In this last article in my series on the legend of Robin Hood, I’ll try to answer the question I set out to investigate – was Robin an historic figure, or just a myth?
In previous articles in this series, I considered some the key historic evidence available to us. If you missed any of these and would like to catch up, here are links to the first three pieces:
Part 1 – In this article we began by looking at perhaps the most popular modern version of the Robin Hood tale – that he was an outlaw living at the time of King Richard the Lionheart.
Part 2 – In this article I reviewed the earliest available medieval records of Robin Hood and explored how medieval writers chose to portray his story. I also looked at one of the more popular hypotheses for an historic Robin – the Robin of Wakefield theory.
Part 3 – In this article I looked in more detail at the period of the Second Barons’ War. A period in history in which medieval writers believed the real Robin Hood lived.
But what can we conclude from all this?
“God have mercy on Robin Hood’s soul
And save all good yeomanry!”Robin Hood and the Potter
So, what do we really know of Robin?
There are few, if any, credible references to an historic Robin Hood prior to the mid-C13th. There were, prior to this time, a few people with names such as Robert Hood or Robin Hode etc. However, this was a common name. None of these individuals can be shown to be the Robin Hood who inspired the legend.
The earliest definitive reference to the legend of Robin Hood appears in the “Visions of Piers Ploughman” in 1379. The legend is well established by this time as tales and ballads concerning Robin are in wide circulation.
Such medieval sources as exist in the form of Chronicles and texts that mention Robin Hood as an historic figure place him within the period 1260-1300. Three separate medieval sources all place Robin during this time. In addition, one of the earliest surviving Robin Hood stories (A Guest of Robin Hood) mentions Robin as a contemporary of ‘King Edward’. As King Edward I ruled from 1272 until 1307, this provides a fourth medieval source that potentially locates Robin during this period.
So, if Robin Hood existed, he would almost certainly have been an outlaw active at the time of the second Baronial war and in the period of its aftermath.
Tying Robin down to a specific ‘Robin Hood’ in the historic record is difficult, however. At the time, if we are to believe the tales, Robin was a greenwood outlaw from the Yeoman class – a common fellow. He would have been just one of many brigands, outlaws and raiders who were active then. Civil war, anarchy and widescale brigandage characterised the period of the 1260s through to the 1280s. Looking for a specific brigand named Robin Hood is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack.
It is nevertheless the case that from the late C13th onwards, we see an increasing number of criminals and offenders with names like ‘Rabunhood’, ‘Robehod’, or ‘Robbehod’ appearing in the record. Perhaps in emulation of an infamous original outlaw of this name? Or, perhaps no more than a fashion of the time – a nickname based on a character type rather than a specific man. Perhaps a name with no more specific significance than ‘Jackanapes’.
Idle tales at the ale
To better understand who Robin was, let’s return to the first historic reference to the legend of Robin Hood – William Langland’s ‘Visions of Piers Ploughman’ (1379).
William’s reference to Robin is hardly a favourable one. William has his character ‘Sloth’ (one of the seven deadly sins) say:
“I know not perfectly the Lord’s Prayer as the Priest would sing it, but I know the rhymes of Robin Hood…”
The character goes on to provide us with the context in which we would likely hear such rhymes:
“I am occupied each day, holiday and other, with idle tales at the ale…”
It is quite clear that knowledge of the rhymes of Robin Hood were not something one would associate with high learning or respectable living!
The absence of any surviving written copies of these tales from the C14th is most likely because they evolved as an oral folk tradition amongst the lower ranks of medieval society. Minstrals and jesters transmitted the tales of Robin Hood as ballads and rhymes, rather than monks and scholars committing them to the chronicles.
We can perhaps imagine these rhymes recited for entertainment in the alehouse or at a village festival.
We might also imagine England’s more literate classes regarding such tales as rather unsophisticated and very much associated with cruder folk of lower rank.
By the time of the writing of Piers Ploughman in the 1370s, it seems clear that these tales were already very popular. If these stories originated from the exploits of a Robin Hood active during the 1260s, that’s over a century before Piers Ploughman. This would mean that these stories probably evolved through over a century of oral folk tradition before ever being recorded in writing.
Beloved of the foolish populace
Walter Bower, writing in 1440, provides another view from the educated classes of how they perceived Robin. He describes Robin as ‘a well-known cut-throat’ – hardly a term of admiration. Bower acknowledges Robin’s popularity with the common folk, but he clearly disapproves:
“Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.”
Robin’s tales are, as far as Bower is concerned, popular with the ‘foolish populace’. They are not the kind of tales that respectable folk of good standing (such as Bower himself and most other medieval chroniclers) would have either approved of or been particularly keen to promote.
The Good Yeoman
If we look at the earliest surviving Robin Hood stories, there is a certain consistency to them; certain common themes. However, we should remember that these are C15th stories about a man who lived in the C13th. So, we need to ask, how much of what we see in these stories relate to an ‘original’ tale and how much are later embellishments and additions?
One common feature of Robin’s identity in these tales is that he is a common yeoman. His portrayal is as a salt-of-the-earth man of reasonably good standing. He is certainly not a nobleman or a knight or from a wealthy background.
The tales consistently portray him as one of the people, not one of the ‘high-ups’. And, indeed, the targets of his criminal exploits are often characters such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, corrupt minor officials, and dishonest abbots. Robin is the clever outlaw who outwits, humiliates, and otherwise gets the better of people from the middling to upper classes. That is, in a way, the whole point of Robin’s appeal.
An honest outlaw
Robin the yeoman is an honest outlaw. However, his adversaries, although his social betters, are often portrayed as abusing their powers and exploiting ordinary people. The Robin of these early stories does not exactly rob from the rich to give to the poor. He is, however, more sympathetic to the common man than to the powerful lords, gentry and clergy.
Several of these tales describe Robin as “a good yeoman”. In Robin Hood and the Potter, the ballad even ends with the words “God have mercy on Robin Hood’s soul and save all good yeomanry!”
We are left in little doubt that we are supposed to view Robin as good, solid, yeoman of the forest, very much one of the common folk of England. The stories never show Robin as fighting for some grand cause, such as reclaiming a lost inheritance or foiling a plot to overthrow the rightful king. The medieval Robin is an outlaw looking to make a fast buck at the expense of those in authority. It is all about the little guy getting one over the powers that be for a change.
Robin’s dark side
The medieval Robin is portrayed in a rougher form than he is in modern re-tellings of his story. Robin is, after all, an outlaw. Medieval brigands were violent men, and these stories don’t hold back on letting us know it.
In “Robin Hood and the Monk”, Little John and Much the miller’s son hunt down and kill the monk in revenge for betraying Robin to the authorities. Not only do they kill him, but they also murder his page boy because the lad is a potential witness. This causal killing is not something you’d expect to find in any modern telling of the tale. But maybe it is to be expected from a ballad written at the height of the bloody Wars of the Roses.
In another tale, Robin even beheads an enemy and displays that head by impaling it on his bow. People are depicted as being afraid of Robin at times due to his violent reputation. In Geste the people of Nottingham flee from Robin, declaring:
“Robin Hood is coming to town!
He never left anyone alive!”
The Robin Hood of these early stories may well be a champion of the underdog at times, but he is nevertheless still a brigand.
The earliest example we have of a Robin Hood play is a short and fragmentary work entitled “Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham” that dates to the early 1470s. We know for a fact that earlier plays existed (one was known to have been written in 1426 for example) but none survive.
Robin Hood and the Sheriff is mainly all about action, with the dialogue serving only to introduce and link together action sequences involving archery, stone throwing, tossing a pole, sword fighting and wrestling.
The play is one of the first references we have to a Friar Tuck being part of Robin’s band. In fact, Friar Tuck was a genuine outlaw from the early C15th. Since we know that Robin Hood stories were in popular circulation before this period, this is clear evidence of these stories being added to and embellished over time.
Friar Tuck had nothing to do with the original Robin Hood (whoever he was) but his exploits were of a similar notoriety. Royal writs, issued in 1417, describe a chaplain of Lindfield in Sussex called Robert Stafford, but who had assumed the name of Friar Tuck. Earlier a commission had been issued to:
“…arrest a man using the alias Frere Tucke and other malefactors of his retinue who have committed divers murders, homicides, robberies and depredations etc. in the counties of Surrey and Sussex…”
So, if this element of the story was a later addition, what else might also be an embellishment?
In the early tales, Robin’s skill with a longbow is often celebrated. He wins archery contests and splits arrows. He is, in essence, the quintessential yeoman archer.
Yeoman were freeborn commoners; increasingly during the Middle Ages they came to represent the social group from which longbowmen were drawn to serve in the army during the C14th and C15th. A few yeomen (by the C15th) were rich landowners, but most were of humbler means.
Robin is the type of fellow that we are meant to imagine filling the ranks and files of archers at Agincourt or Crecy. In short, he is ‘one of us.’ However, the ‘us’ we are talking about here is a C15th audience. This is an audience for whom heroic tales of the stalwart English longbowman of Agincourt and Crecy would have been meat and drink.
Could the image of the yeoman archer also be an embellishment? An addition to the tales that evolved during the C14th, as the reputation of the English longbowman grew? Of course, there were archers in England before the C14th and some of them were indeed yeoman. However, during the late C13th, when the original Robin Hood stories began, the English longbowman was not yet a cultural icon.
The Real Robin Hood
The historic Robin and his band could easily have been a small group of outlaws taking advantage of the chaos of the Second Barons’ war. Perhaps they had once served as retainers in the service of someone like Sir John Deville or Roger Godberd. Following the demise of their erstwhile lords and masters, they carried on their outlaw careers as independent agents, hiding in the depths of the greenwood. Robin’s reputation for evading justice and keeping one step ahead of the authorities perhaps served as the inspiration for the earliest stories. This is certainly a very plausible theory.
However, there are other possibilities.
Robin Hood’s stories could have evolved as a mix of tales that originally applied to several different outlaws during the period. Perhaps, originally, only one of these was a man named Robin Hood but, over time, the deeds of other men along with several dramatic fictional embellishments were gradually added to the story. The addition of Friar Tuck to the canon is clear evidence that this did indeed happen.
Is it possible that Robin Hood was entirely a fictional creation of ballads and folk tales? Different stories about different outlaws may have simply blended over time and gradually became associated with a generic ‘robbehod’ type character. Robin Hood was never one man but rather a cipher applied to the collective deeds of a group of different outlaws. Robin himself was never any more real than Robin Goodfellow. This character eventually became a sanitised version of the truth, a character who increasingly came to exemplify the values of the ‘good yeoman’, the honest rogue.
Any of these scenarios are certainly possible. However, I tend to feel that there probably was an ‘ordinal’ man called Robin Hood at the root of these stories.
Robin the folk hero
But perhaps the identity of the ‘real’ Robin Hood doesn’t matter at all.
What really matters is what Robin Hood has stood for in the eyes of the people. The fact is that Robin Hood the folk myth has had more impact on history than Robin Hood the man (whoever he was).
His appeal lies in the fact that he was clearly just a common outlaw. He had no heirs and graces and no ambition to do anything other than remain true to his roots as a man of solid yeoman stock. He was not a corrupt sheriff or abbott who abused his position to mask his own illegalities. Neither was he a greedy lord, lining his own pockets whilst hypocritically persecuting and exploiting the lower classes.
In short, Robin Hood became a figure of hope. Hope that perhaps it was possible for a common scallywag, with a little cunning and a little luck, to ‘get away with it’ for once. A small win for the little man in a medieval world that so heavily favoured the men of rank.
So, if you want to find the real Robin Hood, don’t bother looking in books, libraries, or archives. He isn’t there. Instead, try looking in the alehouse or the beer tent at a folk festival – that’s where you’ll find the real Robin Hood.
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References & further reading
Rebellion against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians – David Pilling
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (Ballad)
Translation: Robin Hood and the Monk (Ballad)
Robin Hood sparring with quarterstaff – Louis Rhead, 1921 (Wiki Commons)
Sloth (The Seven Deadly Sins) – Hieronymous Bosch (Wiki Commons)
Battle of Crecy – From Chapter CXXIX of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Wiki Commons)