Chapter 1. Introduction

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.

--Anonymous, ca. 1350, A Gest of Robyn Hode 1-4

It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a member of the large Cotterell family who had never heard of Robin Hood, but how many Cotterells are aware that the activities of the Coterel Gang in Sherwood Forest in the early fourteenth century may well have been the original from which the Robin Hood legend derived.

I think we all must have absorbed in childhood the links between Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, but attempts to identify Robin with a known historical character have never been generally accepted. The traditional picture comes from the work of Anthony Munday, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, in the period 1598-1601. The titles of his work contain almost all the elements of the Robin Hood we know today: “The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, Afterward called Robin Hood of merrie Sherwodde: with his love to chaste Matilda, the Lord Fitzwaters Daughter, afterwarde his faire Maide Marian” and “The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington. Otherwise called Robin Hood of merrie Sherwodde: with the lamentable Tragedie of chaste Matilda, his faire maid Marian, poysoned at Dunmowe by King John”. Munday's work placed Robin firmly in the time of King Richard I who, in 1190, was away fighting in the Crusades, while his brother, Prince John was left behind to rule England. This early date appears to be a fictional creation of Munday, with no external evidence to support it.

Munday was by no means the first to tell the story of the outlaws of Sherwood Forest; several manuscripts survive from the end of the fourteenth and the early fifteenth centuries. The first and the most important of these is “A Gest of Robyn Hode” in the British Library, printed about 1500, but most probably composed in the second half of the fourteenth century, with the action set early in that century. In the Gest Robin is described as a follower of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, whose rebellion against Edward II was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire on the 15th. of March, 1322. Robin was amongst the survivors of the battle who were outlawed and who fled south into Sherwood Forest. Henry de Facombery, who had betrayed Thomas's plans to the king was rewarded with the title of Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. The outlaws of Sherwood were granted a brief respite when they were pardoned by the king in 1323 in return for help in suppressing another rebellion, but the amnesty was withdrawn two years later, and the exploits of Robyn Hode continued in Sherwood Forest for several years after 1325.

There have been at least two attempts at identifying a historical person as the real Robin Hood. In 1995 Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman in “Robin Hood, the Man behind the Myth” (Michael O' Mara Books, London) proposed that Robert Hode, identified by Joseph Hunter in the mid nineteenth century as the leader of the escaped rebels from Boroughbridge, was the original Robin Hood. Robert Hode was a knight who lived on the edge of Barnsdale Forest, a few miles south of Wakefield, a forest at that time adjoining Sherwood Forest. In 1321 he had married Matilda who later joined him when he was outlawed and together they resided in Barnsdale Forest. The identification is attractive, but the evidence is of course purely circumstantial: the Gest only names Robyn Hode. Nevertheless, Wakefield has taken the suggestion to heart, and in 2004, David Hinchcliffe, MP for Wakefield demanded that Nottingham relinquish its claim to be the heart of Robin Hood Country.

A somewhat wilder identification was proposed in 2006 in the novel “Hood” by Stephen Lawhead. The historical character Bran ap Brychan living in the eleventh century on the borders of Wales, who spent his time fighting the Norman invaders, is proposed as the original Robin Hood: forget all about Maid Marion, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The identification is not even marginally convincing.

At least we can infer that the tales related in the Gest and other Robin Hood source material do reflect to some extent historical happenings early in the fourteenth century, and in the neighbourhood of Sherwood Forest and Barnesdale. That being so, the historical records should be searched to find historical events suggestive of those in the tales. It is certainly historical fact that the early fourteenth century saw a wave on gang activity in the midlands area generally, usually driven by local gentry rather than vagabonds. In Leicestershire to the south the Folville gang were notorious, in Staffordshire to the west, Sir William Chetulton and his gang roamed that county and north into Chester and southern Lancashire in 1321-2. To the north, the Bradburns of Bradbourne in Derbyshire, together with John “the Little” took part in a burglary at Harrington in Yorkshire in 1318. In the centre of this region, the Sherwood Forest area north of Nottingham and north into southern Derbyshire there was the notorious Coterel Gang.

As far as I know there has been no attempt to suggest that the Gest was based on the exploits of he Coterel Gang which were first recorded in 1328 at Bakewell in southern Derbyshire within Sherwood Forest. The Coterel Gang is one of the very few instances of outlawry in the early fourteenth century that has critically investigated by a competent historian. In 1964 J. G. Bellamy of the University of Nottingham published his findings in a paper entitled “The Coterel Gang: an Anatomy of a Band of Fourteenth-century Criminals” in the October issue of the English Historical Review, Volume 79, pages 698-717 (1964). Although Bellamy notes that this is the same period as the material of the Gest , he does not attempt to identify Robin Hood with James Coterel, the leader of the gang, and there is no direct evidence to support such an identification.

There followed the high period of the gang's criminal activity from March 1331 to September 1332 during which it roved mainly through the Peak District and northern Nottinghamshire, which of course was Robin Hood country par excellence.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702

In this article I propose that the exploits of the notorious and very successful Coterel Gang in Sherwood Forest which were both very topical and well-known, and inspired a great deal of popular support, could well have been a source of inspiration for the author of “A Gest of Robyn Hode” a few years later, and the origin of all the later stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. One might even speculate that the Robert Hode of Barnsdale was himself a member of, or associated with, the Coterel Gang. In what follows I quote extensively from Bellamy's 1964 article since this is perhaps not generally available. You can purchase a copy of Bellamy's article from the British Library at: