The women who shaped Sherwood Forest
For International Women’s Day 2022, we are celebrating the women of Sherwood Forest, from those who held the title of Keeper of the Forest in the Middle Ages to those who lead conservation work here today, asking them what they considered to be their greatest achievement.
We know there are many more women who have made important contributions to the life of the Forest and its communities. We’d like to hear from you about any other women of Sherwood that you feel deserve to be added to those below.
Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject heading ‘Women of Sherwood’.
Our Women of Sherwood Event was supported by the Miner2Major Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Female keepers of medieval Sherwood Forest
Sherwood was a Royal Hunting Forest in the Middle Ages and each Forest had a Keeper, directly appointed by the king to oversee their administration as laid down in the Forest Laws. The title of Keeper of the Forest was hereditary and, thanks to the historian David Crook, we know that as many as four of Sherwood’s Keepers of the Forest were women.
In the 12th Century, the De Caux family, of Laxton, held the title and Maud De Caux is believed to have inherited it while still a child, with the duties carried out by those in whose care she was placed. She would marry the king’s chamberlain, Ralph Fitzstephen, and both were confirmed as the Forest’s keepers by King John.
However, when Ralph died in 1202, Maud was stripped of her forestership by the King. It is believed that although the title was hers by right, the idea of an unmarried widow with no heir was enough for John to deny her the role. She didn’t give up on the title though.
Over the next 18 years, she saw the King take ownership of her family seat at Laxton and give it to one of Maud’s male relatives. She also had to endure a succession of temporary keepers of her title, and to see the extent of the Forest, which covered much of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, reduce as a result of changes brought about by the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
She regained the title in 1217, following King John’s death, but fell foul of the Sheriff of Nottingham Philip Mark, who coveted the title for himself and stationed his own troops in the Forest to establish control. Undeterred, Maud would offer to buy back the title on more than one occasion, and in 1220, Mark was ordered by King Henry III to respect Maud’s forestership and to withdraw his forces. Maud retained the title until her death in 1224, but left no heir and she was succeeded by her aunt, also named Maud.
Isabella Birkin, or Isabella D’Everingham, granddaughter of the second Maud, would also go on to hold the title of Keeper of the Forest
However, there was a blow for female Keepers when Isabella’s own descendant Robert D’Everingham was stripped of the title for poaching and the hereditary succession was ended.
The role of Keeper of Sherwood Forest and Constable of Nottingham Castle were merged, but one more woman would still try to assert her rights to manage the Forest – Queen Joan, Consort of Henry IV. The records show that Joan, who spent much of her time at Nottingham, sought action through the courts against individuals who did not pay rents or chiminage – a toll for passage through the Forest – or the hambling of dogs, the removal of a dog’s claws to prevent it from hunting.
For further reading, visit the website of Mercian Archaeological Services CIC: www.mercian-as.co.uk
‘Early Keepers of Sherwood Forest‘ (Transactions of the Thoroton Society, 1980), by D. Crook
Perhaps the best known of Sherwood Forest’s women is the legendary figure of Maid Marian. Since her arrival in the legend of Robin Hood, from her roots in European folklore, her fearless, noble and independent character has endeared her to audiences, as has the love story between her and Robin, which has become woven into the fabric of Sherwood’s mythology. St Mary’s Church at Edwinstowe, just a short walk away from this spot, is reputed to be where they married.
Although she does not feature in the early ballads of Robin Hood, the names of Robin and Marian appear together in a 13th Century French story of two lovers, a shepherd and shepherdess. There is a theory that her name is a reference to the Virgin Mary, but it is more likely she is associated with the Queen or Lady of May, who would feature in the medieval tradition of May Games, held around Whitsuntide, when the characters of both ‘Robin’ and ‘Marian’ were popular figures during the 15th Century.
The story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian really became established in the Elizabethan times thanks to the play ‘The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon’ by Anthony Munday, in which the two are married. Marian was identified in another of Munday’s plays as Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. Fitzwalter was the Earl of Huntingdon and a leader of the baronial uprising against King John which led to the Magna Carta. Fitzwalter was forced to flee England because of an assassination attempt on the monarch, motivated, he claimed, by the King’s attempt to seduce his daughter.
Marian has also been given the surname Fitzwalter in later versions of the tales of Robin Hood.
Famously, the ballad ‘Robin Hood and Maid Marian’ describes how, having searched the Forest for the outlaw, Marian and Robin fought each other while both in disguise, with her dressed as a page (a young male servant). Marian wins the fight, only to discover who her opponent really is when he asks for quarter.
Strong, rebellious , yet elegant portrayals of Marian have been performed countless times in films throughout the last century, often showing disdain for the other outlaws’ penchant for robbery. Whether she existed or not, her impact on the longevity and popularity of the legend certainly rivals Robin’s. Her name is just as synonymous with that of Sherwood Forest as his and their story continues to draw people to the Forest to this day.
Etta Lemon, Eliza Phillips and Emily Williamson - Founders of the RSPB
The legacy of Etta Lemon, Eliza Phillips and Emily Williamson is helping to shape the landscape of Sherwood Forest today. That’s because these three remarkable women were the founders of the modern-day Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which manages RSPB Sherwood Forest and Budby South Forest.
Determined to end the use of feathers as plumage in hatmaking, which was causing the unnecessary deaths of millions of birds, Etta and Eliza formed the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk organisation in Croydon in 1889 and joined forces with Emily’s Manchester-based Society for the Protection of Birds, which had been campaigning on the same issue, in 1891.
In 1890, Eliza and Etta highlighted the plight of the egret, aiming their message about the harm being done by the pursuit of feathers for fashion at wealthy women. Emily had focused her campaign on the danger posed to the great-crested grebe. They enjoyed the support of Winifred, the Duchess of Portland, who became the Society’s first President and of Queen Alexandra, to whom the Duchess was Mistress of the Robes and who made her support for their work public in 1906.
For 30 years, the Society campaigned for a ban on the practice, finally achieving a major victory in their campaign when the Importation of Plumage (Prohibiton) Act was brought in in 1921.
The RSPB’s role as a campaigning organisation for the protection of wildlife across the UK continues to this day. To find out more about its work and campaigns, visit www.rspb.org.uk
Pictured below: Etta Lemon (left) and Emily Williamson. There is no known photograph of Eliza Phillips.
Winifred, Duchess of Portland
Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck was one of the most well-connected women of the Edwardian era and a hugely influential figure in the conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
After marrying the Duke of Portland, she lived at nearby Welbeck Abbey, and her prominence in society rose. She had been a canopy bearer to Queen Alexandra at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and was Mistress of the Robes to the Queen from 1913-1925.
However, she was also passionate about the welfare of wildlife, and birds in particular. In 1891, she became the first and longest-serving president of the Society for the Protection of Birds, a position she held until her death in 1954. She helped the society to obtain its royal charter and
become the RSPB, which manages Sherwood Forest and Budby South Forest today. The Duchess was also vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and president of its ladies section. She was President of the Nottinghamshire Beekeepers Association and a member of the Vegetarian Society.
She was also hugely interested in social reform. Early on in her marriage, she persuaded her husband to use his winnings from horse racing to build the Welbeck Almshouses. The Duchess supported the local coal mining community, paying for medical treatments for miners and organising cooking and sewing lessons for their daughters.
The Nottinghamshire Miners’ Welfare Association petitioned the king to have an honour bestowed on her on account of her work, and in 1935 she was made a Dame of the British Empire.
Today's women of Sherwood
Portraits by Ian Dearman/Scruffy Whippet Media.