References in the Early Ballads
The Later Tradition
Confused identity?
The real Will Scarlet?
Will Scarlet's Grave
Meaning of "scarlet" and why Will became a dandy
Source books


soldiersWill Scarlet is a constant, if rather colourless (no pun intended!), companion to Robin Hood from the very earliest stories. Unlike Little John, he never seems to have been given much personality. In most earlier stories he seems to have been a soldier or ex-soldier (as is Will in 'Robin of Sherwood'), and it is only in the later tradition that he becomes something of a dandy.

There are numerous versions of his surname (although this could be in part due to the oral transmission of ballads), and this has sometimes led to confusion as to whether these refer to the same or different people.

He has also appeared as more than one person in the same story (see Munday's Earl of Huntingdon plays). It is also suggested in several sources that he is related to Robin, maybe his nephew or cousin (see 'Robin Hood Newly Revived'). In one story, he precedes the later invention of Allan a' Dale as the lovelorn outlaw whose bride the Merry Men rescue.

The searches for a historical Will Scarlet have not been fruitful - Harris found Adam Schakelock in Wakefield, while Bellamy found some references to other potential candidates in William Scarlet/Schakelock who could be the same person, another soldier.

References in the Early Ballads:

frontispiece of the Gest of Robin Hood (Cambridge University Library)The first certain reference to Robin Hood comes in William Langland's poem 'Piers Plowman', written about 1377, which just mentions "rhymes of Robin Hood". But the earliest surviving sources on the Robin Hood legend are five medieval ballads, and it is clear that Will Scarlet is already an integral part of the story. Robin's closest and loyalist companions are always Little John and Will Scarlet, and their adventures sometimes just involve this threesome.

The earliest of the medieval ballads is 'The Gest of Robin Hood'. This is a lengthy poem of 456 4-line stanzas. Twice, during the first part of the poem, Little John, Much and Will Scarloke are sent out by Robin to find a willing or unwilling guest for dinner. Later in the Gest, Robin is pardoned by the King and joins his service. All his men leave him except for Little John and Scathelocke.

By than the yere was all agone
He had no man but twayne,
Lytell Johan and good Scathelocke
With hym all for to gone.

This is the first time in this poem that the name Scathelocke has been used. Professor Stephen Knight has suggested that the Scarloke earlier in the story and the Scathelocke at the end are perhaps different characters.

The Gest only deals abruptly with Robin's death at the hands of the prioress of Kirklees, but in another of the early ballads, 'Robin Hoode, his Death' (a fragment of only 27 verses) Will Scarllett warns Robin not to go to 'Church Lees' priory for bloodletting:

'That I reade not,' said Will Scarllett,
'Master, by the assente of me,
Without halfe a hundred of your best bowmen
You take to goe with yee.

Robin Hood c1660 (Bodleian Library)Needless to say, Robin disregards Will's advice and goes to his death.

There is a single reference to Will in the ballad 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' when Little John tries to save him from the Sheriff's men, and an analogous scene in a dramatic fragment of c1475 where the characters are not mentioned by name, but the same events can be recognised.

In Shakespeare's 'Henry IV Part Two', Justice Silence drunkenly sings to Falstaff lines from a traditional ballad "and Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John" [Act V Sc 3 L100].

The Later Tradition:

"Robin Hood, William Scadlock and Little John' printed London c1660 (British Library)In 1597-8 playwright Anthony Munday wrote the plays 'The Downfall of…' and 'The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon'. The former contains a lengthy sequence recognisable from an earlier ballad known as 'Robin Hood Rescuing The Widow's Three Sons From The Sheriff'. In the complications of this plot both Scarlet and Scathlock appear as half-brothers.

In the late seventeenth century tale 'Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon', Robin, Will Scadlock and Little John are champions who free the city of London by slaying the Prince of Aragon and his two pet giants, who are beleaguering it. In this tale Will Scadlock is identified with Gamwell, Robin's nephew, the lost son of a fictitious Earl of Maxfield.

The naming of Scarlet is dealt with in the ballad 'Robin Hood Newly Revived; Or, His Meeting And His Fighting With His Cousin Scarlet' [Child 128]. Robin fights in the forest with a stranger, who later reveals himself to be his nephew, Young Gamwell, whose "stockings like scarlet shone". When Little John offers to fight Gamwell, Robin responds:

"Oh no, on no," quote Robin Hood then,
"Little John, it may not be so,
For he's my own dear sister's son,
And cousins I have no mo,

But he shall be a bold yeoman of mine,
My chief man next to thee;
And I Robin Hood, and thou Little John,

And Scarlet he shall be."

playbill of Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers 1661 In 1661 on King Charles II's coronation day, an anonymous Restoration comedy was performed in Nottingham entitled 'Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers'. It shows no intimate knowledge of the legends, but does prominently feature William Scadlocke as one of the soldiers (see playbill). This is a strange piece of drama using the story of outlaws to support the monarchy and the status quo.

The Forresters Manuscript calls the traditional 'Robin Hood rescuing Will Stutely' [in Child's collection 141] ballad 'Robin Hood and Will Scathelock', thus suggesting another confusion between two characters in the legend. And in an earlier prose version of the story contained in the ballad 'Robin Hood and Allen 'a Dale' (Sloane manuscript 780 written c1600), the forlorn lover whose bride the outlaws rescue is not Allen, a later invention, but Scarlock.

A important later collector and commentator on the ballads was Francis Child, who produced major works in five volumes on English and Scottish ballads from 1857-9 and 1882-98 and included 33 Robin Hood ballads in his collection.

Robin Hood and his men fight with foresters of SherwoodWill, along with Robin and John, seems to spend a lot of his time fighting. A later ballad 'Robin Hood's Delight' (found in Child's collection 136) has Robin, Scarlock and John challenged in Sherwood by three of King Henry's foresters. After a prolonged fight the outlaws eventually lose, but settle for a drinking spree in Nottingham.

One of the more memorable moments in Will Scarlet's career occurs in the 18th century 'Robin Hood and the Pedlar' in which Robin vomits up some medicine all over the unfortunate John and Will:

Noe sooner, in hast, did Robin Hood taste
The balsame he had tane,
Than he gan to spewe, an up he threwe
The Balsame all againe.

And Scarlett and John who were looking on
Their maister as he did lie,
Had their faces besmeard, both eies and beard,
Therewith most piteously.

Not long after Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1892 play, 'The Foresters', Romantic Edwardian Alfred Noyes wrote an evocative poem 'Sherwood' in 1904 in which Robin Hood and his followers take on the mantle of sleeping heroes. The author begs Oberon (the fairy king) to:

Rake away the gold leaves, roll away the red,
And wake Will Scarlett from his leafy forest bed.

Confused Identity?

drawing of Will from 1986 'Robin of Sherwood' annualWill has had a variety of names throughout his history: Scarlett, Scadlock, Scarlock, Scatheloke, Scarlok, Scalok, Scarelock, Scarllett, Scadlocke, Scardelocke, Shirlock, Skirlock etc. This could mean that there were in fact several men with similar names in Robin's band, or that the name kept changing as the ballads and stories were passed on orally.

But basically it seems that the names divide down into versions of two names: Scarlet and Scathelocke. The latter means 'lock-smasher' according to Professor Stephen Knight, an appropriate name for a man traditionally associated with fighting and violence, and a good metaphor for an outlaw living in Sherwood Forest. As outlined above, he has also been confused with Will Stutely, and with Allen 'a Dale, and with Robin's nephew/cousin, Gamwell.

Some of the 20thC interpretations of the legend, on film and TV, have had multiple characters bearing these names Scarlet, Scathelock and/or Stutely (see the Will Scarlet Gallery).

The real Will Scarlet?

No one has ever found a really suitable candidate.

P Valentine Harris conducted an exhaustive search of the Wakefield manor court rolls for his 1973 book 'The Truth About Robin Hood'. But he could only find a reference to an Adam Schacklock of Crigglestone in April 1317 who he suggests could be a member of Will Scarlet's family. He concludes rather lamely that Scarlet could also be an alias.

John Bellamy discovered a William Schakelock to whom the Chamberlain of Scotland had paid a sum in April 1305. There is another reference to a Schakelock who was a soldier in the Berwick town garrison in December 1316, and later a William Scarlet among the names of those who in November 1318 were granted pardons for felonies. If these are the same person, it would suggest that this candidate fought in the northern wars.

Will Scarlet's Grave

Will Scarlet's grave - photo by Allen Wrightn the graveyard of the Church of St Mary in the village of Blidworth, at what was the heart of old Sherwood Forest, is an odd-shaped stone. Set in the middle of three yew trees, symbolising death, the stone is traditionally said to mark the grave of Will Scarlet. He was reputedly killed by one of the Sheriff's men and immediately avenged by Little John. In fact, the stone is the apex stone from the old church tower, which was deposited in the graveyard. However, within the church itself is buried a Sherwood Forester who although not an outlaw, often found himself at odds with authority, and was eventually killed, and so it is possible that he is the origin of the story that Scarlet is buried here.

(with thanks to Richard Rutherford-Moore for taking me to Blidworth at twilight and for help with this section)

Meaning of "scarlet" and why Will became a dandy:

Originally the word "scarlet" didn't refer to a colour at all. It referred to "a rich cloth, often of a bright red colour"; a high-quality, fine-weave (expensive) wool fabric. Because expensive fabric was commonly dyed an expensive colour (a true red being rare and hence expensive; most red dyes were less than vivid or faded badly with age), the meaning blurred with time. The word gradually came to refer to the colour as well, and now that is the only meaning we retain in common use.

'Master Will Scarlet' by Louis Rhead, 1912By the time the later ballads were written, both the colour and the richness of the fabric tied in with a character being (at least) clothes-proud - and so that's a guess about how Will Scarlet came to be a dandy: he wore the clothes of one. Also, given that a lot of the ballads and plays were commissioned by guilds and nobles, it is possible that the mentions of clothing and cloth (Lincoln green as well as scarlet) were dragged in wholesale to please specific audiences, or may even have been required as part of the piece.

Some of the earliest ballads say that Robin Hood wears red. One story says that he has cloth "scarlet and green". The note points out that this may originally have been "scarlet in grain", but it is traditional for "shot-woven" red fabrics to be woven with green on the cross-grain for some spectacular effects, especially in silk.

(with thanks to Deborah Snavely for help with this section)






Source books:

  • Robin Hood, J.C.Holt [Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1982]
  • Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B.Dobson & J.Taylor [Alan Sutton Publishing, UK, 1989]
  • Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Stephen Knight [Blackwell, UK 1994]
  • The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, Maurice Keen [Routledge & Kegan Paul, UK, 1977]
  • Robin Hood: an historical enquiry, John Bellamy [Croom Helm Ltd, UK, 1985]
  • The Truth about Robin Hood, P.V.Harris [Mansfield, 1973]
  • The Legend of Robin Hood, Richard Rutherford-Moore [Capall Bann, UK,1998]

With thanks to Allen Wright

Introduction Robin Hood Links
A History of Will Scarlet
Will Scarlet's Theme
Will Scarlet on film
Why he's Scarlet Now About Ray Winstone

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