Who Was Little John?
The lieutenant of the Merry Men, Little John is a figure as old as Robin himself. From the earliest ballads, either complete (A Gest of Robyn Hode, c. 1450) or incomplete (Robin Hood and the Monk, c. 1450), Little John is the second-in-command of Robin's men, either leading the gang in battle or with plots, or bravely standing against his master when he deems his actions foolish. Above all else, John is loyal; in Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin gets himself captured in a situation John warned against, yet it is John who arranges and leads the rescue mission. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin loses a bet to John and refuses to pay, storming off, yet John forgives him. In both these situations, Robin declares that John is more noble a man than he, and offers him the leadership of the group; John refuses, loyal to his master.
Little John has become the archetype for the strong buddy of the protagonist, a trope now seen in tons of family films and dramas over the years. His dedication not only to Robin and his friends but, later, to the cause, is matched by his famous strength and imposing stature. The name Little John is nothing more than a dig - as he tactfully says in Men in Tights, "Don't let my name fool you, in real life, I'm very big!" - but the impact such a simple term of endearment has had is massive.
Everyone knows the story; Robin walks up to a bridge and, on the opposite side of the bank, a giant of a man with a quarterstaff also squares up. Both men refuse to let the other cross, insisting that the better man go first. Robin cuts himself a staff from a tree and meets the man on the bridge. They fight and, depending on the legend, which varies from a very early stage, either Robin wins, offering for the man to join his band, or the giant knocks Robin into the river, with Robin amazed by his strength and character, and then asking him into the group. This fight is famous, and has been so for centuries; it can be seen in almost every filmed version of the legend, and if not full-on staves and rivers, at least meeting in aggressive circumstances. This rivalry appears in Richard Greene's, Errol Flynn's, Michael Praed's (and Jason Connery's takeover!), Jonas Armstrong's, etc. It's a staple of their first meeting, and when it doesn't feature, it often is because the story begins with their already knowing each other, such as in the animated Disney film or the Douglas Fairbanks edition. John is also notable in being present at Robin's death; as per tradition, Robin is poisoned by an abbess, having John help him to a window where he fires his last arrow, commanding his friend to bury him where it falls; of course, John does so, loyal to the last.
Local legends of Robin Hood are littered across towns in the Midlands of England, tales of his exploits and his feats, that he visited this pub or dug that well; urban myths about Little John are more low-key, and are therefore a bit more interesting. Towns love to lay claim to Little John having travelled there, or having stayed there, or having been hanged there. These tales are all of a more elderly John, assuming a post-outlawry timeframe; he doesn't travel with Robin, or any of the Merries, but alone. There are stories of his travelling to Scotland, where one of the earliest cases of the surname Littlejohn appears (see below); there are stories of his travelling to Dublin, even. Little John's identity is not one as investigated as his leader, because many assume that the name is
already right in front of them. There's less mystery surrounding him, less intrigue; people seem happy to take John as he is, the loyal friend and fierce fighter. Little John's loyalty and dependability have somehow translated into the way his character is perceived - a staple of these stories shared over centuries, as constant a companion to the audience as he is to the Merry Men. Simply, Little John's always been around. But his origins in the myths and legends of England comes from the same place as his master, from the very first ballads themselves. Little John has always been alongside Robin, getting into scrapes and living the merry life of the greenwood. Is this figure based on fact? Is he an amalgamation, as Robin Hood appears to be? Or is he inspired by true events, like Friar Tuck? His age is the telling note so, like Robin, we need to look further back than the first appearance of the famous bridge battle.
Tradition says John's true name is John Little, but this is an oversimplification of his legendary moniker, an very easy and lazy retcon. Like Robin, the name 'Little John' has been used as a nickname for criminals, even as early as 1292, when a 'Little John' appealed a robbery sentence. The name has appeared as a surname for centuries (I went to high school with a Littlejohn!), though it has to be said nicknames being appropriated to surnames isn't rare, as surnames such as 'Littlechild' are common from as early as the 12th century. The surname can be traced to Cambridge in 1273, too, with the location being telling; as I mentioned in an earlier article, the stories of Robin Hood clearly had spread through the country very quickly, with variations of 'Robinhood' as a surname appearing in and around London as early as 1296. Though 'Littlejohn'' appears sooner than 'Robinhood' (based on records we currently know of), it isn't necessarily indicative of Little-John-the-man appearing any sooner than Robin, with an exact timeline for the outlaws unknown, and the widespread nature of Robin Hood tales and place names more common. The surname 'Naylor' has been thrown around for the last couple of centuries, seeming to stem from the Naylor (or Nailer) family themselves, largely due to their claim of ownership over several of Little John's personal possessions.
As Holt notes, a longbow supposedly owned by Little John hung over the threshold of a church in Hathersage, Derbyshire, for many years, as early as 1652; this was engraved with the surname, likely done by a Colonel Naylor in 1715, either as a crude mark of ownership or an attempt to associate his family with the legend of the bow already concentrated on John. Hathersage is also the supposed burial place of John; this is notable in that no other town claims the same, unlike for Robin, where a handful of villages say they contain the remains of the outlaw. There are a few legends that state that, after the death of Robin, John returned to Hathersage, to the cottage he was born in, and lived there until his death. (The Naylor family owned a plot of land in Hathersage overlooking a valley containing the cottage; this was demolished in the 19th century.) The origins of this connection seem to stem from the late 17th century, with the recollection of the bow hanging in the church, as well as the grave of John lying in the churchyard. The grave was exhumed by James Shuttleworth, a relative of the owners of the land, in 1784, apparently to confirm the rumour that Little John was buried within it, and in the plot was found, amongst other remnants, a thigh bone of an adult man which measured 29-and-a-half inches long (72.6 cm), the man's height estimated at well over seven feet. All this was recorded by the then-head of the Yorkshire Archeological Society in 1944, looking at details of inheritance records from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. The grave has since been moved and has been kept by the Ancient Order of Foresters since 1929, with a new headstone erected and the original 17th century headstone contained within the plot. Whether or not the grave contained the outlaw Little John is unknown; the skeleton of a large man, centuries old even by the time of exhumation, and the village being, even now, the sole claimant to the grave of Little John, is fact. Unless some startlingly-detailed record comes to light, we'll never know the truth behind the connection between John and Hathersage, but what we do know is significant in its long and undisputed history.
Despite the swathe of unanswered questions, the comfort of the audience with Little John is testament to the man's inherent nature; steadfast, kind, loyal and brave. The fact that his historical merit has been investigated far less so than Robin speaks for his legacy. This familiarity may explain why there are less places that claim to be the home to the second-greatest outlaw the world has known, though this can also be to history's detriment. The more famed figure, Robin is a person fought over by towns to claim similar fame; the less-disputed ownership of John seems to lend more of a friendly image; the comfort of knowing that this is where the right-hand-man of the legend was born, where he lived and where he died. Robin we look to as a leader, a figure of great nobility and charity; Little John we look to as a companion, and it is in the warm embrace of Hathersage that we appear, for now, to be happy with letting him lie.
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Little John image care of the University of Rochester at rochester.edu/
Additional information care of Wishful Thinking at wishful-thinking.org.uk
Additional information from House of Names at houseofnames.com
Additional information from Genealogy at genealogy.com
Additional information from Midgley at midgleywebpages.com