ROBIN HOOD and the SLAVERS OF WHITBY
By I.A. Watson
he Bishop of Hereford danced. It was an absurd jig, capering around the immense tree that would henceforth be called the Bishop’s Oak. Whenever he slowed down, Robin Hood hastened him with another smack on the backside with the flat of a sword.
The Bishop’s attendants and guards watched helpless to intervene. They’d been brave enough when they’d spotted the half dozen ragged peasants gutting a deer at the side of the road and ruthless in pursuing them into the bushes. They’d lost their taste for the hunt when the disguised outlaws had led them to the spot where two score of well-armed bandits waited with nocked arrows.
The portly divine ran around the wide tree trunk until he was red in the face and gasping. Only when he was about to drop did Robin relent enough to let him stop.
“Now you’ll have less energy to flog serving boys for spilling your cider,” the young outlaw told the Bishop. “But we’ll take your treasury off for you to save you the strain of carrying it.”
The raid was done. Much the Miller’s Son and George a’Green fastened the servants’ arms behind their backs. Will Scathlock, who’d earned the name Scarlet the bloody way, divested the clergyman of his rings and chains.
“The poor thank you for your donations,” Maid Marion assured the Bishop. “Next time don’t wait for an outlaw to force your Christian duty on you.”
The Bishop looked like he wanted to make a rude and noisy answer, but he glanced at Robin Hood and held his peace. He didn’t want to dance again.
“Ware!” called David of Doncaster, on lookout. The bandits of Sherwood were careful to set a watch. They were about to made a hasty departure into the greensward when David called all clear. “It’s Little John.”
Robin patted the Bishop of Hertford on his cheek, thanked him again for his contribution, and set off down the road to meet his returning lieutenant.
Marion fell into step beside her forest lord. “John went north to see how things lie now Baron de Puiset’s been deposed,” she remembered. “Is the Sheriff’s writ unchallenged now?”
Up to last summer three powerful men had contested the control of England. Richard Lionheart had appointed two Justiciars to rule during his absence on crusade. Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham and Earl of Northumberland had been displaced and demoted by his fellow Justiciar, Lord Chancellor William Longchamp – who had in turn been dispossessed by the scheming Prince John. The Sheriff of Nottingham, sour William de Vendenal, now had authority over the vast tracts of Yorkshire and Derbyshire as well as his own county.
“The Sheriff won’t be unchallenged,” Robin promised his lady. “I’m easily bored.”
The unmistakable figure of Little John came over the crest of the road. He was huge and sheepskin-clad, his seven-foot quarterstaff barely topping his shaggy head. Riccon Hazel and Gilbert Whitehand trailed behind him; and one other.
Old Arthur a Bland recognised the lithe young woman with the streaming black hair. “Uh oh,” the wiry poacher breathed
Marion glanced at Robin, then back to the maiden approaching with John of Hathersage. The stranger was clad in green velvet decorated with yellow ribbons. She walked confidently, assured and collected, and she carried a crook.
“Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses, I presume,” Marion said to Robin.
“I think that’s her name, yes,” the young outlaw answered in casual tones. “I, er, met her once.”
“I heard the ballad, Robin. ‘Met’ is a pretty tame word if everything Alan sings is true.” Clorinda of the high peaks and hidden valleys, the outlaws had called her.
“Alan a Dale should shut up,” said Robin with feeling.
Little John approached with the lovely shepherdess. He looked sheepish. “Look who I found,” he ventured, trying to sound casual.
“Hello, Clorinda,” Robin bade the maiden.
“Hello, Loxley. Or do I call you the king of Sherwood now?”
“Rob’s fine,” Marion answered for the young outlaw. “Or Mud. Either name’s right.”
The queen of the shepherdesses regarded the outlaw lady. “You must be Matilda.”
“I must. My friends call me Marion.” The Queen of May didn’t extend that invitation to Clorinda.
“Well, isn’t this nice?” Little John said nervously. “A nice meeting of old friends and new. Nice.”
Scarlet intervened. “As great as it is to watch Rob squirm, could we do it back at camp? Those Bishop’s men will get loose from their ropes sometime and summon help. These awkward pauses will be a lot less funny when we’re dangling from gibbets.”
“An excellent point,” Robin Hood agreed. “Clorinda, good to see you. Meet my heart’s love Marion. Marion, this is the shepherdess queen who made a man of me. Let’s all get some supper.”
he remorseless tide pulled back from the crumbling cliffs at last. When it was safe enough, Captain Aelstan of Osmondthorpe climbed the rope ladder down to the cove to see the damage.
“It’s brought t’whole entrance down,” said Mickle the foreman, gloomily. “No way to open that ‘un up again. We’ll need to tunnel in a bit along, happen up by t’ Gnipe Howe.”
The Sheriff of Nottingham’s guard captain inspected the tumbled rockfall that had closed the tunnel into the sea-cliffs. Massive blocks of friable stone had completely blocked three months’ diligent digging. He spat and swore.
“We’ll need new scaffolding and that,” Mickle went on. “T’ flood’s washed all away. And t’miners are refusing t’dig owt now after them lads and lasses were lost.”
Captain Aelstan had been a handsome man once. That was before the fury of the York riots and the hot flames of the brazier where the mob had held his head. Now his face was a pink mass of scar tissue and purpled blisters, one burned eye blackened and sightless. He was not an enemy to cross. “They’ll work, by Mary, or I’ll slit the noses of every child in the camp! Aye, and take their ears if I have to!”
Mickle nodded, satisfied. “That’d do it, most like. I’ll need the menfolk down here to get’t rig set up. We’ll need to drill some holes in’t back of yon hollow and drive a shaft that way. We’ll catch the jet layer about ten feet in, I reckons.”
Aelstan had to be satisfied with that. The Sheriff wouldn’t like the delay, but even he must understand that the sea’s aggression could not be controlled.
“There’ll be jet fragments all along this strand where the tide washed out the cave,” Mickle added. “We’d best have t’lasses walking this shore. They won’t want to step where their kinfolk drowned but we’ve plenty of whips.”
The Captain nodded. “See to it. Maybe we can get back on quota before Lord de Vendenal gets here.” It would be better for everybody if they did.
Mickle leaned down to the shingle strand and picked up a black pebble. He dropped it into Aelstan’s hand. “There y’go. That’s Whitby jet for you. Another half ton and you’re back on schedule.”
Aelstan looked at the rounded stone in his palm. True jet was rare. It could be carved and shaped. When rubbed on porcelain it left a brown mark. It was sovereign against evil magic, popular for use in clerical jewellery and the mourning garb of princes.
It was certainly worth the lives of a few worthless nobodies.
“Set them to work, Mickle,” the Captain commanded. He pocketed the jet-stone. “Work them hard. There’s plenty more where they came from!”
ll eyes were on Clorinda’s bosom. She dipped her fingers down into her cleavage and pulled out a tiny carved cross of Whitby jet. “This is what I’ve come to show you,” she told the outlaws.
“Your boobies?” asked Much hopefully. Arthur a Blank swatted him across the ear.
“This,” the shepherdess clarified, passing the little icon to Robin Hood. “It’s jet. Lignite. Black amber. It’s found in the cliffs of North Yorkshire and along the pebbly beaches. It’s valuable.”
Tuck knew about the polished black stone. “Pliny the Elder mentions it,” he recalled. “He said kindling it drove off snakes and relieved constriction of the uterus. He wrote that it also discovers attempts to simulate virginity.”
“How?” Little John asked, curiously.
“We’ll deal with the fake virgins later,” Robin promised. “Right now I want to know why Clorinda’s come all this way to show us some jewellery. Cloe?”
“Up in my part of the world, the high grassy North Riding moors, people have always picked jet up from the sea-shore below - beach-combing. If you know the trick of shaping this stuff for setting it in silver there’s a good living. That and scrimshaw are the local specialities.”
“But now the Lord High Sheriff has other ideas. There’s demand for jet on the continent, you see. There’s money to be made. The Sheriff’s reopened the old Roman cave-mines down at the cliff bottom. It’s difficult, dangerous work, crawling through the low tunnels gouged down through what they call the top jet dogger, a limestone layer that’s always just above the jet seam. Scarcely a day goes by without an accident, some crushed limb or a sudden death by pitfall or drowning.”
“The Sheriff’s set men to work in his perilous jet mine?” Marion understood.
Scarlet shrugged. “Labourers face dangerous tasks everywhere. I don’t see what this has to do with us.”
“The Sheriff doesn’t send in men,” Clorinda answered. “Not when children can squirm into much smaller spaces. And he doesn’t use labourers. He uses slaves.”
Robin’s head came up. Slavery was still legal in England under old Saxon law, but it rarely happened these days. Serfs were tied to their master’s land, unable to leave or wed or own possessions without their lord’s permission, but even they had rights. Slaves had none. They were property, no more protected by law than a pig or a handcart. Their owner had the right to trade them, loan them, breed them, and kill them.
“William de Vendenal is enslaving boys and girls to die in his jet mines,” Marion summarised. Her face was bleak and dangerous.
Robin mirrored her expression. “We head north.”
The great forest of which Sherwood was the heart ran almost the whole length of England. It ended where the Yorkshire moors began, surrendering to league after league of turf-topped highland. Tiny villages nestled in steep river valleys, sheltered from the winds. Only hardy Northern sheep ranged across the desolate hills.
Three riders came out of the treeline and looked over the undulating landscape. “That way,” Clorinda told Robin and Marion. “The old Roman road takes us down to the White Village. We’ll be able to find out there what’s happening along the coast at the Sheriff’s mine.”
“I’m very keen to know,” the young outlaw confessed. “Lead on, Cloe.”
The queen of the shepherdesses turned to Marion. “You didn’t have to ride with us, you know. You can trust me with Robin.”
“I know that,” the lady of Sherwood replied. “But I can’t trust Robin to rein in his tendency to hatch very stupid schemes and plans.”
“You think you’re going to stop him from dangerous adventures?”
“I think I’m going to be with him when he has them.”
Clorinda snorted and spurred her horse forward.
Robin reached across and squeezed Marion’s hand. “You really don’t need to worry about me and the shepherdess,” he promised. “It was a long time ago. Those tavern-songs are old. Before you filled my world.”
“I’m not worried.” The red-haired beauty winked at him. “By now I have lots more verses than she has.”
They rode after Clorinda down the steep trail to one of the tiny hamlets between the rolling hills. Then their good mood evaporated.
“What happened here?” Marion asked.
The village was deserted. The thatch was gone from most of the cottages, whipped away by the fierce coastal winds. Already the wattle-and-daub dwellings were crumbling back to mere mud and sticks. The stone-built chapel stood empty and desolate.
“This was Egton,” the shepherdess said. “It defaulted on its taxes.”
Robin looked at the sad remnants of the weed-choked settlement. “And then?”
“And then Lord de Vendenal bought up the debt. And he invoked the old law.”
Marion had been brought up in a noble house. She knew judicial process. “Slavery for debt? Is that still legal?”
“It is with the consent of the manor’s lord and of the creditor – and with permission from the Lord High Sheriff.”
Robin bunched his fists. “This is not just. This is not right.”
“I could ride you round half a dozen deserted villages like this, maybe more,” Clorinda warned him. “The incomes from marginal estates like this one are far less than the profits from exporting jet to France and Holland.”
“De Vendenal is nothing if not a shrewd businessman,” Marion scowled.
“Let’s show him the hidden costs of his enterprise,” suggested Robin in the Hood.
irates. They’re now’t but by-the-Lady pirates,” the ruddy fisherman in the seafront tavern complained to Robin, Marion, and Clorinda. He nursed his mug of warmed sour ale and glared out to sea from under his bushy eyebrows. “They calls themselves king’s marines, but they comes ashore with swords and bows whenever they please to take whatever they wants. Livestock, beer, sometimes a maid. We can’t stop ‘em.”
“These are the men on the ship that collects the jet?” Marion checked.
“Aye. They say as they’re lawful sailors and they gather necessaries in the king’s name by right. But I’d heard t’ Lionheart was overseas, in the Holy Land by all accounts, a-fighting of the heathen. What’s his mariners want to be coming here disturbing our peace for?”
“Richard’s not in Palestine any more,” Robin reported. “They’re saying in London and York that he took ship home when he heard of Prince John’s treacheries. But he was shipwrecked, then captured by the Duke of Austria for ransom.”
Clorinda wasn’t interested in high politics. “No concern of ours what the great and mighty do. Richard’s no better than John. The whole lot of ‘em can jump off Fylingthorpe cliffs and crash on the rocks below!”
“It does matter,” Marion argued. “Richard’s ransom is set at sixty thousand pounds, three times the taxes of England for a whole year. His mother Queen Eleanor is chivvying the chancellery for new levies of scutage and carucage and to squeeze the church for a quarter of its wealth to set him free – and Eleanor’s a hard woman to ignore. But taxes on the rich mean more taxes on the poor.”
“So Sheriff de Vendenal’s mining Whitby jet to pay for Richard’s return?” the shepherdess asked, failing to hide her contempt and anger at the aristocracy’s tax farming.
Robin shook his head. “De Vendenal’s pinned his advancement on Weaselly John. Richard’s return would wreck him. There’s gossip though that Lackland and the King of France have offered a different fee to Lionheart’s captives, £40,000 to keep him locked away. I bet that’s why the Sheriff’s chasing money.”
The old fisher drained his mug. “Kings and princes and Sheriffs and all that, they don’t mean a thing t’me. But pirates robbing my catch, raiding my boat, carrying off our Dorrie, that’s too much. Someone should do something about it, they should!”
Robin looked from Marion to Clorinda and saw the expectant expression on both their faces.
“All right!” he surrendered. “I volunteer!”
aptain Aelstan stood at the water’s edge and spoke with Captain Makebliss as the tide turned. They watched the ragged men and women who dug the top jet dogger drag their naked grazed children out of the mine tunnel before the waters washed back in.
“You’ve started a new hole,” the sea-captain noted to de Vendenal’s scarred guard officer.
“The waves took the last one,” Aelstan replied. “The mine engineer was too greedy and skimped on the support columns. Mickle flogged him.”
“Will you meet your targets?”
“We have to. I’ve got the slaves working night and day now, whenever the water’s low enough. Four full teams. It’ll kill a few more than otherwise, but we can always get more.”
Makebliss grinned. His teeth were brown and rotten. “Get some more pretty ones. They sell well in Harfleur and Normandy. There’s a demand.”
The captain fingered a silver chain of jet beads at his neck. The Sheriff didn’t need to know about Aelstan’s lucrative sidelines. A disfigured guard captain had to plan his own retirement. “We’ll get back to that after we’ve sorted out production problems. Lord de Vendenal’s coming to check up on the work. He’ll want to get the jet shipment away to London as soon as he’s inspected it.”
A rough palisade at the top of the cliff enclosed the work-barracks of the captives, with a guarded strong-hut to store the precious black stone itself. When the time came the chests would be lowered by rope to the shore and loaded into Makebliss’ two-masted warboat. From there it was an easy sail down the east coast of England to the Thames and London.
The two captains watched as the last of the children was hauled out of the working. A pair of ruthless soldiers checked the slaves for hidden jet and seemed to enjoy doing it.
The final child was a boy no more than six or seven. He bled where he’d grazed all down his left side squeezing into the tight seam cleft. His desperate mother set up a wail before Mickle the Overseer brought his crop down on her back to silence her.
“I’ll get my ship ready,” Captain Makebliss decided. “It’d be just like de Vendenal to decide to inspect it.” That would mean casting the stolen girls overboard, but it was no hardship. All the fishing villages could do if the pirates took more prizes was complain – to the Sheriff!
“It’s best to keep on the Lord Sheriff’s good side,” Aelstan agreed. “He can be creative when people fail him.”
A shout came from the top of the cliff. Somebody hailed the guard captain, beckoning him up the rope ladder.
“What is it?” Aelstan shouted through cupped hands. When the guardsman above yelled a reply the Captain winced. “Z’ounds! Speak of the devil! What the hell’s de Vendenal doing here two days early?” He hastened to the ropes so he could be up top to greet his employer. “Be sure you’re ready, Makebliss. The Sheriff’s come. Nothing must go wrong!”
obin joined Marion and Clorinda atop the Fylingthorpe cliffs. He took off the disgusting floppy-brimmed had he’d disguised himself with and span it over the edge so the wind took it to fly off with the gulls.
“You weren’t caught then,” Marion noted.
“No,” Robin told her with a mock apologetic expression. “Luckily, I’m me. I went into the slave camp, delivered the beer to the soldiers’ mess, got a look round, then headed back to the warm embrace of my beloved.” He glanced at Clorinda. “Er, Marion, that is,” he added apologetically.
The dark-tressed shepherdess snorted. “Still with a high opinion of yourself, Loxley. There’s other men.”
“But none of them could creep into that compound, spy out the land, work out a plan to save all the slaves and make the Sheriff cry himself to sleep, and still be back in time to enjoy the view of this fabulous sunset with the two fairest maidens in the land!”
“If you feel the need to throw him off the cliff I won’t object,” Marion told Clorinda.
“No. He’s yours now,” relied the shepherdess. “You should do it.”
Maid Marion looked as if she was considering it. “While you were off playing dress-up I went to the Abbey,” she reported. “I spoke to the Abbot, asked him what he was doing about the Sheriff’s nasty scheme at Gnipe Howe.”
“Doing something would require him to stand up,” Clorinda snorted. “He’s far too fat for that!”
“The Abbey’s lands border on some of the royal estates de Vendenal controls. I got the impression he was afraid of trouble from his neighbour. He wasn’t about to upset the Sheriff or the Prince, even with a war-boat full of raiders robbing his settlements in the king’s name.” Marion grimaced to indicate her opinion of the cleric.
“You should have brought your men with you, Loxley,” Clorinda told Robin. “What can three of us do against a pirate ship and Captain Aelstan’s thugs?”
“Did I mention I met the Sheriff as well?” Robin added casually.
“What?” Marion cried out. “De Vendenal’s here? Since when?”
“Since about an hour ago. With an extra forty guardsmen, because otherwise rescuing sixty-odd exhausted injured prisoners and four chests of jet would be too easy.”
“Can you shoot him?” Clorinda wondered. She knew how good a marksman Robin was.
“Not without reprisals that would see half the villages of Nottinghamshire burned. If it was as simple as putting an arrow through de Vendenal’s throat he’d have been in his grave years ago.”
Marion agreed. “We just have to settle for making the Sheriff wish he were dead.”
The sun sank down behind the Yorkshire hills. The sea turned grey. Three quarters of a mile up the coast torches flared where the slaves still laboured to dig the Sheriff’s jet.
“So what’s the stupid dangerous scheme going to be this time?” Maid Marion asked the outlaw lord.
“Well, from what I’ve seen and Clorinda’s heard, the Sheriff of Nottingham has a hundred or so guards with ugly Aelstan, an impenetrable stockade, one of the king’s war galleys with a ruthless cut-throat crew, threescore battered peasants in dire straits, and four boxes of jet to keep the Lionheart locked away for a long time. I’ve got two lovely wenches and a longbow.” Robin Hood grinned. “Isn’t it obvious what we should do?”
On to Chapter II
Go to Chapter III
 The remnant of this famous oak, called the Bishop’s Tree Root, is found in Skelbrook Park near Wentbridge.
 This opening summarises the ancient tale Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hertford, ballad number 144 in the 19th century collection English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child. Version A of that popular ley concludes, “Robin Hood took the Bishop by the hand/And he caused the music to play/And he made the Bishop to dance in his boots/And glad he could so get away.”
 In Child ballad 149, The Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage of Robin Hood, one of the earliest ballads from before Marion enters the Robin Hood canon, our hero meets with the huntress Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses, whom he weds. The old song describes her thus:
“As that word was spoke, Clorinda came by;
The queen of the shepherds was she;
And her gown was of velvet as green as the grass,
And her buskin did reach to her knee.
Her gait it was graceful, her body was straight,
And her countenance free from pride;
A bow in her hand, and quiver and arrows
Hung dangling by her sweet side.
Her eye-brows were black, ay, and so was her hair,
And her skin was as smooth as glass;
Her visage spoke wisdom, and modesty too;
Sets with Robin Hood such a lass!”
 180 million years ago, fallen Jurassic Monkey-Puzzle trees were compressed and fossilized into layers of the mineraloid the Greeks called lithos gagates, which became the French gaiet and the English jet. England’s great deposits, generally considered the best quality in the world, are along the sea cliffs of North Yorkshire around Whitby. The decorative black stone was valued in the Neolithic era and appears in many grave-barrow hordes.
The value of Britannia’s jet deposits was one economic reason for Julius Caesar’s invasion. The Romans carved the “black amber” into pins, brooches, and religious talismans. Unsatisfied with beach-combing as a means of gathering jet they began the cliff-mining that continues to the present day.
 Gaius Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23–79), Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, author or arguably the first encyclopaedia, Naturalis Historia.
 Sculpture or engraving using the teeth or bones of whales.
 The Domesday Book census of 1086 recorded more than a tenth of England's population as slaves. As Norman feudal customs were enforced slaves became rarer, replaced by the villeins or serfs that made up eighty percent of the population by the end of the 12th century. Slavery remained legal in England until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.
 A tax in lieu of rendering feudal military service and a tax on farmed land.
 A contraction of “God’s wounds”, a medieval profanity.
Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2011 reserved by Ian Watson. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.