Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Roger Godberd of Swannington

by Chris Thorndycroft

In my previous post on a possible historical basis for the Robin Hood legend, I looked at Robert Hood of Wakefield; a man with the right name who lived in the right period within an arrow’s flight of Barnsdale (the main stomping ground of Robin Hood in the ballads). But there was one other figure of an earlier generation who, despite his name bearing no resemblance to Robin Hood, lived a life with several striking parallels to England’s famous outlaw.

Roger Godberd hailed from Swannington in Leicestershire and the records of his life come from a number of court rolls. Several people have tried to construct his biography from these tantalising scraps but the most readable is David Baldwin’s(1).

The first mention of Godberd is in 1250 where he makes a complaint that his mother and stepfather cut down sixty oaks on his land. He is noted as being underage at this time which would make his year of birth 1229 at the earliest. He appears to have later had a daughter called Diva who is mentioned in a court case in 1258 over disputed land.

Swannington was part of the manor of Whitwick until it became a manor in its own right in more recent times. There is evidence of a moated hall north of the village dating to the 12th century. Godberd appeared to be in charge of Swannington by 1259 as he is recorded handing it over to Jordan le Fleming for a period of ten years but then forcibly booting him off it a year later.

Godberd was a tenant of Robert de Ferrers, the 6th Earl of Derby. De Ferrers – a hot-headed and quarrelsome man – came of age in 1260 and immediately began a campaign to take back his lands which had been held in wardship by the Lord Edward (Longshanks, later to become Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’). One of these properties was Nottingham Castle of which Roger Godberd was a member of the garrison.

Roger seems to have run into some legal trouble during his time at Nottingham as a record included in The Sherwood Forest Book (a collection of legal documents from various sources) tells of an episode in 1264 where Roger and several companions are accused of poaching deer in Sherwood Forest(2). That this accusation arose in 1287 – twenty-three years after the fact – is perhaps indicative of the efficiency of the medieval judicial system.

The delay may have been partly caused by the outbreak of the Second Barons’ War; a civil war in which the barons, under Simon de Montfort, attempted to establish a parliament more sympathetic to their demands. Robert de Ferrers threw himself into the conflict but was more interested in pursuing his personal vendetta against the Lord Edward than supporting the baronial cause. He ultimately missed out on the Battle of Lewes which saw the barons’ victory over King Henry III.

With the king and the Lord Edward under house arrest, Simon de Montfort became ruler of England in all but name. But while squabbling broke out amongst his supporters, Edward escaped custody and rallied an army to his father’s cause. The resulting slaughter at the Battle of Evesham spelled the end for de Montfort’s movement (not to mention his life) and his followers found themselves disinherited.

The ruins of Kenilworth Castle; once one of England's strongest medieval
fortifications and the site of one of the longest sieges in English history

Pockets of resistance held out; rebels entrenched themselves on the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire and at Kenilworth Castle which endured one of the longest sieges in English history. Roger Godberd was apparently financially desperate and appears in the Close Rolls of 1266 for forcing the Abbot of Garendon to hand over the charters for the lands he had leased the abbey.

In October, 1266, Godberd was granted safe passage to attend the Dictum of Kenilworth; the king’s offer to the rebels to buy back their lands at rates according to their level of involvement in de Montfort’s rebellion. Eventually pardoned, Godberd appears to have moved north to begin a life of crime with his brother Geoffrey and others.

When he was finally brought to trial in 1276, the charges against him vary from burglary, homicide, arson and robbery in Leicester, Nottinghamshire and Wiltshire, the most heinous of which was the robbery of the monks of Stanley Abbey in 1270, one of whom was killed.

Reginald de Grey, Justice of Chester, was given money from Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to raise an army to hunt down the outlaws who were running rampant in those counties. De Gray had recently held the position of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests (Nottingham didn’t get its own sheriff until 1449). Interestingly, de Grey was also one of the accused Sherwood poachers of 1264 alongside Roger and Geoffrey Godberd suggesting that they had previously been comrades in the Nottingham Castle garrison and now operated on opposite sides of the law.

All this about Nottingham and Sherwood may sound more like the Robin Hood of later tradition, not the outlaw of Barnsdale in the earliest ballads. But even in those stories, it is the Sheriff of Nottingham who plays the part of the chief villain despite the fact that he would have been out of his jurisdiction pursuing outlaws in Barnsdale. Not only does this suggest that there were once two separate traditions – a Nottinghamshire one and a Yorkshire one that got blended at some point – but one of the first stories of Robin Hood includes an episode that bears a striking resemblance to what Roger Godberd did next.

In the ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin and his companions befriend a knight called Sir Richard who shelters them at his castle from an assault by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Calendar of the Close Rolls of Henry III show that a knight called Richard Foliot was accused of sheltering Godberd and his companions at his castle of Fenwick. Richard was eventually forced to hand over his castle and son Edmund to the Sheriff of Yorkshire as surety until he stood trial for harbouring outlaws.

Sherwood Forest

There is also a record (unfortunately undated) in the Hundred Rolls of Edward I showing that Godberd and a number of his followers were captured at a grange owned by Rufford Abbey in Sherwood and imprisoned at Nottingham Castle. The man who captured them was Hugh de Babington, undersheriff at this time to Walter Giffard, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire etc. and also Archbishop of York. Another record of Godberd’s capture has Reginald de Grey take him at Hereford before conducting him to Bridgenorth. This second arrest suggests that Godberd escaped custody (possibly from Nottingham Castle itself) only to be recaptured by de Grey.

While Godberd spent the next few years in various prisons, his followers remained active. There was an attempt to rescue him from Bridgenorth and Godberd’s brother Geoffrey attacked the servants of Lucy de Grey (Reginald’s step-mother) while they were en route to Leicester.

Stays at Hereford and Chester gaols are also recorded before Godberd was incarcerated at Newgate and brought to trial at the Tower of London in 1276. Inexplicably, King Edward I pardoned him and Roger Godberd wandered off the map of history.

So, we have a rebellious outlaw operating from Sherwood, robbing the clergy and defying the sheriffs and justices. He was sheltered by a knight called Richard and eventually pardoned by a king called Edward (just as Robin was the Gest ballad). Robert Hood of Wakefield may be an interesting candidate but there is no denying Roger Godberd’s possible influence on the legend. That the ballads alternately switch between Barnsdale in Yorkshire and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire suggest there may have been more than one source for the legend. Perhaps Godberd provided one part of the tale while another outlaw in Yorkshire provided the rest.

My recent novel Lords of the Greenwood focuses, in part, on the exploits of Roger Godberd and the Second Barons’ War. It also deals with Robert Hood of Wakefield who is outlawed a generation later and, inspired by tales of Godberd told to him by an old beggar who used to be one of Godberd’s band, sets up his own band of robbers who operate in Barnsdale.


For a fairly comprehensive list of all records pertaining to Roger Godberd, visit; http://www.robinhoodlegend.com/records-of-godberd/.

1.      David Baldwin. Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. 2011
2.      Boulton, H. E. (ed). Sherwood Forest Book. Thoroton Society Record Series Volume XXIII. 1964


Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. His first novel under his own name was A Brother’s Oath; the first book in the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy. He also writes under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.

His recent novel, Lords of the Greenwood, blends history with medieval ballads. This is the entwined saga of two men, separated by a generation and united by legend, who inspired the tales of England’s famous hooded outlaw. Lords of the Greenwood is available through Amazon.

For more information, please visit Chris Thorndycroft’s website. You can also find him on Twitter and Goodreads.


  1. A really interesting post about a subject id not heard about before. Wonderful research! thank you!


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