The poem Piers Plowman by William Langland of 1377 contains the earliest known literary reference to Robin Hood:

‘I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster
as the preest it singeth
but I kan rhymes of Robyn hood and
Randolf Earl of Chestre’

Translates to:

‘I do not know my Paternoster
perfectly as the priest sings it,
but I know rhymes of Robin Hood
and Randolf Earl of Chester.’

An excerpt from Piers Ploughman by William Langland

Picture: An excerpt from Piers Ploughman by William Langland

Clearly in the fourteenth century Randolf or Ranulf as he was then known rivaled Robin Hood for the fame of his exploits…

So who was the mysterious Ranulf Earl of Chester and how did he fit in to the story of Sherwood Forest?

There are a number of Ranulfs who held the title of Earl of Chester.

Ranulf le Meschin, 3rd Earl of Chester
Ranulf II (also known as Ranulf de Gernon), 4th Earl of Chester
Ranulf III (also known as Runulf de Blondeville), 6th Earl of Chester and 1st Earl of Lincoln

Ranulf III is the character most readily identified with the Ranulf mentioned in the Landland poem, important as he was in the reigns of Richard I and King John.

However, this story focuses on his grandfather Ranulf II, and suggests that his life my in fact have made him suitable as a likely candidate…

He was Ranulf II (de Gernon) the Fourth Earl of Chester descended from the Counts of Bayeux. His exploits in the anarchy of the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda (1135-1154 see medieval kings part 1 entry) made him famous enough at the time to rank alongside Robin Hood... this link on its own makes him important here... he was also involved in the affairs of the forest itself... but it was through his death that he would most affect the story of Sherwood Forest.

Ranulf II, 4th Earl of Chester

Picture: Ranulf II (also known as Ranulf de Gernon), 4th Earl of Chester

He fought initially against King Stephen for the empress Matilda after his lands in the north were granted to King David I of Scotland as part of a truce signed between David and King Stephen.

Ranulf took Lincoln Castle against Stephen, but he was forced to flee when Stephen retook the castle almost immediately.

He joined forces with Robert Earl of Gloucester the half brother of the Empress Matilda and Lincoln was recaptured and Stephen forced to surrender.

This victory at the battle of Lincoln put Matilda on the throne. She was never officially crowned and so the first female monarch of England is never usually listed as such.

King David of Scotland had been allied to Matilda since 1141 and so following a further aborted attempt by Stephen at taking Lincoln from Ranulf- the Earl switched sides.

For Ranulf fighting to get his land back from Scotland was more important than any loyalty to others!

Fear of deceit however by many supporters of King Stephen including William Peverel the younger (keeper of Nottingham Castle) resulted in Ranulf being held prisoner by Stephen on charges of Treason.

He was held in chains (literally smothered beneath heavy coils of metal chain) until his release could be secured.

He broke the terms of his release and went on the rampage attacking Lincoln once more.

In 1149 he resolved his territorial problems with David of Scotland through a meeting between them and Matilda's son Prince Henry of Anjou (the future Henry II).

He was now back on the side of the Angevins (Matilda, her husband Geoffrey Plantaganet, and their son Henry of Anjou. Henry would become King Henry II and he and his sons were known as the Angevin Kings- they were the Dukes of Anjou).

The anarchy ended with the surrender of Stephen and the acceptance of Matilda's son Henry as Stephens’s heir (see medieval kings part 1, the Normans: 1066-1154 story for more).

The story does not end there however.

During the time Ranulf was fighting for the Angevins- Prince Henry gave him the fee of Robert De Caux- Hereditary keeper of the Forest of Sherwood (more on the Keepers of Sherwood Forest soon)- in an abortive grant known as the 'Treaty of Devises' (Crook 1980)

Robert De Caux was a supporter of King Stephen's cause along with William Peverel the younger (son or grandson of William Peverel who had built Nottingham Castle on the orders of William the conqueror in 1087).

William Peverel maintained King Stephens cause against Ranulf in Nottinghamshire.

It seems that Ranulf was attempting during this time to seize control of the keepership of Sherwood Forest and others in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire by gaining the De Caux barony for himself! (Crook 1980)

Ultimately this failed! But he was very much involved in the destiny of the forest and its inhabitants at the time!

In 1153 Ranulf was poisoned by William Peverel the younger along with a number of his retainers...

As stated William Peverel the younger was a supporter of King Stephen.

As a result he was stripped of his lands and exiled by Henry II after his succession in 1154, for this treachery in the killing of Ranulf.

When Henry II marched on Nottingham, William Peverel fled- possibly being tonsured and admitted into the priory at Lenton (founded by his grandfather) as refuge.

William's lands: 'The honour of Peverel' a collection of vast landholdings centred on the south and western sides of Nottinghamshire fell into crown hands.

This would have an impact on the boundaries of Medieval Sherwood Forest which were extended over these lands in the reign of Henry II, Richard I and King John.

It would be interesting if it were this Ranulf who was linked through the poem Piers Plowman to the legend of Robin Hood, should have had such a direct link to Sherwood Forest with his attempts to gain the keepership, and through his death to one of the most important acts in Medieval Sherwood Forest...

The demise of the Hounour of Peverel and the possession of these lands by the crown would be a seminal moment in the history of Sherwood Forest.

The expansion of Forest Law under the reign of the Angevin Kings over these lands would add to the grounds for discontent over the forests nationally that would ultimately result in the declaration of the Charter of the Forest in 1217.

(Andy Gaunt, first published 05/11/2011)

Click here for more ‘Stories from the Forest’…

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