Robin Hood and his Merry Men: the Sheriff of Nottingham

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.


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Robin Hood and his Merry Men: the Sheriff of Nottingham — 5 Comments

  1. thank you for writing and sharing this – I learned several things I hadn’t known, chief among them being that the Magna Carta actually banished people. This was a great read.

    >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.
    …which is probably *why* he was viewed as a champion: because he wasn’t around to tax them (any taxes that went to get Richard out of jail or fund him overseas, could just be blamed on John)

    • Anthony, in my research I have found that John was no worse a king than most rulers of his era. His biggest sin was that he was an at home in your face kind of king. He actually liked his role as chief judge and prosecutor and had all his legal judgements written down as precedent for future cases. And he was good at it and fair, not something his barons were used to or wanted.

      The barons couldn’t make war against each other in constant land grabs with a judicious king hanging over their shoulders. If he visited your castle every two years and ate you out of house and home then you couldn’t be out making war on your neighbors. You had to look peaceful. And all the money you wanted to spend on your own army was suddenly eaten up by the king’s need to build his own army to try to regain France,

      • thank you for this. it is very much appreciated, and helps me get a better handle on John’s kingship.

        all the best to you

  2. Just to mention that the wonderful Basil Rathbone played Guy of Gisburne in the Errol Flynn film, rather than the Sheriff, who was a bit more of a figure of fun.