Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Amazing Real Life English Robin Hood - Roger Godberd

There are many contenders for who the inspiration behind the English Robin Hood. One little known but credible possibility is Roger Godberd. His life is every bit as dramatic and the parallels are too many to easily discount.

Roger Godberd grows up every bit a part of the English establishment. Born in Nottingham, during the 1260’s he becomes a loyal member of the Nottingham castle garrison under Lord Robert de Ferrers, the Earl of Derby, in Swannington, Leicestershire. Even better for him he is also a close colleague of Simon De Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester and one of the most powerful men in all of England.

Godberd’s life is on a continual upward ascent. He is right beside De Montfort when he uses his influence to set up a Houses of Parliament as a forum for political discussion and later still when he organises a rebellion against the King in 1265. The high point is reached at the battle of Lewes when they take the King as a prisoner.

1266 marks a reversal of fortune following defeat at the Battle of Evesham when facing the King. Ferrers and his followers are crushed by his Majesty’s superior numbers. King Henry III is in no mood for forgiveness and seeks brutal, remorseless revenge for his embarrassing defeat at Lewes. In a break with custom he decides to murder the opposing barons rather than ransom them for a high price. Simon De Montfort is spared this fate but only because he dies fighting on the battlefield along with two other barons. None the less his memory is still sullied by having his head, hands, feet and testicles cut off. 

It is clear for Roger the danger he faces if he is captured. The other barons similarly worry and decide the only option is to combine together into a group that comes to be known as the ‘Disinherited’. Each is bound by their previous support for Simon De Montfort and loss of land to the King and his son, Edmund. With little to lose they set upon revenge for their treatment against him.

The key turning point for Roger Godberd comes in 1269 when his Lord, Robert de Ferrers loses his land to Edmund as punishment for his opposition. From here on in Roger becomes a prominent outlaw.

The story does not unfold quite like the popular tales about Robin Hood. According to Walter Bower writing in around 1440, following the Battle of Evesham ‘arose the famous cut throat Robin Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in trajedies and comedies, and whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads’. Initially he is also a good friend of Reginald de Grey, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Records indicate that they are on good terms and contrary to the folk tales the locals respect the sheriff. In fact Grey is one of the youngest ever sheriffs and is known as a talented military leader in his country for having helped Edward I conquer Wales in addition to being well known as a committed parliamentarian.

Roger quickly became a target for the King’s forces who are keen to stop all further rebellion. To evade capture he settles in Sherwood forest. From there he rallies his growing band of men to carry out various raids on Nottinghamshire and the neighbouring counties of Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Unlike the popular hero, Robin Hood who robs from the rich to give to the poor, Robert is happy to carry out regular guerrilla raids on who ever he pleases. In fact in one infamous episode on the 29 September 1270 Roger and his men carry out a raid on Stanley Abbey, take some money, steal horses and kill a monk!

The king is concerned enough to send a message to the Nottingham authorities expressing his concern about the number of robberies taking place and the general lack of safety in the region as a consequence. An indication of his infamy is the warrant that is issued against Roger. It urges that he is seized and states with perhaps some exaggeration that ‘he had carried out 'so many great homicides and robberies that no one could pass through… without being taken or spoiled of his goods'.

When it became clear this will not be enough the king supplies extra men and wooden barricades to ensure Nottingham castle will not be overrun by Roger and his men who number over one hundred. Alas for the King it is not decisive. Richard Foliot, a powerful sympathiser of Roger commits treachery by protecting the bandit and his gang in Fenwick castle until early 1272.

Later that year though Roger’s luck runs out and he is captured by Reginald de Grey, the Sheriff of Nottingham in the grounds of Rufford Abbey. He is held prisoner at Nottingham Castle and yet still upsets the authorities when he manages to escape.

The King is so disturbed that he hands the Sheriff enough money to assemble a large army to track him down. Following his recapture he is forced to stay at Bridgnorth jail and then by Chester jail where Reginald de Grey is Justiciar and finally the Tower of London.

Contemporary records dispute what happens next but it appears that after a long period awaiting trial Godberd is amazingly granted a royal pardon, blaming his bad behaviour on the civil war that was ravaging the country at the time. He returns to his home in Swannington but his troubles are not over as in 1287 some Justiciars bring a case against him for poaching deer from royal forests back in 1264! Inevitably the case falls apart and for the last time Roger escapes the claws of the authorities.

If you liked that story then you will enjoy reading about The First Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake.