Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Sheriff of Nottingham. A Medieval Myth?


Image from "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves."

The Sheriff of Nottingham – A Medieval Myth?

We remember the Sheriff of Nottingham, the ultimate medieval ‘baddie’, enemy of Robin Hood, played with vigorous style by Alan Rickman in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.”


No records give this man’s name, only his title, yet there never was a sheriff of Nottingham. So did this un-named villain exist?


One clue is in the title “Sheriff”, meaning shire-reeve, the reeve (royal officer) of the shire.


A further clue to the genesis of this myth is the fact that there was a High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests, appointed by the Crown by the Normans soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066.


The Forest Laws were a Norman import, imposed upon Anglo-Saxon Laws and customs, and very much despised by the conquered population. The Forest Laws were a means by which the King could extend his rule, eagerly used by monarchs to do just that. They could be imposed on more than woodland or forest, and the High Sheriff, the creature of the King, was hated as an enforcer of arbitrary, sometimes brutal laws. Forest Laws were intended to reserve the red and fallow deer  and the boar for the King and the aristocracy – and no one else. Dogs, apart from guard dogs, were forbidden in forest areas, and people were forbidden to carry hunting weapons. William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, increased the severity of the laws in the royal forests to include death and mutilation. Such sentences seem to have rarely imposed, but such laws caused resentment.  


King William II Rufus died in the royal New Forest, struck by an arrow. Political assassination or an angry local, furious at the laws?


Another reason why the foil of Robin Hood was a sheriff was because, in history, so many sheriffs or high sheriffs were bad lots. Philip Mark, sheriff from 1209 to 1224, Henry de Faucemberg (!318 to 1319) and John de Oxenford (1334 to 1339) were all corrupt, robbing and extorting with a will. ‘Gentlemen’ gangs of younger sons of the landed gentry, trained for battle and with no lands to inherit, took readily to robbery and more. Men such as the Folvilles and the Coterels actively recruited royal and other officials to help them murder and steal. In 1335 Nicholas Coterel was even made bailiff for the High Peak District of Derbyshire, the ultimate huntsman-turned-gamekeeper!


Given the danger for breakers of the king’s laws, poachers in the royal forest areas were often celebrated and praised. Few who benefited protested, especially if they might receive a share of fresh, tasty meat.



Woodland, forests and hunting feature in many of my medieval stories. I have Magnus, the hero in “The Snow Bride” involved in an assassination attempt in northern woodland during a hunt, and Conrad, the hero of “Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure” is a steward of the forest high lands. I speak of poaching, hunting and magic done to aid both in my novel, “The Master Cook and the Maiden”. All three of these novels are available on Amazon and free to read through Kindle Unlimited. Why not give them a try?


"The Snow Bride"

"Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure." 

"The Master Cook and the Maiden." 






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