Bradford & Wakefield Observer (30/Sep/1847) - Walks Round Huddersfield

The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors.

WALKS ROUND HUDDERSFIELD.

By George S. Phillips.

No. III.

ROBIN HOOD'S GRAVE.

I am charged with finding more beauties in the scenery round Huddersfield than ever existed there ; and especially in the instance of that ravine which was described in my last paper. The charge, however, neither surprises nor concerns me. But there are persons whom it does concern, if they were only wise enough to see it, and these persons are my accusers. Let them look to it, therefore ; and by a thorough examination of themselves, confess that they are not beautiful ; and one might then hope that they will strive henceforth to become beautiful both in the inward life, and the outward action. For no man can judge either of the truth or falsehood of an aesthetic or moral teaching, unless he have the necessary culture for such judgment. I have said before that beauty is not a fact of nature, but a creation of the mind, in its free contemplation of nature ; hence contemplation (or culture) is the essential condition for the existence of beauty in the mind. I need say no more upon this subject, but leave the practical application of it to those whom it may concern.

And now for another "walk." We are going this week to visit the grave of Robin Hood, whose name is a household word amongst us, and whose memory is a national possession. For nearly 600 years he has rested in Kirklees Park, amongst our venerable hills. The Calder rolls below him, through the same quiet and beautiful valley which it made glad with its presence when the true-hearted outlaw went down into the eternal silences. The same heavens are above him ; the same earth is under him ; but otherwise all is changed. The nunnery wherein he was well nigh bled to death, in order to satisfy the enmity of Roger of Doncaster, is clean gone ; vanished like a dream for ever, with all its nuns and appurtenances. Roger and the Prioress are likewise gone, and have their doom. Two old relics of that past time only remain, and these are the lodge-chamber in which Robin died, and the old hostel of the nunnery. Robin lies all alone there, with the exception of these. Little John, the Naylor, sleeps at Hathersedge, amongst the blue limestone rocks of Derbyshire and all the merry men, with their Lincoln green coats and gold adornments ; their archery and bugle horns are scattered also, and lie in unknown graves, until the louder bugle of the resurrection shall awake and reunite them. All is changed. We have had our Henry the 8th since then ; our Protestantism, and Commonwealth ; our manufactures, commerce, steam engines, and electric telegraphs ; our free press, so called, and our Protestant philosophies and literature. And at the very foot of Robin Hood's grave, one hundred trains a-day thunder along between the two towns of Leeds and Manchester. Fancy the sudden awaking of good old Robin into this world of the nineteenth century. Fancy him unarmed, standing upon the edge of that high terrace of rocks which overlooks the vale of Calder. Yonder goes a railway train with its horse of fire, thundering along the iron road ; and here stands Robin, with his green tunic, his bugle, his bow and arrows, wondering what it all means ; and fancying that he is asleep and dreaming of unknown things, in a world which looks like that old one he knew 600 years ago ; and yet so altered in its features and general aspect that he believes his imagination has woven it up, and that this is none other than a vision.

It will be necessary, however, before we go a step on this proposed walk of ours, that I should speak more definitely about Robin Hood, and say something about his birthplace and history. And as it is lawful for a writer to quote from himself, especially when he cannot say better in new words what he has already said in old ones, I will make certain extracts here from an article written by me on "Sherwood Forest," in the June No. of the People's Journal for this year, which will supply all the information necessary for our purpose.

"So many conflicting statements have been made respecting this noble outlaw (Robin Hood) that he was fast becoming a myth, until Spencer Hall, "The Sherwood Forester," rescued him about six years ago,[1] from the embranglements and defacements of time ; and restored him to us in as good flesh and blood as we could expect under the circumstances. We learn from various sources that Robin Hood was born at Loxley Chase near Sheffield, in the beginning of the thirteenth century ; and I fully agree with Spencer Hall, after an examination of all the documents upon the subject which have fallen in my way, that Robin was no more Earl of Huntingdon than he was Seneschal of France. The most ancient traditions, as well as the most authenticated ballads, agree in describing him as a yeoman, driven to the woods by his hatred of the oppression of his time The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, very plainly calls Robin a "Yeoman ;" and as the Geste itself bears, in its entire structure, grouping, and keen discrimination of character, the genius of our venerable Chaucer, there can be little question of the fidelity of the appellation. The accounts of Robin's appearance and accoutrements, which we find in the ballads of Editor Ritson, are still further corroborations of our hero's rank ; and I have no doubt, as Chaucer's men and women are all types of classes, that Robin Hood is literally described in the Yeoman of the Canterbury Pilgrims.

"Little can be known," says Spencer Hall, "of our hero's progress up to the time when the patriots arose, under Simon de Montfart, Earl of Leicester, to enforce the recognition of Magna Charta by Henry III. ; but that his powers were devoted to the side of his country's rights in that memorable movement, &c., there can be no doubt." Fordun, a noteworthy chronicler, who lived about a century after this movement, says, in the Scotichronicon, 'after relating the final defeat of the great national party, consequent on the battle of Evesham, in August, 1265, that from among the dispossessed and banished arose Robin Hood and Little John, with their accomplices, whom the people of his time were extravagantly fond of celebrating in tragedy and comedy beyond all others.' It was only in later times, to 'give a tawdry effect to ill-written plays,' that Robin Hood was styled Earl of Huntingdon. To the general manly and noble character of this bold outlaw, who believed in more 'points' than were ever contained in any English 'Charter,' we have the most unequivocal testimony in history and the popular traditions. He seems to me, as I read of surrounded by his little court of outlaws, in the old Forest of Sherwood, like an aboriginal lord of Nature's own fashioning and appointment. There is such a large free heart in him, and so wise a head upon his shoulders, that I cannot wonder how the 'disaffected ' came to him in those troublesome times, and listed themselves to his generous service. In his rule and person was exhibited the very singular governmental riddle of despotic democracy. This Rob o'th'Wood was the strongest man of all the strongmen who owned him Liege and Master. His strength lay in his brains and heart, however, not in his bones and fibres ; although he understood, no doubt, all the tricks of wrestling, cuffing, and quarter-staff. It was a fine sight, I will answer for it, to see him and his true men, in their liveries of gold and green, symbolical of the forest garniture, and adapted, moreover, to deceive sherriff's and kings officers, who might be on the look out for them over the landscape. Just fancy a hundred of such men, attired in this manner, with their bows and stoves, drawn up in review before Robin Hood, previous to an excursion against some company of priests and their vassals, who are returning from the distraint of a poor yeoman over the copses of Barnsdale. There is Little John, the Naylor, seven feet high, with a droll red face, cracking sundry jests with Much, the miller's son ; who, on another occasion, according to the Lytell Geste, asked with sinister meaning, when Robin Hood was endowing the poor Knight — whether the 'money was well told!' And there, too, is Scathelock, who assured Much, on the same occasion, with a good horse laugh, when Little John was measuring out the 'cloth ' with his 'bowe tree,' that John might give the knight — 'better measure, for—

By ——— it cost him but lite.

And these good fellows, with Will Stuteley, (Stoutly) and old Friar Tuck, are the captains of the little baud, each ready to go where he is sent, and that right merrily too, and without grumbling ; whether to chase a sheriff, or waylay an abbot.

"I must not omit to mention, however, that Robin Hood was addicted to two things, which, as I believe, are common to all noble natures, viz. love and music. He had his harper, in the person of Allan o' the Dale, 'a very gentle character,' as Spencer Hall says, 'whose mind, is said to have been injured by a cross in his affections ;' and he found his love in the beautiful Maid Marian. It must not be supposed from this attachment, that Robin was a freebooter amongst women ; for no fact is better attested concerning him, than that he had a respect amounting even to reverence for the fair sex, and was always their friend and defender. The ballad which relates the circumstance of his death, from which I shall perhaps quote more largely by and bye, has these lines :

I never hurt woman in all my life ;
Nor man, in woman's companie.

Besides which, in deference to the ecclesiastical law of our time, I will even venture to hint, that old Friar Tuck — who was a 'better,' and no doubt a 'sadder' man than the novelists have made him — might have married them in the moonlight, under the greenwood tree, whilst gentle Allan made rich extemporaneous music, such as the brooks and breezes sing, out of the chords of his much loved instrument.

"However this may be, I am quite sure that no one could join Simon de Montfort, and being defeated, return to the fastnesses of the Forest, rather than give up his liberty, with a priest, a musician, and a Maid Marian for consort, and be a bad man. These four things are impossible to a bad man.

"Besides which, we hear instances of Robin's devotion and reverence for religion, which really invest him with a true moral grandeur. The writer of an article in the Westminster Review, No. 65, quoted by Mr. Hall in his Life of Robin Hood, has given us the following translation from the Latin of an old chronicler upon this subject : 'Once upon a time, in Barnesdale, where he was avoiding the wrath of the king and the rage of the prince, while engaged in very devoutly hearing mass, as he was wont to do, nor would he interrupt the service for any occasion ; one day, I say, whilst so at mass, it happened that a certain viscount, and other officers of the king, who had often before molested him, were seeking after him in that retired woodland spot wherein he was thus occupied. Those of his men who first discovered this pursuit, came and entreated him to fly with all speed ; but this, from reverence for the consecrated host, which he was then most devoutly adoring, he absolutely refused to do. Whilst the rest of his people were trembling for fear of death, Robert alone confiding in Him whom he fearlessly worshipped, with the very few whom he had then beside them, encountered his enemies, overcame them with ease, was enriched by their spoils and ransom, and was thus induced to hold ministers of the church and masses (only the good ministers though ; for he loved to fleece none so much as a bad priest) in greater veneration than ever, as mindful of the common paying :— 'God hears the man that often hears the mass.'

"There are various other traditions concerning Robin Hood which, whether true or false, are valuable, as evidences of the general impress which his character and actions stamped upon the memory of his time. Noble, generous, brave — a lover of the poor, and defender of their rights against the rich and the oppressor, he comes down to us like the hero of some old dim epic, whose author has taxed all the powers of his imagination to set in the most costly jewels of humanity. His encounter with Edward the First, for instance, is full of human beauty. This king had offered large rewards for Robin, alive or dead, but none of his officers and spies could find him out. So having conquered the Welsh, he came down to Sherwood, resolved to try what he could do with his bloodhounds and most trusty followers, in the way of extirpating the outlaw and his merry men. It is said that he took up his abode at Clipston Castle, and scoured the whole county round for many days without success. At last he went in disguise, and wandered about the Forest alone, in hope of meeting with his enemies. All these things were well known to Robin Hood, who managed to have his spies at Clipston Castle. It was not long, therefore, before Robin showed himself to the king, in full array of green and gold, equipped also with his bow and arrows, his short sword, and that little bugle horn about which Edward had heard so many magical stories. The King demanded who this apparition of the woods might be ?

"I Am Robin Hood," answered the outlaw, nothing daunted at the presence of majesty.

"Then," returned the King, "we are well met, so stand upon your guard."

But Robin wound his horn, and a hundred armed men rose up from the gorse and heather, as if by enchantment, demanding the will of their leader. 'It is to do reverence to the King of England that I have called you,' said he ; and Edward was so touched with this generous spectacle, that he invited Robin and his men to court, with a promise of free pardon and protection. It is further said, that the invitation was accepted, and that the Maid Marian died during the year that Robin was at court. He was deeply affected at the loss of his beloved ; and, when spring returned, he was so haunted with the olden memories of the woods, their sweet liberty, flowers, brooks, and birds, that he left the king by permission ; and returned to his old haunts and Companions. So, at all events, runs the tradition.

"I cannot leave Robin Hood without adding a few words upon his death and burial-place. Within four miles of the spot where I am now writing, there was, in those olden times, a religious house called the Nunnery or Kirklees, at the head of which Robin's cousin was appointed in the capacity of prioress. In his eightieth year, the outlaw, still strong in heart and limb, was journeying that way, and was taken suddenly ill. In his extremity he applied for aid at the nunnery ; and tradition says that, in order to please Sir Roger de Doncaster, who was a great man in this neighbourhood in those days, she caused him to, be bled well nigh unto death. When Little John heard these sad tidings — for it was soon known to the dependents of the nunnery and the brave old Naylor, who was never far away from his master — he forced his way into the chamber of the dying hero, and besought him to authorise the calling together of the band, for the purpose of burning 'Kirkley Hall, and all their nunnery,' as the old ballad has it. But the noble outlaw felt that he was closing his earthly accounts, and had no wish to draw any further upon heaven's justice or forgiveness ; so he answered Little John in these words —

'I never hart fair maid in all my time,
    Nor at my end shall it be :
But take my bent bow in thy band,
    And a broad arrow let thou flee ;
And where this arrow Is taken up,
    There shall my grave digged be.
Lay me a green sod under my head,
    And another at my feet ;
And lay my bent bow by my aide,
    Which was my music sweet ;
And make my grave of gravel and green,
    Which is most right and meet.'

And there, in the beautiful park of Kirklees, sleep the ashes of this venerable patriot. The park is situated upon a high platform, close to Cooper Bridge Station, on the Manchester and Leeds Railway, which commands a magnificent sweep of country — including the fine old hills of Huddersfield, the romantic vale of Calder, and the far-off interminable moors, which ran with but tittle interruption along the 'Backbone' of England right into North Britain. The grave of Robin Hood is fenced round with iron palisades, set in solid stone masonry, and covered with a large slab, brought most likely, from the graveyard of the Nunnery. The headstone contains an inscription, setting forth the valour, generosity, and wooded gifts of the dead. The old Abbey Lodge still stands ; and the room in which Robin died and the window from which the arrow was shot, are still shown to the pilgrim who goes up thither. A part of the ancient hostelry of the Abbey is likewise in existence, and retains its former usage ; for it is a public house of entertainment for man and beast, and is known by the sign of 'The Three Nuns.'"

I have now said what seemed to me necessary, about the history and death of the English Outlaw. Who will go up with, me then, not to fight against the Philistines, but to see the grave where he lies ? We shall have a pleasant walk of it, especially by the route I mean to take you ; which is, you will soon discover, through all manner of high-ways and bye-ways. Let us set out then upon the Bradford Road, and whilst you, my companion, are enjoying the beautiful scenery by the ways, I will talk to you about Sherwood Forest, which was the wild woodland home of the dead outlaw for so many years. I know that old forest all by heart, and have its varied scenes stored like pictures in my memory. It is much changed now from what it was when Robin Hood dwelt in it ; but it is still very extensive and many of its olden features are preserved.

You pass through it on the high road between Newark and Worksop, and just beyond Ollerton you get a glimpse of its character, from the gray, gnarled, and knotted oaks, which guard the forest on either side. But it would be impossible to conceive from this slight view how strange, wild, and wonderful are the revelations of beauty and sublimity which unfold themselves in the primeval sanctuary of the Forest itself. Hundreds of travellers pass that way, without ever suspecting they are on the borders of an enchanted world. And yet the walk of a quarter of a mile from that well-paved macadamised road will conduct you to an old realm of trees with huge barkless trunks and twisted branches, which look like the giant skeletons of an extinct creation. There is a solitude around them, likewise, which partakes of the solemnity of an alien world, and fills the heart with new, startling, and painful emotions. This part of the Forest is called Biihagh, and stretches eastward away for two or three miles. The trees are all oaks — some of them eighty feet in height — bare and black ; scarred by the storm and riven by the lightning. Many of them are split in twain from the top to the bottom ; and yet so strong is the old life within them, that their branches are covered with foliage. Imagine these old forest patriarchs, alive with God ten hundred years ago, petting on new garments of green every spring to hide the nakedness of age, and daily dying a death which it will take centuries yet to consummate. It is the most affecting sight which a man can behold, to, witness these huge, dumb creatures — so silent, and yet so desolate.


Few persons, unaccustomed to observe Nature in her ancient hiding places, would credit the singular transformations which the oaks of Bilhagh have, in many instances, undergone. It would be quite possible to make & new heraldry from the strange emblematic devices which have been carved upon them by the invisible fingers of the elements. Dragons, crocodiles' heads, serpents, glaring basilisks, kraken, and monsters of an unknown birth, surmount the capitols of the old trees, or grin under their barkless ribs. You are literally shut out, in this part of the Forest from all signs of civilisation, and seem to stand in a "strange, solemn, and old universe." Over you hang the azure vaults of immensity' ; and under your feet how many worlds lie buried !

Heaven silent above us,
Graves under us silent.

The decayed ferns in some places form a soil which is yards in depth, and the surface is covered with mosses in beautiful variety, and studded with bluebells, violets, foxgloves, and other sweet wild flowers, in their appointed seasons. In the spring, whilst the ferns lie dead and yellow around you, and the oaks are blanched and leafless, the solitude is broken by rooks and jackdaws building their nests in the hollow sockets of the trees, and waving their dusky pennons to the music of their own jawing ; or if some tiny bird flits through the colossal ruins of the Forest, it is only to utter mournful, shrieks, or sad melancholy pipings. The rooks and daws are the only winged creatures (save the night owls) which' have any claim of habitancy in this old primeval temple. But as the warm days come on, and May returns to earth, like a bride laden with flowers, there is an universal joyousness in the old Forest ; the mighty oaks, with centuries in their blood, leap up as into life eternal, and clap their ancient hands with a great shout of deliverance and praise. The gorse, dropping with gold and delicious odours, flourishes under the wide foliage of the trees ; the fiery adders come from their winter holes and sun themselves in the glades, and the whole Forest resounds with the melody of birds. At night, when the shadows cast by the moon enhance the solemnity of the scene, and fill it with ghostly witcheries and wonderful enchantments, you may hear the love-lorn song of the nightingale, rushing through the starry air from the far off dells of Birkland, and dying away in sweet cadences as they are borne along from echo, to echo. The hares and rabbits then come out of the dingles and thick entangled underwood to crop the dewy herbage and gambol in toe silence and security of the hour ; and as you walk along, the startled pheasant rushes to toe tree tops with heavy wing and shrill cries.

But I would advise those who can afford the time and the money to run down from Huddersfield by rail to Eckington station, and walk thence to Edwinstowe, the capital of Sherwood, and visit the old Forest themselves. I can assure them they will be amply repaid, both in body and mind, for the excusion. Bilhagh alone, is worth travelling a hundred miles barefoot to see, and once seen it can never be forgotten. Pemberton, the "Wanderer," as he called himself, walked from London to spend one day there, and then returned, grateful that he was strong enough to make so beautiful a pilgrimage. Washington Irving, Elliott, Howitt, and numberless other men, known and unknown to fame, have spent many days in this venerable wilderness, which extends even now, in all its olden features, eight or ten miles in length, by two or three in breadth. And the reader must not suppose that this is any ordinary region ; or that he can see the like of it in Epping, or in any of the other ancient forests. I have been in the back woods of the American continent, and have seen many noble "green robed senators" of the Forest in England, but I never knew what a tree was until I beheld the giants of Sherwood. I will describe some of them more particularity by and bye ; and in the meanwhile let me allude to the historical associations which are ; connected with them. In the first place, they were planted by no human hands ; and connect us with the descendants of Hu the Mighty — with the Droid life and 'Bardic Institutions of Britain — anterior even to the Roman invasion. For there is no question that Sherwood, is. a part of the aboriginal forests of the island. Its antiquity may be gathered from the fact that there are still the remains of Roman roads, villas, and encampments in various parts of it. Long, therefore, before the organisation of the Saxon Heptarchy, the trees of Sherwood were in the full vigour of youth and glory. And afterwards, the old kings of Mercia hunted the wolf and the wild boar in its shaggy dens and brakes. In the time of William the Conqueror, various Norman barons held it under the tenure of service to the Crown ; and many cruel forest laws — out of which our modern game laws grew — were enacted to preserve the red deer from the "short buts and long buts" of the conquered Saxon peasantry. He who kills a buck shall have his eyes put out ; he who steals a doe shall be hanged. These are specimens of those feudal laws ; and I am sorry to say the spirit of them is not much improved in our game laws. If any woodman, lingcropper, villager, or traveller of this day were to kill a hare, pheasant, or even a rabbit, in the forest, he would be liable to a fine of eight pounds, and in default of payment must go to the county jail as a prisoner during the Queen's pleasure ; which is often of very long duration. There are men now in Nottingham jail who have been imprisoned there for five years under the very circumstances I have named. John Bright will, perhaps, set them at liberty before long ; and no one will thank him more heartily than myself.

In the time of King John, the hays of Birkland — of which I shall speak more particularly by and bye — and the woods of Bilhagh were the scenes of many royal hunting excursions ; for John loved the chase quite as much as he hated liberty ; and was a frequent guest at the old castle of Clipston, which then stood proudly on a hill about a mile and a half from Edwinstowe. Now, however, even the name of the owner of the castle is forgotten, and nothing but a heap of ruins is left to indicate the site of that feudal hold. A few pretty cottages, with neat gardens, occupied by the retainers of the present Duke of Portland, lie scattered at the foot of the hill, and constitute the village of Clipston. The scenery all round it is very romantic and beautiful, and one of the best trout streams in England meanders through it, which, however, no man may fish, unless he wishes to be caught.

(To be concluded in our next.)

Notes

  1. In a book which he called the "Forester's Offering."

The following is a scan of an original article and is made available under the terms of fair use for research purposes.

Bradford and Wakefield Observer 30 September 1847.png

Bradford & Wakefield Observer (30/Sep/1847) - Walks Round Huddersfield

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