St Mary’s Abbey in York was started by William the Conqueror to strengthen his hold on the north of England. It was ended by Henry VIII during his Reformation of the church. In the times of the legends of Robin Hood, it was the wealthiest abbey in the North and one of the largest landowners in Yorkshire.
The Abbot, helped by a prior, ran the Abbey and controlled its wealth, supposedly for the benefit of the church. There would have been 50 or more monks, as many scholars (boys who attended the school) and lots of servants. The life at many monasteries was very strict, but the life of the Benedictine monks at St Mary’s was much more relaxed. For example, they did not have a vow of silence and they had plenty of food. However, they were expected to go to 8 sessions of prayers each day starting at 2 am. It was the job of one of the monks to wake the others and keep them awake…using a stick if necessary!
Much of the monks’ time was taken up running the abbey and keeping records. It is very likely that servants did most of the manual work around the gardens and buildings. Within the abbey grounds were barns and granaries, a mill, a bakehouse, a brewery and a tailor’s workshop. In 1132, some monks became unhappy about the rich and easy life and thought they should give away the Abbey’s money to the poor and return to a simple lifestyle. However they were overruled by the abbot and so they left to set up their own abbey at Fountains in North Yorkshire.
As controller of the abbey’s wealth, the abbot was a powerful man with a lot of influence amongst the other powerful people of the day. He lived in luxury and, although he was feared, he was also scorned by many for his decadent (rich and ungodly) lifestyle. He figured as Robin Hood’s enemy in one of the very first medieval ballads about the outlaw, "A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode", printed about 1495, which contained many of the old tales.
Why was killing deer a crime?
When the Normans conquered England, in 1066, the kings started to set aside wide areas of land for hunting, which only they and their guests could use. There was a ‘Forest Law’ to protect the deer and wild boar, and other animals they wanted to hunt, and also protect the vegetation the animals used for food and shelter.
By the end of the 12th century, one third of all the land in southern England was declared royal forest (this included the whole of what is now Essex and Huntingdonshire). The local people were restricted as to how they could use the land they and their families lived on and relied on for their livelihood. It made life very difficult for them and this caused a lot of resentment and anger.
There were 2 offences against the Forest Law. One was killing any of the animals within the forest, including the deer, hares, foxes, and birds such as partridge and pheasant.
The other offence included activities such as fencing off parts of the forest, clearing the land for growing crops, felling (cutting down) trees and shrubs, which meant building and making fires became difficult. The ordinary people were also not allowed to keep dogs, in case they chased the animals, or carry hunting weapons.
In order to deter people from breaking these laws, there were harsh punishments for anyone caught. Offenders could be hanged, have their hands chopped off or could be blinded. That is why, in our story, Robin is so worried for Will Scarlet and his family.
What about Sherwood Forest?
Crossroads in Sherwood Forest
The name Sherwood first appears in written records in 958AD as Sciryuda. This meant woodland that belongs to the Shire. Like many others it became a royal hunting forest after the Norman invasion. It was very popular with King John and Edward I. Like other royal forests, it was subject to the ‘Forest Laws’ and was guarded by wardens and rangers employed by the Crown.
The royal forests were not just covered by trees. In many parts of the huge area of Sherwood, there were wide open rough grasslands and heathlands, suitable for the chasing of deer and boar by the Norman royalty and gentry. The king often rented out parts of the royal forest to noblemen and clergy, for them to manage for profit as well as use for pleasure.
The main London to York road ran straight through Sherwood Forest, giving rich pickings for the many robbers and outlaws that sheltered in its woodlands!
What was an Outlaw?
Robin Hood, outlaw
In legend, Robin Hood was a good man, driven to live outside the law by evil enemies. He lived by poaching and robbing to help others as well as himself.
In common law in England, being outlawed was a very harsh punishment. It put people beyond the protection of the law, they had no rights. Outlaws could be hunted and killed like a wild animal . To kill an outlaw was not murder, it was the ‘right’ thing to do, though the act had to be reported.
No one could give an outlaw any food or shelter, or indeed any help of any kind. If they did, they were committing the crime of ‘aiding and abetting an outlaw’, and could receive the same punishment themselves.
A person did not have to be guilty of the crime they were accused of, to be outlawed. If they failed to appear at the court of justice to answer the charges, they were presumed to be guilty and were automatically outlawed.
In more recent times, as the population grew and there were fewer wild areas, it became more difficult for people to hide from justice and the punishment was abolished in 1938.