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Robin Hood's Stone (Whitby Laithes)

Locality
Coordinates 54.472777777778, -0.58611111111111
Adm. div. North Riding of Yorkshire
Vicinity Whitby Laithes
Type Monument
Interest Robin Hood name
Status Extant
First Record 1540
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From north to south: Whitby Abbey, and the Robin Hood-related places at Whitby Laithes.
Robin Hood's Stone and Little John's Stone, the latter of course standing in Little John's Close. These are not the original stones (photo: Panoramio user 'whitby-mick', 20 August 2010.)
Robin Hood's Stone and Little John's Stone (photo: Peter Craggs (2008), who I hope will forgive me for 'borrowing' his photo when I inform the reader that he runs a bed & breakfast in Whitby. The photo was first used on the Hidden Teesside blogs page on Robin Hood’s Close and Little John’s Close, Whitby.)

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2016-05-29. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2017-12-15.

Robin Hood's Stone stands – or rather stood, since the stone currently at the site is a modern replacement – in a small field named Robin Hood's Close, immediately west of Whitby Laithes and c. 2.35 km SE of Whitby. To the south, Robin Hood's Close abuts Little John's Close on which stands the modern incarnation of Little John's Stone. The original Robin Hood's Stone is first recorded in 1540 (see Records section below). Little John's Stone may well have stood in Little John's Close already at that time, but we have no direct evidence of this. According to Lionel Charlton, who gave an interesting account of these stones and fields in his History of Whitby (1779),[1] at some point in the early 18th century the two stones were moved to the edge of their respective fields, Robin Hood's to the south and Little John's to the north, so that they now stood very close to each other, separated only by the lane that leads from Whitby Laithes to Stainsacre. This situation is also what is indicated on an 6" O.S. map of the area that was based on field work done in 1849.[2] By 1881 the stones had disappeared altogether,[3] and 6" O.S. maps published after this date indicate the site of the stones or omit them entirely (see Maps section). In 1903 someone erected two replacement stones[4] (see photos below.) A local tale connects the stones and the fields in which they stand with Whitby Abbey.

According to Lionel Charlton,[5] Robin Hood and Little John once went to dine with the abbot of Whitby. Evidently the abbot, Richard de Waterville, in office 1176-89,[6] was in the mood for a post-prandial archery exhibition, for he asked his guests to give him a demonstration of their prowess with the longbow. The two outlaws went to the top of the abbey where each shot an arrow that landed near Whitby Laithes, about 2.25 km SSE of the Abbey, "and in memorial thereof a pillar was set up by the Abbot in the place where each of the arrows was found, which are yet sanding in these our days [...][7]

Charlton leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he believes this story, acknowledging that it "will stagger the faith of many", but he cites as corroborating evidence the circumstance "that these very pillars are mentioned, and the fields called by the aforesaid names, in the old deeds for that ground, now in the possession of Mr. Thomas Watson."[8] The record cited below shows that Robin Hood's Stone was known by that name as early as 1540, and Charlton clearly had seen similar records also mentioning Little John's Stone and the fields on which the pair of pillars stood. However, this of course cannot in itself be taken as corroboration of the story of how they got there. It would appear instead to be an obvious instance of an etiological myth, a myth of origin. However, Charlton is almost certainly right that Little John's Close and Robin Hood's Close were named after the pillars, for the stones are the features that stand out; once their true purpose had been forgotten, they called for an explanation.

As for what suggested the names, Robin Hood's Stone and Little John's Stone, if both arose at the same time, perhaps it was because the fact that there were a pair of stones next to each other made someone think of the famous pair of outlaws. Moreover, Robin Hood's Stone was about 1.20 m high, while that of Little John was only about 75 cm in height.[9] It seems likely that the difference in height helped suggest the names for these stones. The name Robin Hood's Stone was in use already in 1540, and in view of this and what has just been said it seems likely that both stones were in existence and were known as Robin Hood's and Little John's stones before 1538,[10] when Whitby Abbey was disestablished during the calamity known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The story connecting the stone pillars with the abbey by the magic of flight shooting may also date from pre-Reformation times or it may have been invented at a time when the abbey buildings stood ruined, begging for their stories to be told. The evidence now available to us does not permit us to say with certainty that the names of the two fields and the stone next to Robin Hood's Stone date, like the latter, from 1540 or before. Unless the records to which Charlton refers can be found, those three place-names cannot with certainty be traced further back than the 18th century.

I have followed Dobson & Taylor[11] in referring to the two fields as 'Little John's Close' and 'Robin Hood's Close'. A couple of recent blog articles about the stones also refer to the fields as Closes.[12] However, most likely the original (colloquial) forms were Little John's Field and Robin Hood's Field. Charlton in the 1779 allusion uses 'field', and this is also found on all the 6" O.S. maps online at NLS (see Maps section below.) George Young (see allusion dated 1817) uses 'Closes', but this was probably inspired by the corresponding Latin term in the records he referred to.

Records

1540 - Robin Hood's Stone (Whitby Laithes)

[1540:]
MANERIUM DE WHITBY-LATHES, CUM DIVERSIS CLAUSIS VOCATIS GRESSE-FERMES
[... p. 727:] Willelmo Laverok et Rob. Garstange per ii copias curiæ, ut dicitur: de xx s. de redd. i clausi voc. Robyn-Hood-stone1 ib. per a. solv.[13]

Allusions

1779 - Charlton, Lionel - History of Whitby and of Whitby Abbey

In the days of this Abbot Richard, and Peter his successor, lived that famous and renowned outlaw Robin Hood, who took from the rich that he might have wherewithal to give to the poor. He many years kept under him a considerable number of men, who lived by rapine and plunder. He resided generally in Nottinghamshire, or the southern parts of Yorkshire: But when his robberies became so numerous, and the outcries against him so loud, as almost to alarm the whole nation, parties of soldiers were sent down from London to apprehend him: And then it was, that, fearing for his safety, he found it necessary to desert his usual haunts, and, retreating northward, to cross the moors that surrounded Whitby, where, gaining the sea-coast, he always had in readiness near at hand some small fishing vessels, to which he could have refuge, if he found himself pursued; for in these, putting off to sea, he looked upon himself as quite secure, and held the whole power of the English nation at defiance. The chief place of his resort at these times, where his boats were generally laid up, was about six miles from Whitby, to which he communicated his name, and which is still called Robin Hood's Bay. There he frequently went a fishing in the summer season, even when no enemy approached to annoy him; and not far from that place he had butts or marks set up, where he used to exercise his men in shooting with the long-bow. It was always believed that these butts had been erected by him for that very purpose, till the year 1771, when one of them being dug into, human bones were found therein, and it appeared they had been burying-places for the dead used by our pagan ancestors, either the Danes, the Saxons, or the ancient Britons, all of whom, it is certain, raised such kind of monuments over the bodies of their deceased friends and relations; which practice they borrowed from the Celts and Gauls; and these probably had it from the Jews, the Egyptians, and other eastern nations, who used it soon after Noah's flood. However that be, there is no doubt but Robin made use of those houes or butts when he was disposed to exercise his men, and wanted to train them up in hitting a mark.

Tradition further informs us, that, in one of these peregrinations, he, attended by his trusty mate Little John, went to dine with the Abbot Richard, who, having heard them often famed for their great dexterity in shooting with the long-bow, begged them after dinner to shew him a specimen thereof; when, to oblige the Abbot, they went up to the top of the Abbey, whence each of them shot an arrow, which fell not far from Whitby-Laths, but on the contrary side of the lane; and in memorial thereof a pillar was set up [p. 147:] by the Abbot in the place where each of the arrows was found, which are yet sanding in these our days; that field where the pillar for Robin Hood's arrow stands being sill called Robin Hood's Field, and the other where the pillar for Little John's arrow is placed, still preserving the name of John's Field. Their distance from Whitby-Abbey is more than a measured mile, which seems very far for the flight of an arrow, and is a circumstance that will stagger the faith of many; but as to the credibility of the story every reader may judge thereof as he thinks proper; only I must here beg leave to observe, that these very pillars are mentioned, and the fields called by the aforesaid names, in the old deeds for that ground, now in the possession of Mr. Thomas Watson.[14]

1817 - Young, George - History of Whitby (2)

Nearer [than Stainton Dale] to Whitby is the inlet called Robin Hood's Bay, in the north-west part of which there is a fishing town of the same name, of a romantic appearance, containing about 1000 inhabitants. The village and bay derive their name from the celebrated outlaw Robin Hood, who is said to have frequented the spot.§ [...]
[Note §:] This Robin Hood (or Robert earl of Huntington) celebrated for his predatory exploits, is said to have died in the year 1247. According to tradition, he and his trusty mate Little John went to dine with one of the abbots of Whitby, and being desired by the abbot to try how far each of them could shoot an arrow, they both shot from the top of the abbey, and their arrows fell on the west side of Whitby Lathes, beside the lane leading from thence to Stainsacre; that of Robin Hood falling on the north side of the lane, and that of Little John about 100 feet further, on the south side of the lane. In the spot where Robin's arrow is said to have lighted stands a stone pillar about a foot square, and 4 feet high; and a similar pillar 2½ feet high, marks the place where John's arrow fell. The fields on the one side are called Robin Hood closes, and those on the other Little John closes. They are so termed in the conveyance, dated in 1713, from Hugh Cholmley, Esq. to John Watson, ancestor to the present proprietor, Mr. Rob. Watson. The tradition is scarcely credible, the distance of those pillars from the abbey being about a mile and a half. Much more incredible is the tradition, that Robin shot an arrow from the height where Stoupe Brow beacon is placed, right across the bay to the town which bears his name; having resolved to build a town where the arrow lighted. To the south of that beacon are two or three tumuli or barrows, called Robin Hood's butts; from a fabulous story of his using them as butts, when he exercised his men in shooting.[15]

Gazetteers

Sources

Maps

Discussion

Also see

Notes

  1. Charlton, Lionel. The History of Whitby, and of Whitby Abbey. Collected rom the original Records of the Abbey, and other authentic Memoirs, never before made public. Containing, Not only the History of Whitby and the Country adjacent, but also the Original and Antiquity of many particular Families and Places in other Parts of Yorkshire (York; London; Whitby, 1779), pp. 146-47.
  2. O.S. 6" map Yorkshire 32 (1853, surveyed 1849.)
  3. Atkinson, John Christopher, ed. Cartularium Abathiæ de Whiteby (The Publications of the Surtees Society, vols. LXIX-LXXII) (Durham; [London]; Edinburgh, 1879-81), vol. II, p. 727 n. 1.
  4. Hidden Teesside: Robin Hood’s Close and Little John’s Close, Whitby.
  5. Charlton, Lionel. The History of Whitby, and of Whitby Abbey. Collected rom the original Records of the Abbey, and other authentic Memoirs, never before made public. Containing, Not only the History of Whitby and the Country adjacent, but also the Original and Antiquity of many particular Families and Places in other Parts of Yorkshire (York; London; Whitby, 1779), pp. 146-47.
  6. Charlton, op. cit., pp. 144, 147.
  7. Charlton, op. cit., pp. 146-47.
  8. Charlton, op. cit., p. 147.
  9. See Charlton's account and Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), p. 307, s.n. 'Robin Hood's Close and Little John's Close'.
  10. Wikipedia: Whitby Abbey.
  11. Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), p. 307, s.n. 'Whitby: Robin Hood's Close and Little John's Close'.
  12. Hidden Teesside: Robin Hood’s Close and Little John’s Close, Whitby and The Northern Antiquarian: Robin Hood & Little John Stones, Whitby, North Yorkshire (Paul Bennett.)
  13. Atkinson, John Christopher, ed. Cartularium Abathiæ de Whiteby (The Publications of the Surtees Society, vols. LXIX-LXXII) (Durham; [London]; Edinburgh, 1879-81), vol. II, pp. 726-27.
  14. Charlton, Lionel. The History of Whitby, and of Whitby Abbey. Collected rom the original Records of the Abbey, and other authentic Memoirs, never before made public. Containing, Not only the History of Whitby and the Country adjacent, but also the Original and Antiquity of many particular Families and Places in other Parts of Yorkshire (York; London; Whitby, 1779), pp. 146-47.
  15. Young, George. A History of Whitby, and Streoneshalh Abbey: with a Statistical Survey of the Vicinity to the Distance of Twenty-Five Miles (Whitby, 1817), vol. II, p. 647.