The Death of Robin Hood – notes on the history behind the novel
Historical Note for The Death of Robin Hood
It is often claimed that England hasn’t been invaded since 1066. I have heard it asserted, loudly and proudly, usually in pubs, up and down the country all my life. I think it was even taught to me in History at school. But it’s not true; not even a little bit. During the Hundred Years War the French made dozens of successful raids on the Channel ports. Lambert Simnel, a pretender to the throne during the Wars of the Roses, landed with an army of Flemings and Irishmen in Lancashire in 1487. Then there was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when a foreign but crucially Protestant ruler invaded England at the head of a Dutch army and deposed the Catholic monarch James II (See my novel Blood’s Revolution, out October 2018). He was crowned William III and ruled for thirteen years.
As well as these incursions, there was the little-known French invasion of 1216, which I have described reasonably faithfully in The Death of Robin Hood. Prince Louis, eldest son of King Philip of France, had a weak claim to the throne through his wife, Blanche of Castile, who was King John’s niece. The Pope, who was in dispute with the English monarch, initially gave his blessing to the attempted coup against John and the takeover of England by France – but he changed his tune when John did homage for England to him in 1213, giving the Papacy ultimate lordship of the country. However, that did not halt Louis’s ambitions and, with the tacit support of his royal father but now with opposition from the Pope, he began preparations for an full-scale invasion.
Louis assembled a large fleet and raised an army of knights, often the younger sons of French lords who were eager to claim new lands in England, and for a time he genuinely looked set to repeat the Conquest of 1066. However, John collected fighting ships from all the southern English ports, manned them, armed them and managed to keep Louis penned in the port of Calais for several weeks. As recounted in this book, a huge storm scattered the blockading ships and Louis was able to slip out and cross the Channel, landing on the Isle of Thanet on 21 May 1216. John did not contest his disembarkation and withdrew to Dover to seek reinforcements. Louis made his way to London, where he was proclaimed King of the English at St Paul’s Cathedral, although he was never crowned at Westminster Abbey because no suitable English bishop could be found to undertake the ceremony. However, many rebellious English nobles and young Alexander of Scotland did homage to him for their lands.
By June, after the capture of Winchester, Louis and the English rebels controlled as much as half of England. John retreated to the west where support for him was strongest and did his best to avoid pitched battles with the French forces. However, the invasion wasfiercely resisted in one region and by one extraordinary individual, who is known to history as William of Cassingham (now called Kensham) or Willikin of the Weald. We don’t know much about William except that he was a young squire from Kent who raised a large guerrilla army of bowmen in the thickly forested Weald and savaged the French army of occupation, killing thousands of them and disrupting their supply lines. He successfully attacked the besieged castle of Dover and later trapped Prince Louis at Lewes, nearly capturing him. William was renowned for his barbaric practice of cutting off the heads of his enemies. He survived the war, was handsomely rewarded by Henry III for his valour and lived to a ripe old age before dying in 1257. Some authors have even suggested that his exploits provided a model for the early Robin Hood stories.
One of Prince Louis’s leading men was Thomas, Comte du Perche. He came over a couple of months after the initial invasion force, with the second wave of troops in the summer of 1216. He was at the siege of Dover and the next year he led an expedition north from London with Robert Fitzwalter, the English rebel leader, to relieve Mountsorrel Castle, which was being besieged by Ranulf, Earl of Chester. After chasing off Chester, both men and their retinues proceeded to Lincoln to try to subdue that castle, which was still being held by the doughty Nicola de la Haye.
It is unclear exactly how the battle of Lincoln unfolded, and some people doubt the existence of a rubble-blocked western gate in the medieval town walls, which I have Boot so heroically unblocking in this story. We do know that the royalist army, which comprised about four hundred knights, two hundred and fifty crossbowmen and many auxilliary troops, advanced from Stow, eight miles northwest of Lincoln, very early on the morning of 20 May 1217. The French and rebel forces came out to meet them in the fields to the west of the town but then, believing that they faced an army far superior in numbers (they didn’t; they miscounted the standards of the English nobles), Louis’s knights retreated back inside the town walls. The French plan was to hold the town’s defences and try to take the castle before the royal army could overwhelm them. Accordingly, they intensified their assault on the castle walls.
However, a strong force of men-at-arms and crossbowmen under Falkes de Breaute, a mercenary captain, charged directly into the castle through a gate on the western side and, suddenly popping up on the walls and delivering a lethal barrage of crossbow bolts, they successfully managed to fight off a determined French attack. Meanwhile, the Earl of Chester’s men were vigorously assaulting the north gate of the town. Having beaten off the French attack on the castle walls, Falkes de Breaute and his men then made a sortie into the town and caught the enemy between their surprise attack and the Earl of Chester’s men, who had by now stormed through the north gate. That is how one version of the battle goes. Another version is that Falkes and his men (or possibly Peter des Roches) unblocked a disused western gate in the town walls, clearing away the broken masonry to allow William the Marshal to charge in to the town from that direction.
I have shamelessly stolen Falkes’s valiant deeds and given them to Robin and his men, and I have also deliberately chosen to use the story about the unblocking of the western gate in the town, even though I think it unlikely to be a true version of events. When I visited Lincoln in the late summer of 2015, I spoke to several experts at the castle and no one could tell me where this blocked-up western town gate might have been. In fact, I suspect it may never have existed and has been confused by the chroniclers of the age with the western gate of the castle, which admitted Falkes de Breaute and his crossbowmen – but I believe my job is to make these stories as exciting as I possibly can and I wanted to add a little extra drama to the battle for Lincoln, so I hope I may be excused this blatant embroidering of the truth.
I did a little more embroidery when it came to Thomas, Comte du Perche. I don’t really know much about his character and even less about his fashion sense: he was young (only twenty-two when he died) and apparently rather arrogant, but he has also been described as “chivalrous”. I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that he dressed entirely in silver and white, nor that he did horrible things to kittens, nor even that he was the skin-stripping sadist I have described. I’m pretty sure he was a fairly normal young French nobleman of his time but for my own novelistic purposes I needed a really despicable villain, and I chose him. I offer my humble apologies to any of his living relatives who feel I have blackened his good name.
The real Comte du Perche was however killed in the final stages of the battle of Lincoln by a dagger or sword thrust through the eye hole of his helmet just outside the entrance to the cathedral. He was surrounded and called upon to surrender by William the Marshal, his cousin, but bravely (or arrogantly) refused. He was then killed in combat by Sir Reginald Crocus, one of Falkes de Breaute’s knights, who was himself killed later in the battle. It made sense to me, since Robin was stealing the glory that rightly belongs to Falkes, to have Alan Dale do the same to Sir Reginald. Again, apologies to any living relatives of either of these brave fighting men.
Many of the French knights and rebel English surrendered at Lincoln – Lord Fitzwalter among them – but large numbers tried to escape through the lower town across the bridge over the River Witham. In fact, so many tried to cross the bridge at once that it became jammed with men and wagons and the slaughter there when the royalist troops caught up with the fugitives was truly appalling. Worse still was the unrestrained sacking of the town by William the Marshal’s victorious troops, a long drunken bloodbath that became known with mordant irony as Lincoln Fair.
King John’s lost treasure
I remember my heart quickening when I first heard the story of King John’s lost treasure as a child. The thought of all that gold, silver and jewels buried in the damp East Anglian earth made me want to rush out and start digging. And when I heard about a Lincolnshire legend that King John was poisoned by a monk named Brother Simon, who also stole his treasury and escaped to the continent with his loot, I knew that I had to have my Robin Hood do something very similar.
It is quite possible that the whole story about the lost treasure is a myth, which may stem either from some sort of ruse by King John to disguise his true wealth, or just be fanciful tale tacked on to the story of John’s demise to make it more romantic. And even if it is true that a good deal of royal treasure was lost in the Wash, a low, flat area of marshland between Norfolk and Lincolnshire where several rivers drain into the North Sea, no authority seems entirely certain of the sequence of events. However, it probably happened something like this:
The King was retreating from Lynn (now King’s Lynn) under a threat from the rebels in the south and heading back to Newark Castle. When he left Lynn on 11 October 1217, he already seriously ill with dysentery, which was probably caused by contaminated drinking water and exhaustion after a long campaign. (Some have maliciously suggested his illness was caused by gluttony.) He got as far as Walpole that day (or possible Wisbech) but the wagons that contained his baggage were slowing his progress for they could only travel at two and a half miles per hour. Ill as he was, he was keen to get to his destination as swiftly as possible, and he ordered his baggage to cross the five-mile wide estuary of the River Nene, while he took the longer, drier, more southerly road himself. This estuary crossing was a recognised route – between Walpole Cross Keys and Long Sutton – but a local guide was necessary and the timing of the crossing had to be just right. October is a bad month for the fens with the mists hanging low for some time after sunrise and it is likely that the wagons started out late on the sands and, with little time to get them across before the tide came in, they fanned out to get over more quickly. Some of the wagons got bogged down and the incoming sea made it impossible to return and rescue them. Roger of Wendover, a chronicler of the time, wrote: ‘The ground opened up in the midst of the waves and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything’. John lost ‘his carts, wagons and sumpter horses, his treasure, his precious plate and all that he valued most’. His portable chapel was also apparently lost to the quick sands.
It was a mortal blow for the King. By the time he reached Sleaford on 14 or 15 October he was desperately sick. He had to be carried in a litter to Newark, where after making his confession, dictating a will and receiving Holy Communion, he died.
King John’s death completely changed the war. It meant that nine-year-old Henry of Winchester was now King and English lords who had rebelled because of their hatred for his father had no cause to continue in their insurrection. A further blow to the rebel cause was the re-issuing of the Charter of Liberties (minus a few of the more contentious clauses) on 11 November 1217. Rebels who had gone to war in the name of the Great Charter now had little reason to fight on. The victory at Lincoln was the turning point for Prince Louis’s fortunes, too. And when his forces were defeated in a sea battle off the port of Sandwich on 24 August 1217, the game was up. He signed the Treaty of Lambeth on 11 September and accepted a nominal payment of ten thousand marks to renounce for ever his claim to the English throne.
So, with King John dead, young Henry III on the throne and the French sent packing, this seemed to me to be the perfect time to conclude the Outlaw Chronicles. It’s been great fun for me and I hope you have enjoyed reading the books as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them, but like all good things the series has now come to an end. Robin Hood is in his grave, so too is elderly Brother Alan. But, like Alan’s ghostly company of riders on the road from Kirklees to Westbury, I hope that a memory of them, of their comrades, their battles and their adventures, will remain with you.
Tonbridge, February 2016