Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Andrew McCann, © Copyright 2002

Little John

The Companion of Robin Hood

(A Tradition of Hathersage)

BEFORE giving the few interesting particulars of this story, it may be not much out of place to notice, briefly, one or two other incidents and novelties in connection with the far famed place of Little John's death and burial. Hathersage is the Hereseige of the Norman Survey, or Doomsday Book: Heather-Edge is the true meaning of the word, although written differently.[1]

Eastward of the village there are some interesting relics or remains of the aborigines of this island: these remains of a long-forgotten age, are sometimes denominated Caels' Wark; at other times, and by more intelligent persons, Hu Cair - the place or city of the Gods.

Above the Church there is a very remarkable vestige of a Roman encampment, now known as Camp Green, which place is described in Volume First, Munimenta Antiqua, as a circular area, 144 feet in diameter, encompassed with a mound of earth, surrounded by a deep ditch.

In the churchyard of this village a very singular phenomenon was witnessed on opening a grave for the interment of a female, May 31, 1781:- the body of Mr. Benjamin Ashton, who was buried on the 29th December, 1725, was taken up, congealed and hard as flint. His breast, belly, and face were nearly the same colour as when he was interred. The coffin was made of oak, one inch and a-half thick, and was quite as sound as when first put into the grave, which was so extremely wet that men were employed to lade out the water, that the coffin might be kept from floating till the body was returned to it.

The face was partly decayed, conveying an idea that the putrefactive process had commenced previous to that which hardened the flesh into stone. The head was broken off in removing the body from the coffin, but was placed in its first position when again interred. Mr. Ashton was a corpulent man, who died in the 42nd year of his age.[2]

This extraordinary circumstance may afford some excuse for making a rather unpardonable digression, to introduce a somewhat similar phenomenon. The moors between Hope and Hathersage hold out an extraordinary instance of the preservation of human bodies in-terred in them. - One Barber, a grazier, and his maid servant going to Ireland in the year 1764, were lost in the snow, and remained covered with it from January to May. Being then in such a state that the coroner ordered them to be buried where they were found.

About twenty years afterwards, some people in the district knowing the properties of the soil in preserving dead bodies, had the curiosity to open the ground, and found them in no way altered; the colour of the skin being fair and natural, and their flesh as soft as that of persons newly dead. They were exposed for a sight, during the twenty years following, though they were much changed in that time, by being uncovered so often.

In 1716, Mr. Henry Brown, M.D., of Chesterfield, saw the man perfect - his beard strong and about a quarter of an inch long: the hair of his headshort - his skin hard and of a tanned leather colour, pretty much the same as the liquor and earth they lay in. He had on a broad cloth coat, of which the doctor, in vain, tried to tear off a skirt. The woman was more decayed, having been taken out of the ground and rudely handled; her flesh particularly decayed - her hair long and spongy, like that of a living person.

Mr. Barber, of Rotherham, the man's grandson, had both bodies exhumed, in the presence of the Rev. Mr. Wermald, the then Vicar of Hope, who observed, at their removal, that they lay about a yard deep in moist soil, or moss, but no water stood in the place. He saw their stockings drawn off, and the man's legs, which had been, uncovered before, were quite fair - the flesh when pressed pulped a little, and the joints played freely, and without stiffness; the other parts were much decayed. What was left of their clothes, not cut off for curiosity, was firm and good, and the woman had a new serge, which seemed no worse. The bodies were both buried in Hope church, and on some persons looking into their graves some time afterwards, they found them to be entirely decayed.[3]

Of all circumstances connected with Hathersage, there is no one of such an interesting import and general belief that the famous Little John died and was buried in this time-honoured village.

To offer a modest doubt of this legendary statement would be, to the inhabitants, an egregious affront; to deny it in toto would place an individual in the same position as Bishop Berkley, of whom Byron says, “he had a head denied he wore it”.

“When Bishop Berkley said there was no matter, it was no matter what he said,”&c.,

The writer of these Tales and Traditions offers no opinion of his own on this head, but merely gives the particulars of the subject as he finds them handed down and expressed, orally or otherwise; still, he is quite aware, that a very many other places claim the honour and distinction of having the bones or rather the ashes of Little John. One distinguished writer says that even Robin Hood was not a veritable character; that he was only a slight transformation of the myth - Robin i 'th' Wood; if so (which is scarcely possible), it would be useless to wrangle about Little John's sepulchre.

It is said that Little John, whose generally supposed name was John the Nailor, was, with many others from the Midland Counties, at the battle of Evesham, which was fought in August, A.D. 1265; he was in the ranks of the rebellious barons under Simon de Montfort, who were utterly defeated, and those who escaped were outlawed, and were compelled to seek shelter and safety in the fastnesses of dense forests.

Hence commenced his friendship with Robin Hood, who, according to tradition, was a native of Loxley, near Sheffield, and who had also been at Evesham under Montfort.

The numerous exploits of this band of forest outlaws, headed by Robin Hood and Little John, are matters of great notoriety, What youth has not pondered with pleasure over the daring deeds of these two forest-kings? What heart has not swelled with joy in perusing the numberless instances of their indomitable courage - their fearlessness of every danger? “They were,” as an eminent writer says, “masters, in the virtual sense of the word, of all the country between the Trent and the Calder.”

Robin Hood died at length, at the good old age of eighty; he was, according to his own especial request, buried by his beloved companion, Little John, in Kirkless Park, Yorkshire, with “his bow in his hand, and a green sod under his head - another under his feet”. How did his surviving friend and companion bear up against this stroke? The sun of his admiration, friendship, and love, had set to rise no more, and, as all must imagine and feel, he sorrowed and wept. To him the once favourite haunts had lost every charm: the towering oak, the winding glade, the forest well, all spoke of his loneliness and misery, and now he felt the weary load of life.

At this juncture Little John resolved to return to Derbyshire, where he was born; and it is said that on beholding the vale of Hathersage, from the top of a hill eastward, he exclaimed that he was approaching the very place where he should die; and that on reaching the village he entered a cottage beside the Church and soon after breathed his last.

Such is the generally received traditional, but very meagre account, of the death of Little John. Of his interment in Hathersage churchyard there would be little doubt, provided there were none of his dying in that village: both are matters of probability, and unquestioned tradition there is to boot: and ill addition, or in support of the matter, there is Little John's cap and bow.[4] It is stated that the cap remained in the church hanging by a chain until a much later period than the bow. It was made of green cloth, and is said to have been taken to Cannon Hall, near Barnsley.

In the year 1784 the grave was examined at a greater depth than it had been before; and a thigh bone thirty inches long was disinterred. It was afterwards reinterred, but was some years afterwards re-exhumed, and carried away by the same person and to the same place where the cap went to. Of all the statements in connection with this tradition, the most difficult to entertain is that the house pointed out should or could be the unrebuilt one in which Little John died. It is near 600 years since the battle of Evesham, and it requires a stretch of imagination to believe that this identical building existed then or soon after. Such is highly improbable; still one failing point does not invalidate the probable truth of the tradition of Little John dying and being buried at Hathersage; a matter or point believed in by a many successive generations of the inhabitants of that ancient village.

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Notes
[1] The Norman scribes wrote the names of a very many places quite different to what they were written in the time of Edward the Confessor. Their orthography was more in accordance to sound than sense or meaning.
[2] Munimenta Antiqua, Vol. I.
[3] Gough's Additions to the Britannia.
[4] Two stones, near four yards apart, mark the supposed grave of Little John.

Transcribed by Andrew McCann in February 2002

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