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King John in Sherwood

There are three sites within the parishes of Clipstone, Edwinstowe and Warsop that take us back 800 years to the time when King John regularly visited Sherwood Forest.

Central to the story is King John's Palace in King's Clipstone. Just over a mile to the north of the palace is the site of a chantry chapel established by John. Moving another mile to the west takes us to the Parliament Oak where local legends tell of King John's connection with this landscape.

Who was King John?

Incompetent, treacherous, cruel, adulterous and murderous are just a few of the words that have been used to describe John. However, his supporters have referred to him as genial, clever, capable, energetic and judicious. His reputation as 'Bad King John' may have been largely deserved but the rest of his family were little better!

John's father, Henry II, was the most powerful ruler in Europe. He ruled England between 1154 and 1189 but his kingdom extended from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. He ruled as a tyrant, increasing the level of taxation and seizing land to enlarge the area he controlled as Royal Forests. Out of his 34 years on the throne he spent 21 years on the continent using the wealth of England to finance his military campaigns in France. Following the death of two of his four sons Henry's plans for sharing his lands after his own death were thrown into disarray. Henry is believed to have wanted his younger son, John, to inherit the English crown but his brother Richard who was supported by the French king was reluctantly named as his heir two days before he died.

Richard (the Lionheart) ruled England between 1189 and 1199 but spent only six months of his reign in England. In 1194 during one of his brief visits he reclaimed Nottingham Castle from his brother John and later returned to the royal palace at Clipstone to meet William 'The Lion', King of Scots. Even higher levels of taxes were levied in England to cover the costs of Richard's crusade to the Holy Land. Later more funds were raised for the payment of the ransom after Richard's capture whilst returning from the crusade in 1192 and for his military campaign to recapture his lands in France that were lost whilst he was held hostage.

John came to the throne in 1199. The early years of his reign were dominated by his unsuccessful attempts to retain his territory in France. By 1205 he had lost most of his lands on the continent andhad fallen out with many of the English barons.

John now had to spend most of his time in England where he raised more money from his people than any previous ruler. By 1213 many of the barons had had enough of the taxes, fines and punishments imposed by the king, refusing to support John's campaign to recapture his lost lands in France. By the following year this campaign had ended in failure with much of the king's wealth gone. Many of the barons were now ready to rebel.

During 1215 a series of meetings between John and the rebels (possibly including one in March at the Parliament Oak on the edge of Clipstone Park) failed to reach agreement. In May John ordered that the rebels' castles should be seized. At this point London joined the rebellion, the barons rejected the king's authority and forced John to negotiate. The result was a peace treaty, the Magna Carta. However, the king had little intention of keeping to its terms and the barons really wanted rid of John.

Within weeks John had rejected the charter and civil war broke out. The barons had supported the idea of a charter as the objective of their rebellion as there had been no suitable rival with a claim to the English throne. John's brothers were all dead, his son was only a young boy and Arthur of Brittany, his nephew, had been murdered in 1202, probably on John's orders. Now they invited Prince Louis, the son of the French king who was married to Henry II's daughter, to become their ruler and a French army arrived in London. John continued to travel around England confronting the rebels and extorting payments as the system of taxation had broken down. Around this time the inhabitants of the Laxton in Nottinghamshire were made to pay £100 to the king to prevent him from burning their village. In October 1216 John fell ill whilst travelling to Lincolnshire to exact revenge on the local population for their support for the rebellion. He then lost much of his remaining treasure as his baggage train was crossing marshy ground near the Wash and he died at Newark Castle leaving his country divided.

King John at the King's Houses

Within the royal Forest of Sherwood stand the remains of the King's Houses. This large palace complex at Kings Clipstone was visited by the Plantagenet kings between Henry II in 1181 and Richard II in 1393. By the 13th century the palace site contained a complex of buildings, possibly covering over seven acres. There was an adjoining deer park enclosed within a seven mile fence and also the Great Pond for fish and wildfowl.

The palace is now usually referred to as 'King John's Palace' despite the fact that many other kings spent more time at Clipstone. This could be due to John's strong connection to Nottinghamshire which began before he came to the throne. It is probable that he was very familiar with the excellent facilities for hunting and entertaining that Clipstone Park and palace offered. In addition to the estates in the area granted to him by his father Henry II he was given the lands in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire belonging to the Honour of Peverill by his brother Richard I. It is likely that John enjoyed more support amongst the local nobility than elsewhere during the rebellion, as the Lord of the Great Manor of Mansfield he appears to have had many friends and treated his tenants and followers with respect and generosity.

During his reign John visited Clipstone twice in 1200, once in 1201, spent a couple of days there in 1205 and stayed one night in 1210. However, towards the end of his reign he spent more time in north Nottinghamshire than at Clipstone, preferring his new deer park at Kingshaugh near East Markham where he spent twelve days during 1212 and 1213. Records reveal that he also stayed at Perlethorpe, Laxton, Lound and Southwell.

John's visits to Clipstone later in his reign gave rise to most of the legends that have been passed down in the local communities.

Each royal visit would have involved the king's household, courtiers, officials and servants plus assorted petitioners, traders and other hangers-on. A baggage train of up to twenty wagons and many more packhorses would travel ahead of the royal household, making slow progress along rutted roads and boggy tracks. Occasionally a change of plan by the king would cause chaos as the convoy would have to be redirected to a new destination.

Common folk from the villages around Clipstone would have had mixed feelings about these visits. Some would benefit by providing a bed for members of the entourage who could not be accommodated on the palace site. Others may have sold surplus food to the company. However at times of food shortages, for example after the poor harvest of 1203, the prospect of feeding a large number of extra mouths was a troubling prospect.

The construction of the many buildings that made up the Kings Houses would have provided work for many local craftsmen and labourers. This may have been some compensation for having to live under the restrictions of Forest Law which dominated so many aspects of their lives within the boundaries Sherwood Forest.

King John and St. Edwin's Chapel

On the southern edge of the woodlands of Birklands a few loose stones and an iron cross mark the site of a chantry chapel linking two kings separated by six centuries. A tablet with this inscription stands beneath the cross.


Edwin became King of Northumbria in 616. His kingdom extended from the Humber to southern Scotland and his marriage to Ethelburga, the daughter of the Christian King of Kent led to his conversion to Christianity.

It was said that he was a fair king and during his reign the kingdom was a safer place to live and travel. From around 627 Edwin was the most powerful king amongst the Anglo-Saxons. However in 633 Northumbria was invaded by Penda, King of Mercia and Edwin's foster-brother Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd. Edwin went to confront them with a small army and at the Battle of Heathfield Edwin and his two sons were killed.

Although many accounts assume that this battle took place near Doncaster, the local view is that it occurred at Heathfield, between Birklands and Cuckney. During work in 1951 to reinforce the foundations of St Mary’s Church in Cuckney more than 200 skeletons were discovered, all of young men, suggesting that they were the victims of a major battle which had been fought nearby.

His supporters did not want his body to fall into the hands of the enemy so they carried him into the forest until they came to a clearing where they buried him. A few years later Oswald drove Penda out of Northumbria and he sent for Edwin’s body to give it a Christian burial. By this time people were calling Edwin a saint, therefore the ground where his body had been buried became a holy place. They erected a small wooden chapel on the spot and called the place Edwin-stowe, the Place of Edwin.

The legend of St Edwin must have still been related over 500 years later as King John made payments to a hermit to 'celebrate service for his soul and those of his ancestors'. It has been suggested that this hermit's chantry chapel in the Forest may have been built on a much earlier religious site alongside the old road through the Forest between Mansfield and Edwinstowe. The payments from the crown supporting the priest and the chantry building continued until the Reformation in the 16th century.

There are plans to investigate sites in Cuckney and around the site of St Edwin's Chapel as part of the Sherwood Forest Archaeology Project.

King John and the Parliament Oak

Beside the main road between Mansfield and Edwinstowe there stands an old oak tree that connects us with the visits of King John.

Two hundred years ago stories of King John and Magna Carta were still being passed down between generations of local people. Part of the account of the 1816 perambulation of the boundaries of the the Manor of Warsop relates

...we proceeded thence in a direction nearly due west along the side of Clipstone Park pales passing on the northern side of a very ancient oak tree standing in those pales called Parliament Oak under the branches of which tradition says the ancient barons met and brought King John (the few remains of whose palace stand at Clipstone) to those terms which laid the foundation of that great charter of our liberties called "Magna Charta"; which history informs us was afterwards signed at Runnymede …

Experts may dispute whether a Parliament took place at this site but it remains likely that negotiations between the king and the barons took place during John's visit to the area.

Other local legends suggest that John hastily called a Parliament beneath the branches of the oak in July 1212 to gain approval for the execution of 28 sons of Welsh chieftains held in Nottingham Castle after he received news of a revolt.

In King John's time the tree was already around 400 years old and by 1790 its girth was recoded to be over 28 feet (around 8.5m). The tree we see today has regenerated from the ancient oak and should continue as a reminder of the area's remarkable history for many centuries to come. It is now owned and cared for by the Sherwood Forest Trust.

Another link between the oak and a Parliament dates from 1290 when Edward I held a Parliament at the King's Houses in Clipstone. The Parliament Oak stood at an entrance to Clipstone Park and many of the lords attending the event would have passed beneath its branches.

We now think of Parliament taking place in one fixed site in Westminster. Until the 1300s the king would call a Parliament whenever he need the support or advice of the great men of his kingdom and these meetings would take place wherever the king happened to be staying. Throughout his reign King John seldom spent more than a few days in the same place. For example, during five weeks in March and April 1214 after spending four days at the Tower of London, John travelled to Northampton via St. Albans and Eaton in Bedfordshire. Then he moved on to Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire and to Nottingham before arriving at his palace at Clipstone. After a day at Clipstone he visited his hunting lodges at Sauvey Castle in Leicestershire and Kingshaugh in the north of Nottinghamshire before returning for a couple more days at Clipstone. His route back to London included Melbourne, Lichfield, Kenilworth, Woodstock, Oxford, Wallingford, Reading and Windsor.

After King John

Following John's death at Newark in 1216 his nine-year-old son Henry was crowned king by John's remaining supporters. The advisors governing England on the young king's behalf soon reissued a modified version of John's Magna Carta. This action was intended to reconcile the rebels and the Crown and undermine support for the rival French prince. It also continued a long tradition of coronation charters that many new monarchs issued to gain support and usually later ignored! It was not until the following year that the rebels' support for Louis finally dwindled and, after decisive defeats at the Battle of Lincoln in May 1217 and in the Battle of Sandwich in the English Channel in the following August, he withdrew back to France.

Magna Carta mainly covered the issues that had been the concerns of the barons especially the powers of the king over the seizure of property, taxation, inheritance, wardship and marriage. A right to be judged according to the rule of law was given. Restrictions were placed on the level of fines, making them proportionate to the offence and reflecting the person's ability to pay. A council of 25 barons was given the responsibility of ensuring that the king kept to the charter. In addition to the barons'demands the independence of the church and the liberties of towns were also included. Common folk may have been more impressed with measures to limit the abuse of power by local officials and the introduction of standardised weights and measures. People in Sherwood would have approved of restraints on forest officers and limits on the size of the forest, these measures would be expanded on in the later Forest Charter.

Magna Carta stated that no freeman would be imprisoned or punished without first going through the proper legal system. However around half the population were not freemen. Serfs were tied to their lord's manor and paid rent for their small patch of land in the form of many hours of labour for their lord. Many of these tenants had no right to have any disputes heard in the royal courts but had to resort to the manorial courts run by their lord. The feudal system only began to fall apart with the shortages of labour following the arrival of the Black Death over a century later.

The Forest Charter was issued in 1217 and would have had a greater impact than Magna Carta on the people of Sherwood Forest. Under this charter all land seized to become royal Forests by Henry II, Richard and John was disafforested. All freemen could develop the land that they owned within a crown Forest unless they destroyed any cover where game lived. Any penalties for breaking Forest Law would not include the death penalty or mutilation.

Anybody who avoided the judgement of the Forest courts was liable to be outlawed. Outlaws were denied the protection of the law and could be killed without penalty. Sherwood Forest was notorious for its outlaws who could avoid capture within cover of the woodland.

It is interesting to note that six hundred years after the signing of Magna Carta local people from Warsop were still relating the story of the local link to “that great charter of our liberties” when they passed the Parliament Oak during their perambulation of their manor. Maybe local traditions valuing the rights of folk to influence the decisions that affected their lives date back to the times of the Danelaw assemblies on the hill of Thynghowe. These would establish a tradition of developing laws by negotiation then applying these laws to issues brought to the assembly. This was in contrast to accepting the law as laid down by a king or lord. Some experts suggest that the practices that developed on Thynghowe could have influenced the conduct of assemblies throughout the Viking world.

Life in the Forest

In the time of King John the lives of the people of the villages in the north of Sherwood Forest were tightly structured. The local lords were granted their land by the king and in return they made payments to the Crown and provided men for any military campaigns. The lord would rent land to freeman farmers and allocate small parcels of land to serfs in return for their labour on his own farms. Around half the population were serfs who were effectively owned by their lord with no freedom to move away or marry without permission.

Poor sandy soils and the harsh restrictions of Forest Law made cultivating crops difficult so arable land was restricted to areas around settlements and along the valleys of the Rivers Meden and Maun. Villagers had grazing rights for their cattle, sheep and pigs in parts of the Forest. They were also entitled to collect wood provided cover for the king's beasts not affected. A reign of terror by corrupt Forest officials involved extorting fines from anybody accused of poaching or for whole communities if a culprit could not be identified. A further blow to folk trying to survive with these penalties and restrictions came in June 1209 when King John ordered that ditches in the forest should be filled in and hedgerows removed to improve hunting and to allow game access to crops on cultivated land.

The enclosure of Clipstone Park in 1178 by Henry II to create a deer park caused more hardship for local people. In 1200 the men of Mansfield paid for the opportunity to present a petition to King John to regain their ancient rights of grazing on the pasture in Clipstone Park. However some folk would have made a living from the construction of the palace at Clipstone and from transporting the stone and timber along the rutted tracks that made up the road network. The state of these roads is indicated by a journey time of 16 days for a messenger travelling from Clipstone to York in 1208. The miles of wooden pale that enclosed Clipstone Park would also have needed maintaining.

The stone buildings of the palace were in stark contrast to the homes of the folk in the surrounding villages. Most homes were constructed from wattle and daub, with a thatched roof, earth floors and an open fire in one of the two rooms. A few wealthier farmers may have lived in cruck houses with timber frames, again with walls made from wattle and daub where wooden strips called wattle was daubed with a sticky material made of mud, clay, animal dung and straw.

Whilst the royal household feasted at the palace most serfs survived on a very basic diet. Hard bread baked from barley or rye was eaten with pottage, a thick soup made from vegetables and any grains that were not good enough for selling to the miller. A rare luxury would be meat sourced from home raised animals or poached from the Forest. Unlike the rich, the serfs would felt the full impact of the failed harvest of 1203.

Most towns would have had a school for children whose parents could afford to pay for their education. In the countryside schooling was usually only available if the local priest was prepared to give lessons in basic reading and writing. However in 1208 priests would have had more concerns due to King John's refusal to accept the Pope's appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope responded by placing England under an interdict, forbidding all church services, allowing only the baptism of infants and the anointing of the dying. The church doors remained locked, the bells were silent and the dead were buried without ceremony in unconsecrated ground outside the churchyard.

It is not clear how extensively this ruling was enforced as John threatened to confiscate the property of any priest not prepared to continue with his duties. Clergy were still permitted to preach in their churchyard and marriages took place outside the church instead of inside. Even so, it must have been a dramatic and unsettling change for the ordinary people of England.

Initially the monks of the Cistercian monastery of Rufford Abbey would have continued as before, believing that they were exempt from the interdict, but they were soon rebuked by the Pope. Thereafter they would have been expected to only celebrate Mass once a week behind closed doors. Rufford Abbey had been founded in 1146 and held extensive areas of land around Nottinghamshire. The other local monastery was at Welbeck, an abbey established around 1154 for the Premonstratensian Canons (they were also called the 'white canons' due to the colour of their robes). Gleadthorpe Grange, near Warsop, was one of their farms.

It was not until 1213 that the interdict was lifted after John was reconciled with Pope Innocent.

Sites Linked to King John

King John's Palace

The ruins are best viewed from near the interpretation board in the car park next to the Dog and Duck pub heading east out of Kings Clipstone on the B6030.

St Edwin's Chapel

The cross marking the site of the chapel is from roadside parking alongside the A6075 at Warsop Windmill. The paths may be muddy after wet weather and as this is a working woodland there may occasionally be forest operations taking place.

The Parliament Oak

There are two parking spaces just off the busy A6075 next to the Parliament Oak


Thanks to all who willingly provided insights into the remarkable past of our part of Sherwood Forest, particularly Stuart Reddish, Mickie Bradley, Margaret Woodhead and Andy Gaunt.