Little John’s Grave and the Robin Hood Connection

Little John's headstone (image by author)

The Peak District in Northern England is an ancient landscape steeped in myth and legend, none more enduring than that of Robin Hood.  Robin’s trusted companion Little John appears alongside him in early accounts dating from 1420 to 1440, and a headstone in Hathersage churchyard is even marked with his name…

Depiction of the famous quarterstaffs duel, after which Robin and Little John, then adversaries, become friends (painting by Louis Rhead)

(Public domain image)

In popular folklore, John Little is described as a “giant of a man”, prompting Robin to reverse his first and last names to create the ironic nickname by which he is known in popular legend.  In most versions of the tale, John’s origins are associated with the Peak District village of Hathersage in Derbyshire, where the grave bearing his name still exists today.

Illustration (left) by Frank Godwin for the novel "Robin Hood" by Henry Gilbert; right image by author

(Left image in public domain)

The grave stone’s inscription reads:

“Here lies buried Little John, the friend & lieutenant of Robin Hood.  He died in a cottage (now destroyed) to the east of the churchyard.  The grave is marked by this old headstone & footstone and is underneath this old yew tree.”

St Michael's Church, Hathersage (images by author)

But is this really the grave of the legendary Merry Man?  As usual, opinion is divided.  The headstone is more modern, although an older one also adornes the grave, its inscription too weathered to read.  With no clear-cut evidence of the existence of an outlaw known as Little John – other than ballads and obscure historical document pertaining to the name – the origins of the grave are uncertain.  But in 1784 Captain James Shuttleworth exhumed the thigh bone of a man who once stood more than 7 feet tall – clarifying that the occupant was a “giant of a man”.

The Origins of Robin Hood

Illustrations by Louis Rhead

(Images left and right in public domain)

Little John’s tale is intrinsically linked with that of his fearless leader, Robin Hood.  But Robin’s origins are also debated.  Two theories pitch Robin as either a peasant or a nobleman who spurned his birthright to defend the poor and oppressed.  Both schools of thought were successfully explored in the Robin of Sherwood television series of the 1980s – arguably the best version to date, with a rich mixture of “swords and sorcery” that took audiences by storm on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robin's mullet was dodgy, but it does not take away from the genius of this series (images via Amazon)

(Robin of Sherwood DVD available here)

The sorcery angle tackled the romantic and superstitious aspects of the legend in the context of its times, and the iconic characterisation depicted “The Hooded Man” as a symbol of the Longbowman of England, fighting against Norman oppression.  As a peasant, he is characterised as “Robin of Locksley”, believed to refer to the village of Loxley eight miles from Hathersage – now a suburb of Sheffield.  This is geographically plausible, since Sherwood Forest once stretched from Sheffield to Nottingham, home of the notorious Sherriff.

Hathersage Church (image by author)

St Michael’s Church at Hathersage dates back to 1381, although an older church occupied the site 200 years hundred earlier.  Other famous resting residents include the Eyre family.  Beneath the alter tomb lies Robert Eyre (died 1459) who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, and built much of the current church.  Charlotte Bronte also stayed at Hathersage while writing Jane Eyre.

Pagan Influence

Robin Hood's Stride (top) by Darius Khan; Robin Hood's Cave (left) by Stephen Horncastle; right and lower (Nine Stones circle) by Alun Salt

(Images 1, 2, 3, 4 licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Robin and John’s tale is intimately linked with the Peak District National Park.  Robin Hood’s Cave on Stanage Edge was supposedly used as a hideout, while Robin Hood’s Stride overlooking the Nine Stones circle alludes to pagan origins.  In this context, Robin Hood is thought to refer to Robin of the Greenwood (or the Green Man, a popular fertility symbol that curiously makes an appearance in various medieval churches, including the enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel).

Green Man carving (church in Lincolnshire) by Simon Garbutt; scene from a MIdsummer Night's Dream by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (right)

(Images (left and right) available into public domain)

Scholars suggest the name derived from Robin Goodfellow (Puck), a well known fairy figure in English folklore popularised by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Experts assert that most cultures have a Robin Hood figure – Puck lending his name to the English version.  It brings into play the summer festivals of medieval England, with their famous maypoles, which derive from pagan traditions still recognised in rural places today – and dramatised perfectly in Robin of Sherwood.

According to Legend

The gatehouse at Kirklees Priory, from where Robin is said to have fired the last arrow (image by Humphrey Bolton)

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Little John was said to be the only Merry Man present at Robin’s death, who was deceived and poisoned by the abbess of Kirklees Priory.  Realising his end was nigh, Robin drew his bow for the final time and asked John to bury him where “the last arrow” fell.  An overgrown grave at Kirklees Priory has been linked to the legend.  But many remain sceptical about its occupant – believed to be the long forgotten Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, the nobleman protagonist of the Robin Hood legend.  To this day, the location of Robin Hood’s grave remains as mysterious as the enigmatic folk hero himself, a final twist in a local legend with an insatiable global market.


About the author: Tom





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