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Myths and Legends of Sherwood forest

The popular tales of Robin Hood’s adventures in Sherwood Forest are the heart and soul of the most famous legend in English folklore. However, the Forest also has some interesting myths and legends of its own and BOB WHITE, Chairman of the World Wide Robin Hood Society, takes a closer look at some of the fascinating facts and superstitions that surround Sherwood Forest and its ancient oaks.

Many people wrongly assume that the world famous Major Oak in Sherwood Forest got its name because it was the biggest and most dominant tree in the forest. The truth is that it was actually named after a Major Hayman Rooke, who, on retirement from the army, moved to the area and developed a friendship with the Duke of Portland. He became very interested in the wooded landscape of the Sherwood and Welbeck estates and their spectacular trees and in 1799 he published his “Sketch of the Ancient and Present State of Sherwood Forest”. Upon his death in 1806, as a mark of respect for the interest he had shown, the formerly known Cockpen Tree ( so called because its hollow trunk had been used to rear and keep fighting cocks), was re-named “the Major’s Oak” in Rooke’s honour.

The tree is reputed to have “wintered for over 1000 years” and some claim that its hollow trunk may even have provided shelter for Robin Hood and his men, when hiding from the Sheriff of Nottingham! A pre-First World War travel guide to the Sherwood Forest area states that ”at the height of five feet, the gnarled and weather-beaten trunk measures thirty feet in circumference and its monster branches cover a straight line of two hundred and forty feet – or a circumference of nearly two hundred and seventy yards! The trunk is quite hollow to a height of over fifteen feet, accessed through a fissure and affords standing room for a dozen persons.”In fact one historian of the time recorded that “seven persons had breakfasted together within the space and sixteen had been known to squeeze themselves within the wooden walls.”

Contemporary examination by present day botanists and tree specialists estimate that the Major Oak is most likely to actually be only 800 - 1000 years old – making it little more than an acorn at the time of Robin Hood’s supposed existence! However, just like today, visitors paid no attention to such “spoil sport” findings and Victorian and Edwardian travellers liked nothing better than to wander through Sherwood Forest’s atmospheric woodland glades and re-live the Robin Hood legend in their imagination. These romantic experiences were eloquently recorded by such notable literary figures as the American writer, Washington Irving, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, who wrote; “As I gazed about me upon those vestiges of once “Merrie Sherwood”, the picturing of my boyish fancy began to rise in my mind and Robin Hood and his men to stand before me. The horn of Robin Hood again seemed to resound through the forest. I saw in this sylvan scenery half huntsmen, half freebooters, trooping across the distant glades or feasting and revelling beneath the trees.”

Local author and historian, William Howitt (born at Heanor in 1792) was also captivated by the splendour of Sherwood Forest and wrote:”A thousand years, ten thousand tempests, lightnings, winds and wintry violence have all flung their utmost force on these trees and there they stand, trunk after trunk, scathed, hollow, grey, gnarled; stretching out their bare, sturdy arms or their mingled foliage and ruin – a life in death. All is grey and old. The ground is grey beneath. The trees are grey with clinging lichens and the heather and ferns that spring up beneath have a character of the past. You stand and look around and in the height of summer all is silent; it is like the fragment of a world worn out and forsaken. These were the trees under which King John pursued the red deer. These were the oaks under which Robin Hood led up his bold band of outlaws. These are the oaks which have stood while king after king have resigned, while countries have flourished and decayed, dynasties have come and gone, while revolution after revolution and war after war have devastated and changed the face of the world. Amid all these vast changes, these mighty forest trees have been growing in grandeur and maturing in age until now, as we behold them they present a spectacle majestic almost beyond conception.”

Several of Sherwood’s ancient oaks have their own legendary tales, such as the Parliament Oak, which was situated about 2 miles from Clipstone. The tree acquired its name after Edward I apparently held a parliament beneath its branches in 1290. King John is also believed to have summoned a council of his barons under this tree to convince them to sanction the immediate execution of 28 Welsh hostages (mostly children) who were imprisoned at Nottingham Castle. In fact, the king personally rode over to Nottingham to see that his brutal command was satisfactorily obeyed, then returned to Clipstone to continue his hunting! Sadly, over the centuries the trunk of this historic tree gradually decayed, leaving the pieces to rot on the forest floor!

Robin Hood’s Larder was the name given to another of Sherwood’s old oaks where tradition claims that the famous outlaw used to hang haunches of venison from its branches. Having survived being set on fire many years ago, its charred and hollow trunk were eventually blown down in a fierce gale in 1962! Half a mile from Welbeck Abbey once stood the Greendale Oak, a giant of a tree with a girth that measured some forty feet around its base and in 1724 a coach road was made through the oak by creating an opening six foot three inches wide and ten foot three inches high. The traditional story says that the “archway” through the tree resulted from an after-dinner bet by Henry, the first Duke of Portland, who boasted that there was a tree in his park through which he could drive a coach and four and in 1727, artist George Vertue made an etching that depicted a carriage of that period, with six horses, being driven through the tree!

Quite apart from the sheer size and age of the ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest, oak trees in general were regarded in forest folklore as traditionally possessing mystical powers of prophecy and healing. The most famous oak ”oracle tree”, known for its ability to foretell the future, grew at Dodona in north-west Greece and was believed to have been sacred to Zeus. Legend says that a branch from the tree was incorporated in the construction of the Argo, the vessel sailed in by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece and warnings from the branch kept the crew safe during their journey.

Ancient beliefs often maintained that trees were inhabited by gods and oaks were known as “thunder-trees”, once sacred to the Norse god, Thor and were thought to protect against lightning and thunderbolts! Anyone sheltering under its branches during a storm was considered to be safe. Oak leaves were also worn to protect against witchcraft and evil and some country superstitions believe that when an oak tree is felled it gives a kind of shriek and groan that may be heard a mile off! To carry an acorn around as a charm helped preserve youthfulness and if an oak was struck by lightning the wood was said to gain additional protective powers, so folk would keep pieces inside their dwellings to prevent their homes suffering from a similar misfortune.