The Sheriff of Nottingham
THE SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM
All of Nottingham's sheriffs appear to have been 'hard' men and those in court at Nottingham who took part in the Peasants Revolt were all either heavily fined or outlawed. Incidentally the sheriff of Nottingham at the time, John de Oxford, was one of the worst criminals ever. He stole wheat, barley, oats, malt and 200 large oxen which he sold back to their owners for his own profit. The Archbishop of Canterbury at this time, Simon Sudbury was one of the most unpopular men ever and when he became chancellor he imposed a tax of three groats (one shilling) on every man and woman over the age of the fifteen. This was three times higher than previously and the rich only had to pay the same as the poorest peasant. Taking all this into account it is hardly surprising Robin Hood told his men to do no harm to the ploughmen who tills the soil, the yeoman, and the knight and squire but to beware of the bishops, arch-bishops and the sheriff of Nottingham. The Geste of Robin Hood was written within living memory of the Peasants Revolt and William Langland who wrote Piers Plowman which gives us the first literary mention of Robin Hood was written at the time of the Peasants Revolt.
King John's sheriffs were tough men who were chosen for their powerful personalities, strong spirits, and cruel behaviour. They excelled as military men and fighters and their task as his administrators and governors was to keep the populace in order and to raise taxes. King John knew personally every one of the hundred or so sheriffs he appointed, some of whom were his intimate friends and most trusted advisors and were carefully chosen for the merciless job they did. The Sheriff of Nottingham was particularly disliked and along with King John his equally merciless master they governed the midland and northern counties with an iron hand. An example of their wickedness was when King John ordered twenty-eight young Welsh boys who were held hostage in Nottingham castle to be hanged from the castle walls.
To recover his lost territories in Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Touraine King John set about funding an army with money partly raised by his northern sheriffs to whom he gave extra powers by making them royal officials answerable to the treasury. He removed many of his old sheriff’s and transferred others to different counties replacing them with men who he knew would carry out his orders. Among King John’s ‘new wave’ of mercenary captains were Philip Marc, Robert de Vieuxpont, Hubert de Burgh, Philip Oldcoates and Brian de Lisle. Robert de Vieuxpont was a displaced soldier from Southern France, who now became custodian of the honour of Peverell, the honour of Higham Ferrers and Tickhill and Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Brian de Lisle became castellan of Knaresborough in 1205, Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1206 and between 1208-9 was deputy Chief Forester of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, he was also custodian of Bolsover Castle, the Wapentakes of the High Peak, Laxton and North Wheatley and later succeeded Robert de Vieuxpont in charge of the Archbishopric of York and the honour of Peverell, becoming Justice of the Forest in the 1220’s. In 1207 Hugh de Neville became Exchequer of the Sherwood Forest and by 1209 the administration established by King John in the northern counties differed so completely from the normally accepted operations of government that it became unrecognisable amounting as it did to a virtual dictatorship.
In addition to raising money for his adventures abroad the sheriffs were also expected to clamp down on any hint of baronial rebellion, this while King John was giving shires, castles and forest wardenships to his own people much to the annoyance of local established families who had a long tradition of service to the crown. Royal Officers had always been feared but these foreign newcomers were hated by the northern baronage with a passion, due partly to the fact they had been dispossessed of much of their lands, which meant not only the loss of lands but the revenue from them added to which the revenue on the property they still possessed went not to them but into the coffers of King John. Adding insult to injury many of the barons had paid scutage in order to be exempted from these expeditions abroad but that mattered little to King John who ordered that hostages be taken to insure their participation. Walter de Lacy had to give four hostages who were entrusted to Engelard and another hostage was William, of Monmouth. In 1214-15 the Barons were so dissatisfied with King John they threatened war against him and this led to the Magna Carta of 1215.
Few of these foreign sheriff interlopers were more hated than the clan of Gerard d’Athee, Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire between 1208-9 with his notorious distant cousin, Philip Marc as his understudy, this being a position the two men seemed to relish. Philip Marc was castellan of Nottingham in 1209 having custody of Sherwood Forest and holding the office as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire between 1209-1224. He was presented by King John with the Township and Advowson of Bulwell and Keeper of the Hays or Parks of Notts., one of which was Bestwood, and another Bulwell Wood. His conduct as Professor Holt informs us included ‘robbery, false arrest, unjust disseisin (wrongful dispossession) and persistent attacks on local landed interests, both secular and ecclesiastical.’ He had the reputation of someone who would carry out the wicked directions of King John and in 1207 he extorted on the orders of King John £100.00 pounds from "the three men of Newark," and others. The men of Lexington also had to give "the Lord the King £100.00 to have the King's peace, and to spare their town from being burnt to the ground." As late as 1263 it was discovered that Philip Marc had accepted an annual fee of £5 from the burgesses of Nottingham in return for his ‘good will and the maintenance of their liberties.’ Not only that but the Exchequer were considering the ‘profit’ made by the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, which should have been paid six years earlier but luckily for him Marc avoided answering any awkward questions because England was on the brink of civil war.
Robert Fit Walter and Fulk Fitzwarin then joined the Baronial rebellion that resulted in Magna Carta on June 15th 1215 and so entirely hated was Philip Marc that in the famous Magna Charta the nobles put in a clause which they required the King to sign:—Item 50. “We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard d’Athee [he had died in 1213] namely Engelard de Ligogne, Peter and Guy and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guyde Gigogne, Geoffrey de Mortigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers and his nephew, Geoffrey together and their whole retinue, so that henceforth they shall have no office in England.”
On November 12, 1216 the Magna Carta was re-issued in Bristol with the approval of Pope Honorius III and paragraph 50, pertaining to the kin of Gerard, was removed entirely from the Magna Carta. Philip Marc continued as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and Constable of Nottingham Castle and also in one of his last acts before he died, John made Nicolaa and Philip Marc, castellan and joint Sheriff’s of Lincolnshire.
Brian de Lisle was made Chief Forester of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and together with Robert de Vieuxpont the two men were sent with special powers to negotiate the surrender of the rebel barons in the north and midlands. This must have ‘rubbed salt into the wounds’ of many people causing them to have a grievance against the sheriffs of Nottingham for many years to come. Robert de Vieuxpont was Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, Brian de Lisle was Sheriff of Yorkshire, and the despised Philip Marc was the sheriff of Nottingham and joint sheriff of Yorkshire alongside Robert-Le-Waleys of Yorkshire’s Pontefract Castle. All of which may well explain the Sheriff of Nottingham’s inclusion in the ballads of Robin Hood.
As the rhyme says: -
‘Lye thou there, thou proude sherife,
Evyll mote thou cheve: (evilly must you end)
There might no man to the truste
The whyles thou were a lyve.’ (while ever you live)