Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Robin Hood vs. Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley

by A. E. Chandler

A Wiltshire clerk listing members of parliament (and evidently thinking that his job could be more interesting if he used a little creativity) after the first eight names included the following: “Adam, Belle, Clyme, Ocluw, Willyam, Cloudesle, Robyn, hode, Inne, Grenewode, Stode, Godeman, was, hee, lytel, Joon, Muchette, Millersson, Scathelok, Renoldyn.” This was in 1432, and it is the first known textual mention of the outlaws Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley.

While Robin Hood stood in the greenwood of Sherwood Forest with Little John, Much the Miller’s son, Scarlok, and Reynold, we hear of the first three outlaws listed as members of parliament standing in Inglewood, a forest in Cumberland spanning from Penrith to Carlisle. Carlisle is where William of Cloudesley’s wife, Alice, and their three sons live. When he ventures into the city to visit them, he is betrayed by the old wife to whom the family has shown charity, having her live with them. The sheriff and justice assemble men to capture Cloudesley. Alice defends their door with a poleaxe as Cloudesley shoots from a window. The house is set on fire, and Cloudesley is at last captured. He will be hanged the next day. However, a swineherd’s boy, a friend of Cloudesley’s, runs to the forest and finds Adam Bell and Clim of the Clough.

These two outlaws rush to Carlisle, arriving on the morning of the execution, and tricking the porter at the gate into believing that they bear the king’s seal. When he permits them to enter the city, Bell and Clim wring the porter’s neck in two, taking his keys and tossing him into a dungeon. Heading to the marketplace, they string their bows, shooting and killing the sheriff and the justice. Cloudesley is freed, and the three friends fight their way out of Carlisle to reunite with Alice and the children in Inglewood.

The three outlaws then race south to crave pardon from the King before he hears of their fresh crimes. The King intends to hang them, but the Queen intervenes in her role as peace-weaver, and convinces her husband to grant the desired pardon. This done, the King receives a letter telling him that Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley have just battled their way out of Carlisle, slaying more than three hundred men. Cloudesley shows the King his skill at archery, first by splitting a hazel wand four hundred yards distant, then by cleaving an apple on top of his seven-year-old son’s head with a deadly broad arrow. Cloudesley is made the King’s bow-bearer and chief rider, his wife the Queen’s chief gentlewoman and governess of the nursery, and Bell and Clim yeomen of the Queen’s chamber. The former outlaws make confession and are absolved of all their sins.

This story is perhaps the most similar to Robin Hood’s in outlaw literature, and both likely grew out of the early to mid thirteenth century. The earliest surviving versions of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley are in print, and no handwritten manuscript has been found to predate them (just as with A Gest of Robyn Hode). Possibly the oldest fragment dating from 1536, the earliest extant complete version comes from London, about 1560. The story was well-known in the early modern period, and Dobson and Taylor note that it was referenced in plays by William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

While J. C. Holt, the world’s leading expert on Robin Hood, does not rule out the possibility that Robin was based on a historical figure, he opines that the tale of Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley is entirely fictional. The events – betrayal, capture, rescue, archery, and royal pardon – are shared by medieval tales of Robin Hood, and many details are similar. Bell’s plot is most alike to Robin Hood and the Monk. Monk is one of the five surviving “ballads” of Robin Hood from the medieval period. In it, Robin and Little John quarrel over an archery contest and part ways. Robin then goes to St. Mary’s in Nottingham to pray, where a monk informs the sheriff of his presence. Robin kills twelve men before being captured. To rescue him, Little John and Much the Miller’s son intercept the monk travelling to the King. They kill the monk and his young page, going disguised to court in their places. Returning to Nottingham, they use the King’s seal to free Robin. Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley receiving pardon from the King is more like fytte seven of A Gest of Robyn Hode, another of the five surviving medieval “ballads,” when the King pardons Robin and his men. Robin agrees to serve at court, bringing along seven score and three of his men.

The characters also share similarities. A. J. Pollard points to Bell’s opening stanzas, where the three protagonists are named immediately after a description of the occupation of a walking forester. Throughout the medieval ballads, Robin touts his status as a yeoman. In fytte four of Gest we are given greater insight into the type of yeoman he was during a run-in between Little John and a monk. (Some have theorized that the latter could be the same one who turns Robin over to the sheriff in Monk.) When the monk hears that Little John’s master is Robin Hood, he calls the outlaw a strong thief. Little John objects, calling Robin instead “a yeoman of the forest.” This is not meant to be simply a euphemism, but a complete juxtaposition. “Yeoman of the forest” is a term meaning forester, and it is the foresters who enforce the forest law. Little John is essentially saying that Robin Hood is not a criminal, but a cop. This is attested to by the way in which Robin carries out his “crimes.” He does not steal, but rather exact payment, part of his duty as a forester. The monk might be forgiven for his mistake, as Robin’s exactions were overly zealous, and often not made within the confines of a forest, which was where forest law was supposed to be enforced. Robin, like Bell, Clim, and Cloudesley, is a northern outlaw and, though he visits Sherwood, he is based in West Yorkshire at Barnsdale.

Two of the most significant differences between the two legends are that William of Cloudesley is married and has children – a theme entirely missing from the surviving medieval Robin Hood stories (killing the monk’s page boy is about as close as it gets) – and the ubiquitous retelling of shooting an apple off someone’s head. The latter is most commonly identified with the legend of William Tell, but also present, Maurice Keen notes, in the Scandinavian stories of Weland the Smith and Hodr, as well as the German story of Dietrich von Bern, among others. Yet before Cloudesley orders that his son be tied to a stake in order to facilitate this feat, he has already won the King’s admiration for cleaving a hazel rod at four hundred paces. It is similar to when we hear in fytte seven of Gest of Robin twice cleaving a wand before the disguised King, who declares the mark too far away by fifty paces; or in Robin Hood and the Potter of the outlaw splitting a prick into three pieces before the sheriff. Skill at archery was essential for foresters. During the Hundred Years’ War, they were desirable recruits, as the English army depended upon good archers. William of Cloudesley and Robin Hood both show discernment in their tackle, Cloudesley choosing a bearing arrow for the hazel rod, better for distance, and a broad arrow for the apple, wide enough to split the fruit, and at one hundred twenty paces not too cumbersome to handle for a skilled archer paying attention to the wind. Meanwhile, in Potter, Robin is able to pull the string of the best bow amongst the sheriff’s men to his ear, proclaiming, “This is but right weak gear.”

There was ample reason for the Wiltshire clerk to think of Robin Hood and his men when he thought of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley. A number of writers have sought to bring their legends closer together over the centuries, from the early modern ballad of Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valor and Marriage, to Paul Creswick’s 1902 The Adventures of Robin Hood, to my new novel The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood. These two groups of outlaws share more commonalities than differences.

City of London
Royal 14 C VII  f. 2
Matthew Paris
England, S. (St Albans); 1250-59
Tristan at court
Additional 11619  f. 6
England, S. E.? (London?); 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century
archer among foliage and strawberries
Royal 17 F I  f. 14
France, N. E. (Lille) and S. Netherlands (Bruges); late 15th century


A. E. Chandler holds a Master of Arts with Merit from the University of Nottingham, where she wrote her dissertation on the social history behind Robin Hood. When not teaching or volunteering with the Glenbow Museum’s military collection, she writes historical fiction as well as contemporary fiction concerning history. Chandler has had stories, poetry, and articles published, in addition to a book of collected non-fiction entitled Into the World, and her new novel The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood.


  1. All this is bringing back memories! I have read all the Robin Hood ballads and the Adam Bell one as well. (Adam Bell made an appearance in the TV series Robin Of Sherwood, as a rather sad, ageing rebel) I've read Holt - have you read Stephen Knight's book?

  2. Robin Hood is such a fascinating character - ideal for novelists of course! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi, Sue. Stephen Knight has written and edited a few books pertaining to Robin Hood, so I'm not sure which you mean. The TEAMS text he edited with Thomas Ohlgren is, in my opinion, his most valuable. Knight tends to have more of a literary focus than a historical one. It's great that you've read Holt's Robin Hood - he gives the best historical perspective on Robin Hood (again, my opinion, but a widely shared one). If you're interested, I'd recommend Dobson and Taylor's Rymes of Robin Hood, as well as A. J. Pollard's Imagining Robin Hood, for presenting the literary perspective balanced with the historical one.


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