August is the season of slow news and Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE has been gathering unlikely stories. There is the tale of the 800 mile trek by wandering elephants in China, there is Wally the Arctic Walrus who has been as far as Bilbao and is now damaging small boats off the Co Cork coasts, and, silliest of all, the controversy surrounding nudists in Sherwood Forest, naked men who are upsetting walkers.
No mention of Sherwood Forest would be complete without reference to the legends of Robin Hood and the story suggests there is a 1,000 year old tree which was the headquarters of Robin and his gang, including, of course, Maid Marian.
The story of the paths that were once allegedly trod by the Merry Men now being wandered by rambling nudists might fill a gap on a slow news day. However, the historical foundations of the Robin Hood story are as dodgy as some who might be encountered on the forest trails.
Robin Hood in the stories we were told at primary school was a brave soldier who had returned from the Crusades to find his lands confiscated by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who served the corrupt Prince John, the man who was ruling England while King Richard was away at the Third Crusade. King Richard, in the story we were told, was a good and just man, he was the Lionheart who would restore equity and justice when his battle for the Holy Land was complete.
Of course, it was all nonsense. Richard would never return to England because he had hardly spent more than a few months here since childhood. Richard’s home was in Aquitaine in south-west France, he spoke French and Occitan, dwellers in Sherwood Forest would not have understood him if he had spoken to them.
The Lionheart was a cruel and violent man who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of two and a half thousand Muslim prisoners whom he had been holding as hostages at Ayyadieh. Had Robin Hood been a Crusader, he would have been complicit in the killing of countless Muslim children, women and men. Not that he would have been condemned for such actions, it was all done in the name of the Church.
At one point, John, who was a villain in our stories, was forced to raise money to ransom his brother, who had been captured by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ransom was two or three times the income of the Crown, so John had to raise taxes, and his raising of taxes was something for which he was vilified in the tales we were told.
A Robin Hood figure would have attracted a repressive reaction from the Crown, bringing marauding soldiers into the district, without bringing any appreciable benefits to the local community. Violence and bloodshed in the district would have been about as welcome as an encounter with a fat man in the altogether when out for a walk in the woods.