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Hiding out on the margins: Was Robin Hood a hero from Sheffield?


What do you know about Robin Hood? Most likely that he and his band of brothers hung out in the depths of Sherwood Forest, coming out from time to time to harass the Sheriff of Nottingham? This is the usual scenario portrayed in film and TV, and on the back of this general perception Nottingham boasts a statue of the legendary outlaw, erected in the 1950s, outside its castle. So, if a single town or city can lay claim to this elusive figure, it’s Nottingham, right?

Well actually, no. If we are to assign a location to the Robin Hood legend then we need to start with its origins. As far as written records are concerned, the first stories appear in the fifteenth century and, tellingly, are written in a northern (Yorkshire) dialect. The main setting for these stories is also generally in Yorkshire, one of the most specific references being to Barnsdale, a formerly forested area and royal hunting ground in the vicinity of Doncaster, some 12 miles to the north-east of Sheffield.

Sheffield itself first comes into the story when the celebrated antiquarian Roger Dodsworth, writing in the 1630s, claimed to have uncovered references to a ‘Robert Locksley, born in Bradfield parish in Hallamshire’ who escaped justice by fleeing to the surrounding forests after accidentally killing his father. In 1637 a Sheffield land surveyor, John Harrison, went further in claiming that this man had been born in Loxley village, three miles to the north-west of Sheffield town centre at a house called ‘Little Haggas Croft’.

In turn, both of these suggestions were taken up enthusiastically by one of Sheffield’s most famous sons, the local historian Joseph Hunter. Using his position as Keeper of the Public Records in London to sift through medieval manuscripts, Hunter claimed that a certain Robert, or Robyn, Hood was named in the records of the manor of Wakefield in 1316. Without making his reasons entirely clear, Hunter went on to claim that this Robyn Hood had been involved in an attack on the baggage train of King Edward II as it made its way through the north of England in April 1323.

All that remained for Hunter to do next was to identify this Robyn Hood with the one referred to by Dodsworth and Harrison, and the Sheffield connection was complete. In his famous ‘History of Hallamshire’ (1819) Hunter mentioned that in the village of Loxley were ‘the remains of a house at which it was pretended that he [Robyn Hood] was born’. Not all historians have been convinced, however, most notably the medievalist J.C. Holt, himself a Yorkshireman, who disputed the authenticity of the claims. Meanwhile, Nottingham stole a march on Sheffield by taking full advantage of the settings popularised by portrayals on film and TV. But the suggestion of a South Yorkshire origin for the Robin Hood legend refused to completely disappear, and in recent years resurfaced, most notably in 2005 in the original designation of Doncaster / Sheffield Airport as ‘Robin Hood’. More recently still, in 2020 a teacher at Loxley Primary School, Dan Eaton, claimed to have identified the site of Little Haggas Croft in a pile of stones next to a medieval boundary marker in a wooded area next to the school.

What perhaps makes a Sheffield connection most plausible is its location on a number of historical borders. Coalescing around a collection of settlements on the boundary between lowland and upland Britain, at various points in its history Sheffield has been on the border between the Roman provinces of Maxima and Flavia Caesariensis, the Celtic tribes of the Brigantes, the Corieltauvi and the Kingdom of Elmet, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria and the later counties of Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Indeed, Sheffield’s very name can be translated as something like ‘Cleared land by the boundary stream’. To historians, marginal locations like this, straddling competing political institutions and legal jurisdictions, and where green wooded valleys give way to upland moorland and impenetrable forest are just the sort of places we should look for the foundations of a mythical outlaw hero standing up for the common people in their time of need and running rings around those in power.

So might Sheffield – the only town in England that actively supported the French Revolution and, more recently spawned the description ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ – be the best place in the country to look for the true origins of the legendary outlaw? Well, the citizens of Nottingham almost certainly won’t agree, but those still looking for an historical Robin Hood could do a lot worse.

By Dr Tim Cooper

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