Richard at the Lee
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Richard at the Lee (also referred to as Rychard at the Lea and Sir Richard of Verysdale) is a major character in the early medieval ballads of Robin Hood, especially the lengthy ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, and has reappeared in Robin Hood tales throughout the centuries.
Sir Richard is said to have been a nobleman, the lord of Verysdale. In many versions, Sir Richard appears as a sorrowful knight whose lands will be forfeited because he pledged them to an abbot to get a loan he can not repay; Robin assists him with the money. This is his first appearance in the Gest, although he is not named at that point. Later in the Gest, he reappears, now named, and gives Robin Hood and the Merry Men sanctuary from the Sheriff of Nottingham by hiding them in his castle, after they have nearly been caught in an archery tournament; this part of the tale features in fewer later versions.
In A Gest of Robyn Hode
Richard came from a long line of noble knights (see line 188 of the ballad) and was a courteous man indeed. He had inherited a great castle at the wooded village of Lee in Verysdale in which he resided; a castle fit for knights with thick fortified walls, surrounded by two ditches and with a drawbridge at the entrance.
Richard resided in this castle with a small group of loyal servants and he had a beautiful fair wife and a son whom, although he was a wild spirit, Richard loved dearly. His son entered into a jousting contest and accidentally killed an opponent, a knight of Lancaster. The unfortunate heir to Verysdale was then immediately arrested by the High Sheriff. However, the Sheriff was open to bribes, and Richard was able to bail his son out of jail for the princely sum of four hundred pounds (a massive amount in the early medieval era) before his son was executed.
Richard was down on his luck. Although he was a nobleman with his own lands, he had very little money at all. So in order to pay the sheriff's bail and save his son's life he went to Saint Mary's Abbey in York and borrowed the money from the abbot. However, what he didn't realise was that the abbot was corrupt and in league with the sheriff. Richard had only a few short days to repay the loan, otherwise the sheriff and the abbot would claim his land and divide it up between themselves. These were the abbot's terms and Richard had no choice but to accept them. In Robin Hood's day, religious communities were often notorious for their greed, sleaze, lax morals and hypocritical lifestyles. Conversely, Robin Hood is portrayed as fair and truly religious. He might have been a criminal, but his rough justice restored true Christian values.
Meanwhile, in Barnsdale Forest, Robin Hood commanded some of his merry men to prepare a feast fit for a king, and to the others he commanded them to bring him a wealthy knight or noblemen to join him in his meal. The merry men were commanded by Robin to "walk up to the Saylis" and lie in wait there. (In 1852, this was identified by Joseph Hunter as a plantation that is today on the eastern side of the A1 fly-over, adjoining the village of Wentbridge. Now known as Sayles, it was once a small tenancy in the parish of Kirk Smeaton. Evidence on the ground shows that the author of the ballad knew this place well and realised that it was the perfect look-out point.) After finding nobody there, Little John, Will Scarlet and Much the miller's son lay in wait for the knight next to "Watlinge Strete". (This is actually a misnomer: the road in question was not the Romans' Watling Street (which ran from Kent to north Wales), but their Ermine Street, which stretched from Kent to York. It later became the Great North Road, and today is the A1.)
There passed a poor-looking knight with a sad expression, and they brought him to Robin Hood's camp. He was treated with utmost respect and enjoyed a fine banquet of deer, fowls, swans, pheasants, bread, and fine wine. After the meal Robin Hood asked the knight to pay for his meal. However, the knight told Robin that he was poor and had no more than ten shillings in his trunk.
Robin Hood tested the knight's honesty. If there were no more than ten shillings in the trunk, as the knight said, then Robin would not touch a penny and indeed would assist the knight financially. However, if the knight had lied then Robin would take everything the knight had. The merry men opened up the trunk and indeed found it nearly empty with only ten shillings (half a pound) inside.
So, after finding the knight true, Robin listened to his entire story. This knight was Sir Richard of Verysdale; Robin felt sorry for him and, Richard having also seen nobility and honesty in Robin, the two men formed a close bond of friendship. As Sir Richard was travelling to York to see the abbot of Saint Mary's that very day, Robin lent Richard the four hundred pounds needed to pay back the abbot and told Richard that there was no obligation to pay it back in a hurry. And so Richard repaid his loan to the abbot, and kept his lands, courtesy of Robin Hood.
A variation of the tale is that Robin took the money back from the Sheriff of Nottingham and gave it to Richard at the Lee.
In some tales, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson's play The Foresters, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian, he is said to be the father of Maid Marian. He appears as such (as Sir Richard of Leaford) in the television series Robin of Sherwood, played by George Baker.
Howard Pyle included the payment of mortgage in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. He also used Richard as a character in other portions, such as his retelling of Robin's escape from the king, after an archery tournament before him, and when Richard the Lion-Hearted visited the forest, the disguise was revealed when Richard arrived to warn the outlaws.
The lovelorn knight, John of York, who appears in an episode of the second season of the BBC series Robin Hood (2006 TV series) is clearly based on Richard at the Lee. John was passing through Sherwood Forest on his way to pay an instalment of a debt to the Canon of Birkley when he was ambushed by Robin Hood and his men. Parallels to the story of Richard are that John claimed only to have 10 shillings, Robin tested his honesty and said he would assist him if he were telling the truth, and then gave him money to enable him to repay his debt.
Steven A. McKay's 2014 novella Knight of the Cross - a spin-off from the author's Forest Lord series - features Sir Richard-at-Lee battling ancient evil in medieval Rhodes.
- Notes on "A Gest of Robyn Hode"