ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRY MEN: Sheriff of Nottingham
What is any good story without a villain to drive the plot? The Robin Hood mythology provides the template for all great villain roles. In the movies, the truly great actors, Basil Rathbone and Alan Rickman come to mind, vie for the role of the Sheriff. There’s meat in that role. Robin merely needs to look pretty and athletic.
In many versions of the Robin Hood Cycle, the sheriff has no name and no real motivation. He is evil for the sake of being evil. He levies onerous taxes and executes anyone who disagrees with him. His home base is the nearly impregnable Nottingham Castle. And he is a great friend of Prince and later King John.
Historically we have an actual Sheriff of Nottingham who fits the bill for the role: Sir Philip Marc. The only problem is that he does not appear until King Richard the Lionhearted is dead and King John has assumed authority over all of England, Ireland, and most of France (which he loses). Traditionally the Robin Hood cycle ends when King Richard returns home after being held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor—who was neither Holy or Roman but German. Prince John, who had been regent for his older brother is subdued at this point and they all lived happily ever after, yada, yada, yada.
I do find it interesting that King Richard is often portrayed as the champion of the down-trodden Saxon populace of England when he was very much a Norman and only spent six months of his ten year reign in England.
Back to the Sheriff, Sir Philip Marc started as a French mercenary. King John trusted mercenaries more than his own barons. A mercenary was loyal to whoever paid the bills. The barons shifted their loyalty according to politics, as changeable as the wind.
Sir Philip earned a reputation for ruthlessness during the endless wars between England and France. He was also a keen, and successful gambler, hunter, and prodigious drinker. One could say that he won the lucrative title of Sheriff on the throw of dice with King John.
His role as sheriff would have been to keep order in the unruly north of England, which often meant repelling the Scots. He was also the chief tax collector for the crown in that rich region. King John always needed money for his continual and expensive campaigns to regain his lost lands on the continent. That Sir Philip skimmed some off the top is a given. Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Devonshire produced a huge portion of King John’s income, much of it from protected forests.
Forests, especially royal forests, in those days were more than just woodlands. They were open grazing, lakes filled with fish, hunting preserves, and protected roads. Money came from licenses to cut wood, fish, pasture pigs, graze sheep, and travel in relative safety. Sometimes, special friends of the king were given leave to hunt deer, boar, bear, and other large game, for a price.
Sir Philip found ways to squeeze more and more silver pennies out of the land and people. He also banned much of the pasturage, grazing, and common fishing or hunting. These practices forced more and more people out of their homes when they could no longer pay rent or feed themselves, and into the wilder parts of the forests where they were difficult to find.
Robin Hood’s specific crimes that earned him outlawry change from story to ballad to script. The Sheriff of Nottingham remains the ultimate villain regardless.
King John was often in the vicinity and owned a hunting lodge in nearby Devonshire. He may have given the orders, but Sir Philip Marc carried them out and thus earned the enmity of nobles and commoners alike.
Sir Philip Marc is one of the few people specifically banished from England in the Magna Carta.