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The subject of ballads, books and films, Robin Hood has proven to be one of popular culture’s most enduring folk heroes. Over the course of 700 years, the outlaw from Nottinghamshire who robs from the rich to give to the poor has emerged as one of the most enduring folk heroes in popular culture–and one of the most versatile. But how has the legend of Sherwood Forest’s merry outlaws evolved over time, and did a real Robin Hood inspire these classic tales?
Beginning in the 15th century and perhaps even earlier, Christian revelers in certain parts of England celebrated May Day with plays and games involving a Robin Hood figure with near-religious significance. In the 19th century, writer-illustrators like Howard Pyle adapted the traditional tales for children, popularizing them in the United States and around the world. More recently, bringing Robin to the silver screen has become a rite of passage for directors ranging from Michael Curtiz and Ridley Scott to Terry Gilliam and Mel Brooks.
Throughout Robin’s existence, writers, performers and filmmakers have probed their imaginations for new incarnations that resonate with their respective audiences. In 14th-century England, where agrarian discontent had begun to chip away at the feudal system, he appears as an anti-establishment rebel who murders government agents and wealthy landowners. Later variations from times of less social upheaval dispense with the gore and cast Robin as a dispossessed aristocrat with a heart of gold and a love interest, Maid Marian.
Academics, meanwhile, have combed the historical record for evidence of a real Robin Hood. English legal records suggest that, as early as the 13th century, “Robehod,” “Rabunhod” and other variations had become common epithets for criminals. But what had inspired these nicknames: a fictional tale, an infamous bandit or an amalgam of both? The first literary references to Robin Hood appear in a series of 14th- and 15th-century ballads about a violent yeoman who lived in Sherwood Forest with his men and frequently clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Rather than a peasant, knight or fallen noble, as in later versions, the protagonist of these medieval stories is a commoner. Little John and Will Scarlet are part of this Robin’s “merry” crew—meaning, at the time, an outlaw’s gang—but Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Alan-a-Dale would not enter the legend until later, possibly as part of the May Day rituals.
While most contemporary scholars have failed to turn up solid clues, medieval chroniclers took for granted that a historical Robin Hood lived and breathed during the 12th or 13th century. The details of their accounts vary widely, however, placing him in conflicting regions and eras. Not until John Major’s “History of Greater Britain” (1521), for example, is he depicted as a follower of King Richard, one of his defining characteristics in modern times.
We may never know for sure whether Robin Hood ever existed outside the verses of ballads and pages of books. And even if we did, fans young and old would still surely flock to England’s Nottinghamshire region for a tour of the legend’s alleged former hangouts, from centuries-old pubs to the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. What we do know is that the notion of a brave rebel who lives on the outskirts of society, fighting injustice and oppression with his band of companions, has universal appeal—whether he’s played by Erroll Flynn, Russell Crowe or even, as on a 1979 episode of “The Muppet Show,” Kermit the Frog.
The Real Robin Hood
Sean McGlynn reconsiders the origins of the popular myth and suggests a new contender for the original folk hero not an outlaw from Nottingham but a devoted royal servant from Kent, who opposed the French invasion against King John in 1216.
Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robin Hode.
[A Gest of Robyn Hode, 15th century]
Robin Hood is an ever-present figure in the pantheon of English heroes, continually capturing the imaginations of historians and writers of historical fiction as much as those of the general public. Whether he was a real character or not is the subject of perpetual debate. The paradox is neatly captured by the entry on Robin Hood in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in which the author argues that his biographical subject was entirely mythical.
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Once upon a time…
In short, medieval tales about Robin tell the story of a man from a noble family who turns into an outlaw in his effort to set the English countryside free. Robin thus challenges English tyrants, who benefit from the context of the Crusades – English knights and conscripts being sent to the Holy Land – to have their power uncontested.
On the 4 th of July 1187, the French knight Guy of Lusignan laid down his arms at the feet of Saladin. This defeat, implying the Crusaders’ loss of Jerusalem, sparked the Third Crusade. (Painting: Said Tahsine via Wikipedia)
Here comes our historical starting point – the Crusades. The one led by Richard the Lionheart was the third: at the end of the 12 th century, the King of England left his country for the Holy Land. He had emptied the kingdom’s vaults to raise his army: rumor has it that he would have sold London if he needed to…
At the gates of Jerusalem, Richard and his Muslim counterpart, Saladin, faced each other in devastating battles. Despite his best efforts, the Lionheart could not take over the Holy City. In 1192, an exhausted Richard was forced to return home but the troubles were not over just then. Having suffered severe weather and the sinking of his ship, the king was captured by Leopold of Austria, asking for a 150,000 marks ransom for his release! It would take some three long years before Richard could return to England. In the meantime, his brother John had taken his spot on the throne…
Colorful Cast of Characters
Historian and archivist Joseph Hunter discovered that many different Robin Hoods dotted the history of medieval England, often with variant spellings. One of the oldest references he found is in a 1226 court register from Yorkshire, England. It cites the expropriation of the property of one Robin Hood, described as a fugitive. In 1262, in southern England, there is a similar mention of a man called William Robehod in Berkshire. The previous year there had been a reference to “William, son of Robert le Fevere member of a band of outlaws”—believed to be the same person. In 1354, farther north in Northamptonshire, there is a record of an imprisoned man named “Robin Hood” who was awaiting trial. Because Hunter and other 19th-century historians discovered many different records attached to the name Robin Hood, most scholars came to agree that there was probably no single person in the historical record who inspired the popular stories. Instead, the moniker seems to have become a typical alias used by outlaws in various periods and locations across England.
The Real Robin Hood
The Hollywood film staring Russell Crowe as Robin Hood largely stuck to the script in its presentation of the legendary outlaw Crowe playing the part of a noble hero, who resided in Nottingham, protected the poor and needy from the avaricious nobility and of course, fell madly in love with a certain Maid Marian.
However, it may surprise you to know that many of these staple ingredients of the story are not actually present in the medieval ballads on which much of the legend is originally based (the ballads can be found here) and thus the nature of the ‘real’ Robin Hood may have been rather different to what we have come to expect.
A Nottinghamshire Hero?
Think of Robin Hood and you almost immediately think of Nottingham, the city and the legend have become synonymous. However, neighbouring county Yorkshire has also staked a claim to ownership of the legend and naturally some heated discussion has ensued.
Ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode make reference to Robin’s connections with the Yorkshire town of Barnsdale and the forest of the same name. This has lead historians Richard Dobson and John Taylor in their book Rhymes of Robin Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw to suggest that the early ballads link Robin more closely to Yorkshire then Sherwood Forest and Nottingham. It has also been claimed that Robin’s grave is located at Kirklees priory in West Yorkshire.
Naturally, advocates of Robin’s Nottinghamshire connections have rejected such claims and tensions reach boiling point in 2005 when Yorkshire based Doncaster Airport reopened as ‘Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield’. In truth both counties probably have an equal claim to ownership of the legend. There is still plenty of evidence linking Robin with Nottingham and the fact Sherwood Forest is located very close to the border with Yorkshire means any real life outlaw could easily have operated in both counties.
A Romantic Outlaw?
Again one of the first things that spring to mind when thinking of Robin Hood, is the heroic outlaw’s love interest Maid Marian. Indeed Marian is a key protagonist in almost all modern adaptations of the legend. However it may surprise you to know that Marian is entirely absent from the early ballads and as James Holt wrote in his 1982 work Robin Hood did not become a part of the legend until the late 16th century.
Indeed there are very few female characters in the early ballads, all be it for Robin Hood and the Butcher were it is subtlety suggested that Robin may have enjoyed the company of the Sheriff’s wife! However, apart from this the closest Robin comes to romance is a pious devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Stealing from the rich to give to the poor?
Yes, even this staple element of the Robin Hood legend is not really present in the early ballads. Robin and his men certainly steal, often killing their victims in the process, but there is very little mention of the rewards being redistributed amongst the poor. Indeed Robin occasionally comes into conflict with the lower orders, clashing with a potter in Robin Hood and the Potter and a butcher in Robin Hood and the Butcher.
James Holt argues that it was not until the 17th century that the notion of stealing from the rich to give to the poor became a central feature of the legend and in doing so the legend became concerned with morality as well as entertainment. However, this change in direction certainly proved popular as it still forms the basis of the legend to this day.
The Real Robin
So it would seem that the ‘real’ Robin Hood was actually quite different to the Robin of the present day the early ballads portraying him as a rough and violent outlaw, with little time for romance and possibly stemming from Yorkshire rather then Nottingham.
However, that is not to say that we should dismiss our modern conceptions of the legend as irrelevant, indeed the way in which the story has evolved and been adapted can tell us a lot about how society and what it expects from its heroes has developed throughout history. Thus while he may have changed countless times over the centuries, one thing about Robin Hood has remained constant he is as popular as ever.
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Robin Hood, legendary outlaw hero of a series of English ballads, some of which date from at least as early as the 14th century. Robin Hood was a rebel, and many of the most striking episodes in the tales about him show him and his companions robbing and killing representatives of authority and giving the gains to the poor. Their most frequent enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a local agent of the central government (though internal evidence from the early ballads makes it clear that the action took place chiefly in south Yorkshire, not in Nottinghamshire). Other enemies included wealthy ecclesiastical landowners. Robin treated women, the poor, and people of humble status with courtesy. A good deal of the impetus for his revolt against authority stemmed from popular resentment over those laws of the forest that restricted hunting rights. The early ballads, especially, reveal the cruelty that was an inescapable part of medieval life.
Numerous attempts have been made to prove that there was a historical Robin Hood, though references to the legend by medieval writers make it clear that the ballads themselves were the only evidence for his existence available to them. A popular modern belief that he was of the time of Richard I probably stems from a “pedigree” fabricated by an 18th-century antiquary, William Stukeley. None of the various claims identifying Robin Hood with a particular historical figure has gained much support, and the outlaw’s existence may never have been anything but legendary.
The authentic Robin Hood ballads were the poetic expression of popular aspirations in the north of England during a turbulent era of baronial rebellions and agrarian discontent, which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The theme of the free but persecuted outlaw enjoying the forbidden hunting of the forest and outwitting or killing the forces of law and order naturally appealed to the common people.
Although many of the best-known Robin Hood ballads are postmedieval, there is a core that can be confidently attributed to the medieval period. These are Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood and the Potter, and the Lytyll Geste of Robin Hode. During the 16th century and later, the essential character of the legend was distorted by a suggestion that Robin was a fallen nobleman, and playwrights, eagerly adopting this new element, increased the romantic appeal of the stories but deprived them of their social bite. Postmedieval ballads (which gave Robin a companion, Maid Marian) also lost most of their vitality and poetic value, doubtless as a result of losing the original social impulse that brought them into existence.
Who Was the Real Robin Hood? A New Theory from Michael Reuel
Historians have long debated the issue of whether the character of Robin Hood was an archetypal fictional figure, or an actual person with historical roots, possibly inspired by contemporary characters. Michael Reuel has come up with an interesting new theory on the Robin Hood story: that he was indeed a real person. Michael explains his ideas, and presents the view from his new book, ‘Robin Hood Existed’, here in his article for #FolkloreThursday …
While we might all be familiar with the name Robin Hood, exactly how in touch we are with an actual historical figure is seldom made clear. The Sherwood outlaw is so famous that he has become a creature of popular culture, which includes numerous falsehoods that are tough to shake. Many of these falsehoods are familiar ones. Most notably they include the positioning of Robin alongside Kings Richard and John, and the recasting of his identity into a disinherited nobleman. Some storytellers insist on going as far as having him fight in the Holy Land others choose to align him with the Saxon resistance against the Normans. Neither of these tales have any historical merit. But why? Where have storytellers taken their cues from and what version of the tale should we be telling?
Robin shoots with Sir Guy. This 1912 illustration does indeed depict a scene played out in the original ballads. © Louis Rhead https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood#/media/File:Robin_shoots_with_sir_Guy_by_Louis_Rhead_1912.png
Tracing the roots of Robin’s story shows us that none of these mistakes occurred by accident. Medieval storytellers tended to take their cues from something grounded, even if they then fantasised and elaborated in the telling. Sadly, however, the same was not true of medieval historians. Indeed, it was sixteenth century Scottish historians, keen to understand the stories that had also become popular north of the border, who first sought to explain Robin Hood’s identity within a historical context. In order to achieve this they overlooked – either clumsily or deliberately – many reasons why his identity might have been obscure. Unfortunately, acknowledging grey areas in the telling was not good enough for them, and so they used presumption and bias to fill the gaps. Determined to align Robin Hood with a righteous cause and popular kingly struggle, they opted to make him a follower of Richard the Lionheart, while Prince John provided a usual suspect for the villain. Even though these spurious links would soon be discredited by rival historians, the problem is that the first storytellers to bring Robin Hood to a wider audience followed the lead of those initial chroniclers. Because the instinct was to head for the earliest known references, their mistakes remain with us to this day.
Although I do not imagine much of this comes as a surprise, it is a lesser known truth that purer versions of an original story do exist. In fact, in my book I make the argument that the opinion of Robin Hood as figure of make-believe can be hotly contested. For current historians the issue is difficult to contend with, as it means weighing up the value of folklore against documented history, from which many scholars shy away. However, in Robin Hood’s case, it should be pointed out that the folklore is quite extensive. A collection of associated ballads, originally oral tales, survive from the fifteenth century. Five of these tales have been found to be of earlier origin than the rest, and it is these that are the most interesting to folklorists. These ballads are known as Robin Hood and the Monk, The Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and The Death of Robin Hood. The ballads are all part of what is known as ‘The Percy Folio’, which was compiled in the seventeenth century, but using material dating at least as far back as the fourteenth century.
Accepting a historical version of Robin Hood, as opposed to the one of popular legend, depends upon whether you accept these ballads as a genuine attempt to record factual stories, or as a piece of fiction. The many arguments to support their validity are too complex to sum up here, but many agree on extensive reasons for interpreting the ballads as potentially down-to-earth and authentic in their attempt to record established local knowledge, rather than merely spinning a yarn. So, if this summation is correct, which I would argue is the case, what might Robin Hood have been like before popular culture twisted his origins? The most obvious difference between the Robin Hood of popular belief and that of the possible historical figure in the ballads is his time period. I believe that Robin Hood did not live in Richard or John’s reign, but at the time of a King Edward. As three King Edwards reigned from 1272 to 1377, this can prove problematic in placing the tales in a firm date period. However, the clues indicate that the most important king for understanding Robin Hood’s fame may be that of Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377. This places the outlaw more than one hundred years after King John’s reign, which may explain why historians have been unable to find him there.
By studying Edward III’s reign, many of the dynamics and peculiarities of the ballads come to make sense. The early fourteenth century proved to be a new dawn for the English nation. A vibrant and energetic young king first overthrew his father’s traitors, then went about teaching his countrymen how to be victorious on the battlefield again. After repelling the Scottish invasions, he turned his attention to a dominant French power, and many historians agree that his subsequent military victories at Crecy and Poitiers were greater than the now more famous Agincourt. Although we might frown at such values now, these victories made Edward III a very popular king and, for a time, England was an optimistic kingdom. It had a new flag, popular culture was embraced, and it was also a time when Robin Hood’s longbow became the country’s celebrated weapon.
A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood#/media/File:Here_begynneth_a_gest_of_Robyn_Hode.png
Keen to celebrate England’s new prowess, King Edward ordered numerous courtly events and entertainments for the benefit of all classes. Popular depictions of Robin Hood show how he is often drawn out of the woods to compete in archery contests. The ballads tell that Robin did not compete as a disinherited nobleman, however, but as a yeoman – a broad term that essentially indicates he was a man of no status. In addition, the ballads are also clear that he is a woodsman, and so living outside of society. This was a time when the forests of England were said to cover two-thirds of the land. There was plenty of space to carve out an independent existence if you did not have a taste for the tumultuous reigns of previous rulers. Indeed, medieval kings often overlooked lawless regions, as with the Welsh and Scottish borders, though the ballads say it was the Greenwood that served as a lawless region for Robin and his men. For the most part, his location has never changed. The ballads tell that Sherwood and Barnsdale forest (across the Yorkshire border) was where Robin’s men were centralised, though they also suggest that they travelled far and wide. They note that not only were the men skilled archers and swordsmen, but also accomplished horse riders – an addition often missing from popular depictions.
How and why a lowly peasant like Robin would become a hero of the people is part of the fun of interpreting the ballads. The chroniclers did not understand his popularity not without a kingly cause. So, in order to understand why, we need to think like a yeoman. It is explicitly stated in the ballads that Robin did much good for the poor. So, perhaps surprisingly, the ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’ reputation does stand up. This was likely not in terms of some great charitable mission (mostly Robin and his men rob the rich to show off their woodland liberties and freedoms), but it is not inconceivable that their loot never made it into poor people’s hands. After all, as a wild man of the woods, he would have had little use for riches. Certainly he is very generous with one destitute knight, who is being blackmailed by the clergy, while he also gifts jewels to the sheriff’s wife and flouts any concern for profit or financial security that the people of Nottingham have.
But what motivated him to do all this if not some great kingly cause? It appears that Robin’s chief enemies were what can be described as figures of local authority. His beef with the sheriff of Nottingham is well known, but those he loathed most were the clergy. Churchmen and monks fall foul of Robin’s tricks and this is why he was so popular, because it was just such men who had direct influence over the lives of ordinary people. By considering clerical abuses ongoing in closer proximity, it becomes easier to understand why the yeomanry found a place in their hearts for a mischievous woodsman. Other key elements of Robin’s heroism recorded in the ballads include his respect for women and his religious faith. Although he despises the clergy, he venerates the Virgin Mary, and his need to emerge from the woodland to worship in God’s house results in him being locked up in Nottingham Castle at least once. When he is murdered, it is said at his death that he “never did fair maid harm”, perhaps suggesting a popularity that was shared by both the sexes.
This attempt to realign Robin Hood with the hero of the original ballads, and away from the one of popular culture, is not a new pursuit. Antiquarians like Joseph Ritson have argued for the veracity of the ballads and for Robin’s status as a historical figure since the eighteenth century. Popular culture is a tough beast to tame, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing more authentic to discover if you feel the urge to go looking.
So there is our hero. Very familiar after all, because the core components of a good story never really change, even if history and context become skewed. The Robin Hood of the ballads was less noble and more brutal than we tend to depict, but not inhumane nor merely a common thief. He was a hero of the people and deserves to be remembered as one.
To read more on Michael’s approach see his book, Robin Hood Existed:
References & Further Reading
Robin Hood Existed by Michael Reuel, published 2016 by Rule Hard Publishing
Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked
Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar
The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans
Robin Hood: 7 myths about about the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest
We know, or think we know, quite a lot about Robin Hood – the heroic archer in English folklore who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor – but hard facts about him are decidedly thin on the ground. Here, we look back at our article written by the late historian David Baldwin busting some of the most popular myths surrounding the legendary archer.
This competition is now closed
Published: January 29, 2021 at 6:35 pm
Robin Hood was a real person
Robin Hood is an invented, archetypical hero, whose career encapsulates many of the popular frustrations and ambitions of his era. Robin (or Robert) Hood (aka Hod or Hude) was a nickname given to petty criminals from at least the middle of the 13th century – it may be no coincidence that Robin sounds like ‘robbing’ – but no contemporary writer refers to Robin Hood the famous outlaw we recognise today.
There were men like Robin Hood, however, such as fugitives who flouted the harsh forest laws [unpopular laws that retained vast areas of semi-wild landscape over which the king and his court could hunt], and these fugitives were largely admired by the oppressed peasantry. But the individual(s) whose deeds inspired the legend of Robin Hood may not have been called Robin Hood from birth, or indeed even during in his own lifetime.
Robin lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart
Robin Hood is often portrayed as the enemy of the ambitious Prince John and the ally of his brother, the imprisoned Richard I (1189–99), but it was Tudor writers of the 16th century who first brought the three men together in this context.
Alternatively, Robin Hood has been identified (not very convincingly) with one of a number of Robin Hoods mentioned in the Wakefield Court Rolls during the reign of Edward II (1307–27), and, more probably, as a disinherited supporter of Simon de Montfort, who was slain at Evesham in 1265.
All we can say with certainty is that Robin the Outlaw had entered popular mythology by the time William Langland wrote The Vision of Piers Plowman in 1377. In it, Sloth the chaplain says: “I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth, But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf, Erl of Chestre.”
Unfortunately, it is not clear if Robin was associated with Ranulf ‘de Blundeville’, earl of Chester (d1232) in some way, or if the ‘rymes’ about them sprang from entirely separate traditions.
Robin Hood was a philanthropist who robbed the rich to give to the poor
It was the Scottish historian John Major who in 1521 wrote that “[Robin] permitted no harm to women, nor seized the goods of the poor, but helped them generously with what he took from abbots”.
But earlier ballads are more reticent: the longest, and possibly also the oldest, rhyme or ballad about Robin Hood is The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode, believed to have been written down c1492–1510 but probably composed c1400. It concludes with the comment that Robin “did poor men much good”.
But while Robin is willing to lend to a knight who finds himself in financial difficulties, in The Lyttle Geste and in other early ballads there is no mention of money being distributed among the peasants or of society being reordered to their advantage. On the contrary, stories that have the outlaws mutilating a vanquished enemy and even killing a child on one occasion show them in a quite different light.
The many faces of Robin Hood
Robin Hood is a legend – but was the medieval outlaw and expert archer also a real man? Whoever the figures were who inspired the Robin Hood story, it’s almost certain that none of them stole from the rich to give to the poor
Robin was a dispossessed nobleman, the Earl of Huntington
Again, there is no real basis for this theory – the Robin of the early ballads is always a yeoman, and his attitudes are those of his class.
So from where did the idea originate? John Leland, writing in the 1530s, refers to Robin as a nobilis exlex – a noble outlaw, meaning, in all probability, that he was high-minded. And in 1569 historian Richard Grafton claimed to have found evidence in an “old and ancient pamphlet” that Robin had been “advanced to the dignity of an earl” on account of his “manhood and chivalry” an idea subsequently popularised by Anthony Munday in his plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington, both written in 1598.
Furthermore, Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood, published in 1632, stated unequivocally that the “renowned outlaw, Robert Earl of Huntington, vulgarly called Robin Hood, lived and died in AD 1198”, but the real Earl of Huntingdon (the only possible interpretation of ‘Huntington’) at this date was David of Scotland, who died in 1219. Following the death of David’s son, John, in 1237, there were no more earls of Huntingdon until the title was granted to William de Clinton a century later.
Robin Hood: 3 films
Robin Hood, the heroic archer in English folklore who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor, is reinvented by each generation. Mark Glancy takes a look back at depictions of the legendary outlaw…
Robin married Maid Marian at St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe
Maid Marian is now as much a part of the Robin Hood story as Robin himself, yet she was originally the subject of a separate series of ballads. Curiously, the Robin and the outlaws of the earliest stories do not appear to have had wives or families – the only slight feminine interest was Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The storytellers may have thought this devotion inappropriate in the years after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and Marian may have been incorporated into the tales at this time to provide an alternative female focus. The ‘marriage’ of Robin and Marian inevitably followed.
Robin was buried at Kirklees Priory in Yorkshire and his grave can today be seen there
According to legend, Robin went to Kirklees Priory for medical treatment (date unknown), was deliberately over-bled by the prioress, and with his last ounce of strength shot an arrow indicating where he wanted to be buried.
However, the Tudor writer Richard Grafton thought that the prioress had interred Robin by the side of the road:
“Where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way. And upon his grave the sayde prioresse did lay a very fayre stone, wherein the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldesborough, and others were graven. And the cause why she buryed him there was, for that the common strangers and travailers, knowyng and seeyng him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their jorneys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlawes. And at either end of the sayde tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seen there at this present”.
A drawing made by the Pontefract antiquarian Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 shows a slab decorated with a cross ‘fleuree’ (the standing crosses had presumably disappeared by his day), and the inscription “Here lie Roberd Hude, Willm Goldburgh, Thoms…” carved round the edge. Nothing is known of William of Goldesborough or Thomas, and the inscription was said to be “scarce legible” some years before Johnston drew it. Robin Hood could have been buried in a grave that already contained other bodies, but if the monument was erected shortly after his death (whenever that was), it is curious that there is no mention of it before about 1540.
Kirklees Priory came into the possession of the Armitage family following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and in the 18th century Sir Samuel Armitage had the ground beneath the stone excavated to a depth of three feet. His main fear was that grave robbers had been there before him, but in fact the real problem was the lack of a grave to rob. The site did not appear to have been dug previously, and Armitage concluded that the memorial had been “brought from some other place, and by vulgar tradition ascribed to Robin Hood”.
The stone was regularly attacked by souvenir hunters and by others who believed that pieces of it could cure toothache. The Armitages subsequently enclosed the site within a low brick wall topped by iron railings, the remains of which are still visible today.
Some of Robin’s friends, and equally some of his protagonists, can be identified with persons known to history
Little John, Will Scarlett and Much the Miller’s son are associated with Robin in the earliest ballads, but other members of his band – Friar Tuck, Alan a Dale, etc – were added later. Of these, Little John is undoubtedly the most prominent, but there are almost as many references to Little Johns – or John Littles – in contemporary documents as there are to Robin Hoods. The historical John is as elusive as his master, but what is alleged to be his grave in Hathersage churchyard in Derbyshire is not without interest. The stones and railings are modern, but part of an earlier memorial, bearing the weathered initials ‘L’ and ‘I’ (which looks like a ‘J’) can still be seen in the church porch.
James Shuttleworth, who owned the manor, excavated the site in 1784, and found a particularly large femur 28½ inches long – a bone that is said to have been responsible for much ill luck until it was finally reburied. Two cottages, one in Little Haggas Croft at Loxley (Yorkshire) and the other in Hathersage (a village in the Peak District in Derbyshire), were said to be the houses in which Robin was born and in which Little John spent his final years respectively but Robin’s was ruinous by 1637, and John’s was demolished in what was described as “recent times”.
An alternative approach has been to try to place Robin in a particular historical context by identifying some of his opponents, but the ballads refer merely to the Sheriff of Nottingham the Abbot of St Mary’s, York and others only by these titles – never to named individuals who held the offices between known dates. The lack of precise information is frustrating, but we should always remember that we are here dealing with popular literature, not with documents intended to record facts.
The late David Baldwin was the author of Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked (Amberley Publishing, 2010 reprinted in 2011)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015
The Real Robin Hood - HISTORY
in search of.
THE REAL ROBIN HOOD
The popular story of Robin Hood immortalized by Hollywood myth is based on a play written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Anthony Munday in 1598. It tells the tale of a disinherited nobleman who leads a band of outlaws in their fight against the ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham from the depths of Sherwood Forest. The story is set in the 1190s when King Richard I is away fighting in the crusades and his brother Prince John is left to rule England in his place. Most historians who had previously searched for evidence of historical truth behind the story examined records from the reign of Richard I. As nothing conclusive was found, many believe that Robin Hood was nothing more than a myth. However, in his historical research, renowned historical writer Graham Phillips uncovered conclusive evidence of an historical Robin Hood from an entirely different period.
The reason others had failed to discover this elusive documentation is that, based on mistakes made by Anthony Munday, they had been researching the wrong dates. In the vaults of the British Library in London, there survives a tale of Robin Hood written 200 years before Anthony Munday’s time. It is an anonymous work that first appeared in the mid-to-late 1300s called The Gest of Robin Hood. The word Gest was a medieval word meaning a story or tale so, for convenience, the work is referred to as the Gest. Literary scholars had long known of the Gest’s, existence, but many historians overlooked its importance as evidence for an historical Robin Hood. Significantly, it places the story in a different time to Munday’s play. It is set in the early fourteenth century and not the late twelfth, and the king is not Richard I but Edward II. Neither is Robin a nobleman, but a soldier a knight in the army of Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster. The action takes place in 1322 when Robin is forced to become an outlaw after the Earl of Lancaster leads a failed rebellion against the king.
Lancaster’s rebellion was an historical event and the records show that many of his defeated followers did flee into Sherwood Forest to continue a guerrilla campaign. The Earl of Lancaster had been the lord of both Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and had led a popular uprising against unfair taxes imposed by the king, following a crippling famine. Unfortunately, Lancaster was betrayed when his plans were revealed to the king by his trusted deputy, Henry de Facombery. When the rebel army was defeated at the battle of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire on 15 March 1322, Lancaster was killed and the king rewarded Facombery by appointing him sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He was charged with rounding up the rebels who had fled south into Sherwood Forest. Henry de Facombery, it seems, became the fabled Sheriff of Nottingham.
Following the work of an obscure mid-nineteenth-century Yorkshire historian named Joseph Hunter, Graham discovered a record of the leader of the rebels who had escaped following Lancaster defeat. In the archives of Wakefield Manor on the northern edge of Barnsdale Forest, just to the north of Sherwood, his name is recorded as "Robert Hode". As Robin was a nickname for Robert and Hode was a medieval spelling of Hood, it seemed that the historical Robin Hood had at last been found. In fact, in one particular document he is actually referred to as ‘Robin Hode’
The possibility that Robert Hode was indeed the historical Robin Hood was supported by the names of other outlaws recorded as being in his band. For example, a man who went by the name of Little John is recorded as being buried in nearby Hathersage churchyard, where his grave can still be seen, and a Friar Tuck is recorded as Lancaster’s chaplain who took part in the revolt. Robert’s wife was even a perfect candidate for Maid Marian. Remarkably for the time, Robert’s wife actually joined him in the forest and played an active part in the struggle. Both this and her name provided further confirmation that Robert Hode was the historical Robin Hood. Robert was a relatively wealthy knight who lived in modest manor on the edge of Barnsdale Forest in the village of Bichill, a few miles south of Wakefield. In 1321 he married a girl from the nearby village of Woolley named Matilda. In Anthony Munday’s play Matilda had been Maid Marian’s real name, the name Marian being an alias she adopted once she had fled into Sherwood Forest. Just as in legend, Matilda Hode joined her husband in the forest and, remarkably for the time, had actually played an active part in the struggle. All this provided astonishing confirmation that Robert Hode was indeed the historical Robin Hood.
The royal archives, dating from the reign of Edward II at Winchester in southern England, reveal that the Sherwood outlaws were eventually granted an amnesty by the king in 1323, in return for their support in putting down a new rebellion. Two years later, with the rebellion behind him, Edward had a change of heart. Robert and his followers were once again outlawed and disappear from record. Graham could find no historical evidence of what became of Robert Hode. However, the Gest says that Robin Hood was eventually murdered - poisoned by the abbess of Kirklees Priory in Yorkshire when he sought sanctuary there in 1347. Why the abbess killed him is a mystery as the surviving manuscript is damaged and the verses pertaining to the betrayal no longer survive. All we learn is that, after killing Robin, the abbess took her own life and Little John arrived to bury his friend’s body nearby.
Kirklees Priory historically existed and Elizabeth de Staynton is actually recorded as abbess in the 1340s. When her grave was found in the 1950s, the inscription revealed that she had indeed died in 1347, the very year the Gest says she took her own life. More remarkably, the grave of a Robert Hode was discovered in a woodland nearby. The original is no longer there but in 1665 a local historian named Nathaniel Johnston made a drawing of it and that still survives. Today a crumbling nineteenth-century monument marks the spot, bearing an inscription that claims it to be the actual site of Robin Hoods' grave.
Robin Hood is perhaps the most famous bandit of all time. However, it is highly likely that there was no single person known as Robin Hood. Robin Hood morphed into an alias in England in the 1300s-1600s. The name was a nickname or epitaph that eventually became synonymous with those who engaged in banditry in England in the Middle Ages and lived outside of the law. Balladeers and writers took up the legend, and they greatly embellished it. The stories about the Merrie Men, the Sherriff of Nottingham, and Maid Marion are just tales. There was no historical Robin Hood, but that does not mean that we cannot enjoy the characters' tales and stories.
Knight, Stephen Thomas. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. (Cornell, Cornell University Press, 2004).
Evans, Michael R. 'Robin Hood in the landscape: place-name evidence and mythology', in: Phillips, Helen, ed. Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval (Dublin, 2005), pp. 181-87.
Graves, Robert, ed. English & Scottish Ballads (London: Melbourne Toronto, 1957), pp. xvi-xvii, 149-60
Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London, 1936).