"Where will the old duke live?" asks Oliver, in Shakespeare's "As you like it."
"They say he is already in the forest of Arden," answers Charles, "and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world."
Many a merry man, indeed, was there with Robin Hood in Sherwood forest, and, if we may believe the stories that live in the heart of English song, there they fleeted the time as carelessly as men did in the golden age; for Robin was king of the merry greenwood, as the Norman kings were lords of the realm beside, and though his state was not so great nor his coffers so full, his heart was merrier and his conscience more void of offence against man and God. If Robin lived by plunder, so did the king; the one took toll from a few travellers, the other from a kingdom; the one dealt hard blows in self-defence, the other killed thousands in war for self-aggrandizement; the one was a patriot, the other an invader. Verily Robin was far the honester man of the two, and most worthy the admiration of mankind.
Nor was the kingdom of Robin Hood so much less extensive than that of England's king as men may deem, though its tenants were fewer and its revenues less. For in those days forest land spread widely over the English isle. The Norman kings had driven out the old inhabitants far and wide, and planted forests in place of towns, peopling them with deer in place of men. In its way this was merciful, perhaps. Those rude old kings were not content unless they were hunting and killing, and it was better they should kill deer than men. But their cruel game laws could not keep men from the forests, and the woods they planted served as places of shelter for the outlaws they made.
William the Conqueror, so we are told, had no less than sixty-eight forests peopled with deer, and guarded against intrusion of common man by a cruel interdict. His successors added new forests, until it looked as if England might be made all woodland, and the red deer its chief inhabitants. Sherwood forest, the favorite lurking place of the bold Robin, stretched for thirty miles in an unbroken line. But this was only part of Robin's "realm of plesaunce." From Sherwood it was but a step to other forests, stretching league after league, and peopled by bands of merry rovers, who laughed at the king's laws, killed and ate his cherished deer at their own sweet wills, and defied sheriff and man at arms, the dense forest depths affording them innumerable lurking-places, their skill with the bow enabling them to defend their domain from assault, and to exact tribute from their foes.
Robin Hood’s Woods.
Such was the realm of Robin Hood, a realm of giant oaks and silvery birches, a realm prodigal of trees, o'er canopied with green leaves until the sun had ado to send his rays downward, carpeted with brown moss and emerald grasses, thicketed with a rich undergrowth of bryony and clematis, prickly holly and golden furze, and a host of minor shrubs, while some parts of the forest were so dense that, as Camden says, the entangled branches of the thickly-set trees "were so twisted together, that they hardly left room for a person to pass."
Here were innumerable hiding places for the forest outlaws when hunted too closely by their foes. They lacked not food; the forest was filled with grazing deer and antlered stags. There was also abundance of smaller game,—the hare, the coney, the roe; and of birds,—the partridge, pheasant, woodcock, mallard, and heron. Fuel could be had in profusion when fire was needed. For winter shelter there were many caverns, for Sherwood forest is remarkable for its number of such places of refuge, some made by nature, others excavated by man.
Happy must have been the life in this greenwood realm, jolly the outlaws who danced and sang beneath its shades, merry as the day was long their hearts while summer ruled the year, while even in drear winter they had their caverns of refuge, their roaring wood-fires, and the spoils of the year's forays to carry them through the season of cold and storm. A follower of bold Robin might truly sing, with Shakespeare,—
"Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me,
And tune his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather."
But the life of the forest-dwellers was not spent solely in enjoyment of the pleasures of the merry greenwood. They were hunted by men, and became hunters of men. True English hearts theirs, all Englishmen their friends, all Normans their foes, they were in no sense brigands, but defenders of their soil against the foreign foe who had over run it, the successors of Hereward the Wake, the last of the English to bear arms against the invader, and to keep a shelter in which the English heart might still beat in freedom.
No wonder the oppressed peasants and serfs of the fields sang in gleeful strains the deeds of the forest-dwellers; no wonder that Robin Hood became the hero of the people, and that the homely song of the land was full of stories of his deeds. We can scarcely call these historical tales: they are legendary; yet it may well be that a stratum of fact underlies the after growth of romance; certainly they were history to the people, and as such, with a mental reservation, they shall be history to us. We propose, therefore, here to convert into prose "a lytell geste of Robyn Hode."
It was a day in merry spring-tide. Under the sun-sprinkled shadows of the "woody and famous forest of Barnsdale" (adjoining Sherwood) stood gathered a group of men attired in Lincoln green, bearing long bows in their hands and quivers of sharp-pointed arrows upon their shoulders, hardy men all, strong of limb and bold of face.
Leaning against an oak of centuried growth stood Robin Hood, the famous outlaw chief, a strong man and sturdy, with handsome face and merry blue eyes, one fitted to dance cheerily in days of festival, and to strike valiantly in hours of conflict. Beside him stood the tall and stalwart form of Little John, whose name was given him in jest, for he was the stoutest of the band. There also were valiant Much, the miller's son, gallant Scathelock, George a Green, the pindar of Wakefield, the fat and jolly Friar Tuck, and many another woodsman of renown, a band of lusty archers such as all England could not elsewhere match.
"Faith o' my body, the hours pass apace," quoth Little John, looking upward through the trees. "Is it not time we should dine?"
"I am not in the mood to dine without company," said Robin. "Our table is a dull one with out guests. If we had now some bold baron or fat abbot, or even a knight or squire, to help us carve our haunch of venison, and to pay his scot for the feast, I wot me all our appetites would be better."
He laughed meaningly as he looked round the circle of faces.
"Marry, if such be your whim," answered Little John, "tell us whither we shall go to find a guest fit to grace our greenwood table, and of what rank he shall be."
"At least let him not be farmer or yeoman," said Robin. "We war on hawks, not on doves. If you can bring me a bishop now, or i' faith, the high sheriff of Nottingham, we shall dine merrily. Take Much and Scathelock with you, and away. Bring me earl or baron, abbot or simple knight, or squire, if no better can be had; the fatter their purses the better shall be their welcome."
Taking their bows, the three yeomen strode at a brisk pace through the forest, bent upon other game than deer or antlered stag. On reaching the forest edge near Barnsdale, they lurked in the bushy shadows and kept close watch and ward upon the highway that there skirted the wood, in hope of finding a rich relish to Robin's meal.
Propitious fortune seemed to aid their quest. Not long had they bided in ambush when, afar on the road, they spied a knight riding towards them. He came alone, without squire or follower, and promised to be an easy prey to the trio of stout woodsmen. But as he came near they saw that something was amiss with him. He rode with one foot in the stirrup, the other hanging loose; a simple hood covered his head, and hung negligently down over his eyes; grief or despair filled his visage, "a soryer man than he rode never in somer's day." Little John stepped into the road, courteously bent his knee to the stranger, and bade him welcome to the greenwood.
"Welcome be you, gentle knight," he said; "my master has awaited you fasting, these three hours."
"Your master—who is he?" asked the knight, lifting his sad eyes.
"Robin Hood, the forest chief," answered Little John.
"And a lusty yeoman he," said the knight. "Men say much good of him. I thought to dine to-day at Blythe or Dankaster, but if jolly Robin wants me I am his man. It matters little, save that I have no heart to do justice to any man's good cheer. Lead on, my courteous friend. The green wood, then, shall be my dining-hall."
Our scene now changes to the lodge of the woodland chief. An hour had passed. A merry scene met the eye. The long table was well-covered with game of the choicest, swan, pheasants, and river fowl, and with roasts and steaks of venison, which had been on hoof not many hours before. Around it sat a jolly company of foresters, green-clad like the trees about them. At its head sat Robin Hood, his handsome face lending encouragement to the laughter and gleeful chat of his men. Beside him sat the knight, sober of attire, gloomy of face, yet brightening under the courteous treatment of his host and the gay sallies of the outlaw band.
"Gramercy, Sir Woodman," said the knight, when the feast was at an end, "such a dinner as you have set me I have not tasted for weeks. When I come again to this country I hope to repay you with as good a one."
"A truce to your dinner," said Robin, curtly. "All that dine in our woodland inn pay on the spot, Sir Knight. It is a good rule, I wot."
"To full hands, mayhap," said the knight; "but I dare not, for very shame, proffer you what is in my coffers."
"Is it so little, then?"
"Ten shillings is not wealth," said the knight. "I can offer you no more."
"Faith, if that be all, keep it, in God's name; and I'll lend you more, if you be in need. Go look, Little John; we take no stranger's word in the greenwood."
John examined the knight's effects, and reported that he had told the truth. Robin gazed curiously at his guest.
"I held you for a knight of high estate," he said. "A heedless husbandman you must have been, a gambler or wassailer, to have brought yourself to this sorry pass. An empty pocket and threadbare attire ill befit a knight of your parts."
"You wrong me, Robin," said the knight, sadly. "Misfortune, not sin, has beggared me. I have nothing left but my children and my wife; but it is through no deed of my own. My son—my heir he should have been—slew a knight of Lancashire and his squire. To save him from the law I have made myself a beggar. Even my lands and house must go, for I have pledged them to the abbot of St. Mary as surety for four hundred pounds loaned me. I cannot pay him, and the time is near its end. I have lost hope, good sir, and am on my way to the sea, to take ship for the Holy Land. Pardon my tears, I leave a wife and children."
"Where are your friends?" asked Robin.
"Where are the last year's leaves of your trees?" asked the knight. "They were fair enough while the summer sun shone; they dropped from me when the winter of trouble came."
"Can you not borrow the sum?" asked Robin.
"Not a groat," answered the knight. "I have no more credit than a beggar."
"Mayhap not with the usurers," said Robin. "But the greenwood is not quite bare, and your face, Sir Knight, is your pledge of faith. Go to my treasury, Little John, and see if it will not yield four hundred pounds."
"I can promise you that, and more if need be," answered the woodman. "But our worthy knight is poorly clad, and we have rich cloths to spare, I wot. Shall we not add a livery to his purse?"
"As you will, good fellow, and forget not a horse, for our guest's mount is of the sorriest."
The knight's sorrow gave way to hope as he saw the eagerness of the generous woodmen. Little John's count of the money added ample interest; the cloths were measured with a bow-stick for a yard, and a palfrey was added to the courser, to bear their welcome gifts. In the end Robin lent him Little John for a squire, and gave him twelve months in which to repay his loan. Away he went, no longer a knight of rueful countenance.
"Howe as the knight went on his way,
This game he thought full good,
When he looked on Bernysdale
He blyssed Robin Hode;
"And when he thought on Bernysdale,
On Scathelock, Much, and John,
He blyssed them for the best company
That ever he in come."
The next day was that fixed for the payment of the loan to the abbot of St. Mary's. Abbot and prior waited in hope and excitement. If the cash was not paid by night a rich estate would fall into their hands. The knight must pay to the last farthing, or be beggared. As they sat awaiting the cellarer burst in upon them, full of exultation.
"He is dead or hanged!" he cried. "We shall have our four hundred pounds many times over."
With them were the high-justice of England and the sheriff of the shire, brought there to give the proceeding the warrant of legality. Time was passing, an hour or two more would end the knight's grace, only a narrow space of time lay between him and beggary. The justice had just turned with congratulations to the abbot, when, to the discomfiture of the churchmen, the debtor, Sir Richard of the Lee, appeared at the gate of the abbey, and made his way into the hall.
Yet he was shabbily clad; his face was sombre; there seemed little occasion for alarm. There seemed none when he began to speak.
"Sir Abbot," he said, "I come to hold my day." "Mist thou brought my pay?" asked the abbot. "Not one penny," answered the knight.
"Thou art a shrewd debtor," declared the abbot, with a look of satisfaction. "Sir Justice, drink to me. What brings you here then, sirrah, if you fetch no money?"
"To pray your grace for a longer day," said Sir Richard, humbly.
"Your day is ended; not an hour more do you get," cried the abbot.
Sir Richard now appealed to the justice for relief, and after him to the sheriff, but to both in vain. Then, turning to the abbot again, he offered to be his servant, and work for him till the four hundred pounds were earned, if he would take pity on him.
This appeal was lost on the merciless churchman. In the end hot words passed, and the abbot angrily exclaimed,—
"Out of my hall, thou false knight! Speed thee out, sirrah!"
"Abbot, thou liest, I was never false to my word," said Sir Richard, proudly. "You lack courtesy, to suffer a knight to kneel and beg so long. I am a true knight and a true man, as all who have seen me in tournament or battle will say."
"What more will you give the knight for a full release?" asked the justice. "If you give, nothing, you will never hold his lands in peace."
"A hundred pounds," said the abbot.
"Give him two," said the justice.
"Not so," cried the knight. "If you make it a thousand more, not a foot of my land shall you ever hold. You have outwitted yourself, master abbot, by your greed."
Sir Richard's humility was gone; his voice was clear and proud; the churchmen trembled, here was a new tone. Turning to a table, the knight took a bag from under his cloak, and shook out of it on to the board a ringing heap of gold.
"Here is the gold you lent me, Sir Abbot," he cried. "Count it. You will find it four hundred pounds to the penny. Had you been courteous, I would have been generous. As it is, I pay not a penny over my due."
"The abbot sat styli, and ete no more
For all his ryall chore;
He cast his head on his sholder,
And fast began to stare."
So ended this affair, the abbot in despair, the knight in triumph, the justice laughing at his late friends and curtly refusing to return the cash they had paid to bring him there. His money counted, his release signed, the knight was a glad man again.
"The knight stert out of the dore,
Awaye was all his care,
And on he put his good clothynge,
The other he lefte there.
"He wente hym forthe full mery syngynge,
As men have tolde in tale,
His lady met hym at the gate,
At home in Wierysdale.
"Welcome, my lorde,' sayd his lady;
Syr, lost is all your good?'
Be mery dame,' said the knight,'
And pray for Robyn Hode,
"That ever his soule be in blysse,
He holpe me out of my tene;
Ne had not be his kyndenesse,
Beggers had we ben.'"
The story wanders on, through pages of verse like the above, but we may fitly end it with a page of prose. The old singers are somewhat prolix; it behooves us to be brief.
A twelvemonth passed. The day fixed by the knight to repay his friend of the merry greenwood came. On that day the highway skirting the forest was made brilliant by a grand array of ecclesiastics and their retainers, at their head no less a personage than the fat cellarer of St. Mary's.
Unluckily for them, the outlaws were out that day, on the lookout for game of this description, and the whole pious procession was swept up and taken to Robin Hood's greenwood court. The merry fellow looked at his new guests with a smile. The knight had given the Virgin as his security,—surely the Virgin had taken him at his word, and sent these holy men to repay her debt.
In vain the high cellarer denied that he represented any such exalted personage. He even lied as to the state of his coffers. It was a lie wasted, for Little John served him as he had the knight, and found a good eight hundred pounds in the monk's baggage.
"Fill him with wine of the best!" cried Robin. "Our Lady is a generous debtor. She pays double. Fill him with wine and let him go. He has paid well for his dinner."
Hardly had the monk and his train gone, in dole and grief, before another and merrier train was seen winding under the great oaks of the forest. It was the knight on his way to pay his debt. After him rode a hundred men clad in white and red, and bearing as a present to the delighted foresters a hundred bows of the finest quality, each with its sheaf of arrows, with burnished points, peacock feathers, and notched with silver. Each shaft was an ell long.
The knight begged pardon. He had been delayed. On his way he had met a poor yeoman who was being ill treated. He had stayed to rescue him. The sun was down; the hour passed; but he bore his full due to the generous lords of the greenwood.
"You come too late," said Robin. "The Virgin, your surety, has been before you and paid your debt. The holy monks of St. Mary, her almoners, have brought it. They paid well, indeed; they paid double. Four hundred is my due, the other four hundred is yours. Take it, my good friend, our Lady sends it, and dwell henceforth in a state befitting your knightly station."
Once more the good knight, Sir Richard of the Lee, dined with Robin Hood, and merry went the feast that day under the greenwood tree. The leaves of Sherwood still laugh with the mirth that then shook their bowery arches. Robin Hood dwells there no more, but the memory of the mighty archer and his merry men still haunts the woodland glades, and will while a lover of romance dwells in England's island realm.