STOP PRESS: My book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” has now been published by CFZ Press. It examines the history and legend surrounding Robin Hood’s grave at Kirklees in great depth. More information can be found here and the book can be purchased by clicking here.
Sited in a hollow between Hartshead Moor and the River Calder and adjacent to the M62 yet seemingly entirely isolated from the clamour of modern life, Kirklees Park is a delightfully rural oasis amidst the jumble of housing and industry crammed into this tract of the Calder Valley. The Park is the estate of Kirklees Hall, constructed in 1610 and home to the Armytage family until the death of Sir John in 1983 when it was sold and after many unsuccessful ventures along with much legal wrangling, finally converted into residential apartments in 1999. His widow Lady Armytage continued living on the estate until her death in 2008, in a grotesquely inappropriate modern bungalow which still sits like a carbuncle amidst the meadows and ancient buildings.
The site was originally a Roman encampment but it is in the medieval period that its history really begins. The name Kirklees (the Park still stands in Calderdale despite lending its title to a more nebulous neighbouring municipality) derives from the Old English words “kirk” and “lees” meaning “church by the clearing”. The Priory was founded on the site by Reyner le Flemyng, a local lord of the manor, in 1135 and housed between eight and twenty nuns until like all such institutions it was abandoned in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was to supply the priory that a farm was originally built on the site and it is primarily as a farm that the estate is still worked today. However, elements of its ecclesiastic history can still be seen, including the 14th Century grave of the prioress Elizabeth de Staynton and the early 16th Century timber-frame gatehouse.
However, even in its heyday, the Priory was not always the most sanctified environment. In 1315, the Archbishop of York heard that “There are scandalous reports in circulation about the nuns of Kirklees, and especially about Elizabeth de Hopton, Alice de Raggede, and Joan de Heton, that they did admit both clergy and laymen too often into the secret places of the monastery, and have private talks with them, from which there is a suspicion of sin, and great scandal arises.” And indeed, over the centuries, Kirklees Park has repeatedly been the focus of suspicion and scandal, with a great deal of that controversy centred on its most famous and yet perversely neglected asset, the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, a place forbidden to visitors for half a century now at least and so still a source of great intrigue.
The story of the death of legendary outlaw Robin Hood is found in the 15th Century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hode His Death, part of the fragmentary 17th Century Percy Folio. These sources tell how in his dotage Robin travels from his habitual haunt of Sherwood to Kirklees Priory – where the prioress is his cousin – to be bled, a common medieval procedure for the treatment of all manner of ailments, accompanied by his faithful comrade Little John (who one of the ballads asserts Robin had originally met at “Clifton-under-Calder”). On the road they are stopped by an old hag by some black water who curses Robin, although the details of the curse are obscure because the manuscript is damaged at this point, but it is nonetheless a classic mythological harbinger of the tragedy about to unfold.
Upon their arrival at Kirklees, Robin is installed in the gatehouse, the only part of Priory in which a man could’ve been received and the bleeding goes ahead. However, his cousin the Prioress and her lover Red Roger of Doncaster conspire against the outlaw for reasons which are never entirely made clear and proceed to drain his blood to such an extent that his life ebbs away. With the assistance of Little John, Robin makes it to the gatehouse window and with the last of his strength fires an arrow, commanding that he should be buried where the arrow falls. He also commands John not to harm any of the inhabitants of the Priory and so following the death of his master, Little John leaves Kirklees with a curse which some have claimed still blights the area today.
The first record of an actual gravestone at Kirklees purporting to be that of Robin Hood can be found in Grafton’s Chronicle of 1569 which describes a stone beside the highway engraved with the name Robert Hood amongst others. Then, in the 1607 edition of his seminal topography Britannia, William Camden mentions that Kirklees is known for Robin’s tomb. Camden obtained his information from local antiquarian John Saville, whose family briefly owned Kirklees before the Armytages. A sketch of the grave made by the Pontefract historian Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 supports Grafton’s descriptions of the grave (although it may have been later embellished by William Stukeley). These sources suggest that the gravestone seen today is not the original marker, the only remaining evidence of which may be the large eroded fragment of sandstone which lies on the floor of the modern enclosure.
Instead, the current gravestone bears the epitaph “Here beneath this little stone / Lays Robert Earl of Huntingdon / Never was an archer so good as he / And people called him Robin Hood / Such outlaws as he and his men / Will England never see again” It is dated “24 kalends of December 1247.” There are two substantial problems with this inscription. Firstly, the date given does not exist in the Roman calendar and secondly, the inscription is rendered in a pseudo-archaic version of Old English which is certainly a later invention. An epitaph of these words is mentioned by Thomas Gale, the Dean of York between 1697 and 1702 but from the style of the script it seems the gravestone is even later than that, probably added when the walling – complete with pillars and finials – was constructed in the late 18th Century.
The current grave stands on unhallowed ground 660 yards uphill from the priory gatehouse, a distance which expert archers insist could not have been covered by an arrow, even shot by a longbow. Moreover, it is reported that Sir Samuel Armytage excavated the grave in the 18th Century to a depth of three feet but found no evidence of human remains or even that the earth had ever previously been disturbed. Whether these factors count as evidence against the burial of Robin Hood at the site, however, is a matter of perspective. Some will maintain that the grave has simply been moved and the outlaw’s remains now lie unmarked somewhere else in the vicinity. Others will maintain that Robin Hood never existed to be buried in the first place. Meanwhile, wise men will point out that it does not matter whether or not he is buried there, but that successive generations have believed it to be the case and as a result the site has become a locus of myth and legend.
Yet whilst the site was certainly once well-known – Kirkless Park appears as “Nunwood” in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley where it is described as a “one of Robin Hood’s haunts” – and it was an attraction at fairs held by Sir John Armytage in the early to mid 20th Century, in the last couple of decades it has become the centre of a storm over access. Kirklees Park is still a private estate and for many years following her husband’s death, Lady Armytage refused to allow people to visit it, despite the indefatigable efforts of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society. Moreover, it is claimed that Lady Armytage actively suppressed any mention of the grave in tourist literature or the media and more fancifully that MI5 were involved in a conspiracy to prevent mention of Robin Hood’s Yorkshire connections damaging the Nottinghamshire tourist industry!
Following the death of Lady Armytage in 2008, it is possible this situation may change and indeed, in her later years Calderdale Council had managed to negotiate a number of open-days every year. Still, the grave today is in a sorry state, overgrown by the surrounding vegetation, the railings and pillars fallen down. It remains a local rite of passage to sneak over the wall into the estate in the dead of night and seek the grave amongst the tenebrous woodland. Indeed, whilst a site of such socio-historical importance should certainly be easily accessible to the public, there is an argument to say it’s the very mystique this lack of admittance has engendered which has contributed to the substantial body of folklore that has built up around the site in recent years and which will be discussed in the second part of this article.