Was Robin Hood from Derbyshire?

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Lyrics by Richard Bradley

East of Derbyshire is Nottinghamshire; to the north is South Yorkshire.

With quiet dignity, Derbyshire stands well apart in the long-running row over which county can claim the true claim of English folk hero Robin Hood, reignited by the recent release of the Sheffield-based Sensoria festival booklet. Win back Robin Hood.

Nottinghamshire will tell you that Robin and his merry men created Sherwood Forest and their antics were a recurring thorn in the side of that petty authority figure, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

South Yorkshire will observe that folk legend relates Robin’s birth to Little Haggas Croft in Loxley, a former village in the West Riding, now a rural suburb of North Sheffield.

Still, Derbyshire has several sites that have acquired links to the folk hero – it’s just that we don’t shout about them as often.

And the area once covered by Sherwood Forest was once much larger, stretching into the Erewash Valley – so if there really was a Robin Hood, it was likely he was no stranger to the Derbyshire.

The White Peak countryside surrounding the village of Birchover retains a mystical air, dotted with stone circles, rocking stones, hermit caves and so-called ‘Druidic remains’.

Here, on the Limestone Way long-distance trail, you’ll find Robin Hood’s Stride, a large sandstone outcrop with two towering pinnacles named after our man.

How this site acquired a connection with Robin is unclear. A website suggests, “Legend has it that Robin Hood could squeeze between these two ends despite being 15 yards apart.”

Victoria Morgan, in Rock around the topspeculates that it more likely derives from an association with the pagan fertility figure Green Man who, alongside Robin Hood and Maid Marian, was a feature of annual May Day celebrations held across England.


Robin Hood’s Stride, near Birchover
– Credit: Richard Bradley

There is another legend related to the Stride. In its shadow is a prehistoric stone circle known as the Nine Stones Close, although only four remain today.

In this tall tale, nine local ladies danced in the field on the holy day of Sunday. Suddenly along came a giant from the direction of Robin Hood’s pace and mounted him with one leg on every pinnacle; he took this position because he had an urgent call from nature to answer.

Naturally, the dancers were so shocked at the sight that they turned to stone, forming the stone circle.

JB Firth in Derbyshire Motorways and Secondary Roads records another large boulder near Ashover which had acquired a name from Robin Hood: ‘On Ashover Common, above the Cocking Tor, you can find a rocking stone, called Robin Hood’s Mark about 26 feet away. in circumference’.

Near Charlesworth, in the far north-west of Derbyshire, are two stone columns dating from around the 9th to 10th centuries.

By the early 1800s these had acquired the name Robin Hood’s Picking Rods. According to local legend, Robin is supposed to have shot an arrow that hit the rods in an effort to secure the freedom of a beautiful young girl; a competing theory holds that they were used to string longbows.

As their position is close to the old border between Derbyshire and Cheshire (or, since the county boundary changes of the 1970s, Greater Manchester), it is possible that they were originally placed as a boundary marker.

Several sites on or near the Chatsworth estate have acquired links to the notorious outlaw.

Robin Hood’s table features two sandstone slabs on nearby moors. A wide chasm on the estate has earned the name Robin Hood’s Leap and the associated legend that Robin, pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men, was forced to leap across the great distance and into the arms of his beloved – who in this thread is not Maid Marian, but a lady named Kitty Ray. Near the jump is a Robin Hood stone.


The Handsworth Sword Dancers perform a Robin Hood mummification game

The Handsworth Sword Dancers perform a Robin Hood mummification game
– Credit: Richard Bradley

Finally, near the Golden Gates which denote a private rear entrance to Chatsworth, is a small hamlet marked on the map as Robin Hood, situated just outside Baslow on the A619 road towards Chesterfield.

There’s not much to find here beyond a car park – an ideal starting point for a walk to nearby Birchen Edge – the Robin Hood Farm bed and breakfast and a country inn called The Robin Hood , which appeared on maps in 1840 .

A second small Derbyshire hamlet named Robin Hood, consisting of just eight houses, is located just north of Whatstandwell.

Children’s author Alison Uttley, who grew up at Castle Top Farm near Cromford, mentions it in an essay titled Canalssaying he marked one of his geographical limits growing up: ‘The canal (of Cromford) narrowed (…) and we seldom got much farther, but it led to a little hamlet called Robin Hood where sometimes we would visit a friend in a cabin.’

Uttley also records in Our village that Cromford “was a sleepy little village, except during revival week and the annual march of the Foresters Club, when men paraded in green suits in fancy dress, like Robin Hood and his merry men”.

Another excuse to don the Robin Hood costume was to perform a popular Christmas play about the folk hero’s life.

A group of mimes from Wensley visited Llewellyn Jewitt at Winster Hall during Christmas time 1867 and performed a Robin Hood play, which Jewitt found “excellent” and “most interesting”.

Unlike Robin, there’s no doubting the origin of his sidekick Little John – this larger-than-life figure was a Derbyshire man, born in Hathersage and buried in the adjoining churchyard.


Grave of Little John in Hathersage Cemetery

Grave of Little John in Hathersage Cemetery
– Credit: Richard Bradley

The first reference to his tomb dates back to 1652 in the writings of the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole.

Little John’s bow and cap were said to have hung inside the church, but were taken away by a Captain James Shuttleworth along with a femur bone exhumed from the grave which measured 32 inches.

Much bad luck is said to have befallen his family afterwards, attributed to this act of grave robbing.

The grave is still visible in the cemetery of St Michael and All Angels. Its upkeep falls to the Ancient Order of Foresters, a subscription ‘friendly society’ set up in the days before the NHS and the welfare state to help workers pay funeral costs and pay sick pay.

An annual custom now sadly defunct was a procession to the grave organized by foresters on St. John’s Day, which first took place in 1928.

According to a report in The Log of Foresters10,000 members marched to the grave, accompanied by the Hasland Silver Prize Band and bands Tideswell and Hathersage, who performed “Bold Robin Hood”, composed by a Youlgrave native.

When the procession reached the cemetery, a laurel wreath was ceremonially hung from a yew near the grave.


Little John's Well on the Longshaw Estate

Little John’s Well on the Longshaw Estate
– Credit: Richard Bradley

The vicar of Hathersage gave an address, saying: “Little John was the boy of our village. We admire him. I want all English people to be proud of their past history and not be misled into thinking that the stories of Little John and Robin Hood are fairy tales and myths”.

Pathé press cameras were present to record this inaugural event and the footage can be viewed on the UK Pathé website. The procession repeated itself several times before falling into disuse.

No doubt due to Little John’s local connection, another group of sites around Hathersage are named after their leader.

Robin Hood’s Cavern is located on Stanage Edge: this hard-to-reach site was supposedly once used as a hideout for the Merry Men.

Robin Hood’s Croft, four miles northwest of the village, consists of a sheep shed and a field. A medieval wayside cross on nearby moor is called Robin Hood’s Cross, and a boundary marker on Offerton Moor named Robin Hood’s Stoop is believed to be where Robin shot an arrow which hit a stone column in the graveyard of Hathersage over a mile away, his friend’s final resting place.

On the Longshaw Estate you will find Little John’s Well. Close by is Robin Hood’s Well, but it’s harder to locate.

In the south of the county there are a few sites associated with Hood and his troupe: the curious ‘twin’ All Saints Church of Dale Abbey is where Merry Man Alan-a-Dale is said to have been married.

And Robin was supposedly married under the branches of the big old yew tree in Doveridge churchyard – although again not to Maid Marian, this time the lady in question was called Clorinda.

To enjoy all of Richard Bradley’s monthly articles on our county’s folklore and traditions, subscribe to Derbyshire Life magazine today.

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