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Places named Robin Hood's Butts

An archer has just scored a bull's eye during target practice. Notice the shape of the (partially drawn) butts (from the Luttrell Psalter).
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Places named Robin Hood's Butts or similar. Click locality marker for link to page.

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By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2013-07-11. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2018-09-22.

About a dozen examples of ancient burial mounds named Robin Hood's Butts are known, with a concentration in the north and west of England. It has been suggested, with special reference to such mounds on Danby Low Moor and Gerrick Moor in North Yorkshire, that Robin Hood's Butts may in fact owe their name to their having been used as archery butts.[1] While it cannot, of course, be ruled out that anybody ever used an ancient burial mound as a butt for archery, I do not believe this is in general the right explanation for their name. In particular, the remote Robin Hood's Butts high on the North Yorkshire moors seem unlikely to have often attracted a throng of archers intent on target practice or gathering for an archery contest. Surely the name is due to the general similarity of such mounds, especially when seen in silhouette, to late medieval (and early modern) archery butts? These were typically small mounds of sand, earth and turf. Burial mounds would have been the more reminiscent of archery butts when, as was (is) often the case, two (or a few) mounds were situated close to each other, for an archery range typically had one butt at either end, as in the detail of the Luttrell Psalter shown to the right. Incidentally, this circumstance explains why the entire archery grounds were often referred to as 'the butts'.[2] For this, see further the page on Lydd festivals.

During the 17th to 19th centuries if not earlier, Robin Hood was occasionally endowed with superhuman powers and/or mythical qualities. This is seen, for instance, in the etiological myth about the Standing Stone at Sowerby which Robin Hood was said to have thrown from a nearby hill when digging with his spade. While it is possible such myths may have become attached to some of the places named Robin Hood's Butts, I doubt if these place-names originated in myths of origin. For a couple of centuries during the late medieval and Tudor period, most English males of suitable age were required by law to practice regularly at the archery butts, which were constructed and kept – more or less well – in repair at the cost of the local community. Expenses on construction, maintenance and repair of butts figure often in churchwardens' and chamberlains' accounts from the 15th to the early 17th century.[3] Archery grounds must have been then about as common as football fields are now. When people named ancient mounds after archery butts, a very common type of earthwork at the time, they were hardly being deep or mythical as 19th century "mythologists" or 21st century New Age-inspired folklore enthusiasts might like to believe, nor were they necessarily trying to amuse their children. They simply noted a general similarity between ancient burial mounds – about whose origin they can in genral have had little idea – and the typically smaller, more recent earthworks at archery ranges, and once the idea that a specific burial mound resembled an archery butt had arisen, it was a small step to associate it with Robin Hood, the archer par excellence. This explanation of the origin of the name would still be valid in cases where it came to be applied to an ancient mound after firearms had replaced bows as weapons for war or hunting, since butts were (and are) still used for target practice with firearms.

The noun 'butt' in the sense "[a] mark for archery practice; properly a mound or other erection on which the target is set up. Hence in mod. use a mound or embankment in front of which the targets are placed for artillery, musketry, or rifle practice" is first recorded, according to OED, in a source written no later than 1400. The next quotation cited is from c. 1440. The noun 'butt' in the sense "[a] hillock, mound" is first recorded in 1693.[4]

As for prehistoric mounds as such, one could probably do worse than quote this entry from an early 20th century dictionary on the dialect of the North Riding of Yorkshire:

HOUE, HOWE, HOW, sb. (C.) 1. A tumulus or sepulchral barrow. (D. Hoj.) 2. A natural mound or hill. 1. There are thousands of these on the N.R. Moors; they are of great antiquity. The larger of these houes, especially when on prominent heights and sky-lines have names. They often contain under a cairn of stones a chamber (locally called a YUNE) built of flat, or flag-stones; these contain evidences of cremated human remains with at times earthenware vessels, implements, ornaments, arms, flint arrow-heads, &c. In the smaller houes the traces of human remains have generally disappeared, and also all signs of cremation. A few bronze instruments have been found, stone hammers, jet ornaments, and a great many PANNIKINS, as the earthenware vessels are called. Most of the large houes have been rifled; a great many by so-called antiquarians, and their permanent interest spoiled. In the very large houes there is often evidence of repeated interments. Among the chief desecrators of these moor graves in my time were the late Canon Greenwell and Canon Atkinson; they both made notable finds but acquired no very definite information as to the people who made use of these methods of interment. [...] A BASIN HOUE is a houe which has been rifled or quarried for road [p. 64:] "metal", and is therefore depressed, having lost its summit. [...][5]

Localities

The location of Robinhood Butts (Wiltshire) is not known.

Discussion

Background

Brief mention

Also see

Notes