“Where will the old duke live?” asks Oliver, in Shakespeare’s “As you like it.”
“They say he is already in the forest of Arden,” answers Charles, “and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.”
Many a merry man, indeed, was there with Robin Hood in Sherwood forest, and, if we may believe the stories that live in the heart of English song, there they fleeted the time as carelessly as men did in the golden age; for Robin was king of the merry greenwood, as the Norman kings were lords of the realm beside, and though his state was not so great nor his coffers so full, his heart was merrier and his conscience more void of offence against man and God. If Robin lived by plunder, so did the king; the one took toll from a few travellers, the other from a kingdom; the one dealt hard blows in self-defence, the other killed thousands in war for self-aggrandizement; the one was a patriot, the other an invader. Verily Robin was far the honester man of the two, and most worthy the admiration of mankind.
Nor was the kingdom of Robin Hood so much less extensive than that of England’s king as men may deem, though its tenants were fewer and its revenues less. For in those days forest land spread widely over the English isle. The Norman kings had driven out the old inhabitants far and wide, and planted forests in place of towns, peopling them with deer in place of men. In its way this was merciful, perhaps. Those rude old kings were not content unless they were hunting and killing, and it was better they should kill deer than men. But their cruel game-laws could not keep men from the forests, and the woods they planted served as places of shelter for the outlaws they made.
William the Conqueror, so we are told, had no less than sixty-eight forests peopled with deer, and guarded against intrusion of common man by a cruel interdict. His successors added new forests, until it looked as if England might be made all woodland, and the red deer its chief inhabitants. Sherwood forest, the favorite lurking-place of the bold Robin, stretched for thirty miles in an unbroken line. But this was only part of Robin’s “realm of plesaunce.” From Sherwood it was but a step to other forests, stretching league after league, and peopled by bands of merry rovers, who laughed at the king’s laws, killed and ate his cherished deer at their own sweet wills, and defied sheriff and man-at-arms, the dense forest depths affording them innumerable lurking-places, their skill with the bow enabling them to defend their domain from assault, and to exact tribute from their foes.
Such was the realm of Robin Hood, a realm of giant oaks and silvery birches, a realm prodigal of trees, o’ercanopied with green leaves until the sun had ado to send his rays downward, carpeted with brown moss and emerald grasses, thicketed with a rich undergrowth of bryony and clematis, prickly holly and golden furze, and a host of minor shrubs, while some parts of the forest were so dense that, as Camden says, the entangled branches of the thickly-set trees “were so twisted together, that they hardly left room for a person to pass.”
Here were innumerable hiding-places for the forest outlaws when hunted too closely by their foes. They lacked not food; the forest was filled with grazing deer and antlered stags. There was also abundance of smaller game,–the hare, the coney, the roe; and of birds,–the partridge, pheasant, woodcock, mallard, and heron. Fuel could be had in profusion when fire was needed. For winter shelter there were many caverns, for Sherwood forest is remarkable for its number of such places of refuge, some made by nature, others excavated by man.