By Bill Miller
Like most kids in my childhood, I loved the story of Robin Hood and his merry men, Sherwood Forest and the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham. When I got my first bow and arrow I felt like I was Much, the Miller’s son. When I heard him described as “a stout and slightly stupid fellow,” I became either Friar Tuck or Little John. Robin Hood was my childhood hero. The front door on our present home is actually from Nottingham, England.
So, when we got to visit our friends at their new home in Nottingham I was excited. The very first thing I wanted to do was visit Sherwood Forest. Some of it is still there, and Robin Hood is still remembered there. A lot of very big, old oak trees, including the huge Major Oak in which “Robin and his Merrie Men may have hidden,” are still there. The only merry people we saw looked a lot like us, with Robin Hood hats on. So, we borrowed some hats and joined them in a search for Robin or the Sheriff.
In the process we learned a few things about Robin and the mean and greedy Sheriff. The earliest references to Robin Hood date to about 1250. By 1300 Robin Hood had achieved such fame throughout the region that other outlaws were starting to be named after him. “Robinhood” was becoming a general nickname for outlaws of the time. In fact, the word “hood” is still used today to mean an outlaw or gangster. Given the plight of most people in 13th-century England, it is not surprising that a people’s hero who fought Norman authority would become a celebrated figure of folklore and held up as a champion of the poor. That’s probably why he was my hero, he helped the poor and we were just recovering from the Great depression. There are not many champions of the poor, then or now, so I still cheer for Robin Hood.
On the other hand, there is that no-good Sheriff of Nottingham. We learned that he was really called “Shire-Reeve.” A “shire” is a county (like Nottinghamshire) and a “reeve” is an agent of the King who was responsible for keeping the King’s peace and collecting the King’s taxes. Later they shortened it to Sheriff, but the responsibilities are still much the same. The sheriff had responsibility for a lot of property, made a lot of money for the king, and himself, and had some authority over people’s lives. He was not well liked.
With all this new knowledge, we eventually returned home to pour over all the family tree data we had found in England. Within a few weeks I was shocked to discover that the nasty, old High Sheriff of Nottingham was none other than my 19th great-grandfather, Sir Ralph Shirley! Or was it his son, Ralph, or his great-grandson, Ralph, both of whom later served as High Sheriff of Nottingham?
It is one thing when Batman takes on Superman, because it is just make-believe, but it is something else when your own great-grandpa takes on your super hero! Grandpa Ralph vs Robin Hood! Can it possibly be true? It could be.
My first Ralph Shirley great-grandfather, born about 1258, was knighted by and became Cup Bearer to King Edward II. That gave him the dubious honor of drinking the king’s beverages first, to make sure they were not poisoned. Talk about having a job that can kill you, he had one, but he survived it. His close, confidential relationship with King Edward gave him a position of great influence and in a good position for promotion. In 1278 he was appointed High Sheriff of Nottingham and Derbyshire. High Sheriff is the oldest secular office of the Crown, established by the Normans in 1068. Sir Ralph was certainly in the right position to fight with Robin Hood, if there was a Robin Hood. In 1301 he was called to fight beside the King against the Scots at Berwick on Tweed. Later he served in two Parliaments.
Years later, the same office of High Sheriff of Nottingham was bestowed on his son, Sir Ralph, and his great-grandson, Sir Ralph, knighted by Henry V. That creates a problem in the family tree. Which one of these great-grandfathers was the scoundrel that hunted down my hero, Robin Hood? All he was doing was stealing the King’s money, living in the King’s forest and eating the King’s deer, and all for the benevolent cause of helping the rural poor. Whichever Ralph it was, I do not like him! I still like the guy in tights with the bow and arrow.
If you have found a great-grandparent or some other ancestor whom you do not like, or one that you really do like, you can talk about it at Lake Lure Genealogy Club, meeting the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 3:00 in Mountains Branch Library.