Who was Robin Hood?
In the first article of this series, I looked at one the more popular narratives about the historic Robin Hood. In it I explored the possibility that Robin lived at time of King Richard the Lionheart in the late C12th/early C13th.
If you missed this article and would like to read it before going further, you can find it here.
In this article I’d like to look at what people who lived in the Middle Ages thought about Robin Hood:
- When did stories about Robin first start appearing?
- What did Medieval writers have to say about when and where Robin lived?
- And what can we learn about an historic Robin from the earliest stories?
Popular Robin Hood stories began with oral tradition. It is impossible to say for sure when the first stories were told because, for a time, no one wrote them down.
These early tales were ballads and rhymes told by minstrels and jesters for the entertainment of the common folk. We first learn of their existence from a writer by the name of William Langland.
William wrote a tale called “Visions of Piers Ploughman” at some time around 1377. In this story he has one of his characters say the following line:
“…I know the rhymes of Robin Hood…”Visions of Piers Ploughman, William Langland
William gives no details of the content of these rhymes but, by the time he was writing in 1377, it seems clear that these tales were already well known.
This shows that, if Robin Hood was a real person, he would have lived some time before 1377. So, if we look at the period prior to this, do we find any Robin Hoods?
Robin the rebel
In 1321-1322 there was a baronial rebellion against King Edward II. This rebellion has become known as the Despenser War because it was largely prompted by dissatisfaction with Edward II’s court favourite – Hugh Despenser. In the end Edward II emerged triumphant after the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322.
After the dust had settled, Edward II set about punishing the rebels and those who had supported them. This involved the dispossessing some rebel supporters of their land and even outlawing some. It is within this context that the antiquarian, Joseph Hunter, proposed that one of these people, Robert Hode, a known resident of the Wakefield area, became the notorious Robin Hood.
Robert Hode of Wakefield
According to Hunter, Robert had owed allegiance to one of the rebellious lords – the Earl of Lancaster. Robert was an archer and, as such, he could well have fought for the Earl in this capacity. He may even have helped to raise men for the rebellious Earl.
Following the defeat of 1322, the Earl of Lancaster was executed. And, of course, his followers were also punished.
Records suggest that Robert’s property may have been forfeit to the King, along with several other properties belonging to associates of the Earl of Lancaster across the region. Hunter believes that, at this point, Robert turned to life as an outlaw. Hunter went on to suggest that he could have taken refuge from the King’s men in the nearby forest of Barnsdale. This is significant, as Barnsdale Forest is frequently associated with Robin Hood in the earliest surviving stories.
Further records show a certain “Robyn Hode” was in the service of the King (Edward II) as a porter by 1323. The King is known to have visited the Wakefield/Barnsdale area around this time. This is significant because an early Robin Hood story tells us that a King Edward met Robin, was reconciled with the outlaw, and took him into his service.
Hence, we potentially have a situation where Robert Hode, the archer, becomes the outlaw Robin Hood in 1322 and takes refuge in Barnsdale Forest. In 1323 he meets the King and is reconciled to the monarch and enters his service. It’s an almost exact re-play of the plot of one of the very earliest Robin Hood stories. Furthermore, in this story, the King is specifically identified as a King Edward (although it is not clear which one).
So, was Robert of Wakefield our man?
Robert of Wakefield certainly had the right kind of background to be a good candidate for Robin Hood. He was an archer for one thing. For another he was from the yeoman class – something that early Robin Hood stories often mention.
However, there is no evidence that either Robert Hode the yeoman or Robyn Hode the porter to King Edward ever became outlaws. It is also a big assumption to claim that they were one in the same person.
Later research by J C Holt has shown that ‘Robyn Hode’ the porter was in the service of Edward II prior to his visit to the area and therefore it is very unlikely that Edward met him in the Barnsdale/Wakefield area.
The only real evidence that Robert Hode was the famous outlaw boils down to the fact that he had a similar name, he was a yeoman archer and that he likely suffered from association with Lancaster. However, there is no evidence that he was ever outlawed or that he was ever known as ‘Robin’. And it is extremely unlikely that there was any connection between Robert and Robyn Hode the porter.
But why is it that we have both a Robert Hode and a Robyn Hood cropping up at the same time in similar places? Is it just coincidence? And how does this tie in with the Robert Hod from the York Assizes of 1226 or the other Robert Hood of Cirencester we discussed in the previous article?
Why so many possible Robin Hoods?
Robin, in Medieval times, was an informal name used by Roberts (just as we might shorten Robert to Bob or Bobby nowadays). That means that any outlawed Robert or Robin going by the name of Hood (or some variation thereof) could, potentially, be the ‘real’ Robin Hood.
But Robert was a very common name in the Middle Ages. There were thousands of Roberts. Just because someone was called Robert does not mean anything at all. So, ideally, we need to find someone who we can at least be certain used that name – Robin (or Robyn).
However, even by narrowing it down in this way, there remains a fair number of Robins!
Many Robin Hoods!
The surname Hood or Hode or Hod was not uncommon in Medieval times. Here too, the surname Hode was a genuine English name that pre-dates any possible date for the historic Robin Hood.
The Hood surname (in various forms) was used as early as Anglo-Saxon times way back in the ninth century CE. The name appears in several different variations including Hoods, Hude, Hud, Hudd, Hode and Hoode (and the older Anglo-Saxon version Hudda). It may have originally signified a maker of hoods or a wearer of hoods.
So, Hood was an ordinary surname in the Middle Ages, just as it is today. Indeed, a search of the records of soldiers enlisted to the King’s army in the C14th and C15th reveals over 40 soldiers with the surname Hood (or some variation of it) enlisted at different times.
That means that there were probably hundreds of people named Robert Hood living in the Middle Ages who had nothing to do with the legend whatsoever. Just having the same name does not necessarily mean anything.
The problem with Robert
This brings us back to Robert of Wakefield. Robert Hode he may have been – so he might have been known as Robin Hode during his lifetime. He was also a yeoman archer, just like Robin Hood was said to be.
But – so what?
The thing is this Robert was not alone. As we have seen ‘Robert Hode’ was a perfectly genuine English name, shared by a great many people.
Records of soldiers serving during the Middle Ages show several other Robert or Robin Hoods serving as archers.
- Robyn Hod, served in the garrison of the Isle of Wight in 1338.
- Robert Hode, served in the Scottish Marches in 1383/1385.
- Robert Hode, served in Rouen in France in 1428.
- Robin Hode, served in France in 1436.
- And another Robyn Hode served in France in 1443.
Robert of Wakefield does not seem particularly remarkable in this context. We don’t know if he ever adopted the name ‘Robin’, and we don’t know if he ever became an outlaw. He is nothing more than a man with the right name, from the right background, from the right part of the world who suffered by association with a rebellious Earl.
So, it is not possible to say that this particular man was the real Robin Hood with any degree of certainty.
But what else can the Medieval records tell us about an historic Robin Hood? What did Medieval writers think of Robin? Who did they think he was and when and where did they think he lived?
The Orygynale Chronicle
We must wait until the fifteenth century until we see the first written reference to an historic Robin Hood.
Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Chronicle (c.1420) also gives us an early reference to Little John. Wyntoun was an Augustinian canon of St. Sers Inch, a religious house set on an island in Loch Leven. He wrote of border skirmishes between the English and Scots in the late C13th and in this context he mentions that forest outlaws (waythmen) took advantage of the chaos to plague the region.
Andrew writes that, in the year 1283:
“Little John and Robert Hude
Forest outlaws were praised;
In Inglewood and Barnsdale
They practiced all this time their trade”Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Chronicle
The Inglewood reference (which is in Cumbria) places Robin far to the north of his customary haunts. However, the reference to Barnsdale ties in with early ballads of Robin’s adventures. It also tells us what Andrew felt he knew about Robin:
- That Robin was active in the period just after the Second Barons’ War, during the reign of Edward I.
- That Andrew believed Robin Hood to be a genuine historic character.
- And, in this case, that he had a sidekick – Little John.
In 1440, another canon by the name of Walter Bower set to work to rewrite a Latin chronicle, authored some 20 years before, by John of Fordum. Into this work he inserted a lengthy passage about Robin Hood and Little John.
He gives us an account of Robin, whom he describes as ‘a well-known cut-throat’. The following passage is attributed to the year 1266:
“Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited.”Walter Bower’s re-working of the Fordum Chronicle
Bower’s reference to the ‘disinherited’ shows that he believed that Robin was among those who were widely disinherited of their lands as punishment for supporting Simon de Monfort during the Second Barons’ War.
He, like Andrew of Wyntoun, believes Robin was active during the period immediately following this war.
A manuscript held by Eton College, written by Carthusian monks in around 1460, contains the following entry in relation to the reign of Edward I:
“Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.”Eton College manuscript
The reign of Edward I was from 1272 until 1307. This would place Robin Hood in Sherwood, as an outlaw, in the few decades that followed the Second Barons’ War.
We now have three different Medieval sources, all of which agree that Robin Hood was alive and active during and/or immediately prior to the reign of Edward I. The period in question spans 1266-1307.
In the first article in this series, we observed that there are very few references to anyone who might have been Robin Hood prior to this period. But, we also know that popular tales about Robin’s exploits were in wide circulation by 1377.
It all seems to fit.
Early Tales and Stories
But what do the early tales and stories tell us about who Robin was and where he lived?
We have only a few early surviving examples from the C15th. Some of these stories (perhaps all) were likely to be variations of earlier Robin Hood stories now lost to the written record (and possibly only ever passed on by oral tradition in the C14th).
There are five Medieval stories worth noting that can be definitively connected with Robin Hood: four ballads and one play. This is all we have that can potentially be dated to before the C16th. They are:
- A Guest of Robin Hood, a ballad from c.1450
- A ballad entitled Robin Hood and the Monk, from c.1461
- A play from c.1470 called Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham,
- Robin Hood and the Potter, a ballad from c.1500 thought to be based on an earlier work
- Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, a ballad thought to be early C16th, but which might possibly be late C15th
These stories are all that survives of the tales of Robin Hood from the Middle Ages.
What the tales tell about Robin
Using these early stories as our guide, we can start to build a picture of Robin Hood from the perspective of Medieval England. The picture that emerges shows us:
- That Robin Hood was thought of as a common Yeoman – not a Knight or an Earl or a nobleman.
- That he was a skilled archer – which many Yeomen during the C14th and C15th would have been (this being the class of men who would have formed the rank and file of archers present at Crecy and Agincourt).
- That he was an outlaw.
- The Sheriff of Nottingham appears as Robin’s primary adversary in all these tales.
- That Nottingham features prominently in these early stories.
- That Barnsdale forest and Barnsdale are frequently mentioned in connection with Robin. Sherwood Forest is also mentioned. Indeed, a forest of some kind features in all these early stories.
- Other outlaws appear in these tales as associates of Robin. In particular – Little John, Much the miller’s son and Will Scarlet. Friar Tuck also makes an appearance in one of these tales.
It seems, therefore, that there was a significant amount of consistency to the legend of Robin Hood by the C15th. This shows that the tradition of Robin Hood stories was already well developed by this time (indeed, we know these stories were already very popular by the late C14th).
Robin Hood the renegade
However, Robert of Wakefield never appears to have become an outlaw. His story does raise the question as to whether Robin Hood could have started his career as a renegade of some sort.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Kingdom suffered from turmoil and rebellion from time to time. The First Barons’ War at the end of King John’s reign was just one such period. Such times invariably brought lawlessness and brigandry in their wake. A man who may have started out as a rebel, fighting for a just cause, could have ended up as an outlaw hiding in the woods once the cause was lost.
Could this be the key to discovering the historic Robin Hood?
Medieval writers clearly seem to locate the historic Robin in the latter half of the C13th. This places him during the period of lawlessness that followed the Second Barons’ War. Taking what we know from the earliest tales, it makes sense to look more closely for evidence of Robin in this period.
In the next article in this series, we will take a close look at a particularly turbulent period in English history – the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267).
This was a time when an alliance of barons openly defied King John’s son, Henry III. This war and the years that followed were a period when royal authority was undermined, and lawlessness and brigandage was able to flourish. It was the ideal time for an outlaw like Robin Hood to thrive.
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References & further reading
Rebellion against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians – David Pilling
A guest of Robin Hood (Translation of the ballad)
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (Translation of the ballad)
Robin Hood and the Monk (Translation of the ballad from the Middle English)
Robin Hood & Maid Marion – Illustration by Walter Crane (Wiki Commons)
King Edward II – Anonymous Artist (Wiki Commons)
Late Medieval Yeoman Archers – Photograph by Lee Hawkins (Wiki Commons)
Barnsdale Woods – Photograph by Graham Horn (Wiki Commons)