Although for administrative purposes England is divided into counties, towns and villages the forests and the wildlife knew of no such artificial boundaries. Back in prehistoric times 250 million years ago the forest extended onto the continent and covered most of England which is why there is coal under the North Sea that was then dry land. Nearer to our own time but long before it had a name Sherwood belonged to the chain of forests that stretched from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire through the Midlands and Yorkshire to Whitby extending into several counties (shires). The remains of great trees have been found embedded in the peat on the highest ground of Kinder Scout in the Royal Forest of the Peak and pollen records show that there has been an unbroken cover of woodland here since the end of the last Ice Age. The map of the coal fields (brown) shows some of this ‘shirewood’ to which the extensive coal fields in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire owe their existence.
Even today the National Forest (Shirewood) borders on Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. The area is thought to have been visited by humans as far back as 200,000 years ago during the Aveley Interglacial. While this visit is said to have been brief, the area was revisited during the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods of the Stone Age and evidence of these settlers can be found in the many caves.
Signs of agriculture and Settlement can be traced back in the shire to the Bronze Age with signs of clearance, hut circles and arable fields located on the moors of the peak district. The area was popular during the Roman invasion as the limestone hills contained lead ore. Invaders built forts in the areas near the Hope Valley and Glossop. They also created settlements in Buxton and forts near Little Chester. After the Norman Conquest, the area became Royal Forest and was put under forest laws.
Sherwood is not recorded in the Domesday Book and did not become a royal forest until the reign of Henry II (1154–1189) All that remains today is reduced to a mere 423 hectare (1.63 square-mile) remnant that surrounds the village of Edwinstowe which is only a small part of the greater whole. What we call Sherwood Forest is really Thoresby Park and the first recorded Robin Hood rhyme dates from the early 15th century which is consistent with Robin Hood being active in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. It is four lines long and begins “Robyn hode in scherewode stod.” He could have been standing in any one of three counties.
Manwood’s “Forest Laws” records an occasion when King Richard the Lionhearted who was hunting in Sherwood chased a hart out of Sherwood and into Barnsdale. Because the king failed to kill the hart (stag) he made a proclamation at Tickhill, in Yorkshire and at divers other places that no person should kill, hurt, or chase the said hart, but that he might safely return into the forest again. The hart was afterwards called, “a hart royally proclaimed.”
Professor Holt tells us the whole area could be traversed in a day which is what King John did on the 9th September 1213 when he travelled from Rothwell which is seven miles north of Wakefield and ten miles north-west of Barnsdale to Nottingham probably on the King’s Great Way that connects London with York following the route of an older Celtic/Roman Road. The Sherwood section going north is from Nottingham Ford through Sherwood and Thieves Wood to Newstead and Papplewick, then to Harthill and Conisbrough on the river Don to Hampole and Barnsdale joining up with the Great North Road otherwise known as Wattling Street.
Law and Disorder
Medieval England was a lawless society where robbery was rife and many of the churchmen, sheriffs and lords were corrupt and self-seeking. On 26 November 1332 the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was ordered to exact from county court to county court no fewer than two hundred men including the canons of Lichfield, the hard core and the hangers on belonging to the Coterel and the Folville gangs. (J. G. Bellamy) The Folville gang penetrated Sherwood from Derbyshire. They held Blidworth village to ‘ransom’ and poached wide areas of the royal forest. They were closely associated with the Cotteril gang who had a notable ally in no less a person than the Sheriff of Nottingham himself, Sir Robert Ingram.
The forest officials were corrupt and at an inquest in 1289 Robert de Everingham who was the Bailiff and Keeper of Sherwood which was a hereditary position had his bailiwick taken from him and his heirs for ever by the justices for pleas of the forest on account of the many transgressions whereof he had been convicted.
Another member of the Everingham family, Margaret de Everingham, who was a nun at Broadholme in 1350 was accosted and stripped of her religious habit before being violently and forcibly carried away by William Fox, parson of Lee, near Gainsborough, John Fox and Thomas de Lineston who were Friars Minor (mendicant Friars) of the convent in Lincoln. They were indicted before Gilbert de Umfravill and other justices of Lindsey at Thwacaster on the Saturday after the feast of St. John the Baptist of that same year and they were also charged with taking away divers goods to the value of 40s. What punishment was inflicted on the offenders, the record does not say. They probably claimed “The Benefit of the Clergy.”
At Rufford Abbey near the Major Oak at Edwinstow it was alleged that the Abbott, Thomas of Doncaster, had broken his vows of chastity with at least two married and four single women. Six of the fifteen monks at the abbey were said to want to be released from their vows to take up other careers. The monks were dispersed, with the allegedly immoral Abbot being granted a pension of £25 a year that was later withdrawn when he became vicar of Rotherham in Yorkshire.
At Beauchief Abbey near Loxley which was the daughter house to Welbeck Abbey in Sherwood Abbot Downham was found guilty of perjury, incontinence (lacking in restraint or control, especially sexually), rebellion, wasting the convent’s goods and other notorious crimes. On being found guilty, Downham along with seven canons resisted the discipline of the order and offered armed resistance with swords and staves, forcibly making their way out of the monastery. A few months later the king mandated that Beauchief was revisited and the sheriff of Nottingham was commissioned to arrest John Pole of Hartington, esq. Edmund Hartington, John Downham, late abbot of Beauchief, John Mundeville and Robert Bowlond, late canons of that monastery, and fifteen others, and to bring them before the king in council within twelve days after arrest, and if they cannot be arrested without inconvenience, to require assistance from knights, esquires, and other gentlemen of the county.