If a band of medieval outlaws in Sherwood Forest managed to survive
the everyday threat of being captured or killed by the forces of law
and order, their next biggest worry would be simply how to stay alive
in terms of shelter and finding something to eat and drink as medieval
temperatures dropped far below the winters we experience today.
In prolonged daytime temperatures of below freezing, living permanently
outdoors is very risky unless you know what you are about; after dark
in the same conditions, you sleep with the risk that you might never
wake up again.
There are books you can read today and high street shops that stock
all the relevant protective clothing for living in cold conditions
- in the early medieval era there were no such luxuries.
The only thing that an outdoorsman could draw on was practical experience,
either his own or someone elses. To have an old hand
with you at this time would be priceless, as he would have the knowledge
of his years to use in terms of survival.
Four basic rules of survival
There are four basic tangible rules for short-term survival in the
- Obtain shelter
- Obtain drink
- Obtain food
- Obtain warmth
You require all four in reasonable quantities not
just to survive but to stay both alert, efficient and sane in the
Survival should be ensured through planning, not happen simply through
luck. Knowing what the threats are and what to expect is halfway
to solving the problem.
Military campaigns undertaken at the time simply went into winter
quarters some time prior to the wind, wet and extreme cold
of bad weather (with a few period exceptions, notably King Stephen
and King John during civil wars).
Prepared depots in castles or towns would provide the shelter
and would have collected during summer and autumn harvests the fuel
and stores to provide for the soldiers through the winter months.
An outlaws lifestyle
But no such military preparations as the above would be possible
for an outlaw band; the outlaws would be by necessity nomadic, moving
around within an established area unsettled in terms of any permanent
storage capacity and so be unable to plant and nurture any crops
Staying in one place for too long risked detection by the authorities
in summertime a band of men could survive by eating as hunter-gatherers
like their prehistoric ancestors but with the approach of autumn
and as the temperature began to drop other measures would clearly
have to be adopted.
To physically exist a man requires food and drink - in cold weather
he would also require a suitable shelter and a source of heat.
An outlaw band planning to stay in Sherwood Forest through the winter
would have to have the means to provide themselves with all four.
The problem with not having made proper provision for winter is
obvious you will meet a cold, lonely and hungry death.
Sleeping in the open after a day spent in the open is risking hypothermia
and exposure simply freezing to death in your sleep.
Any shortages of drink and food would result in a quicker fall in
energy in the short-term and in the long-term the bodys natural
resistance to cold and sickness and in both the brains ability
to reason; death could be measured in hours. But without sleep,
the body cannot function naturally.
Many people are surprised when they hear that hypothermia can occur
anywhere and anytime when the air temperature is below 60F /16C
the body needs to maintain a core of warmth and as the core
temperature drops heat is taken from the head, resulting in a drop
in circulation and energy being burned to provide heat rather than
to feed the brain; the brain slows down, irrational behaviour gradually
grows until the subject doesnt know what they are doing.
The effect is so gradual the subject will not realise it is happening
without immediate help, they will die. A slight breeze can
halve the time a man could expect to be in trouble through hypothermia;
a cool wind can reduce it by four times that. Our outlaws would
quickly have to learn two things; to stay dry and to keep out of
In the medieval era, clothes would be made of wool with a next-to-body
material generally of linen. Both materials - worn in layers - are
excellent to keep you warm. Perspiration reduces this effectiveness,
so if you couldnt avoid sweating for some reason and you became
hot through physical exertion the correct thing to do would be to
take a layer or two off until you cooled down, then put the layers
back on again.
Medieval men wore a linen shirt and underclothes, a woollen coat
with a hood over a coif - a tight fitting cap - on the head and
also covering the shoulders and upper arms. Gloves were known -
by comparison to our modern five-fingered gloves medieval winter
gloves had two fingers and a thumb only or more likely
looked like mittens, made from wool or padded / lined leather.
Even soaking wet wool provides a modicum of warmth. Our medieval
outlaws couldnt wear anything else anyway, as fibres such
as polyester, lycra and nylon werent invented and silk was
both rare and too expensive for a common man when seen at market
(Silk is a recommended next-to-body material for keeping warm, but
rare in England for many years to come. Being an outlaw, if you
couldnt afford any silk you could always steal some).
Wool if clean and maintained is waterproof up to a point, but would
not resist a downpour and shelter have to be sought. Wool can be
waterproofed, but this affects the warmth it provides.
A far better and a more common waterproof for wintertime would be
leather - a fatty skin taken from an animal such as a deer or a
pig or a skin treated and tanned into leather and fashioned into
a cloak, perhaps including a hood.
In the ballad Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne, Guy wears a capull
bann for protection against the elements, the ideal period material
against fierce wind and cold rain although heavy to move around
in if worn. As a motorcyclist will already know, leather is still
the best protection against high wind - modern fabrics only attempt
to reduce the weight of the protective material and introduce breathability
to avoid damp through perspiration.
For a nomad, a shelter exists as one of two things:
- A ready made item - small, light or convenient enough to carry
- A material ready to hand in such a plentiful quantity and easy
to acquire from which a shelter can be reasonably quickly fabricated
using an established design.
For protection as a shelter, Sahara Desert bedhouin carry tents but
further south a bushman on a hunting trip away from his village would
make a shelter from thorn bushes and tree branches.
Both are nomads and masters of their way of life and erect shelters
for different reasons - the bedhou against the burning daytime sun
and night-time cold and the bushman in addition to these for protection
against predatory wild animals.
Our Sherwood outlaws have an advantage in that materials to create
a shelter exist a modern boy scout having had even the slightest
outdoor training could create a reasonably comfortable and rainproof
shelter in two to three hours using his sheath knife and the natural
materials he could spot in a broad-leaved deciduous woodland environment.
(What would prevent a modern boy scout demonstrating shelter-construction
today is that most of these environments are protected against damage
by statutes and by-laws and cutting down small trees or removing branches
There are natural shelters - rock overhangs, space under fallen large
trees and also inside large standing trees; these are good for emergencies
or overnights and avoid using up energy making a shelter.
There are still large caves in Sherwood Forest with a past of having
been used as shelters on a regular basis - excavations reveal bones
and the remains of fires. Some caves are so big and strong they could
be used for defensive purposes or as a temporary hide-out; any outdoor
traveller, above or beyond the law, would register where all forms
of natural shelter might be found and of course having used a particularly
good one, you would remember it as you might pass that way again in
Possibly the best-known locally of these large caves is Robin Hoods
Cave at Cresswell Crags, used by people for shelter for over 35,000
When youve found a shelter, the next thing to acquire is a fire.
A wonderful morale-booster, fires give off warmth and light and you
can then heat your water and cook your food using it, adding a civilised
aspect to living rather than just simply surviving outdoors and is
what makes most folk today remember as a comfortable camp under canvas
or the stars from a past outdoor experience.
Fire can be made using natural materials and is not as hard to create
this way as you think if you simply have a go and practice; an everyday
task which would be as natural and easy to a medieval person as tying
shoelaces or switching on an electric light would be to a modern city-dweller.
Medieval people often carried flint and steel but could also recognise
the correct materials for making fire by rubbing two sticks
together at a glance. This method generally falls into two categories
- the fire plough or the fire drill.
Food can be found growing in the forest the nuts, roots
and berries aspect of military survival training through eating
However, these plants are seasonable and in winter largely cease to
exist or require more energy to collect than they do by being eaten.
Eating wild plants - for sustenance rather than a requirement for
medicinal aid - only provides a small part of a daily calorific requirement
and eating in error a small portion of the wrong plant can be quite
deadly; certain toadstools mistaken for edible mushrooms or hemlock
for burnet saxifrage would quickly result in your death.
Crops and vegetables would have been planted and nurtured by local
villages earlier in the year, to be harvested when ready and then
stored for later use. These could be raided by an outlaw band and
taken in small quantities to provide food for a number of days. There
are the obvious disadvantages to this - Common people have little
or nothing to spare and would resist as best they could as their lives
literally depended on these stores.
An outlaw band sheltering in woodland would exist almost side-by-side
with local villagers and as most medieval outlaws were captured through
being betrayed, it would be best to either avoid villagers altogether
or at least try and stay on reasonably good terms with them.
To make the local people fear you so much that they would both provide
valuable foodstuffs and not betray you to the authorities has been
demonstrated enough in the past to be seen as worthless for anything
beyond a few days.
The Kings deer the oft-quoted free lunch of Robin Hood
and The Merry Men are of course there to be taken if you have
the skills or the necessary hunting gear.
However, in addition to meat, bread is also a necessity and does not
grow on trees or roam the forest glades and by eating only venison
you would become sick and grow weaker on a diet of pure protein.
If you could escape or avoid the Foresters and take deer, a local
villager could probably be contacted or found who would readily exchange
a piece of meat for a loaf of bread, a basket of vegetables or a jug
The penalties for both if caught poaching were extremely severe
in some cases amputation of fingers or hands, branding and blinding
or a fine so heavy it would financially crush a man or his village
Lurking outlaws themselves may have also once lived in the same village,
and have relatives or friends there to help them survive and were
not criminals or bad men.
Living with the in-laws
The law forbad anyone to give succour, aid, help and food to outlaws,
who could be taken dead or alive by anyone for a guaranteed cash reward.
For the out-laws to move back in with the in-laws
in hard times or bad weather would make good sense ; travel and news
became very hard in Sherwood Forest in winter and some places would
at times be simply unreachable through snow or mud, with roads and
tracks simply disappearing for weeks in the rain or under snow and
ice (March was known in Sherwood Forest as Mud-Month where
roads and tracks became impassable for long periods ; a problem that
remained in Sherwood Forest into the mid 18th Century).
If at these times you couldnt get out of the village it meant
that a threat in the form of officialdom couldnt get in and
for a time a resident outlaw amongst friends might have relative peace,
a roof over his head, hot food and a welcome change of company in
the form of fresh faces.
January in Sherwood Forest was known as Wolf-Month for
a very good reason; wolf packs driven by snow or cold to shelter in
the woodlands in the same way as the outlaws would become a serious
threat; the wolves natural food was scarce at that time and starving
animals were known to overcome their natural fear of man and enter
nearby villages in an attempt to carry off livestock and on more than
a few occasions even small children - grown men and horses passing
through Sherwood in the medieval period are recorded as having been
attacked by wolves. A wintertime hazard that remained until the 14th
In one medieval example, a wolf leapt out on a horse and rider, bit
off a piece of horse-rump and fled into the forest with the reeking
piece of flesh before the rider realised what had happened. A small
child was carried off from Linby by a wolf in the early 12th Century.
Even an armed man on foot would become a hunted quarry and possibly
have to face a desperate and terrifying foe suited to the environment
and equipped with deadly weapons designed for face-to-face close-combat.
All outlaws were not necessarily bad men many were victims
of a corrupt law system, some honest rebels against the regal status
quo, others simply in the way or social outcasts.
Medieval people were all firm believers in God and The Virgin Mary
and prayed to both for deliverance and support; this would provide
a degree of comfort during periods of pain or lonely isolation.
In addition to the tangible requirements for survival stated earlier,
there is the less tangible but most important requirement of sheer
willpower if you dont think you can survive you probably
The psychological effect of living outdoors for a long time on a knife-edge
would wear down an outlaws ability to think and plan; he would
be unable to react rationally to an immediate or sudden threat and
any ill-considered action - or sheer panic - would sink him deeper
and deeper into trouble. He would become as wild as the environment,
cease to be fully human and eventually succumb.
An old survival adage from the North American
Fur Trade years 1750-1840 is Where one man can survive, two
men can fare well : certainly numbers would permit support and
a delegation of tasks but would also require more food from
a selected catchment area.
In the medieval forest world there are no doctors, dentists, supermarkets,
clothing outlets, friendly policemen, fast-food chains or charity
To survive in the medieval forest to become like Robin Hood, one must
take into account that it isn't just about survival - you must adapt,
improvise but above all overcome; take precautions, make preparations
and plan ahead.
Only then will it cease to be simple survival and become a way of
life but to endure the long term, you really must learn to
stop roughing it, settle in, know your stuff, develop
a routine, then learn to like it and want to be there. Only then do
you become part of it all.
The author has served as a historical and technical
adviser and armourer in successful television drama series and has
contributed to several documentaries discussing Robin Hood. Most of
the aspects in this article are featured in the authors two
books The Legend of Robin Hood and Robin Hood :
On the Outlaw Trail in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest.
about the author...
Richard Rutherford-Moore is an international historic tour guide,
historical consultant for television drama and documentary and
author. Since 1997, Richard has served as a guide and lecturer
in exploring "Robin Hood Country". He has served as a historical
and technical adviser and armourer in a successful television
drama series and has contributed to several documentaries discussing
Robin Hood. Most of the aspects in this article are featured
in the author’s two books ‘The Legend of Robin Hood ‘and ‘Robin
Hood : On the Outlaw Trail in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest’.