Who was Little John

POSTED 22/6/22

Little John is first mentioned by the chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun in about 1420, some forty years after the first mention of Robin Hood (see, Robin Hood Timeline). The name ‘Little John’ or variants of it, is common, and there are records of Petit (French for little) John, and Parvo (Latin for little) John. Little John of Saintré (Petit Jehan de Saintré) appears in the c. 1456 romance by Antoine de la Sale entitled L’Hystoyre et plaisante cronicque du petit Jehan de Saintré et de la jeune dame des Belles Cousines. This ‘Petit Jehan’ is apparently based on a real French knight, Jehan de Saintré who flourished in the hundred years war between England and France – he was taken prisoner after the 1356 Battle of Poitiers. For the most comprehensive history of the tradition see, Little John and Hathersage. Historic records of Little Johns who may have contributed to the legend, are discussed by John Bellamy (Robin Hood an historical enquiry, Indiana University Press, 1985). Below is an extract from pages 122-24, to which I have added relevant records:

The name John Little was not as common as might be thought, although there was a notable citizen of the name in London at the time the Gest was probably being compiled. This was John Litel, a sheriff of London on several occasions between 1354 and 1367 (Ancient Deeds, i, ii, iii and v, passim) and an alderman in 1374. Of two possible references to the historic Little John the first is dated December 1318, when a commission of oyer and terminer was appointed on the complaint of Simon de Wakefield that Simon Ward, Thomas Ughtred and a large number of men from Hornington, Poppleton and Bickerton (Yorkshire) broke his houses and chests at Hornington and made off with £138. Among the raiders the name of John le Litel appears twice, one bearer, whose home locality is not recorded having a brother named Elias, the other being of Leicester with a brother named Simon (see, Calendar of the Patent Rolls). . . . . The second possible reference is in another commission of oyer and terminer. It was granted on 1 June 1323 to two important judges, William Herle and Geoffrey le Scrope, on the complaint of William de Melton, archbishop of York, that a number of malefactors including Thomas de Rede of Raskhill, Robert, son of Robert de Stutevill and one John ‘Littel John’ had broken into his park at Beverley (Yorkshire), hunted and carried off deer (see, Calendar of the Patent Rolls). The crime here was certainly one of those associated with the Robin Hood band and the injured party was a great cleric. More importantly we are told, as if the crown was showing renewed interest in the matter, that another justice was added to the commission on 16 November 1323; this was the time Edward II was visiting Nottingham and when he may have pardoned Robin and his associates. Beverly is, of course, over 30 miles from Barnsdale but it was a place visited by King Edward on his northern visitation and is adjacent to Holderness, where Little John, when in the Gest he assumed the role of Reynold Greenleaf (see, p. 20, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode) affected to originate.

There are two other references to historic Little Johns in Edward II’s reign which deserve attention. One is in the household book of Queen Isabella for the regnal year 1311 to 1312. There it is briefly recorded that a John le Littel served the queen as a palfreyman and sumpterman, which was the same rank incidentally as another of Isabella’s employees, a John de la Lee (see, The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England). A fourth reverence is probably the most important in the record evidence. Here our subject appears not as ‘John le Litel’ or similar but as ‘Little John’ exactly. This is in the Jornal de la Chambre for the years 1322 to 1325. In September and October 1322 and March and early April 1323, he served the king not as a porter as we might expect but as a sailor apparently being in command of a royal ship. He was based for a time at Hull which would make it possible for him to have been the Little John suspected of breaking Archbishop Melton’s park at Beverley. After this there is a gap but in September 1324, when Edward II and his household were in Portchester, Little John sailed on the king’s instructions from there to the Isle of Wight and for this trip of two days duration was paid 3s. 6d. There is another reference to him also. In January 1325, after Edward II had spent Christmas at Nottingham, he transported for the king goods from there to London by sea and was paid five shillings (Public Record Office E101/380/4 fos 17, 22v). Possibly he was the John le Little who was involved in the seizing of cargo from a Flemish ship in the spring of 1323; see, Calendar of the Close Rolls). This is all that can be discovered but it is surely sufficient to make this mariner a prime candidate for being the Little John of the Gest . . . . . It may be of some significance that after a disappearance from the records Little John reappears as a sailor in September 1324, a time when Robyn Hode in the same record first forfeited a number of days pay because of absences from the royal household (see, The Many Robin Hoods 10.

There are newly discovered records of John Petit not mentioned by Bellamy:

1. 1313 John Petit, master of the king’s ship called the James of Westminster (Calendar of the Patent Rolls). Probably the Little John sailor, mentioned by Bellamy, and the John le Little who was involved in the seizing of cargo from a Flemish ship in 1323 (Calendar of the Close Rolls).

2. 1315 John Petit and other evildoers forcibly took and carried away merchandise that was put ashore from a stranded ship (Calendar Of Inquisitions Miscellaneous).

3. 1315 The king incensed by the actions of John Petit and other mariners (Calendar of the Patent Rolls).

4. 1315 John Petit of Westminster and others carried away merchandise that was put ashore from a stranded ship  (Calendar of the Patent Rolls). Another record of no. 2 above.

5. 1316 John le Petit, master of the ship called la Michel of Westminster (Calendar of the Patent Rolls).

6. 1316 John Petit and others involved in an assault and the carrying away of goods at Cambridge (Calendar of the Patent Rolls).

7. 1317 John Petit master of the ship la Michel of Westminster which was driven ashore at Stivekeye (Norfolk), broken up, and goods carried away (Calendar of the Patent Rolls). This is the same person as no. 5 above.

8. 1318 John le Petit and Elias his brother (and others), invaded the manor at Heselwode, co. York (Calendar of the Patent Rolls). This must be the John ‘the Littel,’ and Elias his brother, among the raiders at Hornington in 1318, which is mentioned by Bellamy (Calendar of the Patent Rolls).

9. 1319 John le Petit and Elias his brother (and others), invaded the manor at Heselwode, co. York (Calendar of the Patent Rolls). This is another record of no. 8 above.

10. 1325 John Petit mariner and others, imprisoned in the Tower of London (Calendar of the Close Rolls) – they were released on the orders of Edward II, which could mean that Little John was a ‘rascal favourite’ of the king. It is highly likely that this John Petit is one and the same person as nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 above; a mariner and master of the king’s ships who was involved in assault, robbery, and piracy, the John Petit who incensed the king; the Little John sailor championed by Bellamy. There are undoubtedly historic Little Johns with a connection to Edward II, who could be the ‘Edward our comly king’ in the early ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. It is impossible to know if Bellamy’s John le Litel who broke the houses and chests at Hornington in 1318, and the John ‘Littel John’ who broke into the park at Beverley in 1323, were one and the same person, or if they were in any way connected to Little John the mariner.


1266 John Petit and others, detained for larceny, escape from gaol (Calendar of the Patent Rolls).

1313 Kent Eyre, Just/1/383 m 10d. Exigent for homicide of ‘Johannes dictus Petit Johan de Shorne’. Mentioned in A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, Martyn Whittock, London, 2009, p. 166. Whittock writes, ‘In 1313, in Kent, the search was on for a fugitive accused of murder, named ‘John of Shorne, called Little John’.

1317/18 Little John as an archer in the service of Thomas Earl of Lancaster, one of the leaders in the baronial revolt against his cousin Edward II (PRO DL28/1/13 (section 14). Issues of Wardrobe, Thomas of Lancaster. M6 Item parvo Johanni (several entries all for Little John as an archer). Section 15, ‘for the expenses of Little John and his companio archer 2/-’). See also, The Many Robin Hoods 7.

1324 Little John de Cokcroft in the Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield, first published in 1945.

1339/40 Methley Court Roll. ‘Fine 3d. Robert son of Littiljohn for licence given for 1 acre’.