Robin Hood’s Bay Letter

Revised, 21/3/24

The discovery of ‘robin oeds bay’ in this letter from Male in Flanders has caused controversy as it possibly contains the first mention of Robin Hood. It is written in French and dated the first of March, but the year is not revealed. It was sent to Edward II or Edward III by the count of Flanders, Nevers, and Rethel, who was either Louis I (1322-46) or Louis II (1346-84). In the letter the count transmits a complaint by John Cullin ‘burgess of Nieuport in Flanders and his companions, fishermen’, that they in August last past set out to sea and took fourteen lasts (a Dutch unit of mass, volume, and number) of herring. Some people from ‘S Emont’ (could mean people of the land of St Edmund, once the patron saint of England and King of East Anglia, or it could be a reference to Bury St Edmunds) and others of England came with six ships and took everything from the Flemish ship and all of the people to ‘robin oeds bay’. From here they took the burgesses to Whitby where they pleaded for their lives. They were freed without charge but their ship and its contents were withheld. The count of Flanders, on behalf of the burgesses asks Edward to restore to them the ship and its goods, as they are poor people who would be driven to begging without their livelihood.


The National Archives, ref: SC 1 / 33

When we compare the letter by the count of Flanders with the Hamilton Papers, we can see there is a strangely similar incident in 1543-4. In this instance, it is Englishmen that are the victims of piracy by Scotsmen. More than one hundred Scottish men board a merchant ship from Newcastle (called the ‘James’), which was anchored at Camfere in Zelande (south western Netherlands); it contained food supplies and other merchandise. One Englishman was killed in the attack and others wounded. Thirty Scots took the ship and its mariners to Robin Hood’s Bay where they were robbed of ten pound ‘and all theire writingis, cokkettis, and lettres.’ The merchants of Newcastle complain that this loss of goods will cause hardship to the town, and they apply through the Privy Council, to have the king write to ‘the Governour and lordis of Flaunders’, to pay restitution from the Scottish ships and goods that are presently ‘undir arreste’ in Camfere:


There is another translation of the letter by Ian Short, Emeritus Professor of French at Birkbeck, University of London, and another by David Crook (with the help of Michael Jones and Stephen O’ Connor) in Robin Hood: Legend and Reality, 2020, pp. 158-9. The record in the Hamilton Papers also appears in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, Vol. XIX-Part 1, James Gairdner and R. H. Brodie, London, 1903, p. 122.

In 1274 there were acts of lawlessness in the North Sea by men of Flanders:

Other Records of Robin Hood’s Bay

1. Robin Hood’s Bay is listed as: ‘Robin Hoode Baye 1532 Whitby. The name is not found before the 16th cent. and probably arose from the popular ballads.’ (The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire. English Place-Name Society, Volume V, 1928, p. 118, by A. H. Smith; reprinted 1979).

2. John Leland describes ‘Robyn Huddes Bay’ as a ‘fischer tounlet of 20. bootes a dok or bosom of a mile yn lenghth’ (The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 parts 1 to 111, Lucy Toulmin Smith, London, 1907, p. 51. Leland possibly visited the bay in 1538.

3. There is revenue from Robin Hoode Baye paid by cottage-holders (The Publications of the Surtees Society, Vol. LXXII. For the year 1879. Cartularium Abbathiae de Whiteby, Ordinis S. Benedicti, Fundatae Anno MLXXVIII), vol. 2, John Christopher Atkinson. Published for the Society by Andrews & co., Durham, 1881, p. 741).* There is a heading: ‘DCL. (Ministers’ Accounts, 31-38 Henr. VIII. No. 179.)’ on page 719 which corresponds to the revenue from Robin Hoode Baye, which must have been paid between 1539 and 1547.

* There is a note by Atkinson: ‘It will have been remarked that this name [Robin Hoode Baye] is never mentioned in any of the documents hitherto printed and connected with the Fylingdales Manor. The time and reason of its imposition appear to be hid in obscurity, and it is hard to frame even a probable surmise on the subject.’

4. Lionel Charlton seems to have believed that when Robin was in danger of capture, he would escape to sea in one of his boats, usually kept at Robin Hood’s Bay (The History of Whitby and of Whitby Abbey, York, 1779, p. 146). Charlton, among others, was possibly influenced by the ballad The Noble Fisherman; or, Robin Hoods Preferment. The first surviving broadside copy by Anthony a’ Wood, seems to date from the same decade as a ballad of ‘The Noble Fisherman, or, Robin Hoods great Prize,’ which was entered in the Stationers’ Registers as early as 13 June 1631; unfortunately it has not survived (see, Dobson and Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, pp. 179-82). In The Noble Fisherman; or, Robin Hoods Preferment, Robin goes to Scarborough (which is twelve miles south of Robin Hood’s Bay) where he stays in a widow’s house near the sea. He pretends to be a poor fisherman called Simon over the Lee. She owns a ship and employs Robin as a sailor. The ship sails away; the sailors cast in their baited hooks from the stationary ship, but Robin catches none. The master of the ship tells Robin that he shall have none of the catch; he wishes he were back in Plompton Park. The ship sails away again; Robin spots a French warship. The master of the ship fears that the Frenchmen will steal their catch and imprison them all in France. Robin boasts that he can kill all the Frenchmen with his ‘bent bow’. The master is scornful but Robin has himself tied to the mast; he draws his bow and kills two Frenchmen. Robin tells the master to release him from the mast; with his ‘bent bow’ he kills all of the remaining Frenchmen. They board the French ship and find ‘Twelve thousand pound of mony bright’ (i.e. gold). Robin says he will give ownership of half of the French ship to the widow and her children, and the other half to his fellow sailors. The master insists that Robin should have sole ownership as he was responsible for its capture. Robin refuses and says that he will use the gold to build a habitation for the oppressed. According to Dobson and Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 180): ‘The Noble Fisherman bears all the hallmarks of a song composed by a professional ballad writer who was fully conscious of the commercial attractions of inventing a tale about England’s most popular hero which could be set within the almost equally popular genre of a successful sea victory over the national enemy.’

There is another version with the title Robin Hoods Fishing in the Forresters Manuscript, dated to about 1670 (see, no. 949 in Robin Hood Timeline). This version is seventy-two lines longer than the broadsides, some of the texts are similar in both, although substantial parts of the Forresters text does not appear in the broadside version. Robin’s killing of the steersman on the French ship is not in the broadside, and the ending in the Forresters is different; Robin plans to build a chapel on Whitby Strand* where he will keep a priest to sing mass; this suggests a more Catholic theme. In the broadside Robin merely plans ‘a habitation for the opprest’. The mention of Whitby could suggest some knowledge of Robin Hood’s Bay. It would appear that the creators of the Forresters Manuscript had access to the full-length original of the reduced broadside version (which itself must have existed before the Forresters Manuscript was made) and this source was probably in manuscript form (see, Robin Hood: The Forresters Manuscript: British Library Additional MS 71158, Stephen Knight, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 16-22.

* Robin founds a chapel in Barnsdale in A Gest of Robyn Hode (stanza 440).

5. Joseph Ritson announced Robin Hood’s Bay in 1795 (Robin Hood: a collection of poems, songs, and ballads relative to that celebrated English outlaw, 1853 edition, p. 7): ”’His principal residence,” says Fuller, “was in Shirewood forrest in this county [Notts], though he had another haunt (he is no fox that hath but one hole) near the sea in the North-riding in Yorkshire, where Robin Hoods bay still retaineth his name: not that he was any pirat, but a land-thief, who retreated to those unsuspected parts for his security.” Worthies of England, p. 320.’ (see, Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England). Ritson continues on page thirty two where he quotes John Leland and Lionel Charlton.

6. There are several mentions of Robin Hood’s Bay by George Young (A History of  Whitby, and Streoneshalh Abbey: With a Statistical Survey of the Vicinity to the Distance of Twenty-Five Miles, Vol. II, Whitby, 1817). These include: ‘Robin Hood’s Bay had then 20 boats’ (page 529), and that there was a boat stationed at Robin Hood’s Bay ‘to prevent smuggling, each containing a sitter and 6 boatmen’ (page 570). More details are given on page 647: ‘Nearer to Whitby is the inlet called Robin Hood’s Bay, in the north-west part of which there is a fishing town of the same name, of a romantic appearance, containing about 1000 inhabitants. The village and bay derive their name from the celebrated outlaw Robin Hood, who is said to have frequented the spot.* On page 650 Young tells us that Robin Hood’s Bay is noted for smuggling.

* There is a note by Young: ‘This Robin Hood (or Robert earl of Huntington) celebrated for his predatory exploits, is said to have died in the year 1247. According to tradition, he and his trusty mate Little John went to dine with one of the abbots of Whitby, and being desired by the abbot to try how far each of them could shoot an arrow, they both shot from the top of the abbey, and their arrows fell on the west side of Whitby Lathes, beside the lane leading from thence to Stainsacre; that of Robin Hood falling on the north side of the lane, and that of Little John about 100 feet further, on the south side of the lane. In the spot where Robin’s arrow is said to have lighted stands a stone pillar about a foot square, and 4 feet high; and a similar pillar 2½ feet high, marks the place where John’s arrow fell. The fields on the one side are called Robin Hood closes, and those on the other Little John closes. They are so termed in the conveyance, dated in 1713, from Hugh Cholmley, Esq. to John Watson ancestor to the present proprietor, Mr. Rob. Watson. The tradition is scarcely credible, the distance of those pillars from the abbey being about a mile and a half. Much more incredible is the tradition, that Robin shot an arrow from the height where Stoupe Brow beacon is placed, right across the bay to the town which bears his name; having resolved to build a town where the arrow lighted. To the south of that beacon are two or three tumuli or barrows, called Robin Hood’s butts; from a fabulous story of his using them as butts, when he exercised his men in shooting.’

7. Dobson and Taylor record Robin Hood’s Bay (Rymes of Robyn Hood, London, 1976, p. 306) stating that it was one of the oldest and most intriguing of all Robin Hood place-names, and that it was in use by at least the early sixteenth century. They refer to Letters and Papers of Henry VIII (where the date for the bay is 1544), Leland’s Itinerary, and George Young’s History of Whitby. They further add: ‘The suggestion that the name was derived from a tumulus called ‘Robbed Howe’ near the neighbouring village of Sneaton seems doubtful.’ They were unaware of the later discovery of ‘robin oeds bay’ (see also, Yorkshire, North Riding, in Robin Hood Place Names.

Robin Hood’s Bay

Robin Hood’s Bay is a fishing (and now tourist) village six miles south of Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. In Stephen Whatley’s England’s Gazetteer, it is noted as ‘a village of fishermen, who supply the city of York, and all the adjacent country, with herrings and all sorts of fish in their seasons; and have well-boats, wherein are kept vast quantities of crabs and lobsters.’ (England’s Gazetteer; or, An Accurate Description of all the Cities, Towns, and Villages of the Kingdom, Stephen Whatley, London, 1751, Vol. II, RI to RO). The bay was noted for smuggling by the eighteenth century, and many of the houses were connected by a network of tunnels, some still survive. This enabled smuggled goods to be transported from the bay to the cliff top without detection. Goods such as tea, rum, brandy and silk were smuggled over from France and Holland.

Robin Hood’s Bay was part of the ancient chapelry of Fylingdales that included Thorpe, or Fyling Thorpe, and the hamlets of Normanby, Parkgate, Ramsdale, Raw (Fyling Rawe), and Stoupe Brow. The manor of Fyling belonged to Merewin (with one carucate of land) before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The land was given to Hugh of Chester after the conquest, but was ruled by William de Percy. ‘Fyling’ was passed to Whitby Abbey through its founder William de Percy (with a brief tenure by Tancred the Fleming) along with other villages, vaccaries and land that would have included where Robin Hood’s Bay is now. There are burial mounds called Robin Hood’s Butts, two miles south of the bay, about a mile from the sea and 775 feet above sea level.

Incidents Involving Whitby

In 1248, a law suit by the Master and Brotherhood of the Hospital of St. Peter’s at York, commenced against the Abbot and Convent of Whitby, in a case about the tithes of land* due from the said Abbot and Convent. The case was amicably ended with an agreement that the Abbot and Convent should pay yearly, three thousand herrings, and if ‘either of the parties should at any time act contrary to this agreement, both of them submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter of York’. The three thousand herrings were still payable to the Archbishop of York at his palace of Bishopthorpe, some five hundred years later (The History of Whitby and of Whitby Abbey, Lionel Charlton, York, 1779, pp. 206-7).

* A tithe is one tenth of annual produce or earnings, formerly taken as a tax for the support of the Church and clergy.

A commission issued on 28 September 1326 at the tower of London, revealed that a Flemish ship called La Pelarym had been boarded at Whitby (despite their being a truce with Flanders) by persons who killed the master, named as Walter ‘called Fosse’, his sailors, nine Scottish merchants, sixteen Scottish pilgrims and thirteen women who were on board; goods were removed from the ship and it was abandoned. Later, others took the abandoned ship and its remaining goods. In 1352, thirty-three lasts of herring were washed ashore at Whitby, after a shipwreck, and were taken by local men. In 1359, pirated goods taken from a Scottish ship were being sold at the port in Whitby. The ship had sailed from Sluys (between Zeeland and West Flanders) and its cargo was worth £1000. It was sunk off the Cleveland coast by pirates; some were from Whitby. In 1361 the king was petitioned by men of Whitby for a grant on each one thousand herring coming within the jurisdiction of their market, and also on all goods coming by sea or land for twenty years, to help with the repair of the bridge in their town. Another incident, probably in 1397, involved two Scots who petitioned for the release of a Flemish ship that contained their goods, which men of Whitby had taken. The bailiffs and customers of Whitby were to be ordered to release to them the stolen goods.*

* This section contains information found in Robin Hood: Legend and Reality, David Crook, 2020, p. 140).

Disputes over Fishing

There is a long history of disputes between Britain and Europe over fishing territories.  In the early 1600s, the Dutch republic possessed the biggest fishing fleet in Europe. Britain wanted a piece of the action and attempted to challenge Dutch dominance. James VI and his son Charles I, tried to impose new licences and taxes on Dutch fishing vessels, but the efforts of the Royal Navy to enforce this policy were largely ineffective. Later in that century the British and Dutch fought three wars for commercial and maritime supremacy. In the ‘Cod Wars’ that took place between the 1950s to the 1970s, Iceland ended a previous agreement with Britain and excluded British fishermen from Icelandic territorial waters.

By the 18th century, there was a broad agreement about territorial waters in Europe, a ‘three-mile limit’, based on the range of a cannon shot, and general acceptance that the sea should otherwise be open. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire was expanding and seeking new markets. The British government embraced the idea of free seas, but did not abandon the idea of territorial waters. Those who interrupted British trade, often through claims to their own maritime sovereignty, were branded as pirates.

These concerns arose again through the 20th century, both through the development of weapons with a range exceeding three miles, and with the increasing significance of access to undersea oil and other natural resources. Some countries have claimed territorial waters extending 200 miles out to sea, and while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 aimed to resolve some of these issues (and was influenced, in part, by the cod wars), several nations have never formally ratified it.

A feud between Britain and France over the right to fish waters close to the UK started after London left the EU in 2020, requiring a new settlement over access to waters shared for centuries. Licences were required under the new Brexit arrangements, but French fishermen complained that many of their applications for these licences had been rejected, especially by officials in Jersey. Two British navy vessels were dispatched to deal with French boats blocking harbours in Jersey, and French fishermen blockaded French ports and the Channel Tunnel. The dispute settled with an announcement by the EU fishing commissioner in 2022.

This section contains information found in ‘The Conversation’ by Richard Blakemore, University of Reading, November 1, 2021, and the Financial Times article by Andy Bounds in Brussels, April 10, 2022 (online).

Conclusions and Additional Considerations

1. Thomas Ohlgren mentions the National Archives reference to Robin Oeds Bay, and says that based upon a careful analysis by Dr. David Crook of the National Archives, the letter can confidently be dated to 1324-46, making it the earliest recorded Robin Hood place-name. (Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560: Texts, Contexts, and Ideology, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007, p. 123). Note 60 on page 238 states: ‘Thanks are due to Robert Lynley, a Robin Hood researcher, and Dr. David Hepworth, both of whom brought this matter to my attention, and to Dr. David Crook who verified the dating of the document. The document is in a group of letters from Louis I, Count of Flanders, Nevers, and Rethel (ruled 1322-46), to an unidentified King Edward. It is dated March 1, but no year is given. Dr. Crook notes, however, that other letters in this group are specifically dated 1322 to 1324, which places them late in Edward II’s reign. He also reports that another group of letters from Louis I (SC1/38) range in date from 1323 to 1331, with those dating 1377 and after belonging to Edward III’s reign (1327-77).’

2. On the other hand Jim Bradbury was not so sure, he says: ‘Robin Hood’s Bay near Whitby was so called in at least the first half of the sixteenth century. There is a reference to this particular place as early as the first half of the fourteenth century when it was named as ‘Robin Oeds Bay’ in a letter, though whether we can take that as being Robin Hood must be uncertain. The letter giving this name was from Louis I count of Flanders and most probably written in the 1320s under Edward II. It remains probably the earliest Robin Hood place-name and opens several lines of possible interest. However, one must say that a bay seems an unlikely place to be named after the original outlaw hero – only late works relate any of his exploits to the sea. It therefore seems probable that the ‘Oeds’ in the early name had no connection with the outlaw and that the name was later changed after the outlaw had become a literary hero.’ (Robin Hood, Jim Bradbury, Amberley Publishing, 2010, p. 177).

3. David Crook revised his dating of the letter: ‘The covering dates of 1327-46 were given as the outside limits of the date of the letter by Dr Patricia Barnes of the Public Record Office, compiler of the revised List and Index of ‘Ancient Correspondence’, because she supposed that the letter was written between the accession of Edward III and the death of Louis I. As already noted, the one that refers to Robin Hood’s Bay is dated 1 March at Male but no year is given. Three of the letters sent to Edward II were also issued at Male, all on specific dates in May 1324; they appear to be in the same hand, and have their filing holes in the same place. The same hand wrote one dated to November 1322 from Ypres, but one from Amiens in 1334, over a decade later, is clearly, as one would expect, written in a different hand. Count Louis I was forced to flee to France in 1339 from the rebellion led by Jacob van Artevelde in Flanders, so the letter, if it was from him, could not have been written at Male after that date, and would therefore have been sent between 1328 and 1339. There are difficulties here, however. The letter is in a different hand from the others, which is clearly later in date, and it is, very unusually, written on paper, whereas all the others were on parchment, as was the norm. It is therefore more likely to have been sent by Louis II, who succeeded his father in 1346, between that date and Edward’s death in 1377. ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’ is therefore comfortably the earliest Robin Hood place-name yet discovered, at least 45 years and up to 75 years before the reference to Robin Hood’s Stone in 1422. Significantly, it hints at a connection between the outlaw and piracy, the maritime equivalent of highway robbery. It has not even the remotest connection with the greenwood.’  (David Crook, Robin Hood: Legend and Reality, 2020, pp. 140-41).

Both Ohlgren and Crook were convinced, and the weight of evidence seems to suggest that ‘robin oeds bay’ known to the Count of Flanders, is a reference to the outlaw. As Crook has suggested, this would predate the Stone of Robert Hode. If this is correct, then Robin must have obtained considerable fame in the fourteenth century, and we would need to revise our thinking on his origins. However, there is no know mention of ‘robin oeds bay’ by an Englishman, which seems rather odd, if indeed Robin was famous in the fourteenth century. The earliest certain mention of him appears in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, dated to about 1377, but this gives very little detail, which applies to all of the early mentions of the outlaw, none of which connect Robin to the sea (see, Robin Hood Timeline). The first known mention of Robin Hoode Baye seems to be in 1532, some two centuries later. Could Robin Oed be as Bradbury suggested, someone not connected with the outlaw, and that the name was later changed after the outlaw had become a literary hero.