Any mention of Robin Hood probably conjures up an image of a gallant man in green, perhaps with a feather in his jaunty hat, robbing from the rich to give to the poor and generally being a nobleman turned folk hero in a fight against the wicked Prince John.
There are many ballads and legends that recount the deeds of the outlaw ‘Robin Hood’, but not all of them are set in the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and King John. There is no conclusive evidence for when A Gest of Robyn Hode was first written but it refers, at one point, to ‘Edward our comely king’. Seeing that there were three Edwards in a row – first, second and third – this doesn’t help to pinpoint a date, but in the book Robin Hood- The Man behind the Myth by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman (Michael O’ Mara Books Ltd. 1995) the authors suggest that the king in question was Edward II and that Robin Hood was a Lancastrian rebel who had supported the king’s cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.
That is possible, but there is another man from Lancashire, who was a rebel against the Earl of Lancaster who also fits the profile of a ‘Robin Hood’. Sir William Bradshaigh (formerly Bradshaw) was the lord of Haigh and Blackrod and we know that he was outlawed because a document dated at Westminster on the 21st May 1318 says:
Pardon to William de Bradeshagh, knight, of his outlawry in the county of Lancaster for non-appearance before Robert de Lathum and his fellows, justices assigned to enquire touching the death of Henry de Bury, knight, killed by Stephen Scall’ and John de Walton, as is alleged, when charged with assenting thereto. By p.s. [-1703.]
To be ‘outlawed’ in medieval times was not uncommon. Men could be declared outlaws by the Manor or Forest court. Most people were declared outlaws because they failed to attend the court, either because they had no money to pay a fine or because they had been accused of a serious crime such as murder or treason, which would mean certain death if they were found guilty. In their absence they would be outlawed. This meant that they would become wanted men who were forced to live outside society. Their possessions, and lands if they owned them, would be confiscated. No one was allowed to give them food or shelter. If they did, it was a crime and they were in danger of being outlawed themselves.
Because they had nowhere else to go, outlaws were forced to go into the forest, where they would build themselves some sort of rudimentary shelter and eat whatever they could catch or poach – or steal. The only way they could return home was to pay any fine that had been imposed or to seek a pardon from the king if they had been accused of a serious crime.
The reason Sir William did not turn up at the inquiry into the death of Henry de Bury was that he had joined the Banastre Rebellion of 1315 and had been a part of an army that was defeated on 4th November at Preston by the sheriff of Lancaster, Sir Edmund Neville. Henry de Bury had been murdered by the rebels and Sir William stood accused of harbouring them. He was pardoned in his absence but did not return home as an inquiry into the ownership of the lands at Haigh, conducted in June of the same year, 1318, shows.
In his research into the truth behind the story of Sir William Bradshaigh and his wife, Lady Mabel (New Light on the Mab’s Cross Legend) Rev. T.C. Porteus describes how the actions of the rebels leading up to the Banastre Rebellion have a lot in common with the Robin Hood story. This was a time when the summer had been very wet, like this year, and the crops had rotted in the fields, as they have done this summer. But whilst we can now simply import food stuffs from abroad, in 1315 a failed harvest resulted in starvation. People were hungry and angry – and in Lancashire there was a suspicion that the overlord, Sir Robert Holland, had well stuffed barns whilst his tenants were dying of hunger. The rebels plundered the houses of both Sir William Holland at Haydock and Sir John Langton at Newton – surely a classic example of robbing from the rich for the benefit of the poor.
I doubt that ‘Robin Hood’ was one particular person, but rather, an amalgam of many characters – good and bad – who lived outside the law for one reason or another. Sir William Bradshaigh may well have had local supporters who viewed him as a ‘folk hero’ for his fight against injustice. He may not be the whole Robin Hood, but he may well be one facet of the legend.
*Read more about Sir William Bradshaigh in my stories The Lady of Haigh and An Honourable Estate which is based on the legend of Mab’s Cross.