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Home > Books > The Witchery of Archery > Chapter 7: Bold Robin Hood and his merry clan
Chapter VII
Bold Robin Hood and his merry clan

IF one would know what archery was in the days of its greatest glory, it is necessary for him to study the "Garland," a book of ballads touching the exploits of Robin Hood and his men.

The illustrated edition of these ballads, by Mr. Gulch, is probably the best. But my object here is not to write a biography of Robin, or to republish the "Garland." There is good archery practice, however, in some of the bold outlaw's exploits, and, since he is the recognized prince of modern bowmen, no one dare dispute the authority of his precepts and example in matters pertaining to forest shooting. Mr. Spencer Hall, in his "Forester's Offering," says: "Robin Hood was born at Loxley Chase, near Sheffield, in Yorkshire, where the romantic river Loxley descends from the hills to mingle its blue waters with the Rivilin and the Don-a place well known to every grinder in Sheffield, and often alluded to in the poems of the people's laureate, Ebenezer Elliot, who is the owner of some land on the spot. He was an exiled patriot-an outlaw-a robber-a friend of the honest poor-a hater of tyranny, and, best of all, an incomparable archer. The date of his birth was about 1225, in the reign of Henry III., and he is said to have been the Earl of Huntingdon, outlawed on account of debt or some act of resistance to the crown. One writer on the subject says: "Robert Hood, no doubt, had drawn his formidable weapon (a six foot yew bow) with good effect at Lewes and Evesham. He had drawn too strong a bow, in too good and old a cause, to be one of the first to lay it down, and submit himself to the tender mercies of Henry and his creatures."

The outlaw gathered about him threescore or more of his patriot companions in arms, after their utter defeat, and fled to the wild woods to lead the life of freebooters and troublers of the realm. The writer last quoted continues: " Trent was emphatically the outlaw's country: and never since the Conqueror had quenched the stubborn, still-resisting, oft-rebelling spirit of Northumbria in blood and flame, had that region been wholly without its outlaw population." Arriving there, Robin Hood at once took his natural place as the leader of the boldest and most feared band of them all. In a short harangue to his followers, as set forth in a very ancient ballad, he tells them:

"You need not be over-anxious, for we shall do well enough. See that ye do no harm to any husbandman that tilleth with the plough, nor to any good yeoman, nor to any knight or squire that is a good fellow; but Bishops and Archbishops, those rich ecclesiastics that live upon the fat of the land, and subsist by plundering the poor, you may beat and bind them. The High Sheriff of Nottingham, too, you may bear in mind, for he is no friend of any of us."

The mellowing influence of more than six hundred years has clothed in the charming garb of romance the rough deeds of that master bowman of Sherwood Forest, and no name is dearer to-day to the yeomanry of England than that of Robin Hood. But, according to the ballads, and in the light of our present civilization, it is rather hard to justify some of his most daring exploits. Instance the following: "We have an account of an ad-venture, which is said to have taken place when our hero was but fifteen years of age. He is de-scribed as a tall and proper young man, of good courage; and it is said that he was going to that town (Nottingham) to dine with the general, but who the general was we are not informed. On his way he fell in with a party of fifteen foresters, boon companions, it would seem, who were carousing with beer, ale, and wine. ‘What news?' said he to them, 'what news?' ‘What news wouldst thou fain have?' said they. ‘The chief news is that a shooting-match has been provided by the king.' ‘And I am ready with my bow!' exclaimed Robin, in a tone of exultation.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men
Robin Hood and his Merry Men

" 'We hold it in scorn,' said the foresters,' that so young a boy as thou art, and that art not yet able to draw a string, should presume to bear a bow before our monarch.' Robin, who was conscious of his superior skill in archery, felt indignant at this taunt, and boldly exclaimed: ' By the leave of our dear Lady, I will wager you twenty marks that I will hit a mark at a distance of a hundred rods, and that I will at that distance cause a hart to die.' ` By the leave of our Lady,' said the foresters in reply, ' we will hold thee twenty marks that thou wilt not, hit a mark at a distance of a hundred rods, and that thou wilt not cause a hart to die at that distance.' "

So the wager, according to the authority quoted, was agreed to, and Robin bent his bow, hitting the mark, probably a willow wand, at a hundred rods, and killing the hart at the same length.

The young hero then demanded payment of the money, which was promptly and insultingly refused by the fifteen foresters. "Take up thy bow and, get thee hence, lest we baste thy sides soundly," cried they sneeringly. Robin laughed merrily, and taking up his bow, walked away as if the matter were a good joke. But when he had reached good shooting distance from them, he drew and let fly shaft after shaft upon them with such terrible force and accuracy that he stretched all fifteen of the foresters dead on the ground, cleaving the head of the last one as he was fleeing away. These men were buried, all in a row, at the churchyard in Nottingham. The people of the town pursued Robin, but got for their pains a few pierced limbs and damaged heads. He escaped to the woods.

Maid Marian, a lovely and brave girl, figures as Robin's woodland companion, to whom all the wild forest rovers paid the tenderest respect and homage as their queen.

Robin's favorite mark was a small willow staff or wand (made white by peeling off the bark) stuck into the ground at one hundred yards' distance. This he is represented rarely ever to have missed.

The mode of life pursued by this outlaw and his band had everything charming in it, according to the ballads, especially from May to September, when they slept under the greenwood tree by night, and roamed the pleasant shades of the forests by day. Little heed they paid to the villainous game laws of the time.

Here are two noble sonnets, written by John Hamilton Reynolds, full of the true spirit of the modern fraternity of archers:

I.

"The trees in Sherwood Forest are old and good;
          The grass beneath them now is dimly green;
          Are they deserted all? Is no young mien
With loose-slum bugle net within the wood;
No arrow found, foiled of its antlered food,
          Struck in the oak's rude side? Is there naught seen
          To mark the revelries which there have been
In the sweet days of merry Robin Hood?
          Go there with summer and with evening--go,
In the soft shadows, like some wandering man,
          And thou shalt far amid the forests know
          The archer men in green, with belt and bow,
Feasting on pheasant, river-fowl and swan,
With Robin at their head, and Marian.

II.

With coat of Lincoln-green and mantle too,
          And horn of ivory mouth, and buckle bright,
          And arrows winged with peacock feathers light,
And trusty bow, well gathered of the yew,
Stands Robin Hood, and near, with eyes of blue
          Shining through dusky hair, like the stars of night,
          And habited in pretty forest plight,
His greenwood beauty sits, young as the dew.
          O gentle tressèd girl, Maid Marian!
Are thine eyes bent upon the gallant game
That strays in merry Sherwood? Thy sweet fame
          Can never, never die! And thou, high man!
          Would we might pledge thee with thy silver can
Of Rhenish in the woods of Nottingham!"

Good cheer is a part of archery. The feastings of Robin and his clan were on a liberal scale, and may be imitated by the bowmen of to-day with good effect. Bow-shooting is hard work, and I know of no exercise which can whet the appetite so thoroughly.

The merry bowman of Sherwood did not spare the pheasants, the rabbits, and the deer of the king's woods. His shafts sang through every glade and glen where the "game did most abound;" consequently his forest-table was always loaded with fragrant viands; and as for wine, the cellars of all the rich clergy-the Bishops, the Archbishops, the friars and hermit priests-furnished plenty of the oldest and best.

Barring the outlawry, murder, and robbery, this sylvan archery may be practised, in Robin's way, through the heated term, in our own day and land; and with the best results to one's physical and mental health.

Robin Hood lived to be very old. His death was a tragic one, though caused by the treachery of it nun, to whom he applied for relief in sickness. The woman opened a vein in his arm and purposely let him die from loss of blood. But at the last moment he aroused himself and called for his bow and a good arrow, and when they were placed in his hands he said: "I will let fly a broad arrow; and let my grave be digged where that arrow is taken up. Lay a green sod at my head and another at my feet; and lay by my side my bent bow, which was always sweet music to me. Make me a grave of gravel and green turf, as is right and becoming. Let me have length and breadth enough, and put under my head a green sod, that when I am gone they may say: ‘Here lies bold Robin Hood.'"

They bore him to the window of the house in which he lay; and he drew his bow and shot, The arrow, a broad-headed deer-shaft, sped away and fell under a green tree. There they buried him. The following simple dirge, by Bernard Bar-ton, will serve to close this chapter:

"His pulse was faint, his eye was dim,
        And pale his brow of pride;
He heeded not the monkish hymn
        They chanted by his side.

"He knew his parting hour was come,
        And fancy wandered now
To freedom's free and happy home
        Beneath the forest bough.

"A faithful follower standing by
        Asked where he would be laid;
Then round the chieftain's languid eye
        A lingering lustre played.

"Now raise me on my dying-bed,
        Bring here my trusty bow,
And re I join the silent dead
        My arm that spot shall show.'

"They raised him on his couch and set
        The casement open wide;
Once more with vain and fond regret
        Fair Nature's face he eyed.

"With kindling glance and throbbing heart,
        One parting look he cast,
Sped on its way the feathered dart,
        Sank back, and breathed his last.

"And where it fell they dug his grave
        Beneath the greenwood tree--
Meet resting-place for one so brave,
        So lawless, frank, and free!"

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