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Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham
Little John's grave, St Michael's church, Hathersage
This is a tale within a tale. Taken from the early 16th century ballad “A little jest of Robin Hood” It tells of how Little John made mischief with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin had vowed aid to Sir Richard of the Lee, a knight who had fallen on hard times and was about to be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous Abbot. As part of the favor, Robin had assigned his lieutenant John Naelor, (Little John) to be Sir Richard’s Squire. When the opportunity arose to play with the Sheriff, John could not resist.
It was a fine day when the young men got together to go shooting. Little John took up his bow and challenged them in play. Setting up narrow rods they shot. Three times did John lose his bow and three times he split the wood.
The Sheriff of Nottingham, who was riding by, stopped to watch the play. When he saw Little John’s skill he swore an oath
“By Him who died, never have I spied an archer greater than this man.”
“Tell me, you brave young man” he cried. What name were you given, what is the country of your birth and where do you now reside.”
“Sir!” Replied Little John, I was born in Holderness and cared for by my mother. Men who know me from there call me Reynold Greenleaf.”
“Tell me, Reynold Greenleaf” spoke the Sheriff, “Would you come live with me. For your fee I will pay you twenty marks a year.”
“My master is a courteous Knight.” Said John. “If he would give me leave then the better I could serve you.”
The Sheriff then gave Sir Richard a brave good horse and that goodly Knight relinquished John. In this way did Little John quite craftily become the Sheriff’s man.
“Now by my faith, God help me,” Swore Little John, “I’ll be the vilest servant that ever this Sheriff saw.”
It was a fine Wednesday when the Sheriff went out hunting. John stayed behind to play his tricks.
Little John lay lazily in bed until the afternoon when he called the steward and cried;
“Good steward, I beg of you, give me meat. This is too long for Greenleaf to be fasting. I beg of you, dinner for my good.”
“Nay!” replied the steward. “There is no food until my Lord returns from the hunt.”
“By God’ said Little John “If there is no food then I shall crack your crown.”
The steward stared as John arose then quickly he ran to the buttery and shut the door. John kicked the door until it burst open, then he gave that steward such a tap that if he lived for a hundred years he would not forget it. John then proceeded to eat of the meat and drink of the ale until he had his fill.
In the Sheriff’s kitchen was a strong willed cook. When he came in and saw John eating and drinking his fill he was wroth.
“I vow to God” said he “You are a brazen knave, to live in your master’s house and eat all his meat.” With these words he laid on John three hearty blows.
“You please me well.” Said John “I will see you repaid for those strokes and before I leave this place you shall be put to the test.”
Then John drew his sword and so did the cook. Neither man sought to flee but both stood their ground. Then they fought and though they fought for nigh an hour neither man could draw blood from the other.
Said Little John “To God I vow in truth and faith, never till now did I see a better man with sword. If you can draw a Bow as well as you can draw your sword then to Robin and the greenwood you should go. He will give you your fee and clothe you in green so put up your sword and let us be fellows.”
Then the cook gladly put up his sword and he and John ate the best meat of a Doe and had their fill of wine and bread. When they were done they solemnly pledged that on that night they would be with Robin. Then they went to the treasure house and took away all the silver plate and three hundred pounds in coin. Straightway to the greenwood they rode till they met with Robin Hood.
“God save you master” cried John “and Christ may you see.”
“Right welcome” said Robin “and welcome to the yeoman you have with you. What tidings from Nottingham?”
“The Sheriff greets you well.” Said John with scarce concealed mirth. “He sends me here to you with his cook, all his silver plate and three hundred pounds beside.”
“I vow to God and the Trinity.” Said Robin “These goods never came to me with his goodwill.”
Then John bethought himself a crafty trick. He ran five miles through the greenwood till he came to where the Sheriff was hunting. There he courteously put one knee upon the ground.
“God save you dear master.” He said
“Reynold Greenleaf” said the Sheriff. “Where have you been till now?”
“In the forest” replied John “and I vow to God that I have seen the fairest sight of any man. Yonder is a fine young buck. He is green all over and around him stand full seven score of deer. Sixty of them had such horns the like of which I have never seen. I dared not shoot for fear they would gore me.”
“I vow to God” declared the Sheriff “That sight I would gladly see.”
“Then follow me dear master” cried John.
Little John ran as the Sheriff rode and came to the camp where stood Robin Hood.
“Lo Sir!” said John “Here is your hart.”
The Sheriff stood still. Though he was a proud man he was afraid.
“Curse you Reynold Greenleaf you have betrayed me.”
“Nay” said John “You are to blame. You would not allow me food or wine until your return.”
“Then they all sat down to supper. It was served on silver platter and the sight of it caused the Sheriff sorrow and dismay.
“Do not despair Sheriff” said Robin “For my love of Little John I will spare your life.”
When they had eaten and drank their fill Robin commanded that the Sheriff be stripped of his clothes, his furs, his shoes, his kirtle, so that he stood before them in shirt and breeches. Then did Robin and his brave men lie down to sleep wrapped in mantles of green. The Sheriff lay beneath the greenwood tree till his bones and muscles ached.
“Be of good cheer” said Robin. “This is our custom, to lie thus under the greenwood.”
“This is a harder way of life than any Monk’s” replied the Sheriff. “I would not live here for all the gold in England.”
“For twelve long months you will remain with me” said Robin “and I will teach you to be an outlaw.”
“I would not stay another night” replied the Sheriff. “Instead I would forgive you now if you were to cut off my head. I beg you, let me go in the name of Holy charity. If you do then forever and a day I will be your friend.”
“Swear me an oath then’ said Robin “That you will not lay a trap on water or on land further swear that if you find a man of mine, by night or day, you will help him as you are able.”
The proud Sheriff then swore a sacred oath and was given leave to go on his way.
Yet the Sheriff was an oath breaker and that faithless man never did keep his word.