Whitby Abbey

From International Robin Hood Bibliography
Locality
Coordinate 54.488275, -0.60744
Adm. div. North Riding of Yorkshire
Vicinity 600 m ENE of Whitby
Type Church/monastery
Interest Local tradition
Status Extant
First Record 1779
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From north to south: Whitby Abbey with the Robin Hood-related localities and artefacts at Whitby Laithes.

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2016-05-29. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2021-01-07.

There are no Robin Hood-related place-names within or in the immediate vicinity of the ruins of Whitby Abbey, but a local tale connects the abbey with a cluster of localities that have Robin Hood-related names, just west of Whitby Laithes and c. 2.35 km SE of Whitby. Here are found Robin Hood's Close and to its immediate south Little John's Close. As early as 1540 a stone called Robin Hood's Stone stood in Robin Hood's Close. 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. 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 where the stones formerly stood or omit them entirely (see Maps section). In 1903 someone erected two replacement stones[4] (see photos below.) An interesting story connects the original stones and the fields in which they stood 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, but 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 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. The English term 'close' strikes me as too technical for a folk-name.

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 (1)

[...] If we prefer the figurative meaning of the term larus, as corresponding better with streon, we may suppose that Streoneshalh [i.e. Whitby] derived its name from some greedy plunderer, or pirate, who like Robin Hood in a later era, had his abode in this retired quarter: and, in that case, we must call it Pirate's Bay. At the same time I may add, that if larus can be translated a gaping, as I find it is in an old dictionary, Streoneshalh might be rendered Gaping-Bay, or Open-Bay [...][15]

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.[16]

1817 - Young, George - History of Whitby (3)

Little notice is taken here of May day, or of midsummer; nor is there any day devoted here to Robin Hood, though Robin once lived in our neighbourhood.[17]

1845 - Palmer, Charles Ferrers - History of Tamworth (2)

 We must now turn our attention from the very general and enlarged view, in which we have been lately compelled to give the history of Tamworth, to subjects of more particular and limited interest. And this course of proceeding we adopt with the greater pleasure, as we enter into a field freer from the dry details, which have demanded our chief consideration, since the period of the conquest. The first point, which will occupy our regard, is one connected with tales and legends, heard with intense interest and gratification in the vernal days of childhood, and remembered with pleasure, when the winter of life has chilled the energy of youth, and hoary made the head. [p. 60:]

 According to the common tradition of the locality, Tamworth and the surrounding neighbourhood were the frequent resort of the famous outlaw, Robin Hood. By the name of his butts, have ever been known the Roman tumuli at Wigginton and Elford. It has been suggested that they might have received this appellation, merely from their being the common archery grounds, where the people practised the noble art, once so highly prized in this kingdom. But, had it been usual for such places to be so named, every town and village would have boasted of its Robin Hood’s butts. There is not the least improbability in his visiting this place, as he so constantly haunted localities within about thirty miles distant. The extensive royal woods around this town would doubtless form a rich field for his adventures. The tale, however, that he was able to shoot from one of these butts to the other seems to have been a modern addition, in order to account for their designation. It was in fact a total impossibility, as the distance is nearly two miles. The longest shot which Robin is recorded to have made, was when he was requested to exhibit his dexterity with the bow by Richard, abbot of Whitby, with whom he and his lieutenant, Little John, went to dine, most probably without waiting for the formality of a special invitation. From the top of the abbey, he and his companion let two arrows fly, which fell, one on either side of a lane, not far from Whitby laths. The distance was about a mile and a quarter; and it must have been very considerably increased by the elevated situation which the shooters occupied, as the abbey stood on the summit of a cliff. This feat occurred in 1188. In memory of the transaction, the abbot caused [p. 61:] two pillars to be erected, where the arrows fell, on each of which was inscribed the name of the shooter.

 We are, indeed, unwilling to lose the connection of Tamworth with the bold rover of the forests. He is the only malefactor, whose memory reflects no disgrace on those places, with which his name is associated. On the contrary, it has attached an almost sacred character to them; for the very crimes of the outlaw were rendered hallowed to succeeding generations. His constant opposition to the tyranny of the Norman lords and his principles of equality endeared him, in the strongest manner, to the Saxons, who formed the great mass of the population. For, according to the old historians, though an arch-robber, he was the gentlest thief that ever lived, and a man of unbounded charity. The opulent and noble he deprived of their wealth, to enrich the poor; and for the oppressed, he frequently obtained the redress, for which they vainly ought elsewhere. He was not destitute of the deep religious temper of those olden times, which influenced every action of life, and, however anomalous it might be thought, gave a peculiar tinge even to the commission of misdeeds themselves. The same source of all the refined feelings, which characterize Christianity, gave him, in common with the rest, that generous and noble disposition towards the tenderer sex, so universal in the days of chivalry, whence it as descended to our times. For, according to the old ballad,

Robin loved our dere Lady;
For doute of dedely synne,
Wolds he never do company harm
That any woman was ynne.

[p. 62:] There has been much dispute respecting the title which Robin Hood is said to have possessed of earl of Huntingdon. His real name is conjectured to have been Robert Fitz-ooth; and the common-people, dropping the Norman Fitz, modified it into Hood. Robin might probably have been an alteration of Roving,–a title most appropriate to him, on account of the unsettled and wandering life which he led. All the ballads concerning him present the marks of changes in orthography, at different periods. If these opinions be correct, he most certainly was connected with the family of Simon de St. Liz, earl of Huntingdon. But in the old legends, he is often styled simply a yeoman. Thus one, entitled "a lytell geste of Robyn hode and his meyne, and of the proude sheryfe of Notyngham" begins

"Lithe and lysten, gentylmen,
That be of fre-bore blode:
I shall you tell of a good yeman,
His name was Robyn hode."

 This circumstance has formed the foundation of one of the greatest objections, which has been urged against his having held the title. A little consideration, however, will remove the difficulty, in a very great measure. A yeoman he might have been; for he does not appear to have possessed any estates. It is probable that the family property was confiscated in his father’s time, in consequence of the rebellion of Robert de Ferrers against Henry II., in 1173. According to the collection, called "Robin Hood’s Garland," he was a native of Loxley, which belonged to the Ferrers’ family. He [p. 63:] could not have assumed the title until the death of John Scott, tenth and last earl of Huntingdon (also of Chester), in 1237. He was, at that time, an old man; and his deeds of renown were almost brought to a close. Hence the ballads relating to exploits which occurred previously to this time might rightly denominate him a yeoman.

 But even supposing that Robin Hood were Fitz-ooth, his right to the earldom of Huntingdon was of a very dubious nature. It would rather descend with the sisters and coheiresses of John Scott, than pass to him. It is not improbable that he might have assumed the title whilst it lay dormant, or it was assigned to him by the people, rather than that he properly possessed it. In fact, without regarding any other point, he was incapable as an outlaw of holding it. But here we are entering so deeply into the wide region of conjecture, that we shall draw this part of our subject to a conclusion.

 Bold Robin died when he must have attained an age of upwards of eighty years. The stone over his humble tomb, near the nunnery of Kirklees, in Yorkshire, still remains. It once bore this inscription, now effaced by time.[18]

Hear, undernead dis latil [sic] stean,
laiz robert, earl of huntingtun;
nea archir ver az hie sae geud,
an pipl kauld im Robin Heud.
sick utlawz as hi an iz men
vil England nivir si agen.
  obiit 24 kal. dekembris, 1247.

Gazetteers

Sources

Maps

Background

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, J. C., ed. Cartularium Abathiæ de Whiteby Ordinis S. Benedicti fundatæ Anno MLXXVIII (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, J. C., ed. Cartularium Abathiæ de Whiteby Ordinis S. Benedicti fundatæ Anno MLXXVIII (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. 174.
  16. 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.
  17. 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. 882.
  18. Palmer, Charles Ferrers. The History of the Town and Castle of Tamworth, in the Counties of Stafford & Warwick (Tamworth; London, 1845), pp. 59-64.