The historian Roger Dodsworth in 1620AD wrote, "Robin Locksley, born in Bradfield parish of Hallamshire, wounded his stepfather to death at plough, fled into the woods and was relieved by his mother till he was discovered. Then he came to Clifton upon Calder, and became acquainted with Little John, that kept the kine. Which said John is buried at Hathersage in Derbyshire. Little John was Earl Huntley’s son. Afterwards he joined with Much the Millar’s son."
According to legend Little John, after he had buried his comrade Robin Hood at Kirklees Priory, made his way sadly back to Hathersage where he spent his last remaining days. He dug his own grave under the old yew tree in the graveyard, near the old preaching cross and directed that his cap, bow, and arrows should be hung in the church. The ballad adds:
"His bow was in the chancel hung
His last good bolt they drave
Down to the rocks, its measured length,
Westward fro’ the grave.
And root and bud this shaft put forth,
When spring returned anon,
It grew a tree, and threw a shade,
Where slept staunch Little John."
The celebrated English antiquary, Elias Ashmole wrote in 1625 (Ashmole MS 1137:fol.147) "Little John lyes buried in Hathersage Churchyard within three miles from Castleton, near High Peake, with one stone set up at his head and another at his feete, but a large distance between them." They say that a part of his bow hangs up in the said church. From thence they have long disappeared, and a bow etc. are found at Cannon Hall, a seat of The Spencers, who were also owners of Hathersage, and his bow was always known by the name of Little John's bow. It is of spliced yew, of great size and above six feet long, though the ends where the horns were attached are broken off. It was close to the brasses of the Eyre family who were appointed "Hereditary Foresters of Peak Forest" which was a royal appointment and for this service they were allowed a bovate of land at Hope. (Hope is between Hathersage and Castleton)
Robert Eyre followed his father William in this position for which they received the high salary in those days of 12 pence a day. Not only that but they held the official rank of "Gentlemen Foresters" which was a new rank of Itinerant Foresters known as “Bow Bearers,”created by Edward I who carried a long bow as their sign of office, or else the bow was borne by an attendant. It was a crown appointment, carrying the very high remuneration for those days of a shilling a day, and went to men of knightly rank. Romantic historians would like to make them a clan of Free-Booters preying on their neighbours’ cattle, but there is no real authority for this. They were staunch to the Old Catholic Faith however and often deep in plots for its dying cause. It wasn't until around 1930 that Little John's grave was taken under the care of The Ancient Order Of Foresters and by 1935AD the iron railings, the headstone, and the small stone at the side of the grave had been erected. The inscription on the headstone reads, "Here lies Little John the friend and lieutenant of Robin Hood. He died in a cottage (now destroyed) to the west of the churchyard."
Over 500 years after the origin of the legend the story of Little John's Grave took a twist when William Spencer who owned Cannon Hall near Barnsley married Christiana who was the sole heir of Ashton of Hathersage. This gave him possession of Hathersage and he caused the bow and armour that were hanging in Hathersage Church to be removed to Cannon Hall for safe keeping. So far so good, but then along came William Spencer’s grandson Walter Stanhope and Captain James Shuttleworth his cousin who caused the traditional grave of Little John to be opened in 1784AD. They dug down and we are told they found a gigantic human thigh bone about 29 inches long which was also taken to Cannon Hall. However Captain Shuttleworth met with several accidents and Walter Stanhope sustained a broken leg while hunting. Needless to say the bone was blamed for these accidents. The Parish Clerk was told to put the bone back into the grave, but instead he took it home where he had it on display. (Later it was buried in a flower bed and is now lost to us.)
Helping to make sense of all this is Mr. Richard Rutherford-Moore who is the author of three books on Robin Hood and an authority in his own right was told that when the sexton was ordered to excavate the grave in 1784AD the result was an empty grave devoid of human remains and in order to avoid any ‘disappointment’ a bone later appeared made from two bones taken from a local butchers shop. Both bones had been sawn in half and the two pieces joined together giving an impression of an enormous human thigh-bone or femur. As time was pressing, the length was guessed to be suitable for a man standing seven feet tall, but upon examination later and calculation by a doctor the length of the bone indicated a man ten feet tall, in other words it is a very "tall story." The bone as such was destined to be re-interred in the grave but after being given the bone for reburial, it was retained and visitors were charged sixpence to see it.
Although there was never any claim that a member of the Shuttleworth, Stanhope, or Strickland family were party to a practical joke or a plot to fool or deceive anyone, the bone to any educated man was so obviously and ludicrously a non human deception that Sir George Strickland and William Stanhope seeing or hearing of the bone being on display at the time of their visit to James Shuttleworth in Hathersage went to see it for themselves. They removed the bone from Hathersage and probably took it to the family home at Cannon Hall where it was disposed of by being buried in the garden. No marker was ever placed over the buried bone at Cannon Hall as it was never held there by anyone to be a genuine historical relic. (Robin Hood on the Outlaw Trail Again" by Richard Rutherford Moore, Capall Bann Publishing, ISBN 186163 235 5.)
Little John's Cottage c.1850
However, we must not forget John Naylor who, because he was small was known as Little John. He was a nail maker by trade and his house which was also his forge was situated to the east and below the church in Hathersage. It was a low stone building with a thatched roof that unfortunately caught fire. It comprised living quarters on one side and a forge on the other and was demolished in the late 1800's. On his bow is a brass plate with "Col. John Naylor 1715." Tradition has it that he was the last man who bent it and shot a deer with it. The bow held by Mr. John Haldene is the bow of John Naylor and not the bow of the legendary Little John. The suit of armour (chain mail) and arrows were lost around 1780AD during repairs to Cannon Hall and it is believed workmen stole them. Mr. Naylor's Windsor Chair for which he had a bill of sale was first made for King George III in the 18th century for his home at Windsor, hence the name. These artefacts belonged to John Naylor including the bow in the picture held by Mr. Haldane and never belonged to the legendary medieval outlaw Little John. The bow in the picture is not the same bow that was hung in the hall at Cawthorn in 1955AD which was made of spliced yew and was horn-tipped with one end damaged and heavy in structure like a recurved bow requiring a pull of 160 pounds. These “modern” artefacts had nothing to do with the legendary outlaw who would have been dispossessed of all his property. Outlaws never wore chain mail in the forest and obviously John Naylor's stone built forge wasn't a 12th century medieval peasants hut.
Professor Brian Robinson has an alternative view and suggests the headstone and foot-stone of Little John's Grave were in reality the standard measurement of the local rod, pole, or perch which is sixteen and a half feet long and was decreed to be the combined length of the left feet of 16 men as they left church on a Sunday morning standing heel to toe in a straight line. This standard length of measurement was used in the construction of buildings and the cricket pitch for example was 22 yards or four poles long. The two stones says Brian Robinson were located conveniently close to the back of the clerks house and over the years he says, people have forgotten the reason for the two stones, and as happened in Penrith when two similar stones were found, they came to be regarded as the head-stone and foot-stone of a giant’s grave. See here for the use of the rod, pole or perch in the measurement of buildings.
Top picture: Little John's Grave at Hathersage.
Second picture: Mr. Haldene holding John Naylors Bow.
Bottom picture: A forge which judging by the photograph in Bessie Bunkers book and the drawing in Jim Lee's book is very similar to the one John Naylor worked in at Hathersage, except John's had a thatched roof. This forge is still in use today and is on the Hathersage road at Midhopestones which is in the same parish as Loxley.
Huntlie which is said to be the ancestral home of Little John was in the former county of Berwick that is now part of the Borders region. Unfortunately the castle has been destroyed, and the old place of Huntly has become lost but the modern town of Huntly near Aberdeen was named after the old borders place. The town seal depicts the old castle and the motto on the seal is "Wile dulci."
The ballad “The Royal Forester” has the story of the rape of the Earl of Airlie's daughter by a blacksmith's son commonly known as John but in the king's high court he is known as Erwilian. Eventually Erwilian and he Earl of Airlie's daughter marry under the king's guidance and live in Huntly town. It would be interesting if Erwilian commonly known as “Little John” was Earl Huntleys son who married an Earl's daughter? Ballads were usually written about real people and is one way history came down to us through the oral tradition.