Archaeologists have helped to prove the size and thus the importance of a Palace that formed the royal heart of Sherwood Forest in the medieval period, by discovering and excavating the previously unknown boundary ditch of the site.
The ruins of King John’s Palace in Kings Clipstone are a local landmark famous for their association with ‘Bad King John’, the enemy of Robin Hood.
In fact during the medieval period the site was known as the King’s Houses and was an extensive royal palace with an adjacent deer park, located at the heart of Sherwood Forest. The palace was favoured by the crown and visited by all eight monarchs from Henry II to Richard II from the second half of the 12th century until the end of the 14th century.
These included Richard the Lion Heart and his brother King John, both intrinsically linked to the Robin Hood legends. Clipstone is the neighbouring village to Edwinstowe, legendary home of Robin Hood as well as the marriage site of Robin Hood and Maid Marion. The site is a stone’s throw from the Major Oak, a 1000 year old veteran oak tree and legendary hideaway of the world famous outlaw. The Major Oak now forms the centre piece of the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve. If Edwinstowe and the forest lay claim to the legend of Robin Hood, then Clipstone and king John’s Palace have an equal claim to being the royal centre of Sherwood Forest in the medieval period.
King John’s Palace was the site at the centre of this world famous landscape and was used as a royal retreat by the crown for entertaining foreign royalty, and even for housing Parliament in 1290.
Sherwood Forest in medieval times was an area of land subject to Forest Law, a set of laws introduced by the Normans to England in in the latter stages of the 11th century. Forest Law protected the Beasts of the Chase (primarily deer known in the records as ‘Venison’) for the exclusive use of the King and also protected the trees and woodland of their habitat known as the ‘Vert’. It was therefore illegal to hunt ‘Venison’ or chop down the ‘Vert’ within a royal Forest without the permission of the King.
Sherwood Forest for most of the high medieval period covered a large area roughly 20 miles north to south by 10 miles east to west. Sherwood Forest was not one continuous stretch of woodland and in fact contained many villages and even the town of Nottingham.
The Forest provided financial benefits to the crown from the sale of timber and game, but was in essence a giant hunting reserve. Red Deer and Roe Deer were hunted by the Crown across the open heathland and acres of woodland that dominated the landscape. Alongside the native red and roe deer the Norman Kings had a great fondness for Fallow deer, which they imported to England following the Conquest. As a non-native and vulnerable species it was necessary to raise fallow deer within parks constructed for the purpose. These were large extents of land enclosed by a high fence to keep the deer inside and poachers and other animals out.
In Sherwood Forest Henry II began work on a royal hunting retreat at Clipstone in 1164 and the adjacent deer park in the 1180s. This royal complex would develop over time into a major palace with a vast array of residential quarters, chapels, stables for 200 horses, an artificially flooded lake, rabbit warrens and gardens, surrounded by a designed landscape of deer launds and woodland.
Recent archaeological research led by Andy Gaunt of Mercian Archaeological Services CIC and archaeologist James Wright, has helped to reveal the true scale of the palace site. It has shown that the King’s Houses were a substantial Royal Palace which formed the heart of Sherwood Forest in the medieval Period.
A geophysical survey in 2010 by Andy Gaunt detected a large anomaly that was interpreted through historic mapping as being the western boundary of the palace. A subsequent excavation in the summer of 2012 led by James Wright (independent consultant) and Andy Gaunt, along with Sean Crossley and David Budge (the latter three now of Mercian Archaeological Services CIC) investigated the anomaly and proved it was the medieval boundary ditch of the complex.
The ditch contained 13th to 14th century pottery. Excavation also found the remains of an internal bank associated with the ditch. This had been truncated but would originally have been surmounted by a palisade as recorded in the written records. The bank contained pottery sherds from the 13th to 14th century which dated the construction of the bank and ditch.
The site was at its most popular and extensive during the reigns of Henry III, Edward I, II and III. Henry III started a period of building in the mid-13th century which continued into the Edwardian period into the 14th century. The site was very popular with Edward I who held a parliament there in 1290. An ancient Oak still stands on the former north-western boundary of the Deer Park which is named Parliament Oak after this prestigious event. The Parliament Oak as it known is now protected under the stewardship of The Sherwood Forest Trust.
In 1315 during the period of the Great Famine, Edward II stayed for a number of months at Christmas feasting and entertaining. The royal retinue devoured all the fish stocks in the pond and must have equally impacted on the stocks of deer in the park as they were forced to send retainers out into the surrounding counties to search for more food from the already starving populace.
In 1316 Edward II built a fortified ‘Peel’ enclosure as a refuge during difficult times (the War with Scotland) and as a grain and livestock store, in the southern part of Clipstone deer park. He clearly did not intend to run out of food again on his next stay.
Edward III subsequently dismantled the Peel and had the buildings re-erected within the Palace site at Clipstone. Thanks to the recent excavations, the palace site is now recognised as covering over seven acres; making it equal to and larger than many of the contemporary royal palaces of medieval England. Over the course of the 20th century academic writing had reduced the status of the site to that of a mere hunting lodge, despite listing all the accommodation and vast expenditure by the crown on the site throughout the medieval period.
The recent excavations and investigations have once again reclaimed the title of ‘Palace’ for this very special site at the centre of a landscape which is the backdrop to many of the world’s most famous legends.
Mercian Archaeological Services are continuing their investigations at the Palace, the Peel and across Sherwood Forest as a whole with volunteers and the community. The work at Clipstone forms part of their ‘Sherwood Forest Archaeology Project’, which promotes the heritage of Sherwood Forest. The project combines community archaeology research and outreach work in Sherwood Forest.
Mercian Archaeological Services CIC are a community archaeology company undertaking work with community groups and volunteers across the East Midlands area of the United Kingdom. As a Community Interest Company they re-invest profits in project development and community outreach.
Header Image : David Budge, Sean B Crossley, and Andy Gaunt (all of Mercian Archaeological Services CIC), with James Wright – in the Medieval Boundary ditch of King John’s Palace, Kings Clipstone, Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire.