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October 2003
Bury me where my arrow falls...
A reconstruction of Robin Hood's last arrow by Richard Rutherford-Moore
The author has served as a historical interpreter for Notts County Council’s “Robin Hood Country” and in several articles about Robin Hood on the BBC Nottingham website, serving as a historical adviser and contributor to television programs such as The True Story of Robin Hood (The History Channel) and Robin Hood : Fact or Fiction ? (Channel 4). This article is based on research for the chapter ‘Kirklees - A Grave Mistake ?’ in the author’s final book On The Outlaw Trail Again in his Robin Hood trilogy in which the subject of “Robin Hood’s Grave” is discussed in detail. The book is scheduled to be published in late 2003.

“When you have eliminated every other possibility, what remains - however improbable - must be the truth.”
Mr Sherlock Holmes to Dr John Watson : London, December 1892

“Bury me where my arrow falls …” are traditionally Robin Hood’s last words to Little John ; or at very least something close to his traditional last words to his best friend before dying in one of the rooms of the Gatehouse of Kirklees Priory. The famous outlaw traditionally went to the Priory as he had a kinswoman there serving as the Prioress who was skilled at medicine, and he hoped for a cure for his ailments or at best some form of tonic. Although the Prioress and her associate, Red Roger or Roger of Donkesley in the story have come down to us today as being the definite ‘baddies’ in the tale, they weren’t actually at fault under medieval law ; outlaws were really ‘outside the law’ by order of the authorities and as they officially didn’t exist anyone could legally take them dead or alive to claim an official reward. The Prioress could be judged at fault allowing a known outlaw aid as giving shelter, food or any assistance to known outlaws was strictly forbidden and would be punished if discovered.

Kirklees Priory - as all similar religious houses - did put up travellers or the sick in their Guest House or hospital and provide them with food and drink in return for a ‘donation’ ; this is where Robin Hood should have been staying but as he was related to the Prioress there he was convieniently lodged in an upstairs room of the Priory Gate House instead. The Guest House was a quarter of a mile away from the actual Priory but the Gate House was part of the main Priory complex itself. The gatehouse offered far more privacy than the public rooms - especially if you were intending to bump somebody off whilst in there. It doesn’t say so in the old ballad, but Little John probably stayed in the public Guest House, ten minutes walk away and may have been somewhere in the vicinity of that place when he heard Robin Hood’s bugle-horn signal for help.

A study of stories and tales between the 15th - 18th Century offer various accounts of the death of the famous outlaw and the shooting of a ‘last arrow’ ; in the earlier stories, it isn’t mentioned at all and in later ones we sometimes have two ‘last arrows’ with the first shot by Robin dropping into running water. The present monument to the south-east bearing the name “Robin Hood’s Grave” where the outlaw is traditionally held to be resting in peace lies six hundred and fifty metres from where it is traditionally held the last arrow was shot by Robin Hood - between two and three times the maximum distance held by reconstructed modern medieval archers that an actual medieval archer within the time-slot above could have shot over with an arrow. It was noted by the author that the distance at Kirklees between the present Robin Hood’s Grave from where the arrow was traditionally shot was exactly double the length of the famous shot mentioned in the old ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.

NOTE : A reconstructed shot to define the power and distance using a bow made to the design of the very powerful longbows from Henry VIII’s flagship The Mary Rose (mid-16th Century) sent the arrow 227 yards. Other reconstructions from recreated medieval archers have reached ranges between 250 and 300 yards. Feats of archery in the old Robin Hood ballads are always exaggerated ; for example, splitting a tree branch with an arrow at a distance of 330 yards - but of course in medieval times accurate tape-measures were not common at all and the distance of any such shot would have probably been measured in ‘paces’. The longbow claimed to have once been owned by Little John weighed twenty pounds, measured six feet seven inches long, six inches in circumference at the grip, fitted with horn nocks and had a reported pull of over a hundred and fifty pounds. This sort of power might be useful in hunting wild elephants but could drive an arrow right though a deer at the kind of range you’d probably hunt over in a medieval forest. One arrow shot during a medieval siege at a Welsh castle still has the arrowhead embedded three inches deep in a stout oak door there.

What would Robin Hood or Little John have seen looking out of the upper east-facing windows of the old Kirklees Priory Gatehouse when preparing to loose a final arrow ? The answer - of course - is Kirklees Priory. The religious house here was founded in 1155 (the beginning of the reign of Henry II) by Reynor de Fleming, the lord of the manor of nearby Clifton under the Cistercian Order. The Priory later held the daughters of the local gentry for safe-keeping ; these weren’t under holy orders and caused fun and games into which a few of the nuns were said to have joined in ; in October 1315 the Archbishop of York censured the place after hearing ‘ … scandalous reports of the nuns of Kirklees … that they admit both clergy and laymen too often into the secret places of the monastery and having private talks with them from which there is a suspicion of sin and great scandal arises …’ The good archbishop went on to ‘ … command the Prioress to admonish the nuns and especially those above named that they are to admit no-one whether religious or secular unless in a public place and in the presence of the Prioress under penalty of Greater Excommunication’. Excommunication by a religious court to the medieval clergy was what outlawry from a common law court was to a medieval commoner.

Kirklees Priory lasted until the period of The Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII ; the place was closed in 1539 and the royal commissioners arrived the following year to take it over as Crown property. The occupants became redundant but having nowhere to go some are said to have stayed in the area in ever-dwindling numbers with one of the nuns at the time after allegedly being made pregnant by a royal commissioner later drowning herself in the nearby Nun Brook. The Priory grounds became a privately owned estate in 1565.

Looking out of the upper storey windows of the Priory Gatehouse last year I tried to imagine the Priory in front of me using a survey drawn up after modern excavations, pictures, photographs and period illustrations of what religious houses such as Kirklees Priory looked like.

NOTE : A survey followed excavations of Kirklees Priory in the early part of the 19th Century, with the chief concern apparently being other buildings perhaps not discovered including a possible missing dormitory and frater (dining-room). The Priory Gatehouse was rebuilt and ‘modernised’ in the last half of the 16th Century and no-one knows what the actual differences are between the present building and the original gatehouse (save the inclusion of chimneys, which weren’t invented when the original was built) but an artists impression in the possession of a Yorkshire archaeologist has the original building having an archway and perhaps twice the size. This was another factor to consider when fixing the elevation of the arrow, but the ground plan and foundations of the present gatehouse are generally held to be very similar to the original building. The upstairs floor of the original building could have been a little lower than it is today.

It wasn’t a large place compared to some contemporary religious houses - Rufford Abbey and St Mary’s Priory in Sherwood Forest for example, founded around the same time - but as part of the endowment obviously had a good bit of land to use as the Priory Guest House was built about a quarter of a mile away to the south-east. Later, a large barn was added and taking advantage of the Nun Brook flowing past the Priory, fish-ponds were excavated to provide the occupants with food for the days when meat was forbidden to be eaten by them for religious reasons. None of the Priory buildings save the Gatehouse are there today as they were pulled down and the materials from them went into building the nearby old hall ; the Gatehouse itself was maintained as a ‘hunting lodge’ and interior decorations added to oak beams in the form of inlaid carvings of deer, foliage and trees. As it was a convent, the wall enclosing these buildings would have been high enough to prevent anyone jumping up to peer over the top ; perhaps as much as twelve feet high. No windows faced outwards except in the Priory Gatehouse. The tallest building there before 1540 would have been the Priory church and bell-tower, the roof level of the cloister adjoining the church to the south and some small buildings to the south of the cloister dropping to between nine and twelve feet, as according to the archaeological survey being mainly ground-floor buildings only with perhaps an exception in one adjoining building on the far eastern edge. These buildings would have been the ones that the two outlaws would have seen in front of them looking east out of the upper storey windows of the Priory Gatehouse at any time in the two-hundred year long time-span between the year 1200 and 1450 which forms the historical time-slot in which the ‘last arrow of Robin Hood’ is traditionally supposed to have been shot there by historians and researchers.

I recalled what the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes advised when faced with an awkward three-pipe problem and facts that offered no solution to it. Could a simulation or a reproduction of ‘Robin Hood’s last arrow’ be possible ? On my last visit to the Gatehouse I borrowed a short plant-stick from the nearby barn about the length of an arrow and rather like a magician’s wand used it to note a few measurements for a proposed future experiment.

Back at home in Sherwood Forest to make the practical experiment a little easier, I sliced off the first and last fifty years of the two hundred year-long time-span ; the longbow intended to be used is of the kind used from about the end of the 12th century, and the most popular date for Robin Hood’s death at Kirklees is 1247 - the 13th Century - and most of the supporting evidence for the outlaw’s existence dates from the 14th Century. Not a war-bow with a pull of over a hundred pounds, but the sort of bow an outlaw chap might carry on a day-to-day basis to put meat on the table ; about sixty to eighty pounds draw-weight at around five and a half feet in length. An ash bow would be longer for the same power ratio so a yew bow was selected for the experiment. Similarly, the arrows intended to be used were of the sort suitable for hunting an animal such as fallow deer and not military heavyweight armour-piercing bodkin points. Hunting arrows are lighter and intended to be loosed at a flat trajectory into the correct place in the intended ‘live’ target ; although clout-shooting is known to have been practised, in a hunting sense it is inapplicable. Dropping arrows on a target from above is a military tactic, performed at long-range against a body of advancing enemy soldiers and these projectiles would be made far heavier. But - before any reconstructed arrow can be shot - a look must also be taken at the many factors influencing power, flight length and direction.

How did Robin Hood shoot his final arrow ; was he in a vertical position, a horizontal one - or something in between ? At the time, most tales relate he was feeling pretty ill, but in one story he managed despite the great loss of blood to blow a horn-signal loud enough to be heard at a distance outside the building and just after that use a sword to knock out an assassin - by mortally wounding him - despite being wounded himself by the assassin during the fight. It is this wounding that is said to have been the final straw that did for Robin Hood. The National Blood Transfusion Service suggest a few minutes rest and give donors a cup of tea and a biscuit after taking a pint of blood - taking two or more by this method is said to be very dangerous as it is going far faster than the body can replace it would cause rapid and increasing dehydration. Outside of a Hollywood feature film, a man suffering from a combination of rapid blood loss, nervous tension, physical exertion and shock one would at least have him at least sitting down - before he fell down - for more than a few minutes in order to recover. For an experienced hard-bitten medieval English archer with one foot through death’s door and about to die even aided by a well-built friend, drawing to the chest, judging both elevation and direction and shooting an arrow out of a narrow window from a upwards-facing horizontal position to send it over six hundred yards would be quite impossible.

NOTE : I selected the illustration of Robin Hood’s last arrow with this article as Little John is seen mostly supporting Robin Hood’s body as in other illustrations John is actually helping Robin to draw the bow. But - if you are an archer or have a bow and wish to try this for yourselves, try the latter position with a friend and see how difficult it is - but for safety reasons please don’t nock any arrows to the bowstring indoors.

Assuming the archer is within two feet of the window, the nearer the floor - or lying on his back on a bed - the arrow was loosed the higher the possible height, passing as close as possible to the top edge of the window. Shooting straight through the window from a sitting position, you can get a far better distance but achieve less height ; from a standing position you can judge the optimum height to gain the furthest distance particularly by bending the right knee and drawing the arrow to the chest.

The arrow was shot from an upstairs window ; allowance must be made for a starting height of between twelve and fifteen feet. This may seem petty, but it is an important factor to consider in terms of a possible trajectory as in front of us we have buildings and we don’t want to hit any. The highest part of the biggest building extending over thirty degrees to our left is 50 feet away , 80 feet long and 21 feet wide with the highest part somewhere between thirty and forty feet high measured from the ground, and is on the left-hand side of the buildings. The further right we aim, the less the height of the buildings - between nine and twelve feet - in front of the arrow. Beyond the far edge of these buildings - 150 feet away - or across the brook to our right we have a clear area (but a few trees). The window restricts aiming left to right. The closer we are to it, the more angle we gain. But ; for a right-handed person using a longbow the forearm must extend up to two feet from our body to gain the power ; a necessary position but an awkward restriction on where we can aim left to right. The farther the archer is away from the window, the more severe the angle of flight for the arrow left or right.

We are after maximum power to gain a maximum range. We are assuming the archer has enough strength left for at least one good shot from his bow, with a bit of help from a friend. We are assuming that this friend can move him to face in the best direction so he doesn’t have to get up off the bed or chair he is lying on or sitting in. Using the imagination - or your bedroom and few props to get a better understanding perhaps - the reader should now have arrived at a point where they have a rough idea of how and where the arrow could have been shot.

I had to repeat my calculations in the Priory Gatehouse twice ; because of the right-hand edge of the window there is only a twenty-degree wide slot ten degrees to the right out of the window to the right of the highest building from in which to be able in the body-position proposed to actually shoot the arrow through the window to suit the requirements for reaching the optimum height to gain a maximum distance and stay very clear of the water in the brook. You have the power to clear the brook by aiming well to the right but anywhere to the right beyond the specified degree the left arm, the window edge and the gatehouse wall severely restrict an aiming point to be able to do so.

We now have an elevation ; we don’t require any particular target to shoot at but we do require to calculate the available power. We can ‘cheat’ a little here - by drawing the bowstring back towards the chest and loosing a number of arrows when a mark on the base of a thumb of the right hand is between twelve and zero inches from the chest, we can get a variation in power and an average ‘fall of shot’. Let’s say we loose an arrow every two inches out from the body until we reach two inches back from fist-mele ; the problem with that is the far edge of the buildings is 150 feet away from us. We must have the power to clear not only the height of the buildings but also the length ; all 150 feet. We now have the estimated minimum power as we must clear that distance at the optimum height. Maximum power is pure guesswork but the bow can be shot at full-draw, which is the maximum possible power.

NOTE : Fist-mele is the historic measurement used by archers stringing longbows to define the correct tension of the bow before shooting. It is where the thumbs-up sign to signal ‘affirmative’ originates. The modern workplace terms ‘knocking-on’ and ‘knocking-off’ have the same origin.

Despite the obvious temptations, shooting an arrow out of the actual window of the Priory Gatehouse was never considered. The place is a historic building and there is a modern road, other buildings and people and pets that live there - gardens, hedges and trees make visibility into many areas quite impossible. One needs to take precautions when indulging in live archery ; I had very good teachers who impressed this factor on me continuously but I am also lucky in that there are some pretty wide open areas in Sherwood Forest where I live. Standing with a companion at the end of a long grassy field, having checked for hazards and keeping an eye open for any developing hazards, I could measure the height to identify the area in terms of elevation and windage my arrow must pass through in a simulation of the restrictions in space to shoot an arrow out of the window of the Priory Gatehouse. I had twenty arrows, all the same weight and design. Obviously the additional power supplied by a friend helping you shoot has a lower and an upper limit - the upper limit is not far from actually shooting the arrow himself with the restriction that he actually has his arms around you to reach this level of power. The practical experiment here introduced another hitherto unconsidered problem - what to do with the bottom end of the longbow ; we can’t saw it off as it is a necessary requirement ! Aiming to the right or left brings the lower end into contact with the no-go area of the bed or chair. Lying on a bed or sitting in a chair the bow can only be drawn by an archer and a friend helping him by having the upper part of the bow tilted to the left at least thirty degrees from vertical or by increasing the elevation which reduces the distance. This affected both the distance and direction of the loosing of the arrows.

One last bit of evidence to read, from an old hand-written document known as The Sloane MS, now in the British Museum : Robin Hood left for the Priory because he felt ‘… distempered with cold and with great pain in his limbs, his blood being corrupted …’ ; so the poor chap was already feeling pretty awful even before he arrived at the Priory and in addition to his weakness having then walked all the way from Barnsdale or Sherwood Forest, a distance of between 25 and 50 miles. Add to this loss of blood followed by a deadly sword-fight, a wound from an edged weapon, ensuing shock and a high fever … maybe I had all this on my mind as if guided by the hand of Providence - or someone related to them - the first arrow shot went too far to the right and dropped short into where the running water of the Priory brook would have been if shooting from the upstairs Priory Gatehouse window. The rest of my arrows that did achieve the necessary height and clear the ‘no-go’ area within 50 metres of where I was standing - simulating the buildings of the Priory - on average fell at a distance of between sixty and eighty metres away roughly within five metres of each other.

So; what have I proved ? The reader is perhaps thinking by now I’ve gone to a lot of trouble and an awful long way around to prove what was already well known before I started ; an English medieval arrow cannot be shot from an English medieval bow over a range of over six hundred metres.

Many travellers and visitors took time to go and see the grave of Robin Hood in the 16th Century and between the years 1600 and 1632 there was a great increase in the popularity of the English archer-outlaw which lasted until Victorian times when it leapt up in popularity once again. At least two visitors from the late 16th - early 17th Century described their visits and the actual grave in books and are the oldest recorded references to the gravesite outside the ballads. One of these visitors, a noted collector and archivist of historic, antiquarian and archaeological information who travelled extensively published a large book with maps containing his travel notes. His reference is rather obscure but if his description of the gravesite and a plan of where my arrows would have dropped if shot from the upper windows of the Priory Gatehouse using the criteria in this article are overlaid the arrows would fall in and around the area he described as the location of the grave of Robin Hood. No outlaw’s grave can be seen on this spot today but a grave from antiquity - described by the above antiquarian in the same account - is present.

Finding the man who actually said “Bury me where my arrow falls …” was always far beyond the scope of my experiment - but during estate improvement work in the mid-18th Century human bones from an unmarked grave were removed from the area of the old Priory burial grounds ; knowledge of the whereabouts of these remains has been lost. But - the human remains in the unknown grave would have been exactly where my ‘experimental arrows’ dropped if plotted on the map of old Kirklees Priory.

Ecce Homo, my dear Watson ?

This article is abbreviated from the chapter ‘Kirklees - A Grave Mistake? in the book On The Outlaw Trail Again! by the author.

Please Note: The Kirklees Park Estate is private property and prior permission must be sought in writing before making any visit. The author would like to thank the Kirklees Estate Staff for help in constructing this article : David Hepworth, Ray and Lynne Wilde.

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