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            Little John

Johanas Littel,  John Le Litel, John Littel, John Little, Littel John, Little John all names synonymous with the legendary figure. As for his birthplace,Robin and Little John the Geste places this in Holderness, East Riding of Yorkshire/Humberside. Some suggest he was the son of  William de Faucumberg of Catfoss manor in Holderness.
Local tradition at Hathersage in Derbyshire says that Little John retired and was buried here in the churchyard. No other place has claimed this, although the same could not be said for his commander.
Eliza Ashmole writing in the late 1600's first recorded that Little John's bow hung in the church chancel and that he was buried at Hathersage with a stone set at each end with a large distance between.
In 1784 the local church vicar, Charles Spencer-Stanhope (d.1874) wrote that the squires brother, William Shuttleworth hung a thigh bone, reputedly from Little John's grave in his room. However as it was thought to be bringing poor fortune to its owner, it was ordered to be reburied by his clerk. But the clerk kept the labelled bone in his window as a curio.
When the father of Charles Spencer-Stanhope (Walter Spencer-Stanhope of Cannon Hall and Horsforth Hall 1749-1821) and Sir George Strickland were visiting Hathersage, Strickland* is reported to have "run away with it" and it has never been recovered.

It was William or James Shuttleworth who in 1784 had the grave body exhumed, the thigh bone was measured at 291/2 inches by the woodsman Mr. Hinchcliffe.

The then president of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, J.W. Walker in 1944 reported that:

By Robert Ashton’s will, dated 24 August, 1683, his estate was bequeathed to his five sons and one  daughter, each receiving a specified legacy. Benjamin Ashton, the  third son, inherited the estate of Hathersage. He left one son Benjamin and two daughters, Christiana and Alicia Maria, the latter of whom married Charles, son and heir of Thomas Bagshaw of Bakewell. 
The younger Benjamin died in 1725 without issue; he left one half of his estate to his nephew Thomas Bagshaw, son of his sister  Alicia Maria; the Hathersage estate was bequeathed to his sister  Christiana, the wife of William Spencer of Cannon Hall, near Barnsley, from whom it passed to James the eldest son of their daughter Christiana, the wife of Captain William Shuttleworth, who succeeded to the Hathersage estate in 1780. Four years later James Shuttleworth caused the grave of Little John in Hathersage Churchyard (which was marked by two stones, thirteen feet four inches apart, one at the head the other at the foot, on the south  side of the church near the porch, each lettered J.L.), to be opened when there was exhumed at a depth of six feet from the surface a thigh bone 28J inches long, which was ordered to be reburied; but the sexton kept it at his own house and exhibited it to strangers at a charge of 6d. a head. Later William Spencer was passing through Hathersage in company with Sir William Strickland (then Mr. Strickland), when the latter, to the dismay of the sexton, carried off the bone, and caused it to be buried under a tree at 
his own home at Boynton. [Kindly communicated to me by John Montagu Spencer-Stanhope, Esquire.] 

 

                             
Little John’s cuirass of chain mail, his bow and arrows hung for many years in the chancel of Hathersage church, but were removed by William Spencer, when he became possessed of Hathersage in 1729, to Cannon Hall for better security. Unfortunately during the alterations to Cannon Hall by the architect, John Carr, in 1778 for the reception of Walter Spencer Stanhope’s bride, Winifred Pulleine, the cuirass disappeared, and has never since been traced.' 

I have examined the bow which is made of spliced yew, about six feet in length, though the ends where the horn tips were attached are broken off. It required a power of 160 pounds to draw the bow to its full extent. Only 60 pounds is the power used by men now at archery meetings. Carved on the bow is the date 1715 and the name of Col. Naylor, who in that year strung the bow and shot a stag with it.  It has never been strung since.
1 

The grave was reported to be two stones 13 feet apart which were erected by the Ancient Order of Foresters in 1929. The reputed bow of Little John hung on the walls of Hathersage church until 1729. From here it was taken by the Spencer-Stanhope family caput,  Cannon Hall in Cawthorne. Here it remained until the early 1950's. The bow was hung below the minstrel gallery in the Cannon Hall ballroom [built 1891]. The bow that was personally observed in the early 1950's hanging in the ballroom was more like a recurved heavy, thick bow, one end broken and with the other end tipped with a horn. It looked nothing like the bow shown in the photograph [below] taken in the grounds of Cannon Hall during the inter-war period,. This purportedly shows 'Little John's bow', a six foot long, thin, tapering weapon, held by an archaeologist, H.C. Haldane of Clarke, Hall near Wakefield.

                                                                                                      ...H C Haldane with 'Little John's Bow outside Cannon Hall

 

                                                           The bow in this photograph above looks similar to the one housed in the Cawthorne Museum today.

                                                                       .Bow in Cawthorne Museum

 The bow could now be scientifically dated if a portion were to be sacrificed for carbon-dating. The Stone of Scone was removed from Scotland by Edward I and has been returned.

 

                                                                                         A bawdy gathering in an English hall, complete with minstrel gallery

Will the bow of Little John be returned to the people of England?!

Recent research has shown that the man who inspired the author of the Geste to include the character 'Little John' was not necessarily named in the ballad from his height or lack of it. The author of the Geste has been far more cryptic than this. In fact if we look at the Geste as a cryptic political song rather than a 'ballad'  it would serve us well. In the case of Hathersage, speculation based upon a folk-tale has become a factoid. However, I have found that the man who was immortalised as 'Little John' was a forester whilst there is a link to Hathersage and another 'merry man' who has yet to be announced.

                                           

ANCIENT ORDER OF FORESTERS

                                                                                                                 
'Little John' was a forester but whether he was buried at Hathersage has yet to be substantiated

Hime Home                                                      

1. J.W. Walker, Y.A.J., vol. 36, (1944), pp. 44-45.

* Charles Spencer-Stanhopes younger brother Phillip married Mary Harrison in 1861, she had previously been married to Edward Strickland, Sir Georges son.
See: Spencer-Stanhope page

Copyright © Tim Midgley 2000, revised 23rd April 2018.

 

Robin Hood search for the Truth | Robin Hood Places | Hood surname statistics | Robin Hood of Wakefield | Robert Hood of Newton | The Pinder of Wakefield Marian | Friars | Loxley and 'Huntington' | Myriads of Robin Hoods | Ballads of Robin Hood | Kirklees | The Armytages of Kirklees | Little John | Roger De Doncaster | The Penurious Knyght | Our Comly King  | Shire Reeve | Priory of Kirklees | Wakefield Rolls | Saylis of the Geste- a new site | Robert III Butler of Skelbrooke | Barnsdale and the Geste | De Lacis of PontefractAlice De Laci and John of GauntBarnsdale Gallery | Stephen II Le Waleys a suspected compiler of the Geste