When one thinks about the great stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, they instantly associate them with Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire. There is, however, a direct link with the characters in the tales and Lincoln, that being the very clothes which he and his men wore.
Lincoln in the Middle Ages was a prosperous and thriving city, not just because of its farming links and minting of money, but also through its various merchants. Perhaps the most famous of the city’s wares were its beautifully coloured and highly prized textiles, with two shades in particular most coveted: Lincoln green and Lincoln scarlet.
While there were many other notable centres for the dying of wool (particularly famous was Kendal for its green), Lincoln was renowned throughout the kingdom not just for the high quality of the dyes used, but also for the consistency of their colour (Kendal green, for example, was notoriously inconsistent in its colour).
Green, or grene/greene as it was known during the period, was the more inexpensive of the two coloured fabrics from Lincoln. The shade was created by first dying the wool with woad, which gave the fabric a deep, strong blue colour and then redying it with a yellow plant, known as ‘dyers broom’ or ‘waxen wood’ which, combined with the blue, gave it a consistent and attractive light olive green colour.
Lincoln scarlet (known then as Lincoln graine/greyne) was a much more sought after and expensive cloth than green, aimed at the more affluent members of society. While the green was moderately affordable (3/-, or 15p, for an ‘ell,’ or 1.14 square metres of fabric), scarlet cost considerably more (6/8d, or 37p today, for an ‘ell’). The reason for this staggering cost increase was the quality of the dyes used and the difficulty in sourcing them. In order to create the deep scarlet hew, a dye from Turkey called ‘Kermes’ (from which the English word ‘crimson’ developed) was imported. This dye was made from the crushing of a particular insect, giving a more richer colour than could be created with the dyes native to Britain.
The resulting scarlet fabric was highly prized and symbolic of ones perceived social standing and affluence. It is interesting to note, that in one particular ballad of Robin Hood, popular in the 18th century, it stated that while in the forest with his men, he wore the same Lincoln green outfit that they did, but when he was present at court or in a similar social event, he would wear Lincoln scarlet, while they would wear green, thus symbolically showcasing his higher rank.
While the prestige and popularity of Lincoln green and scarlet were short-lived (by the end of the Middle Ages the dying of the colours are referred to as ‘ancient’), the textile business in Lincoln continued to soldier on. While not as thriving as it had been in the medieval period, attempts were made, particularly by the aristocratic in the city, to provide support to the ancient trade.
Most notable amongst these attempts was the “Stuff Ball”, which began in 1789 and lasted through the 19th century. Begun by Lady Banks, the wife of Sir Joseph Banks, the famous naturalist, a yearly ball was held in which all attendees were required to wear “Lincolnshire stuff”, or items made from locally produced wool. Unfortunately, after 1820 the changing tides of ladies fashion shifted away from wool and from that time the ball became less associated with the wool trade.
While it may seem a long time since the city was at the centre of the fashion industry, it was an important time in Lincoln’s history and one that still lives on in the ever popular Robin Hood tales. So next time you find yourself complaining that in order to purchase this season’s must-have style you have to travel all the way to Nottingham, take a quick second to savour the irony that 800 years ago, it was the other way round!