William de Wendenal
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William de Wendenal (also William de Wendeval) was a Norman baron probably born during the mid-12th century. He was one of the highest officials left in charge of the Kingdom of England when King Richard the Lionheart was away at the Third Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the control of Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty.
William also served as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (and possibly intermittently as Sheriff of Yorkshire) during King Richard's absence from England, from 1191 until 1194. William has been linked to the legends of Robin Hood and some have said him to be the villainous "Sheriff of Nottingham" of legend.
Little is known of William, for record keeping was sketchy at best during the 1190s, a fiery decade of great political upheaval in the History of England. It is a curious and unusual fact that de Wendenel did not appear to be the lord of any particular area of England; it is possible that he was related to a noble family or had come into esteem with one, perhaps starting out as a squire. He may have owned land somewhere, though. Many lower nobles, and even some yeomen (the equivalent of today's middle classes) who owned more land than most, were given prominent official positions during King Richard's absence from the kingdom, due to the fact many nobles had gone away with Richard to the Crusade, leaving the administration of England short on staff.
It is possible, though, that Wendenal held a joint title with another baron, perhaps William de Ferrers, 4th Earl of Derby. Although we can not be sure of this, holding joint titles was a frequent occurrence during those times.
From his name we can deduce that he was of Norman (descendants of Scandinavian settlers in Normandy) ancestry, perhaps the great-grandchild of one of the nobles that came across to England with William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England in 1066. This would also explain why he was in favour with Richard the Lionheart (for he must have been to be left in a position of such trust, responsibility and prestige). As such he may have been at loggerheads with many of the Anglo-Saxon nobles and Anglo-Saxon peasant populations, due to the fact bitterness was still prevalent and division still a reality between the two communities after the Norman Conquest.
There is one contemporary account, a Middle Ages legal document, which states William served as the High Sheriff (or law-enforcer and bailiff) of the counties of both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire during the years of King Richard's absence from the country, and perhaps other areas of England also, such as Yorkshire (sheriffs were known to go outside their areas of jurisdiction frequently in order to capture fugitive criminals and bandits). This would have made him one of the most important and influential officials during these years.
It is stated in this legal document that William took over these official duties in 1190 from Baron Roger de Lizoures (later Roger de Lacy, due to his grandmother denying him the claim to the Lizoures titles and estates) who we know was also the Constable of Chester and Lord of Pontefract and Clitheroe. It is possible that William took over this duty too whilst de Lacy (and the majority of English noblemen) were attending the Crusade. Because of this he may have been resident at Ludlow Castle, built by de Lacy and still standing today.
However when King Richard landed back in England in the late March 1194, it is stated that William de Ferrers, 4th Earl of Derby, took over all William de Wendenal's duties and took up his position. After this, William de Wendenal simply disappears from the records altogether.
Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood legend?
Typically, the legends of Robin Hood are set during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, especially when the king was away at the Crusade. If so that would make William de Wendenel the corrupt and cruel lawman of legend and typical arch nemesis of the folk hero of Sherwood Forest. It is said that Robin Hood robbed from the rich not only to relieve the commoners of the unnecessarily harsh taxes imposed on them by the greedy establishment, but also to help raise the ransom for Queen Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to free her son Richard the Lionheart from captivity in the custody of first Leopold V of Austria and then Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor.
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Many historical sheriffs from this period in history were indeed corrupt, and it is possible that de Wendenel was as well. Some, like Sir Robert Ingram, were actually in league with outlaws. This sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was an ally of the Coterel gang, notorious 14th century outlaws. Other sheriffs, like John de Oxenford, were outlawed themselves. Oxenford was the sheriff from 1334 to 1339. In 1341, Oxenford was accused of "illegal purveyance, abusing his authority in regard to the county gaol and its prisoners, as well as various extortions.". He did not show up in court and was himself outlawed.
If de Wendenel was indeed in the same league as these corrupt officials, abusing the absence of a king to terrorise the populace, then he may have been killed in an uprising or by a revengeful outlawed peasant. Indeed there are records of riots going on at the time in Nottingham, where de Wendenel probably resided for a time (the city is also the site where Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester and David of Scotland, 8th Earl of Huntingdon, soon after laid siege to supporters of John of England). If this was the case then it would adequately explain why de Wendenel disappears from history. Some who believe in a historical Robin Hood have stated that de Wendenel was killed, and that his avenger was a famed outlaw of the time and disposed member of the lower gentry, now known as Robin Hood.
Unfortunately for these theories, the connection of Robin Hood with Richard's reign dates only to the historian John Mair, writing in the sixteenth century; the earliest chronicle references (Andrew Wyntoun, writing c. 1420, and Walter Bower, c. 1440) date his flourishing to 1283 and 1266 respectively, while the probable earliest literary source (A Gest of Robyn Hode) names the King as "Edward".