1324 - Louis, count of Flanders - Letter to Edward II or III
By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2017-03-07. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2018-12-15. Reference brought to light by Robert Lynley, who has also generously provided background information and materials. Transcription and translation courtesy of Ian Short, Emeritus Professor of French, Birkbeck, University of London, and President of the Anglo-Norman Text Society. Information from Dr David Hepworth and Dr David Crook via members of 'robinhoodforum4'.
Trespoissans et treschers sires: a nous ont esté Jehan Cullin, bourgois de Nuefport en Flandres, et ses compaignons pescheurs, complaignant et mostrant que en | cest aoust darrainement passé il se misent en mer atout leur harnas pour gaaignier leur pain, si avoient pris, par l’aide de Dieu, .xvij. | lastz de herens, puis furent geriez decoste [?] Saint Edmont a autres d’Engleterre atout .vj. nefs, et pristrent la neif de mes bourgois dessus dis | atout l’avoir qui dedens estoit, et amenerent gentz atout [?] a Robyn Oeds Bay, ou les gens dou pays pristrent nos bourgois dessus dis et les | menerent a Witteby. Leur [sic] on plaida sur eux de leur vies, de quoy il furent jugiés quites sans calange par bone cognissance ... auq ... | de bones gens, et ne leur fu leur neif ne biens point delivrez ne renduz, sicome plus a plain il declarront les choses dessus dites qui sont ... | Treschers sires, nous vous prions, tant aimablement et de ceur que nous plus poons, qu’a nos dessus dis bourgois il vous plaist faire | rendre et restituer leur neif et biens dessus dis, ensi que faire on le doit par droit et par raison, quar vraiement che sont povrez gentz et | qui il convendra mendier se la dite restitution de lur nef et biens ne leur est faite hastivement et par vous en ce en aide de droit | soucouru. Trescher sires, si vous en plaise tant faire en consideration de droit et a meie pryere que nous en soions tenuz a vous de | faire le semblable a vostre requeste, lequel nous feriemes volenters et de ceur, et assez plus grant se il avenoit. Nostre Seigneur vous voille | garder corps et arme, et vous doinst bone vie et longue! Escrit a Male en Flandres le premier jour de March.
[Translation by Ian Short:]
Most powerful and most dear sire: Jean Cullin, a burgess of Nieuport in Flanders together with his fishermen companions, have come before me lodging a complaint and testifying that during the August recently past they set out to sea with their equipment in order to earn their living, and they had caught, with the help of God, eighteen measures [or lasts] of herrings, and subsequently they were attacked near Bury St Edmunds by some or other people [?] of England in six boats, and they seized the boat of my aforementioned burgesses together with all the possessions which were on board, and people [?] took them in addition [?] to Robin Hood's Bay, where the local people took our aforementioned burgesses captive and led them off to Whitby. There they were put on trial in relation to their way of life, from which the judgement was that they were discharged [or cleared] on good authority without any objection, but neither their boat nor their goods were handed over to them or returned, as they will explain in more detail in an oral statement of what has been stated above, which are ... Most dear sire, we beg you, as kindly and as sincerely as we possibly can, that it be pleasing to you to have returned and restored to our aforementioned burgesses the aforementioned boat and goods, as one should do in all justice and as reason dictates, for in truth they are poor people, and it will be necessary for them to become beggars if the said restitution of their boat and goods is not made promptly and if they are not helped in this, with legal aid, by you. Most dear sire, if it pleases you act in such a way as to take the law and my entreaty into consideration so that we become obligated to you to act in the same way should you ever request us to do so, this we would do willingly and sincerely, and all the more so if this should come about. May our Lord be willing to preserve you, body and soul, and may he grant you a good and long life! Written at Male in Flanders the first day of March.
Ian Short's brackets and ellipses, the latter indicating illegible characters or words; line change signalled by "|". Uncertain readings indicated by "[?]". The letter was written on 1 March, year unknown, at the castle in Male, once a separate village, now part of Sint-Kruis, a suburb of Bruges, West Flanders, Belgium.
The reference to Robin Hood's Bay contained in this letter was discovered about a decade ago (c. 2006) by Robert Lynley, but by and large students of the Robin Hood tradition have been reluctant to comment on it in print or on public-facing websites (though there has been a good deal of discussion in specialist internet forums). While one may suggest certain reasons for this state of affairs, it is both disappointing and unfortunate that this important discovery should not have received more attention. One part of the explanation is perhaps that a scan, transcription and translation of the letter have not been generally available. This is no longer the case thanks especially to Professor Ian Short who has generously allowed me to include his transcription and translation here. A scan and a translation have been online for some time (the latter by Duncan Harrington; see image and section "Online translation" on this page).
Thomas Ohlgren in his Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 (2007) briefly discusses the letter, noting that "based upon a careful analysis by Dr. David Crook of the National Archives, we can confidently date the letter to 1324-46, making it [i.e. Robin Hood's Bay] the earliest recorded Robin Hood place-name".
This seems confused. If 'the early name had no connection with the outlaw', the name Robin Hood's Bay is in evidence no earlier than the 1530s or 40s, when Robin Hood's Bay is mentioned by John Leland (twice) and in the Whitby Abbey ministers' accounts (see Robin Hood's Bay and timeline on Place-names page). It can only be 'probably the earliest Robin Hood place-name' if 'Oeds' in the count's letter is taken to mean 'Hood'.
It is quite correct that Robin Hood did not put to sea in any of the surviving sources until the mid-17th century, when the ballad entitled The Noble Fisherman, or, Robin Hood's Preferment appeared (c. 1663). The closest any of the Medieval tales comes to endowing any of the outlaws with a maritime career is in the Gest (st. 149) where Little John enters the sheriff's service under the name Reynold Greenleaf, claiming to come from Holderness. One can only assume that men born in coastal areas such as Holderness were more likely than those born inland to become fishermen or sailors, but there is no hint in the poem that Little John/Reynold Greenleaf was anything other than a landlubber. In all events, the earliest surviving Robin Hood poems are from c. 120 to c. 175 years later than Count Louis's letter, and who knows how much the tradition changed between the 1320s and the mid-15th century? We also do not know to which extent the earliest surviving tales were representative of the tradition as it was at the time they were written (down) or printed. 'Robin Oeds Bay' should not be disqualified for suggesting a setting that fails to meet anachronistic expectations. It should, as it were, be judged on its own merits.
Etymology of the place-name
Bradbury evidently does not think 'Oeds' = 'Hood's', yet he does not offer any alternative etymologies. I can only really think of one: odd = "A small point of land". While this is not found in independent use as a word before 1869, it is known as a place-name element from at least as early as the first half of the 13th century,  most famously perhaps in 'Ravenser Odd', the name of a once thriving East Riding port that was lost to the sea in the mid-14th century. There is at present no landscape feature at Robin Hoods' Bay that could reasonably be described as an 'odd' in the above sense, but of course the sea has now gnawed away at the coast for a few more centuries. However, the collocation with the element 'Robyn' and the possessive (or just possibly plural) 's' in 'Oeds' pose a problem for this etymology. In Middle English, Robin means Robin. There are no other recorded primary senses than the first name, a pet form of 'Robert'. When 'Robin' is found recorded as a place-name element during this period, it is therefore typically the first name of an owner, occupier or person otherwise connected with the piece of land in question. In the early modern period it may also be shorthand for 'Robin Hood', 'Robin Goodfellow' or the devil etc. In case any reader is wondering, our winged friend Erithacus rubecula is first known as 'robin redbreast' from c. 1448 and as 'robin' tout court from c. 1550. The earliest recorded occurrence of 'Robin' as a place-name element that I am aware of is the 'boscus vocatus Robynhill' – 'wood called Robynhill' – mentioned in the c. 1163 foundation charter of the Augustinian Priory of Newstead, preserved in the priory's 1286 chartulary.
Dropping aitches in Flanders
Since 'Robin' is the (pet form of the) Christian name, the element that immediately follows it may well be a surname, and there is in fact little doubt that 'oeds' is "Hood's". H-dropping, a common feature in some dialects and sociolects of modern British English, occurred more sporadically in Middle English, and it is unclear whether it reflects actual pronunciation or Anglo-Norman scribal habits. There are ME spellings of the word 'hood' that suggest a dipthongized pronunciation, and 'oed', with the 'e' perhaps representing a schwa-like vowel, would hardly be surprising in terms of phonetics. However, Count Louis's letter was written in French, presumably by a Flemish scribe whose primary language would have been Dutch, and the form 'Oeds' is in fact not difficult to account for given this provenance. Not only is silent 'h' – a systematic feature of Modern French pronunciation – attested already in OF, it is also found in modern and historical dialects of Dutch. Moreover, the Middle and Modern Dutch cognates of the English noun 'hood' (head covering) are 'hoet' in Middle Dutch and 'hoed' in Middle (?) and Modern Dutch.
The element 'bay'
That the element bay in 'Robin Hood's Bay' is the now common substantive that means 'a wide indentation of the sea' will hardly in itself surprise anyone. However, the fact that it occurs in a place-name at this early date ought to be of interest to place-name researchers. A.H. Smith, a prominent contributor to this field of study, noted in 1956 that the word is only found in 'later' place-names. As the word is from French 'baie', it could hardly have occurred in English in the pre-Conquest period. It is in fact not recorded in any English text before John Trevisa's 1385 translation of Higden's Polychronicon. Since the count's letter is in French, the word 'bay' might conceivably be a French rendering of a synonym of OE or ON origin, but this seems unlikely in view of the spelling, 'bay' with a 'y' instead of French 'bai(e)', and the fact that the bay and village are always named 'Robin Hood's Bay' (in various spellings) in later English sources. As far as we know, no one ever referred in writing to, for instance, *Robin Hoodes Bight.
The late entry of the noun 'bay' into the English language means that, everything else being equal, one would be more inclined to adopt the latest possible dating for the count's letter than the earliest possible one. Yet everything is probably not equal, for current expert opinion, as we shall soon see, favours a date in the reign of Edward II rather than that of his son, and in any case the fact that a word or phrase antedates the earliest example in OED by half a century or more should not in itself give cause for concern. OED, like other historical dictionaries, is not infallible. Ante- and postdatings are frequently found. Its editors, I feel sure, have generally been people with the requisite expertise, but its contributors have been mostly amateurs. As far as its raw materials, the quotations, are concerned, the OED, or New English Dictionary as it was originally named, is a splendid example of crowd-sourcing long before that term was coined. Yet no matter how far the net is cast, things will be overlooked, and with many volunteers holding the net, misunderstandings and mistakes will be made. In the late 1990s, when OED online was in beta testing, I was given a password to facilitate my uploading of ante- and postdatings resulting from a systematic analysis (never fully written up or published) of the entire vocabulary of the Gest. This text of c. 10.400 word tokens yielded a good 130 ante- or postdatings, in one case by several hundred years.
The date of the letter
The letter is dated March 1, but without a year. The sender was a Count Louis of Flanders, the recipient a King Edward. There were two Counts of Flanders named Louis. The first (c. 1304–26 August 1346) was count of Nevers and Rethel and, from 1322, of Flanders. His son of the same name died on 30 January 1384. The recipient of the letter was either Edward II, who ruled 1307-27, or Edward III, who ruled 1327-77. The collection of MSS in which the letter is found is a miscellany of materials brought together during the 19th century, and the collection itself does not provide a context that helps us put an exact date on the letter. Specialists at the National Archives agree that the sender was the first Count Louis, but since I do not know how they reached this conclusion and how certain it is, I shall have to also consider the possibility, though it is less likely, that the letter may have been written for (or by) his son. An 18th century worker at the archives favoured Edward III as recipient, whereas David Crook of the NA finds a date of composition during the reign of Edward II more likely.
Several lines of enquiry may be pursued in the hope of establishing the exact date of writing or at least narrowing down the range of possible dates. The most direct way would of course be to look for other references to the act of piracy that occasioned the count's letter, but as this may involve a lengthy search with no guarantee of a positive result, it seems best initially to approach the question more indirectly. I shall examine the history of Flanders, of Anglo- and Franco-Flemish relations as well as the biographies of Louis I and II of Flanders with a view to constraining the possible date of composition. Any relevant facts brought to light are discussed here and added to the timelines representing the reigns of the two counts. The timelines reflect my current knowledge; I hope they will change over time.
I shall use the colours of a traffic light to indicate:–
- years in which the letter may have been written
- years in which the letter was probably not written
- years in which the letter cannot have been written.
To begin with, we know that the letter:–
- was written on behalf of Count Louis I (or II)
- was dated March 1
- was sent from the Count's castle of Male
- concerned a citizen of Nieuwpoort
- was written on the assumption that it would not necessarily be futile to ask king Edward to help the victims receive justice.
1322: Since Count Louis I of Flanders succeeded to the title on 17 September 1322 and the letter is dated March 1, it could not have been written earlier than 1 March 1323.
1323: There was what may perhaps be described as low key naval war between England and Flanders at the time when Louis I was instated as count. One of his few successes during his early years as count was to negotiate a truce with England. This he set out to do almost immediately. A conditional agreement was reached in February 1323, but ratification was dependent on Flanders agreeing to prohibit trade with the Scots. This had been achieved by 5 April 1323, when the truce was proclaimed in England. The count could hardly have asked for compensation for victims of English privateering before the truce had been signed. Not only would this likely have jeopardized the agreement, it also seems unlikely that he should have thought Edward II willing to help Flemish citizens receive compensation for losses inflicted on them when the countries were still in conflict. Count Louis was summoned to Paris by his feudal overlord, Charles IV of France, around the end of 1322 and did not return to Flanders until some time in March 1323. The letter thus was not written in 1323.
1326: During the period 1323 to 1328, Flanders was the scene of a peasants' revolt that may reasonably be characterized as the most successful in Medieval Europe, even if it was ultimately quashed by the French king. Having been caught by the rebels and imprisoned at Bruges for a few months, the Count was set free in December of 1325 and almost immediately went to Paris to seek aid from the French King, whose first response was to conduct peace negotiations with the rebels, at Arques, near Saint-Omer, France. Immediately after the king and the rebels had reached an agreement, on 19 April 1326, the Count sent his widely mistrusted and hated bailiffs and other officials back into Flanders to reoccupy the posts from which they had been ousted by the rebels. He himself stayed in France, "seemingly in no hurry to return to the site of his recent humiliation and incarceration". The letter thus was not written in 1326.
1327–28: I get the impression from Edward le Glay's Histoire des Comtes de Flandres (1843) that until the summer of 1328 count Louis spent most of the time in France, away from his troublesome Flemish county, but le Glay's account does not always proceed in strict chronological order and too many events are left without a precise date to allow certain conclusions as to the count's whereabouts on March 1 of any given year. The first mention there of the count staying at his Castle of Male is in September (or shortly thereafter) of 1327.
1340–46: At some point in 1339, during the insurrection led by Jacob van Artevelde, Count Louis again fled to France, where he remained the rest of his life, meeting his death at the battle of Crécy at which he fought on the French side. As he was not in Flanders at any point during the years 1340-46, he cannot have written the letter any later than 1339.
1346–84: With expert opinion united against attributing the letter to Count Louis II every year here is coloured yellow if it is not entirely ruled out as year of writing by other evidence or facts.
1346: Count Louis II succeeded to his father's titles after the latter was killed at the battle of Crecy, which took place on 26 August 1346. So the letter of course cannot have been written by Louis II before 1347.
1348:As the English wool trade was vitally important to them, the guilds of Flanders forced the young Louis to recognize Edward III as his overlord and arranged for him to be engaged to Edward III's eldest daughter, Isabella. He avoided this by fleeing to the court of Philip VI of France, where in 1347 he married Margaret of Brabant, setting off a revolt in Ghent. Louis only returned to Flanders in 1349 after having come to terms with the English king.
1356–57: After his father-in-law, John, 3rd duke of Brabant, died without male heir in 1355, Louis assumed the title of Duke of Brabant but was forced to relinquish it in the summer of 1357. This would likely be reflected in the way he styled himself in official letters. The title of Duke of Brabant is not included in the letter to the English king.
1378–84: Edward III dies on 21 Lune 1377, so the letter can be no later than 1377. He was succeeded by Richard II (1377-99).
Little John – master of the king's ship
A remarkable fact that may not be unrelated to the affair with which Count Louis's letter is concerned is that in 1323, after the Anglo-Flemish truce had been agreed, the captain of a royal ship got into trouble because he and a few colleagues boarded a Flemish ship, assaulted its crew and passengers, arrested some of them and confiscated the cargo. This happened at Newcastle, about 90 km north of Robin Hood's Bay. The royal mariner was named Little John.
- Not included in Dobson, R. B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), pp. 315-19.
- Not included in Sussex, Lucy, compil. 'References to Robin Hood up to 1600', in: Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 262-88.
- A letter from Louis 1, Count of Flanders 1322-1346, to King Edward 3rd (translation by Duncan Harrington).
- Crowther, Pete. Ravenser and Ravenser Odd: the Early History of Spurn Head
- Evans, Michael. 'Robynhill, or Robin Hood's Hills? Place-Names and the Evolution of the Robin Hood Legends', Journal and Seventy-Fifth Annual Report of the English Place-Name Society, vol. 30 (1998), pp. 43–51
- Feddema, Sanne. The 'Arse that Jack Built: a Diachronic Study of H-Dropping in English. BA thesis, English Language and Culture ([Utrecht:] Utrecht University, 2013)
- Lass, Roger; Laing, Margaret. "In Celebration of Early Middle English 'H'", Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 111 (2010), pp. 345-54
- Lucas, Henry S. 'Diplomatic Relations between England and Flanders from 1329 to 1336', Speculum, vol. 11 (1936), pp. 59-87
- Ramisch, Heinrich. 'Analysing Linguistic Atlas Data: the (Socio)-Linguistic Context of H-Dropping', Dialectologia, Special Issue, No. 1 (2010), pp. 175-84
- Wikipedia: Ath
- Wikipedia: Battle of Crécy
- Wikipedia: Bury St Edmunds
- Wikipedia: Count of Flanders
- Wikipedia: Final-obstruent devoicing
- Wikipedia: Jacob van Artevelde
- Wikipedia: Louis I, Count of Flanders
- Wikipedia: Louis II, Count of Flanders
- Wikipedia: H-dropping
- Wikipedia: Isabella, Countess of Bedford
- Wikipedia: Male Castle
- Wikipedia: Nieuwpoort, Belgium
- Wikipedia: Ravenser Odd
- Wikipedia: Whitby.
- Bradbury, Jim. Robin Hood (Chalford, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2010), pp. 177, 184 n. 107.
- Ohlgren, Thomas. Robin Hood: the Early Poems, 1465-1560: Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, ©2007), p. 123, 238 n. 60.
- National Archives SC 1/33/202. Transcription and translation by Ian Short.
- MS Word document from David Hepworth (via Robert Lynley). See Wikipedia: Male Castle.
- Ohlgren, Thomas. Robin Hood: the Early Poems, 1465-1560: Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, ©2007), p. 123, and see 238 n. 60. Also see Ohlgren, Thomas H.; Matheson, Lister M., eds. Early Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Edition of the Texts, ca. 1425 to ca. 1600 (Tempe, Arizona, 2013), p. 149.
- Bradbury, Jim. Robin Hood (Chalford, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2010), p. 177, and see p. 184 n. 107. I have silently omitted the footnote reference from the quotation.
- As also noted by Bellamy, John. Robin Hood: an Historical Enquiry (London and Sydney, ©1985), pp. 123-24.
- OED, s.n. 'odd', n. 2 (subscription required).
- Wikipedia: Ravenser Odd.
- OED, s.nn. 'robin redbreast', n. 1, 'robin', n. 1, 2.a (subscription required). The MED has an entry for the first name Robin but not for the bird's name. Evans, Michael. 'Robynhill, or Robin Hood's Hills? Place-Names and the Evolution of the Robin Hood Legends', Journal and Seventy-Fifth Annual Report of the English Place-Name Society, vol. 30 (1998), pp. 43–51, see p. 44.
- Evans, Michael. 'Robynhill, or Robin Hood's Hills? Place-Names and the Evolution of the Robin Hood Legends', Journal and Seventy-Fifth Annual Report of the English Place-Name Society, vol. 30 (1998), pp. 43–51, see p. 43.
- See for instance Ramisch, Heinrich. 'Analysing Linguistic Atlas Data: the (Socio)-Linguistic Context of H-Dropping', Dialectologia, Special Issue, No. 1 (2010), pp. 175-84; Feddema, Sanne. The 'Arse that Jack Built: a Diachronic Study of H-Dropping in English. BA thesis, English Language and Culture ([Utrecht:] Utrecht University, 2013), with maps showing the distribution of this feature in ME etc.; Lass, Roger; Laing, Margaret. "In Celebration of Early Middle English 'H'", Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 111 (2010), pp. 345-54.
- OED, s.n hood, n. 1, Forms: 'houd', 'hoyd', both ME (subscription required).
- See Wikipedia: H-dropping; Lass, Roger; Laing, Margaret. "In Celebration of Early Middle English 'H'", Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 111 (2010), pp. 345-54, see p. 346.
- OED, s.n hood, n. 1, Etymology. As of 3 April 2017 there appears to be a typographical error in this article, but apparently 'hoed' is listed as a form found in both Middle and Modern Dutch. The historic vacillation between spellings with "d" and "t" reflects final-obstruent devoicing in spoken Dutch.
- Smith, A.H. English Place-Name Elements (English Place-Name Society, vols. XXV-XXVI) (Cambridge, 1956), pt. I, p. 21, s.n. bay1
- OED, s.n. bay, n.2 (subscription required).
- OED, s.n. bay, n.2, 1 (subscription required). The MED, s.n. bai (n.(3)) assigns the date "c1400" to Trevisa's translation.
- Wikipedia: Louis I, Count of Flanders.
- Wikipedia: Louis II, Count of Flanders.
- Information received from Robert Lynley.
- TeBrake, William H.; Peters, Edward, ser. ed. A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (Middle Ages Series) (Philadelphia, 1993), p. 45.
- Lloyd, T.H. The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages (Cambridge; London; New York; Melbourne, 1977), p. 114.
- TeBrake, William H.; Peters, Edward, ser. ed. A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (Middle Ages Series) (Philadelphia, 1993), p. 48.
- TeBrake, William H.; Peters, Edward, ser. ed. A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323-1328 (Middle Ages Series) (Philadelphia, 1993), pp. 84-86, 97, 98; quote from p. 108.
- Glay, Edward le. Histoire des Comtes de Flandres jusqu'a l'Avenement de la Maison de Bourgogne (Paris, 1843); see vol. II, pp. 354-392.
- Glay, Edward le. Histoire des Comtes de Flandres jusqu'a l'Avenement de la Maison de Bourgogne (Paris, 1843); see vol. II, p. 392.
- Wikipedia: Jacob can Artefelde.
- Wikipedia: Louis I, Count of Flanders.
- Wikipedia: Louis II, Count of Flanders.
- Wikipedia: Louis II, Count of Flanders; Wikipedia: Ath.