He was just an ordinary medieval yeoman, yet he is linked in tales with two English kings. He inspired countless ballads, books and songs, a continuous stream of motion pictures since 1908 and a dozen television series. He is one of the most famous men in the Oxford Dictionary of English Biography, and he may have never existed at all. His name is Robin Hood.
Modern versions of the Robin Hood tales are set during the reigns of Richard I (1189-99) and his unpopular brother, John. While Richard is remembered as a brave knight and crusader, John is cast as the harsh, heavy-handed and unlucky villain. Robin Hood, wrongly deprived of his lands, is driven into the wilds of Sherwood Forest. There, he gathers a band of fellow outlaws. Together, they wield swords, quarterstaffs and arrows to fight the tyranny and corruption of the church and government. Not only do they help poor and honest folk, in some later versions the outlaws even save King Richard from being deposed by his scheming brother.
The stories are filled with action. Outlaws waylay the rich who are foolish enough to enter the forest. If a member of their band is captured, the others risk their lives, rescuing them by clever stratagems. A common motif in the stories is the use of disguises. In one tale, Robin enters Nottingham disguised as a butcher who sells meat to the poor at cheap prices. In The King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin Hood, Richard I disguises himself as an abbot to meet the famous Robin Hood.
After a long career and many adventures, death comes to Robin Hood. Treating him for wounds, the prioress of Kirklees Abbey deliberately draws too much blood from his veins. He summons his strength to fire one last arrow, instructing his men to bury him where the arrow falls.
In the old stories, the Sheriff of Nottingham and other powerful villains searched obsessively for Robin Hood and his men. No less diligently, antiquarians and historians have ransacked the surviving records of medieval England to find the man who was the basis of the Robin Hood legends. Some scholars tried to show a mythological origin for Robin Hood, seeing links with tales of fairies or Celtic forest gods, but these theories have fallen out of favor.
But, there is no easily identifiable historical figure who can be proved to be the "real Robin Hood". A mention of "the rymes of Robyn Hood" appears in William Langland's Piers Plowman, which was written about 1377. The original tales, which were passed down orally, were first written down during the 15th century. The earliest stories are told as if they were already legends from the past, and none were composed by anyone who claimed to have met or even seen Robin Hood.
The name "Robinhood", and variations such as "Rabunhod", appeared in a number of 13th-century English court records that refer to outlaws. A 1439 petition to Parliament, complaining about an outlaw named Piers Venables in Derbyshire, compares him to "Robyn Hude and his meyne".
The search for the original Robin Hood begins in English court records. A man named Robert Hood, a servant of the Abbott of Cirencester, is mentioned in court records for killing a man named Ralph, sometime between 1213 and 1216.
There is a bit more about a fugitive from justice named "Robert Hod" (Robin is a version of the name Robert.). This Robert Hod failed to show up at the royal assizes in York on 25 July 1225. His goods, valued at 32 shillings 6 pence, were forfeited at Michaelmas the next year. A later notation, which states that this fellow was a tenant of the archbishop of York, records his name as "Hobbehod" (or "Robbehod").
By 1300, there are at least eight references in English court records of men named "Robinhood", "Rabunhod" or "Robehod". The key reference was in a Berkshire notation in 1261-62. There was a criminal gang in the region that included a fellow named William, son of Robert le Fevre. And, this William's property was seized without a warrant by the prior of Sandleford.
In 1262, the prior was pardoned by the king for seizing William's property. This follow-up entry refers to William, son of Robert. The clerk recorded the son's name as "William Robehod" (William, son of Robehod). It seems that the mention of the name Robert in connection with an outlaw made the clerk think of Robin Hood, indicating that Robin Hood was already well known by 1262. It's hard to say whether there was already a legendary character named Robin Hood, or if that name was a figure of speech for an outlaw (perhaps in the way that "John Doe" is not a person, but a term meaning the average fellow).
Much has been written about a very old grave, said to be Robin Hood's, at Kirklees Abbey. Most of the buildings there were destroyed when Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and abbeys of England, but the gatehouse (where Robin is said to have died) remained. In 1702, Thomas Gale, the dean of York, visited Kirklees and jotted down an epitaph that gave Robin Hood's date of death as "24 Kalends Decembris 1247" — which is puzzling because there is no such date as 24 Kalends in the Roman calendar. This original gravestone was reported in a very badly damaged condition by a visitor in 1787; superstitious local folk kept carving chips from the stone as a cure for toothache. At any rate, the epitaph seen by Gale may have been a later addition inspired by Robin Hood ballads and plays.
The earliest recorded tales of Robin Hood place him in Yorkshire around Barnsdale, not in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, which was about 50 miles to the south. Even stories placed in Nottinghamshire sometimes refer to him as Robin of Loxley — and Loxley is in Yorkshire.
A family named Hood lived in the area of Barnsdale, and appeared in numerous medieval court records. Perhaps tales about "Robin Hood" or some other outlaw merged with the exploits of the Hood family. It may well be that Robin Hood's legends were based on the story of a man who was so obscure that he never made it into surviving written records.
Robin Hood's most famous haunt, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, was one of England's many medieval royal forests. "Royal forest" was a legal term. Royal forests were reserved for the king's use, mainly in hunting. These tracts were not necessarily wooded, but might include open country as well. Hunting was forbidden, as was using any of the land for farming, grazing or gathering firewood.
Forest laws were resented by the poor and middling farmers and villagers. These regulations barred the people of England from a great deal of the available countryside. Many ordinary folk had a sneaking admiration for those who were defiant and bold enough to make a living by poaching in the forest. Indeed, scenes of merry banquets that featured venison poached from the king's forests appear in many Robin Hood tales.
A surviving manuscript copy of the earliest tale, Robin Hood and the Monk, was written around 1450. About 1495, the printer Wynkyn de Worde published a version of A Lytel Gest of Robyn Hood, which is believed to have come from an earlier manuscript. Robin Hood and the Monk begins when Robin wishes to attend mass in Nottingham. He travels only with Little John, but they quarrel and Robin goes on alone. At the church, a corrupt monk betrays Robin Hood, and he is seized by the sheriff's men.
The treacherous monk, riding through the countryside with some letters for the king, is captured by Little John and Much. The pair kill the monk, and his page as well, lest the servant inform on them. A medieval audience would presumably think the monk got what he deserved, and would spare little thought for the fate of a servant. The letters are used to trick the sheriff into letting Little John and Much into the prison. They kill the jailer and escape with Robin Hood.
Oddly, the first chroniclers who tried to place Robin Hood into a historical context were Scots. As early as the 1420s, Andrew Wyntoun's history of Scotland mentioned Robin Hood and Little John, placing them in the years 1283-85. In a 1521 work, John Mair said that Robin Hood was around in the years 1193-94, during Richard I's reign. No one seems to know where these Scots found those dates for Robin Hood; no English sources for them have come to light.
The reign of Richard I, known as the Lion-Hearted, contains ample material for exciting stories. King Richard spent most of his years as king fighting in the Crusades, with his younger brother John ruling England. In 1192, Richard was on his way back to England when he was seized by Leopold V of Austria. Leopold turned him over to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, who demanded a huge ransom. The ransom was paid and Richard was released in 1194.
Sir Walter Scott also placed Robin Hood in the era of Richard I by giving the outlaw a small role in his 1819 novel Ivanhoe. The original references to Robin had him as a plain (if bold and daring) outlaw, but even by the 1400s, he was "Goodman Robin Hood" and had a reputation as a protector and avenger of the poor. Scott also turned Robin Hood into a hero who led Saxon resistance to Norman oppression in England, an aspect that is completely absent from the original tales. Since Ivanhoe, most writers have followed Scott's lead and set their own Robin Hood stories during Richard's reign.
Almost as famous as Robin Hood are his "Merry Men", his loyal band of followers. In the 1300s, the followers of an outlaw were called "merry men". They were known for wearing clothing of "Lincoln green", which served as a sort of uniform, as well as helping them blend into the forest.
First among the Merry Men was Little John, who appears in the earliest Robin Hood stories of the 1400s. Later tales explain how, as a tall, strong chap, ironically named John Little, he stops Robin Hood from crossing a narrow bridge. The pair fight with quarter- staffs, and Robin Hood gets a dunking when Little John knocks him off the bridge into the stream. Not one to hold a grudge against an honest fellow, Robin invites him to join his band.
Much, the Miller's Son, was another "charter member" of the Merry Men. Originally a tough, experienced fighter, he evolved into a young lad in some of the later stories. Will Scarlet was a more suave and handsome fellow than most of the outlaws. He was known for wearing fine clothes, sometimes of red silk, and his great skill with a sword. Another famous character, Alan-a-Dale, was a minstrel who joined the outlaws.
The early Robin Hood stories don't mention the now familiar figure of Friar Tuck. There was a real person behind this character, one Robert Stafford, a parson of Lindfield in Sussex. Stafford abandoned the church and headed a band of outlaws. Between 1417 and 1429, they terrorized Sussex and Surrey. Stafford's nickname at the time was "Friar Tuck", and he is so named in contemporary documents. Somewhat after Stafford's time, in 1475, Friar Tuck appears in the script of a play about Robin Hood.
Maid Marian also was a latecomer to Robin Hood's band. She was first associated with Robin Hood through England's May Day festivities. By the 1400s, plays about Robin Hood were popular at May Day. Also traditional were plays featuring a May Queen or Lady of May, who was a personification of spring. Maid Marian may have been introduced to England via a medieval French play called "Le Jeu de Robin et Marion". This pastoral musical, which was about a shepherdess whose lover was named Robin, was also popular at May Day. It seems that the shepherdess Marian merged with the May Queen. Eventually paired with Robin Hood in the plays and festivities, "Maid Marian" joined him in the tales.
The ballad "Robin Hood and Maid Marian" dates from the 1600s. In this tale, the pair are lovers but are separated while Robin is away. Maid Marian decides to find him, and dresses as a male page. She meets Robin Hood in the forest, but he is also in disguise and neither recognizes the other. They fall to fighting with swords for a considerable time. Robin Hood suggests that they call a halt, and it's then that Marian recognizes him by his voice. Victorian writers, and some movie scripts, made Marian more demure and aristocratic. Yet, even this delicate Maid Marian is brave enough to risk her life by spying on the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John on behalf of Robin Hood.
The Sheriff of Nottingham was Robin Hood's famous enemy. One candidate for the historical model of this character is Eustace of Lowdham. Eustace was sheriff of Yorkshire at the time that the property of "Robert Hod" was seized in 1226. He also was involved in the hunt, capture and execution of an outlaw named Robert of Wetherby — who may have been the same Robert Hod. Eustace later became the sheriff of Nottinghamshire.
The villainous Guy of Gisbourne, who is usually a knight in film versions, was originally a yeoman bounty hunter sent by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Guy is killed and decapitated by Robin Hood in an early, rather bloodthirsty ballad. Especially after Scott's contribution to the stories, Prince John appears as a villain, directing the evil doings of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne.
As the legends grew, so did Robin Hood's social status. At first, he was a yeoman; yeomen ranked below the gentry, but they were still free and some were quite prosperous farmers. An early printing of the tales copied a woodcut of Chaucer's yeoman from The Canterbury Tales to depict Robin Hood. Later stories cast Robin as a nobleman, often the Earl of Huntingdon, and explain that his lands were treacherously taken from him. Alas, if the "real" Robin Hood had been a nobleman instead of a yeoman, there would have been a better chance of documenting him in the surviving records of medieval England.
Unlike the character in the 1938 movie, the real King John was not overthrown and forced into exile by Robin Hood. Justice — or fate — caught up with him anyway. After losing much of the monarch's power to the barons when he was forced to agree to the provisions of the Magna Carta, bad luck dogged him. In 1216, he lost the Crown Jewels of England while crossing the Wash, a wide estuary. Tradition says that he died shortly thereafter from consoling himself with too much ale and a "surfeit of peaches". Since that time, no English monarch has ever been named John.
The myth of a "Robin Hood", an outlaw who fights injustice and aids the poor to resist oppression, has been perennially popular in England, the US, Australia and other countries. Outlaws, such as Dick Turpin, Jesse James, Joaquin Murietta, Bonnie and Clyde, and Ned Kelly, were once considered "modern-day Robin Hoods" in their times. Despite the legends spread by their admirers, most of these robbers never bothered to share their loot with the poor.
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