I have a confession to make – I’m a Robin Hood addict! Right from when I was a kid, this outlaw of legend caught my imagination, and so it was inevitable that when the time came for me to do my undergraduate thesis that I would pick the medieval poems about him. And in the process of doing that I gradually built up a great backlog of information surrounding the legend. For instance, there was never just one Sheriff of Nottingham. Back in the time of Richard I and his brother, King John, the sheriffs’ posts changed hands as regularly as any political post does today. Some we know something about. Others are merely names on the Pipe Rolls (the government documents of the day) and were ripe for plucking for the odd adventure or two!
But where to start? When I sat down and decided I wanted to write about the legend, I saw no point in churning out yet another ‘men in tights’ book. The ‘Hollywood not History’ versions fill multiple books as well as TV and films, and I knew I needed to find an original way into the stories. Enter Guy of Gisborne! While others of the outlaw gang, like Little John, have been speculated upon almost as much as Robin Hood himself, Guy has remained in the background, and so I realised I had a fairly blank canvas to work on with him. And once I’d made him Robin’s cousin and set him in Nottingham Castle as the spy and ‘inside man’, I knew I had the basis for a story.
What of the other characters, though? Maid Marion was a tough one. If I was going to be historically accurate, then I had to find a satisfactory way of inserting her into Sherwood Forest without reducing her to a camp-follower. At this point I found a wonderful thesis on the Hospitaller sisters. Like their male counterparts, the sisters of the order took religious vows, so that would allow my Marianne to remain celibate and apart from the men and still have their respect (necessary if she wasn’t going to start having lots of children following her around in an age without contraception!). Add onto that the fact that in the Holy Land these sisters acted almost like modern day triage nurses, and suddenly I had a viable role for Marianne to fulfil.
And then there was Brother Tuck. If I was keeping the setting in the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, & John, then the various orders of friars were still far in the future (they wouldn’t be created until nearly a century further on). However I did love the idea of a fiery Welsh monk who, having been exposed to the rather more tolerant Celtic Christianity in his youth, would take a dim view of corrupt Norman abbots and priors. And when I realised I probably needed a slimmer prequel to the big books of Guy’s main series, Tuck positively sprang off the page as the one to write a back-story for. So if you read Heaven’s Kingdom, you won’t meet Robin or Guy as yet, but you will get a feel for the era, and how one young monk might have become rather more adept with a longbow and a quarterstaff than might be expected!
There’s just one more thing I feel I need to add here. You’ll find that religion crops up a lot in these books. That’s not me evangelising at all – I’m definitely not trying to preach to anyone, I don’t do stuff like that. But it’s impossible to over-emphasise how much religion dominated the lives of people in this period. Nobody was as humanistic as we modern people are, and they had no science to explain things like unexpected deaths, and so they all ‘believed’ to some extent or another. What’s more, the Church – and here we are of course talking about the Catholic Church governed from Rome, because we’re long before Protestantism had even been thought of – owned around a third of all of England. Therefore the chances were that the Church not only took a tenth of your income as a matter of course, it was also your physical landlord, and had power over your life that way too. So I hope I don’t offend anyone’s sensibilities with this, but it was necessary in my view in order to portray some of the compelling motives in characters’ lives.