Some years ago I was driving home late from working in Cambridge, when I passed Sherwood Forest, the haunt of the semi-legendary Robin Hood. What struck me was the sheer mass of the woodland, a powerful darkness to my left. In the country night lit only by the moon the forest was quite daunting, even though it had shrunk from its original size, when it stretched from Nottingham to Wakefield in South Yorkshire, to a mere 450 acres. I could see why it was known as a haunt of outlaws, several of whom are named in the history books, and only one of whom, Robin himself, had anything good to say about him. But those days are gone now, thankfully, and the forest is a pleasure ground for walkers,some of whom stop to admire The Major Oak, in whose hollow trunk Robin Hood and his men were said to have hidden from the Sheriff.
Did Robin exist? Well, the Robin Hood story that we have is a legend written down in the sixteenth century, but the writer drew on the stories of several outlaws and on the Robin Hood ballad tradition, a number of ballads dating from the time ranging between King John and Edward the Second. But what we do know is that some years ago a historian searching the court records of Wakefield for the year 1225, then the northern edge of the Forest, found an entry saying that one Robhod had been summoned to appear before the sheriff, but had absconded. In 1226 he turns up again, to time as Hobdehod,being equally unwilling to attend his next trial. Is this Robin? Who knows?
But the image of Robin living in a forest near empty of people is erroneous, for in the Middle Ages England was a land of forest industry. The woods contained charcoal burners, who often dwelt in wattle huts near their fires. Wood was a major resource in that period, and there were many woodland craftsmen: sawyers, who cut wood, turners, who operated lathes, foresters, who guarded the forest, swine herds, whose pigs grew fat on the acorns in England's woodlands in Autumn/ Fall. The names Turner, Sawyer and Forester are still common English surnames.Many of these swineherds were teenagers sent into the woods to tend the family pigs, young males and females, and many a liaison between lonely and cold teenagers took place took place in the woodland nights.
Yet forest was not simply woodland, and not all wood was forest. Forest was a legal term denoting land designated as royal hunting territory, and as such it need not be exclusively tree covered. Some areas of forest were open moorland. There were farms in the forest and people had grazing rights, though they were banned from taking the deer, which were to feed the royal court. Draconian punishments were enacted for poaching the royal deer, but they were rarely enforced and most culprits escaped with a fine, which provided the money that the king always needed. At other times a poacher might be offered a choice of a year or so in the dungeons or a stint in the army, for the king also needed fit lads handy with weapons.