Historical Note for The Death of Robin Hood

Posted on

Hi there,

Some people like to know the historical basis for my Robin Hood tales, so below is the Historical Note which appears at the back of The Death of Robin Hood. It contains SPOILERS so if you are concerned about that don’t read any further. There are also some mistakes in the dates which I made in the published hardback (for some reason – dyspraxia, I think – I kept putting 2016 instead of 1216, and so on). I have corrected them below and they will be fixed for the paperback, which comes out in the summer of 2017.

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 ruling Catholic monarch James II. 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 this novel. 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 was fiercely 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.
Angus Donald
Tonbridge, February 2016

I would like to say a huge thank-you to my agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates, who has been so supportive during the writing of the Outlaw Chronicles. I would also like to thank Ed Wood and Iain Hunt at Little, Brown for their gentle but expert editing and their enduring enthusiasm for the series. Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to the authors of the history books that I have used as the basis for this particular novel: Sean McGlynn for the superb Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216; W. L. Warren for his magisterial King John; and David Crouch for his fascinating William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219.

12 responses to “Historical Note for The Death of Robin Hood”

  1. james fear says:

    thankyou for a fantastic rollercoaster of adventures, robin hood is a terrific character, for me living in nottingham and with my son working at the castle, the myths now have more depth and solidity than before, having a drink in the “trip” having my lunch break in the castle grounds and even in the streets surrounding the castle, there is a profound feeling of history, your version may be fiction but it feels like fact and will re read the sries repeatedly over the years to come, once again thankyou and good luck.

  2. AngusD says:

    Dear James,
    Thanks very much for your kind words. As a historical novelist, I can’t ask for a better accolade than that I make history seem real. I hope you will enjoy my next series, which is set in the 17th century. The first book, Blood’s Game, will be out next summer.
    All the best, Angus

  3. whittick says:

    I’m a huge fan of the whole series – I normally like to read about earlier times but the Outlaw series has kept me enthralled throughout – brutal but honest – thanks

  4. AngusD says:

    Thanks very much! Hope you like my next series, which is set in the 17th century. The first book, Blood’s Game, will be out next summer.

  5. stewart cresswell says:

    Hi Angus ,
    Thanks for the Robin Hood books I’m a real fan and really enjoyed them if your next series is anything like as good as them I can’t wait to read them.

  6. AngusD says:

    Thanks Stewart! Praise like that means a great deal to me. I really hope you do like the other series I’m writing now. I have a couple up my sleeve. First up is the Blood series about a 17th century guy – bit of a nerdy weirdo, actually, but rather brilliant – who became a very successful soldier under the Duke Of Marlborough. The first book, Blood’s Game is out next October. I’m also having a bash at a fantasy series – blood and guts and a bit of magic in SouthEast Asia. Hope I can count on your support. All the best and Happy Christmas!

  7. stewart cresswell says:

    Both sound good can’t wait to read them best of luck getting them out on time or hopefully earlier. Stew

  8. roger kretzschmar says:

    just listened to The Death Of Robin Hood, a great finale to a great series. I listened to them all on audio, so glad you found Mike Rogers to read them, he brought Alan Dale to life.Wish you could be persuaded to write another in the series,also saw your comment about dyspraxia in the spoilers section, as a parent of a child that has this its encouraging to see what can be achieved when writing and reading do not come easily, thanks again

  9. Vincent says:

    I put off reading this book for a couple of months as knew it would be the end of the series, and the end of Alan and Robin. Sad to see them go. But thanks for the journey and hope the next series is as good. Was wondering if you had spotted the date error in the historical note at the end.

  10. AngusD says:

    Thanks to Roger and Vincent for your comments! I may well write another Robin Hood adventure at some point but I need a break from him. And I did spot the errors in the Historical Note – they will be fixed in the paperback ed. All the best, Angus

  11. Laurence Greenhalgh says:

    Hi Angus, I have loved every one of the Outlaw series books and wanted to say thanks for writing them! I’ve had many great hours spent reading them. My birthday today and by coincidence my partner is taking me to visit Lincoln Castle tomorrow which I’m extra excited about after reading about it in the last book. Keep up the great work, Laurence

  12. AngusD says:

    Hi Laurence,
    Thanks so much for your kind message. I am so glad you have enjoyed the Outlaw Chronicles. Lincoln Castle is really impressive but today, now that it is so well kept, neat and tidy, it is quite difficult to imagine the bustling medieval interior filled with working people, soldiers, wooden buildings, chickens, pigs, horses, sacks of fodder and firewood in huge piles, vegetable patches and mud. Hope you have a great day out with your partner anyway. Lincoln is a truly lovely city!

    You might like to know that my new series begins this autumn with Blood’s Game, which comes out on October 5. It’s set in the 17th century and the first book concerns the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels by Colonel Thomas Blood from the Tower of London in 1671. There’s a load of their swashbuckling stuff too, spies, gamblers and courtesans, and so on – and I’m rather proud of it. I hope you like Blood’s Game – and the new series – as much as the Outlaw books. And please feel free to let me know what you think of it either in a review or by email. Talking of reviews, if you want to leave one for The Death of Robin Hood somewhere that would be deeply appreciated.

    All the best, Angus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *