Now that’s an old school poem

Here, underneath this little stone,
Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.
No archer was as he so good,
And people called him Robin Hood.
Such outlaws as he and his men,
Will England never see again.

That’s my best shot at updating what may well be Robin Hood’s epitaph to modern English.

I love the Internet age because I have access to a disturbingly large body of information. For reasons that I can’t possibly explain rationally I found myself reading The Early Ecclesiastical History of Dewsbury1 last night, and part way through the reading I ran into a section discussing Robin Hood’s possible historical existence, his grave site, and the probably-significantly-posthumous epitaph thereupon. All of this was new to me–I had a vague notion that Robin Hood was one of those “there might have been a historical person, but we’re not sure who” folks, not someone whose historical existence had been confirmed to the point where we could point at his bones. (As it turns out, he is, and we can’t, but that’s not the point.)

That I can just kind of accidentally run into this stuff fascinates me.

You can check out the pages yourself–the section I’ll quote below starts at page 174, but here’s the relevant extract, including the original “wow English really is related to German” version of the poem above:

But there is one tradition attached to Kirklees, by which, more than the beauty of its site, the name has been rescued from the oblivion into which other small monastic foundations have fallen. This is the death and interment of Robin Hood, whose very existence has been doubted in these sceptical days. Yet that the story is substantially true—that an outlaw and deerstealer of that name, or of one resembling it, did really exist in the beginning of the thirteenth century, and commit many of the outrages imputed to him, on the confines of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire,—that in the general want which prevailed at that time of medical assistance, except from females, he should have applied to a nun of this house for phlebotomy, and that a nun should have thought herself, instead of being guilty of the basest treachery, meritoriously employed in suffering a mischievous patient to bleed to death,—are characteristic and probable circumstances almost impossible to have been invented. With respect to the general proof of his existence and adventures, the testimony of Peirs Plouhman, within 120 years of his decease, appears to be decisive. At that time many persons must have been alive who had either conversed with the companions of those adventurers, or they must have known them to be a fiction. Setting aside the printed evidences which perpetuate every remarkable transaction in the present day, who would doubt the tradition of events so bold and striking, and strictly coinciding too with the manners of the time, which should be stated to have happened in the year 1700? I have conversed with a person who knew several survivors of General Lambert’s own regiment, the period of whose adventures was 170 years ago, and yet no reasonable man can doubt of the story which they told him of their adventures.

For these reasons, I have no doubt, that this celebrated outlaw lived the life and died the death which tradition has uniformly delivered from age to age. The testimony also of Leland, who speaks of Kirklees as the place, ubi nobilis ille exlex sepultus, is satisfactory as to the tradition in the reign of Hen. VIII.

It is no small confirmation of this opinion, that the spot pointed out for the place of his interment is beyond the precinct of the Nunnery and therefore not in consecrated ground. He was buried as a robber and outlaw out of the peace of the church. Yet on the stone which was supposed to cover his remains, and was entire in the year 1750, there was a Cross of the precise form which was in use in the beginning of the thirteenth century. This, it must he confessed, is somewhat perplexing. But the difficulty will be removed by reflecting that at the dissolution of the Nunnery many ancient gravestones would remain, and that the place of the outlaw’s interment being still notorious and popular, one of these might be removed thither to mark a place which perhaps an older memorial had ceased to record. Moreover, this stone never had an inscription; and therefore either the epitaph first produced by Dr. Gale is spurious*, or my hypothesis as to the gravestone is confirmed, or both. I think the last: for first, a Cross without a sword can have originally covered none other than an ecclesiastic; and secondly, the internal evidence is strongly against the genuineness of the epitaph. If it ever existed, it must have been an invention of some rhymer in times long subsequent to the object of it. But the spelling, so far as it deviates from common old English, is not according to the dialect of the West-Riding, but of the North. On the whole, I should think it a fabrication, somewhere between the time of Hen. VIII. and Elizabeth, when the terms “archer” and “outlaw” were become familiar; and with respect to the title of “Earl of Huntingdon,” which Stukeley, who loved to support the wildest hypotheses, has laboured to confer on his fancied hero Fitz Ooth, I think it most probable that it was ludicrously bestowed upon him by the people, from the nature of his occupation. The same is my opinion of the word “Hood” which appears to be nothing more than an abbreviated and indistinct pronunciation of “a-Wood”—of the Wood. For the same reason one of his companions was denominated “George-a-Green.”


Here undernead dis laitl Stean
Laiz Robert Earl of Huntingtun.
Nea Arcir ver as hie sa geud,
An Piple kauld irn Robin Heud.
Sick utlawz as hi and iz men
Vil england nivr si agen.
     Obiit 24 Kal. Decembris, 1247.

Note in Nichols.—See the Stone engraved in the Sepulchral Monuments, vol i., p. 108. Mr. Gough says the inscription was never on it; and that the stone must have been brought from another place, as the ground under it, on being explored, was found to have been never before disturbed.

On the disputed question of the genuineness of the above epitaph, see the Notes and Illustrations to Ritson’s Robin Hood, pp.44-50. Robin Hood’s Death and Burial is the last Ballad in the second vol.:—

“And there they buried bold Robin Hood,
Near to the fair Kirkleys.”

See a Paper in the Edinburgh Review, July, 1847, voL lxxxvi., p.l22

I hadn’t realized that Robin Hood’s grave was such a well-known spot and tourist attraction–not bad for someone no one is even really sure existed. And actually there are all kind of ancillary questions about the site beyond the whole “did he even exist” thing, like “Who put up this stone, and when?” or “Where are the bones?”

A later story says that Robin fired one last arrow through the window and asked to be buried where it landed. This can’t be right. From the room in the priory guest house where he is supposed to have died, the grave is 650 yards (594 metres) uphill – almost twice the longbow range of a skilled archer.

The site of Robin’s grave at Kirklees has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The problem is: it’s the wrong place. The grave has been moved at least three times. The original grave slab disappeared some time after 1665. A replica was made, but this was chipped to pieces by 18th-century canal workers who thought a little bit of Robin Hood’s gravestone would cure toothache.

Tell me you don’t love that toothache cure bit–that’s historical gold, that is. That’s from the site for Channel 4’s Robin Hood documentary.

Of course it’s possible there were no bones there because it’s the wrong spot, as alluded to in that first paragraph, and supported by this BBC story:

A monument in the privately owned grounds claims to mark Robin Hood’s grave, but Mr Rutherford-Moore says it is impossible the outlaw’s final arrow could have travelled the full 650 metres from the gatehouse.

Using measurements of the old priory building and his knowledge of archery in the 13th Century, Mr Rutherford-Moore fired 20 “test arrows” to re-enact the event.

Based on his shots, Mr Rutherford-Moore believes he determined the probable arrow landing site to within a five-metre radius.

Subsequent research has shown bones were removed from an unmarked grave at that spot during estate improvement work in the mid-18th Century, he says.

The whereabouts of those bones is unknown.

And that, in turn, might explain why the site is haunted:

…considering the history of Robin’s death – cursed by a witch on his way to the nunnery, murdered by an apostate nun and cast into an unhallowed grave, it is hardly surprising that the site is reputed to have unquiet spirits hovering around.

Which is followed by several anecdotes of sightings, of which this is my favourite–the italics are mine:

On another occasion I was on my way home from the Three Nuns. As I was walking through the woods something fell out of a tree and knocked me to the ground. When I got up I could see the old gatehouse. In the window I could clearly see a man with a bow. My family always said it was the drink, but it was Robin Hood’s ghost.

Anyway, back to “who put up the stone?”, well, here’s how presents that story:

We know from written records and a surviving 17th-century sketch by one Nathaniel Johnston that there was once a complete horizontal stone slab, with a cross engraved on it.

By 1786, this too was reported by antiquarian Richard Gough as being “broken and much defaced”. This was as a result of bits of it being chiselled away over the years by local people, who believed that it had the power to cure toothache (compare this to local belief in the curative powers of the stones at Stonehenge). Notwithstanding the damage, the cross and the first part of the inscription could still be made out at this time: “Here lie Robard Hude, Willm Gold burgh, Thoms…”

[…snipped out the bit about the ‘epitaph’ mentioned above, but note they translate it almost identically to me…]

This is, in fact, a copy of an earlier epitaph stone that manages to get the agreed date of Robin’s death (normally thought to be 1347) a century out. It was probably erected in the 18th century by the then proprietor of the estate, Sir George Armytage, with the words being taken from an account of the original epitaph found in the papers of Thomas Gale, Dean of York, some 75 years earlier. (It was probably Gale who was responsible for getting the date of death wrong by misreading of the original stone.) The Armytage family is still in possession of the site, including the ruins of the Kirklees Priory gatehouse.

So, in this story the stone was erected in the 18th century, but based on some kind of historical record. Well, the Channel 4 guys tell it a little differently:

When the present site was excavated, nothing was found but earth – which isn’t surprising if the grave had been moved. On the second replacement grave slab, there’s a 19th-century inscription in fake ‘olde English’ – a poor attempt to establish the grave’s ancient credentials. The book Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings describes it as ‘a 19th-century precursor of seeing Elvis in K-Mart’.

Well, that’s a bit harsh, but I think I actually prefer the story of how the site’s legend is built by people deluding themselves and/or trying to delude other over time to the notion that it might be some kind of real, actual iconic site. The accretion of legend from hope and hints and a bit of flim flam is marvelous (c.f. Oak Island, Loch Ness). People are so fascinating.

There’s also a bit on this at the Robin Hood’s Grave page of, including pictures of the priory, and the stone that could have “covered none other than an ecclesiastic”. And most oddly, they also present an unsourced translation of the 18th century verse, but it turns out very differently than my attempt, ot the other ones at pages I’ve linked above:

Robert Earl of Huntingdon lies under this little stone. No archer was like him so good; his wildness named him ROBIN HOOD. For thirteen years, and something more, these northern parts he vexed sore. Such outlaws as he and his men, may England never know again

That’s a pretty different ending, anyway. And probably another sign of how legend is used to mold history into the directions we want.

After all this idle browsing, I feel like there’s a Tim Powers story in here–a secret history that would tie together and explain the witch, the murdering apostate nun, the miraculous arrow flight, the moving gravesite, the missing bones, the toothache curing gravestone, the headstone defacement, the 18th century poetic “recreation”, the hauntings, and so on….

  1. Or, to give its full and proper title: The Early Ecclesiastical History Of Dewsbury, In The West-Riding Of The County of York, Including A Sketch Of The Introduction Christianity Into Northumbria. To Which Are Added, With Notes, Dr. Whitaker’s Account Of Dewsbury, From His “Loidis And Elemete;” And His Dissertation On The Origin And Progress Of Domestic Architecture: From His “History Of Whalley:” And An Account Of The Savile Family Of Lupset, Thornhill, And Howley.(back)

  0 comments for “Now that’s an old school poem

  1. Amber Rose
    January 22, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    You did an excellent job translating the epitaph! One of my strange hobbies is studying the Old and Middle English languages. While I am but an amateur, and therefore making my opinion of little consequence, I congratulate you on a job well done.

    That said, I do have one question. Would you, by any chance, have an idea as to the final line of the poem? I believe it might be a date, but I cannot be sure. Perhaps sometime in December? Which would not make any sense, since the Gregorian calendar was not introduced until the 16th century, almost three hundred years after the supposed burial of this famous outlaw, making a reference to the month we know so well improbable.

    I am simply a sentimental literary scholar, who considers things like this to be of some importance. Any further information you can provide would be most welcome.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.