Who Was The Real Sheriff of Nottingham?
The Robin Hood legend is notable in that it has remained fundamentally unchanged in all the centuries of its telling; it features a band of outlaws in Lincoln green, skulking in the forest robbing merchants and priests, pranking the vain and reaping the riches; their leader is a champion of the longbow, his lieutenant a giant with a quarterstaff. And amongst all these staples of the story, since the very beginning, there has been Robin's greatest foe - the Sheriff of Nottingham. It's a mere position of constabulary, but the rivalry is as famous as Robin as an individual. Whether he's an unwitting player in Robin's games or the personal villain out for vengeance, the Sheriff is the ultimate enemy, hunting the outlaws with every resource at his disposal. Of all the villains Robin could face, the typically-unnamed Sheriff is the constant thorn in his side; bishops and potters come and go, but the local sheriff remains ever-present. It's an indication of the kind of position being sheriff granted a person - a position that inherently invited indignation, cruelty an violence.
The word 'sheriff' is a combination of 'shire' and 'reeve,' the latter meaning a crown-appointed senior official in a township. Medieval sheriffs were responsible for their own regions, but were not the be-all and end-all. While they collected rent and taxes, investigated crimes,and maintained an amount of military personnel, they were largely representatives of the king's justice, reporting to the monarch and having to wait for judges to visit the county in more serious justicial cases. Though our most famous medieval sheriff comes from a post-Norman time period, the term is Anglo-Saxon and pre-dates the invasion. The role of sheriff evolved over the centuries as the needs for policing evolved in society; the first sheriff of the city of Nottingham (not the larger shire) was installed in 1449. The growth of metropolitan police, treasury departments and so on diminished the roles of the sheriff. Nottingham is famous, however, for never relinquishing the role entirely. As the current Sheriff of Nottingham says, the position has survived to the present day for tourism purposes, her key role being to welcome visitors, promoting the city and its culture. This is, no doubt, due to the fame of the stories of Robin Hood.
In the older ballads and songs, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a figure that appears as each story requires him to; sometimes as a lawman simply chasing the outlaws, but often a figure who is as much of a staple in the town as Robin and his men, being a frequenter of bars, celebrations and markets. These tales were unrelated to each other, no particular canon save for what we have collected in the modern era for study. Each sheriff, like each iteration of Robin or Little John before him, is his own character; some are ruthless, some are cowardly. The sheriffs of the ballads often meet their end by Robin's hand, being hung or beheaded or impaled in gruesome fashion - he is, of course, there in the very next broadside to fight another day, and be thwarted all over again! Even in modern times, the Sheriff is an interchangeable personality; in Roger Lancelyn Green's 1956 novel, the Sheriff is a commanding leader of his men, but with a gluttonous and jovial streak, greedy and comfortable; Alan Wheatley's portrayal of the Sheriff on television is a no-nonsense administrator, bent on capturing Robin Hood but merely because his role as a lawman requires him to; Alan Rickman is the manic, tantruming sadist, Ben Mendelsohn and Keith Allen are the quiet and cruel schemers with the shortest of tempers. The Sheriff is an archetype to the point of being a completely blank canvas - the name is the role, and what form that role takes is up to the author to determine, with no wrong answer; they can be an unessential comic relief, an integral puppet-master.
When it comes to history, the identity of the Sheriff is up in the air. Such an open character invites open speculation, and the list of sheriffs of the region is endless - which era do you look at? The time of the Third Crusade, as per modern tradition? The early 13th century, the likeliest home of Robin and his band? Or the late14th century, around the time of the earliest reference to Robin in literature? There's no clear marker to indicate where to look. Instead, like investigating the lives of the Merry Men, we must look to innuendo and reputation to guide us. There are many sheriffs whose political ties and family matters are the cause of drama over the years, but there is one man whose name is synonymous with corruption and injustice to this day.
Philip Marc held the position of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire several times, often shared with officials of neighbouring Yorkshire. (Photo on left is of Lewis Collins as 'Philip Mark' in Robin of Sherwood.) In the years 1208, 1209-12, and 1216-21, Marc oversaw law and order in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. He had a reputation for threats of violence; sheriffs made their money from profits made by repossessing money and land, and so, in his duties as a debt collector, Marc often threatened the accountants he worked with in order to achieve further wealth. He was resented at the best of times - Marc, a Frenchman, and his family were favoured by King John, and they was 'imported' to England to hold public office. As Marc's power grew, and with similar mistreatment of the lands by his friends in neighbouring regions, rebellion stirred, eventually leading to the baron's revolt and the forced signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. (Marc was so hated by the people that he was named in the document (see below); his removal from office was a specific demand.) Marc commanded an almost military operation, loyal to King John, out of Nottingham Castle during the war; John so liked him that he sent numerous knights and supplies over six months to Nottingham in preparation for trouble. Marc was never removed from office; it wasn't until the reign of John's young son, Henry III, that Marc's reach began to come up short. There were many complaints about the extent of his presence in forests, Sherwood included, with his underlings extorting money and valuables from the locals. Marc participated in and arguably strengthened the protection rackets in Nottinghamshire during his reign as sheriff, collecting riches and distributing land amongst himself and his peers due to 'misadministration.' It wasn't until three decades after his death in 1230 that the courts disassembled the corruption rings in Nottingham, Marc's legacy.
It's easy to see how this particular Sheriff is a popular candidate for a 'real' Sheriff of Nottingham; he was despised by the general public, commoners and barons alike; he wrung money and resources from farmers to accountants; he supported an already unpopular king to the point of military action. All the ingredients are there, Marc fitting the mould of the typical, evil Sheriff of lore. But were there any serious candidates for Robin himself active at that same time? We previously looked at an outlaw Robyn Hode active in Yorkshire in 1226; while Marc's jurisdiction as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire likely crossed over into the boroughs of Yorkshire, he was relieved of the post in 1224, two years before this Robyn Hode appears for the first time. While not directly crossing paths, Marc made such an impression that the notion of the sheriff - that specific position - as the enemy of an outlaw figure of popular tales may well have come from the over-hanging hate for him. It's a bit of a stretch to imagine the sheriff of the ballads is intended to be a facsimile of Marc himself; however it's clear to see how the moniker of 'Sheriff of Nottingham' came to be shorthand for a corrupt and vile lawman. Maybe the association of the position with Robin Hood is a shortcut for the audience to understand this adversary's traits, such was the tarnished reputation of the position. They don't need to see bloodshed and callousness - all they need to know is he's the sheriff.
It says a lot about the Sheriff as a villain that he rarely ever requires a name. The position alone is enough for people to know what he's about, such is his infamy. A name for the Sheriff almost humanises him too much (like Vaisey, George or Mervyn), making this silhouette of evil too complete a person. In Robin, we find the traits of the time; the 1930s had Flynn uniting the people against tyranny; Armstrong had the community find their common ground in a time of prejudicial fear; Egerton tore down the illusion of piety and revealed the greed of the faithful. In the Sheriff, we find reflected these same traits; whether it's his sheer carelessness or sharp cruelty, the Sheriff is the evils of the day personified. As long as Robin keeps fighting for justice and equality, the Sheriff will embody those opposite evils, all for our entertainment and inspiration.
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Additional information from A Writer's Perspective.
Additional information from Disney's Robin.
Additional images from Top Illustration.