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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Prince John v the Salad King of Merrie Olde England

The plaintiff: John, Prince of England. Brother to absent King Richard. Stewards a forfeit realm from a brittle cuckoo court. Dubbed landless in his youth, he will clutch the throne like a raft in tempest as King John. Fated the first and last of his name.

The defendant: Robin Wood, our man jack in the green, laughing bandit chief of Sherwood Forest, mulch-lord of misrule, pox of petty officials.

The cause of action: extensive counts of murder, assault, grievous bodily harm, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, destruction of property, obstruction of justice, fraud, impersonation of a public official, trespass, blasphemy, sacrilege, corruption of morals, racketeering, and poaching of the King’s deer.

The date: 1192. A hoarfrost November.

The judge: Merlinus Ambrosius, child of mortal and demon, shaper of castles from air. Merlinus sword-giver, anointer of England’s Kings. Merlinus fate-tongue, roused from coma to whisper binding decrees.

The facts of the case:

Hunted in stormy dreams by a green and giggling shadow, Prince John exhausted the night. 

When he woke, he felt the coarse tickle of the straw-stuffed mattress on the back of his head. His pillow had been stolen. Again.

A pillow was a small expense, compared to the maw of the crown’s obligations. A ransom for a crucifix-addled brother. Necessary gifts for useful barons. Endless preparations against the ravenous French.

A pillow was a small expense, but it was still coins. Coins for cloth, coins for goose feathers, coins for a housewife’s dancing needle. No coins for embroidery this time, for the prince had weary certainty any new pillow would soon evaporate in the night.

A pillow was coins, and his country needed coins for urgent medicine.

As soon as the crown was on his head, John’s brother Richard had plundered his country’s holdings and trotted off to Jerusalem with eager marauders. The only thing that had stopped Richard from auctioning London itself was the want of a buyer. Now Richard lounged in genteel captivity while his rudderless dominion scrounged a hefty ransom.

Richard left carping regents to preside over England’s meat-picked bones, and when they fell to quarrels John declared his own court, to give his forsaken country an active ruler in place of its truant monarch.

John knew the culprit even before he saw the curling leaves scattered on the stone floor. If an ordinary thief had breached this chamber, they could have pried the rubies from his crown, or ended his life with a languid twirl of a dagger. Only one thief stole his comforts and sneered at his burdens.

Robin Wood.

The oak and iron door was secured by hulking bars. Through the keyhole, John saw that the guards were at attention on the other side. No guard had dared shirk their duty since the prince made them watch the torture of some delinquent predecessors.

If not the door, the window.

After establishing his court in the Tower of London, John selected the highest point of a turret for his bedchamber, a room with one window. He looked out and saw suffocating tresses of ivy unfurling to the ground. As improbable as it seemed, the thief must have climbed the ivy, as though born with the flute-bones of a sparrow.

John drooped. Give him a legal case to arbitrate, and he could untangle the issues and apply justice thoroughly and fairly. His mind was crafted for brisk solutions, not impossible riddles.

The riddle here was that there had been no ivy on the wall yesterday.

John unlocked the door and ordered the guards alert his chamberlain. Servants tumbled into the room to wash John’s body and wrap him in a plain silk tunic. He descended to the chapel where the chaplain intoned prayers while John pondered knotty affairs of state. He then moved to the great hall where he ate a humble breakfast of cold chicken and small beer. John beckoned the seneschal, and declared that he would now receive private visitors in the great chamber. He also ordered that the ivy be stripped from the turret and put to torch.

Now to govern.

The first petitioner was the Sheriff of Nottingham. John observed the sheriff had lost his famous plumpness, his skin now sagging like the sail of a ship becalmed on a cruel sea.

John had tasked the sheriff with a scheme where a portion of taxes collected in his city would be used for modest loans, with interest going to poor relief. The policy would sustain struggling farmers and merchants, undercut greedy usurers, and lower crime by salving the wants of the destitute. Instead, the sheriff had bungled the plan and lost a month’s revenue.

The sheriff told a tale of a maid in his wife’s service, witty and buxom and useful. A daughter from a floundered merchant family and able to scribe, at first she had taken dictation for the sheriff, but after proving a head for sums began to keep his financial records. She even revived family connections to find heathen proxies for the prince’s loans, arguing for subterfuge because the church forbade the charging of interest.

He then told of how this maid often beguiled him with saucy ballands plucked out on the lute by nimble fingers, and how after one night’s bleary toil she inveigled him into a compromising entanglement of limbs. Of course, the sheriff’s wife discovered the lovers’ knot immediately, and the sheriff was forced to dispatch the sobbing maid with ample jewels to purchase discretion.

Only later did the sheriff discover that the maid, the jewels, the intermediaries, and the payments had vanished like dreams.

The maid’s name? It had been Robin.

Next was the Bishop of Exeter.

John had tasked the bishop with cultivating an imported vegetable in his monasteries. It was like the turnip but gold in colour, fast growing, energising to the sanguine humor, and hardy in tepid soil. The prince envisioned clearing forests for plantations of this wonder crop to nourish the peasants. The monasteries would grow enough of the vegetable to prove it safe, and gather seeds for distribution across the kingdom.

Here the bishop told how he instructed the Benedictine Priory of St Nicholas to grow the first batch. One of the monks there had a thumb dipped in green and could coax magnificent flowers from barren soil. The plants thrived. Yet the day of the harvest, the monk could not be found.

According to written reports from surviving monks, when the first plant was pulled up, its roots wore a baby’s face. The face wailed piteously, and it was the last thing any of the monks heard, for the scream burst their ears, the priory’s stained glass windows, and their minds. Some monks shambled away with vacant eyes. Some ran for the cellars and sucked down barrels of wine. A hardy few set fire to the crops, destroying the devil-tainted plants. God’s wrath at Sodom had not wrought more devastation, swore the trembling bishop.

The monk’s name? It had been Robin.

Next was Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

John had tasked this valiant knight with hosting a mock tournament for boys of all stations, to encourage healthy activity and discover merit, with no regard to birth.

For the first two days, mock jousting and melees were a merry spectacle. One flamboyant youth swift became a leader, dominating the archery contest by splitting an arrow with another arrow. Sir Guy marked a few promising youths for offers of royal service. All hearts at the tournament were warm, keen for the presentation of accolades on the final day. So it surprised Sir Guy to wake in his tent that morning and discover the children gone.

Overnight, the children had fashioned a flag and seized a nearby fort. After a night’s dextrous mayhem, at dawn they put on trial anyone over the age of 16, with the severed heads of the condemned decorating the perimeter walls. Soldiers had failed to breach the fort several times, any approach smothered under a shroud of precise arrows. As it so happened, the laughing youth was not only an excellent archer, but a quick teacher.

The children were still in control of their tiny kingdom, and demanding ransom for a handful of surviving adults. They had even begun to dispatch messengers on ponies, calling on youths across the land to join their uprising.

The youth’s name? It had been Robin.

Three catastrophes, and John’s guests quailed to tell them. Yet these were not the only pranks wrought by this slippery ghost in John’s brief time as self-declared regent, and far from its cruelest indignities. The prince would not punish his agents, for this was a foe only the prince could tame. The cruel and boisterous voice of the green places beckoned John to hazard his gleaming crown against the darkness of the treelands.

Outside the castle, the ivy was burning.

The verdict:

I sleep in forest dire, my puissance dimmed but not extinguished. Prophecy is my gift, and I see the line of Albion’s Kings - from stalwart Arthur, through so many Henrys, Elizabeths, Williams and Edwards - some clever, many dull, some brave, few kind. They are the bridge between this people and its land, walkers on the paths between town and hill.

This one, John, greets me. He is of the clever ones. Here at the foot of my stone coffin he places his crown and coins. He calls upon my judgement against Robin Wood, the patchwork man of leaf and laughter. The ritual has been observed, and I obey. I fashion my shape out of moonlight to attend this almost King and adjudicate his grievances.

Robin Wood scorns to appear, and my command yanks him from the dream places to attend this hearing. The wanton sprite knows the ultimate law, and at the head of my coffin places his bow and ale-stained hunting horn.

All wagered, arguments can be made.

John is the plaintiff, and speaks first. He outlines sundry abuses - caravans waylaid, prisoners freed, churches plundered - yet what is crime to the beatles and foxes of the forest? I ask him what redress he seeks, and John tells us he would see the forest shrink - for Albion to become a place for men, and law, and stability.

I tell him that in this court justice demands sacrifice, on the terms of the druids who emptied an ocean of blood into our country’s soil, and taught it hunger. I ask him what he will offer.

He says the crown - let it be diminished, power split among the barons, for kingship itself to become a shadow.

I ask Robin Wood if he can match this pledge. The hearty spirit offers his bow in service, saying that the forest will henceforth fight for any true King, sniggering that John is far from true.

John now adds to his stake, pledging the coins - let his country chafe under poverty, its treasure squandered on war and ransom.

Robin now offers his drinking horn, and says he with fight to protect the poor from the depredations of the tax collector, let it only spite this upstart prince.

All trinkets disposed of, all that remains to wager is their kingdoms. Even the hungry owls are silent as the parties consider.

John speaks, offering his people - let plague come, and take a third of them, before the forest’s mayhem goes unchecked.

Robin’s fertile thoughts scramble for an equal price, but cannot offer a greater share of the forest without meeting the ruthless and wily prince’s aim. He yields, and calls for mercy.

I declare the compact sealed, and say that there will be a curtailment of the mysteries of the green places, that humans may unfurl in Albion without fear of lurking hobgoblins. John and his people will pay the high prices pledged, and more beside as the bleaching sunlight of his ordered world parches his people’s souls. Let these English long for every acre of forest they render barren. Let the age of wonders pass into an age of shopkeepers, until wonders again demand their day.

For this one, Robin Wood, they have failed their trial, and must taste a penalty.

Let there be Robin Wood no more, and let there be only a man. One pledged to serve kingship, and fight poverty. A lord not in the forest, but in the system built by men, doomed to seek refuge in the wild, but never find it home.

Arise Sir Robin of Loxley.

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