished into the earth with his merry men, though one by one the deer were vanishing too!
At last one day a forester came to the King, and told him that if he would see Robin he must come with him and take five of his best knights. The King eagerly sprang up to do his bidding, and the six men clad in monk's clothes mounted their palfreys and rode down to the Abbey, the King wearing an Abbot's broad hat over his crown and singing as he passed through the greenwood.
Suddenly at the turn of the path Robin and his archers appeared before them.
"By your leave, Sir Abbot," said Robin, seizing the King's bridle, "you will stay a while with us. Know that we are yeomen, who live upon the King's deer, and other food have we none. Now you have abbeys and churches, and gold in plenty; therefore give us some of it, in the name of holy charity."
"I have no more than forty pounds with me," answered the King, "but sorry I am it is not a hundred, for you should have had it all."
So Robin took the forty pounds, and gave half to his men, and then told the King he might go on his way. "I thank you," said the King, "but I would have you know that our liege lord has bid me bear you his seal, and pray you to come to Nottingham."
At this message Robin bent his knee.
"I love no man in all the world
So well as I do my King,"
he cried, "and, Sir Abbot, for thy tidings, which fill my heart with joy, to-day thou shalt dine with me, for love of my King." Then he led the King into an open place, and Robin took a horn and blew it loud, and at its blast seven-score of young men came speedily to do his will.
"They are quicker to do his bidding than my men are to do mine," said the King to himself.
Speedily the foresters set out the dinner, venison and white bread, and Robin and Little John served the King. "Make good cheer, Abbot, for charity," said Robin, "and then you shall see what sort of life we lead, that so you may tell our King."
When he had finished eating the archers took their bows, and hung rose-garlands up with a string, and every man was to shoot through the garland. If he failed, he should have a buffet on the head from Robin.
Good bowmen as they were, few managed to stand the test. Little John and Will Scarlett, and Much, all shot wide of the mark, and at length no one was left in but Robin himself and Gilbert of the White Hand. Then Robin fired his last bolt, and it fell three fingers from the garland. "Master," said Gilbert, "you have lost, stand forth and take your punishment."
"I will take it," answered Robin, "but, Sir Abbot, I pray you that I may suffer it at your hands."
The King hesitated. "It did not become him," he said, "to smite such a stout yeoman," but Robin bade him smite on; so he turned up his sleeve, and gave Robin such a buffet on the head that he rolled upon the ground.
"There is pith in your arm," said Robin. "Come, shoot a-main with me." And the King took up a bow, and in so doing his hat fell back and Robin saw his face.
"My lord the King of England, now I know you well," cried he, and he fell on his knees and all the outlaws with him. "Mercy I ask, my lord the King, for my men and me."
"Mercy I grant," then said the King, "and therefore I came hither, to bid you and your men leave the greenwood and dwell in my court with me."
"So it shall be," answered Robin, "I and my men will come to your court, and see how your service liketh us."
"Have you any green cloth," asked the King, "that you could sell to me?" and Robin brought out thirty yards and more, and clad the King and his men in coats of Lincoln green. "Now we will all ride to Nottingham," said he, and they went merrily, shooting by the way.
The people of Nottingham saw them coming, and trembled as they watched the dark mass of Lincoln green drawing near over the fields. "I fear lest our King be slain," whispered one to another, "and if Robin Hood gets into the town there is not one of us whose life is safe"; and every man, woman, and child made ready to fly.
The King laughed out when he saw their fright, and called them back. Right glad were they to hear his voice, and they feasted and made merry. A few days later the King returned to London, and Robin dwelt in his court for twelve months. By that time he had spent a hundred pounds, for he gave largely to the knights and squires he met, and great renown he had for his openhandedness.
But his men who had been born under the shadow of the forest, could not live amid streets and houses. One by one they slipped away, till only Little John and Will Scarlett were left. Then Robin himself grew home-sick, and at the sight of some young men shooting thought upon the time when he was accounted the best archer in all England, and went straightway to the King and begged for leave to go on a pilgrimage to Bernisdale.
"I may not say you nay," answered the King; "seven nights you may be gone and no more." And Robin thanked him, and that evening set out for the greenwood.
It was early morning when he reached it at last, and listened thirstily to the notes of singing birds, great and small.
"It seems long since I was here," he said to himself; "It would give me great joy if I could bring down a deer once more," and he shot a great hart, and blew his horn, and all the outlaws of the forest came flocking round him. "Welcome," they said, "our dear master, back to the greenwood tree," and they threw off their caps and fell on their knees before him in delight at his return.
For two and twenty years Robin Hood dwelt in Sherwood forest after he had run away from court, and naught that the King could say would tempt him back again. At the end of that time he fell ill; he neither ate nor drank, and had no care for the things he loved. "I must go to merry Kirkley," said he, "and have my blood let."
But Will Scarlett, who heard his words, spoke roundly to him. "Not by my leave, nor without a hundred bowmen at your back. For there abides an evil man, who is sure to quarrel with you, and you will need us badly."
"If you are afraid, Will Scarlett, you may stay at home, for me," said Robin, "and in truth no man will I take with me, save Little John only, to carry my bow."
"Bear your bow yourself, master, and I will bear mine."
"Very well, let it be so," said Robin, and they went on merrily enough till they came to some women weeping sorely near a stream.
"What is the matter, good wives?" said Robin Hood.
"We weep for Robin Hood and his dear body, which to-day must let blood," was the answer.
"Pray why do you weep for me?" asked Robin; "the Prioress is the daughter of my aunt, and well I know she would not do me harm for all the world." And he passed on, with Little John at his side.
Soon they reached the Priory, where they were let in by the Prioress herself, who bade them welcome heartily, and not the less because Robin handed her twenty pounds in gold as payment for his stay, and told her if he cost her more, she was to let him know of it. Then she began to bleed him, and for long Robin said nothing, giving her credit for kindness and for knowing her art, but at length so much blood came from him that he suspected treason. He tried to open the door, for she had left him alone in the room, but it was locked fast, and while the blood was still flowing he could not escape from the casement. So he lay down for many hours, and none came near him, and at length the blood stopped. Slowly Robin uprose and staggered to the lattice-window, and blew thrice on his horn; but the blast was so low, and so little like what Robin was wont to give, that Little John, who was watching for some sound, felt that his master must be nigh to death.
At this thought he started to his feet, and ran swiftly to the Priory. He broke the locks of all the doors that stood between him and Robin Hood, and soon entered the chamber where his master lay, white, with nigh all his blood gone from him.
"I crave a boon of you, dear master," cried Little John.
"And what is that boon," said Robin Hood, "which Little John begs of me?" And Little John answered, "It is to burn Kirkley Hall, and all the nunnery."
But Robin Hood, in spite of the wrong that had been done him, would not listen to Little John's cry for revenge. "I never hurt a woman in all my life," he said, "nor a man that was in her company. But now my time is done. That know I well. So give me my bow and a broad arrow, and wheresoever it falls there shall my grave be digged. Lay a green sod under my head and another at my feet, and put beside me my bow, which ever made sweetest music to my ears, and see that green and gravel make my grave. And, Little John, take care that I have length enough and breadth enough to lie in." So Robin he loosened his last arrow from the string. He then died. And where the arrow fell Robin was buried.