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Chapter 1
Thus communed these; while to their lowly dome,
The full-fed swine return'd with evening home;
Compell'd, reluctant, to the several sties,
With din obstreperous, and ungrateful cries.
Pope's Odyssey
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there
extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills
and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The
remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of
Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of
Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of
the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws,
whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.
Such being our chief scene, the date of our story refers to a period towards the end of
the reign of Richard I., when his return from his long captivity had become an event
rather wished than hoped for by his despairing subjects, who were in the meantime
subjected to every species of subordinate oppression. The nobles, whose power had
become exorbitant during the reign of Stephen, and whom the prudence of Henry the
Second had scarce reduced to some degree of subjection to the crown, had now
resumed their ancient license in its utmost extent; despising the feeble interference of
the English Council of State, fortifying their castles, increasing the number of their
dependants, reducing all around them to a state of vassalage, and striving by every
means in their power, to place themselves each at the head of such forces as might
enable him to make a figure in the national convulsions which appeared to be
The situation of the inferior gentry, or Franklins, as they were called, who, by the law
and spirit of the English constitution, were entitled to hold themselves independent of
feudal tyranny, became now unusually precarious. If, as was most generally the case,
they placed themselves under the protection of any of the petty kings in their vicinity,
accepted of feudal offices in his household, or bound themselves by mutual treaties of
alliance and protection, to support him in his enterprises, they might indeed purchase
temporary repose; but it must be with the sacrifice of that independence which was so
dear to every English bosom, and at the certain hazard of being involved as a party in
whatever rash expedition the ambition of their protector might lead him to undertake. On
the other hand, such and so multiplied were the means of vexation and oppression
possessed by the great Barons, that they never wanted the pretext, and seldom the will,
to harass and pursue, even to the very edge of destruction, any of their less powerful
neighbours, who attempted to separate themselves from their authority, and to trust for
their protection, during the dangers of the times, to their own inoffensive conduct, and to
the laws of the land.