Lincoln green and Robin Hood

I’m delighted to host a brief conversation between two good friends who cc’d me in an email exchange. The question was posed by Lorraine K. Stock, who has a doctorate in medieval studies from Cornell University and teaches medieval literature, women’s studies and film studies in the English Department, University of Houston. Responding is my costume muse, Laura F. Hodges, whose doctorate is from Rice University in medieval literature–she is the author of Chaucer and Costume: the Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue (Boydell and Brewer 2000) and Chaucer and Clothing: Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Boydell and Brewer 2005).

Lorraine: Do you know what shade of green Lincoln green would correspond to in today’s color palate?  I’ve just watched a Robin Hood movie (1967 A Challenge for Robin Hood) in which a big point is made over the merry men adopting Lincoln green costumes as forest disguise.  They buy cloth from a cloth merchant at a fair and the color of their costumes in the movie is a dark bluish green— kind of a very dark teal, not a bright green or a dull leafy green— and this green is not the color of deciduous tree leaves—more like the color of blue spruce or pine trees. Does that sound authentic to you?

Laura: I have a whole book on Lincoln (bought there in a museum gift shop) and read it hoping to pin down Lincoln green.  My impression was that it was a stable color and quality, relatively speaking, in comparison to Kendal green that was just any old shade, more or less, and of much lower quality in terms of fabric itself.  I was unable to pin down the proper shade of green that Lincoln green was supposed to be.  Here’s what my book, p. 236, says:

“certain areas were best known for the colour in which natural dyes were grown.  The term Lincoln green acquired its name by devious means, and was not in fact a colour but a quality of cloth.

“The fine cloths of Lincolnshire were dyed in scarlet and green.  The first or highest grade of cloth was dyed crimson from the abdomens of a small dried female beetle found in Persia (Iran) the Kermes (Arabic for ‘crimson’), which resembled grains of wheat.  This very ancient dye, (later superseded by that of the cochineal beetle), became known as ‘Lincoln(e) Graine’ (or Greyne), and because its dye was expensive to produce was used mainly by the wealthy or important people.  In 1182 the Sheriff of Lincoln bought …

‘Scarlet’ fine cloth   at 6/8d (37p) an ‘ell’ …

‘Green’ fine cloth     at 3/- (15p) an ‘ell’

‘Gray’ cloth               at 1/8d (5 1/2p) an ‘ell’

The second colour, the green of Lincoln quality cloth was made from dyeing it blue from the locally grown ‘woad’, produced in the fens of Lincolnshire for hundreds of years, and overdyed from ‘weld’, (also known as Dyers’ weed, or Yellow Rocket) and was used mostly for mens jackets and womens dresses.”

Then there’s a bit about ‘gray’ worn by shepherds etc.  It was undyed.

Since woad produces blue, when a blue cloth was overdyed with weld (produces yellow), one might get any possible shade of green, depending on how deeply blue the original blue cloth was and how much yellow it was dipped in.  The chief thing was —  in Lincoln, a quality cloth was used to begin with.  But the shade of green must have varied, although info re dyestuffs in the MA have recipes which various guilds kept highly secret, but one of the common ingredients was urine.   Somewhere I’ve read that the guildsmen and apprentices would urinate in a special pot that would be kept within the dyehouse and used for their dye recipes.  Since diet influences the content of urine, perhaps the greens of one guild or one locale might be fairly “stable”???  But no one addresses this so far as I know.

You can see that the quality of green cloth purchased by the Lincoln sheriff was half as good as the red cloth above it, if price is any indicator.

And that’s all I know.  Your ‘teal’ might be possible, but I’d posit a darker version of Kelly green if I was making that movie—something that would blend into the forest better.  But I’d only be guessing.

If anyone has further information/thoughts, we welcome discussion!  Emma

2 Comments on “Lincoln green and Robin Hood

  1. i remember hearing that actually lincoln green was infact RED because dyes used to make green were very toxic and would kill anyone wearing the fabric. sounds as if it would fit in with what you say….. make hiding in the trees very interesting in the summer but fun in the autumn. just thought i would share that.


  2. Hi Shirley,
    Repeating some of what was said in the blog post:
    According to Mary Steele’s “Lincolnshire: Land, Longwools, and Legends”, published on behalf of the Lincoln Longwool Sheep Breeders Assoc. by Pelham Press, 1996, Lincoln fine cloths were dyed both in scarlet [in greyne] and in green, citing a record of 1182: “The Sheriff of Lincoln bought …
    ‘Scarlet’ fine cloth at 6/8d (37p) an ‘ell’ (approx 1yd)
    ‘Green’ fine cloth at 3/- (15p) an ‘ell
    “Gray’ cloth at 1/8d (5 1/2p) an ‘ell”
    It goes on to say how the green was made: by dyeing it first with locally grown woad [blue], and then overdyeing it with weld [yellow]. The gray cloth was not dyed at all — it was just the color of undyed or unbleached yarn as was produced from whatever sheep were shorn at the time.

    That’s all I know!
    Thanks for commenting,


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