Have you ever wondered about the Robin Hood legend? What’s the real story? Join me as we take a close look at the history behind the myth.
With coat of Lincoln-green, and mantle too,
And horn of ivory mouth, and buckle bright,
And arrows winged with peacock feathers light,
And trusty bow well gathered of the yew,
Stands Robin Hood: and near with eyes of blueJohn Hamilton Reynolds, Robin Hood, Sonnet III, 1818
The Legend of Robin Hood
We are surely all familiar with the Robin Hood story. Perhaps we first encountered him in our childhood bedtime stories. Or maybe we first saw him on screen as Russell Crowe, Errol Flynn or, indeed, as a cartoon fox. However we first encountered Robin, we all feel we know him well.
We know him as a freedom fighter. Robbing from the rich to give to the poor. For fighting the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. For rescuing the fair maid Marion from castle dungeons. We see him crossing quarterstaffs with Little John. We can picture him enjoying a hearty mug of ale with the doughty Friar Tuck. Or perhaps, springing a clever ambush on the Sheriff’s men in the depths of Sherwood Forest.
However, if you were to ask many people about the ‘real’ Robin Hood, they’d struggle to say much about him beyond these popular stories.
The Real Robin Hood
So, what about the real Robin Hood? Who was he? Was he even real at all? Did he really wear Lincoln green?
In attempting to answer these questions I’ll be taking a detailed look at the evidence over a series of articles. In this first piece I’ll start reviewing one of the most popular narratives about the historic Robin Hood. Specifically, that he lived at time of King Richard the Lionheart and King John in the late C12th/early C13th.
Robin’s adventures are often set at this time. Richard the Lionheart features in most Robin Hood films of the past century. The list is long, but includes such notable examples as:
- The 2010 Russell Crowe film, Robin Hood
- The 1991 Kevin Costner film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
- The 1973 Disney cartoon adaptation, Robin Hood
- The 1938 Errol Flynn film, Robin Hood
And that is before we even get to all the various TV adaptations.
In fact, it is hard to find a film or TV adaptation that does not set the Robin Hood story in this period of history. But is there any truth in this? Was Robin a real outlaw, living during the reign of Richard the Lionheart?
The Earl of Huntingdon
One famous version of the Robin Hood story that is set at this time, tells us that Robin was the disinherited Earl of Huntingdon. Modern adaptations of the tale (such as in HTV’s Robin of Sherwood in the 1980s) sometimes reference this story. So, where do we get it from?
The Earl of Huntingdon alter ego comes to us from two popular plays written by Anthony Munday in 1598. These are The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon. Now, at this point you might be wondering how it is that someone named Robert could be Robin Hood? They appear to have two different names to start with. So, before going further, it’s important to say that in the Middle Ages the name ‘Robin’ is an informal alternative to ‘Robert’. These days we might use the name ‘Bobby’ as an alternative for ‘Robert’; in the Middle Ages, they used ‘Robin’.
But what do these plays tell us about Robin? Firstly, they are set during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart. The plot is that his evil steward (who later becomes the sheriff of Nottingham) and a scheming Prior, betray Robert of Huntingdon. The two conspire to disinherit and outlaw the Earl. As a result, Robert becomes the outlaw Robin Hood. However, there is a happy ending when King Richard returns from the crusades and restores Robin’s fortunes.
A later writer (William Stukeley) claimed in 1746 that the Earl of Huntingdon in question was one Robert Fitzooth. However, the fact is that the Kings of Scotland during the late C12th and early C13th held the title of the Earl of Huntingdon. If anyone had dispossessed them, we would certainly know about it. Furthermore, none of the Earls of Huntingdon during this period were even called Robert. So, there appears to be nothing more to this story than a late C16th work of fiction.
However, the Fitzooth theory did lead to a connection being made with a certain knight called Robert Fitz Odo. This Robert had the merit of actually being alive at this time and held an estate at Loxley in Warwickshire. For this reason, he is more commonly remembered as Robert of Loxley.
Robert of Loxley
Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe in 1819 popularised the idea that Robert of Loxley was the real Robin Hood. Since then, later stories as well as TV and film adaptations depict Robin as Robert of Loxley. A classic example of this would be the excellent (if historically dubious) Robin of Sherwood TV series from the mid-1980s. In fact, most modern adaptations of the Robin Hood story owe a lot to Ivanhoe. Walter Scott has probably done more than anyone else to popularise the idea of Robin living during the reign of King Richard.
But is there any truth in this? Was Robert of Loxley the real Robin Hood?
JR Planche published his paper “A Ramble with Robin Hood” in 1864. In this paper, he set out the theory that Robert was the real Robin Hood. Robert is of interest because we know he was a knight of Loxley Manor who was stripped of his knighthood in 1196. This may simply mean that he died, as his estates were inherited by his son-in-law at the time. However, there is some evidence to suggest that he was still alive in 1203, living in Harbury. If that was the case, he would have spent at least seven years as a deposed knight.
Robert Fitz Odo
A Robert Fitz Odo, living in the mid-C12th, also appears to have had an indirect connection with William Peveral, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Both Robert and the Sheriff appear to have had lands taken from them and granted to Ranulf Earl of Chester in 1155. This is interesting, in so far as one of the earliest written references to Robin Hood mentions a ‘Ranulf of Chester’. A poem written some two centuries later makes the connection. The reference is fleeting, and the direct association between Robin Hood and Randolf not entirely clear:
“I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf, Earl of Chester.”Piers Ploughman by William Langland, 1379
Aside from the fact that Robert lost land to Ranulf, there is no other direct connection between the men at the time. In fact, the king granted Ranulf a large amount of land at that time and it is likely that a great many people would have lost out. Robert was just one of them.
Earlier in the C12th a Robert Fitz Odo is described as a ‘plunderer’ (presumably active during the period of civil war known as the Anarchy). For this, he had to make reparations to a local priory.
Could Robert have returned to earlier plundering ways by 1196? Causing him to become the famous outlaw in Lincoln green at this time? Years which just happen to coincide with the reign of King Richard the Lionheart (who died in 1199).
The Problem with Robert
One problem with this theory is that both Loxley manor and Harbury are in Warwickshire. There is no clear sign of him ever living elsewhere in England. The earliest known Robin Hood stories have nothing to do with this region of England. Indeed, there is no evidence that this Robert ever even visited any location that people associated with Robin Hood in the Middle Ages.
The second problem is that it is unclear whether all these records relate to the same person or perhaps to a father and son. They span a long period of time for the career of a single active adult knight.
Threading the various fragments together would suggest a fellow who began his career during the time of the Anarchy. Taking the opportunity of the chaos of civil war to engage in plundering, the end of the war finally brought him to heel. Then, 40 years later, he turned once more to plundering, so Richard I stripped him of his land and knighthood. Finally, he spent the following seven years as an outlaw. If that’s true, it meant he would have been living an active life as an outlaw well into his 60s or 70s – if, indeed, this is the tale of the same person.
However, there is no direct evidence to connect Robert of Loxley or Robert Fitz Odo with the name Robin Hood and we don’t really know why he lost his knighthood or why he lost his inheritance (if, indeed, this did happen). There is no record to show that he was ever an outlaw in the late C12th. The idea that he became an outlaw after 1196 is pure speculation.
Robin the Yeoman
Another problem is that Robert of Loxley was a knight and a lord of the manor. Even though he may well have lost his inheritance, medieval tales all portray Robin Hood as a common yeoman, not an Earl or a Knight. In fact, the earliest stories of Robin Hood often make a specific point of the fact that Robin was of Yeoman stock, it was a key part of his identity.
All we have is the fact that Robert shares the same name, and his story bears a similarity to a late C16th work of fiction. He seems to have suffered at the hands of the powers that be and he may have been a plunderer during the time of the Anarchy (although many people were). Aside from that, there is no real solid connection between Robert of Loxely and Robin Hood.
So, in conclusion, the Robert of Loxley theory looks like a bit of a longshot.
However, even if we dismiss theories about Robert Earl of Huntingdon and Robert of Loxley, the question remains – is it possible to date Robin Hood to this period of history?
King John’s Nemesis
During the reign of Richard I, the king was absent for long periods of time on crusade (and later as a captive in Europe). During his absence, his brother John attempted to set himself up as de facto regent. However, John’s efforts to control England were far from uncontested. The period from 1191 up until Richard’s return in 1194 was particularly unstable as a result.
John later reigned in his own right from 1199 until 1216. It was a time that saw significant baronial unrest. John was eventually forced to make concessions and sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
However, relations between the King and the barons continued to deteriorate. The final two years of his reign were beset by armed conflict in what became known as the first barons’ war.
These troubled times provided the ideal environment for an outlaw such as Robin to thrive.
Unfortunately, there are no obvious links between early Robin Hood stories and the reign of King John or King Richard. Nor do any Medieval chroniclers suggest such a connection. The idea that Robin lived in this period of history comes much later.
Looking for evidence of a Robin Hood living in the late C12th/ early C13th comes up with very little. Nothing for the reign of King Richard, nor for most of John’s reign. Just two possible records exist that might provide support for this theory (one from the end of John’s reign and one a decade later).
Robert Hood the Outlaw
The earliest reference in the historic record that might be relevant, relates to ‘Robert Hood’, a servant of the Abbot of Cirencester. This Robert apparently killed a man called Ralph between 1213 and 1216. We know no further details. This happened just at the end of King John’s reign during the first barons’ war. However, the obvious problem with this is that Cirencester is nowhere near any of Robin Hood’s traditional haunts. And further, there is no evidence this man ever assumed the name ‘Robin’.
The next time a potential candidate appears in the historic record (in this case one Robert Hod) is from the York Assizes from 1226. This Robert owed money to Saint Peter’s in York. For avoiding payment of these debts, his goods and chattels were forfeit and he was branded an outlaw. The Sheriff of York was charged with recovering the debt and would have supervised the confiscation of Robert’s possessions. Interestingly, it is recorded that Robert used alternative names – ‘Hobbehod’ and ‘Robert Hood’.
‘Hobbehod’ is interesting. ‘Hob’ was sometimes a diminutive form of Robert, which would make sense in this case. However, it also had folkloric connections with ‘hobs’ and hobgoblins. Medieval folklore saw such creatures as wild and capricious, possessing strange supernatural powers; creatures to be feared and respected. So, the nickname may have been chosen to evoke the image of a hooded hobgoblin – a persona that a medieval robber might wish to project.
Another potentially important clue is that York is only 40 miles from Barnsdale Forest, a place closely associated with Robin Hood in early stories. Another interesting connection is that Eustace of Lowdham was the Sheriff of York in 1225/6. Eustace would go on to become the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1232.
The Genuine Article?
So, we know that Robert Hode was a genuine outlaw, in the right part of the world, with a connection to the Sherriff of Nottingham.
However, 1226 was fully 10 years after King John’s death, and fully 27 years after the death of Richard I. Nevertheless, it is just possible that an outlaw active in 1226 could have also been a menace 10 or 15 years earlier.
You might think that Robert Hod’s crime (unpaid debt) hardly fits the glamorous billing one would expect for the hero of Sherwood Forest. However, perhaps it was all the authorities could pin on Robin; after all Al Capone only finally went to jail for tax fraud. The adoption of the nickname ‘Hobbehod’ may point to a broader range of criminal activity for which our Robert was never brought to justice.
The Grave of Robin Hood
Another possible C13th reference relates to a gravestone. According to an early surviving story, Robin died at Kirklees in West Yorkshire.
Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at Large (1569) mentions that Robin was buried at Kirklees, at a spot marked by a gravestone. Thomas Gale, writing in the late C17th or early C18th, claimed that this gravestone placed his death in the year 1247.
If this is correct, then this may just tie in with a timeline that places Robin in the early C13th. Could Robin have been active during the reign of King John, outlawed for non-payment of debts in 1226 and finally died in 1247? Threading a story together based on such tiny scraps of information requires a considerable leap of faith.
In any event, it would be unwise to view the Kirklees gravestone as definitive evidence. The gravestone marker that is currently present at the site is not the original one.
Unfortunately, we only have relatively modern accounts to testify as to the existence of the gravestone. The earliest possible mention of a grave was in 1530, but this makes no specific reference to the gravestone. This existence of a gravestone itself was not mentioned before 1596 (nearly three and a half centuries after Robin Hood’s supposed death). The fact is that the original Medieval gravestone (if there ever was one) does not survive today. This is obviously a major problem.
The Case for an Early 13th Century Robin Hood
So, what can we make of all this? Could the original Robin Hood have lived in the late C12th or early C13th? Either during the reigns of King Richard I or his brother John? Or perhaps a little later in the early years of Henry III’s reign?
These early fragments make it a possibility. They provide firm evidence that at least two outlaws with the name Robert Hod or Hood were active in the early C13th. If either of these Roberts were more commonly known as Robin to their friends, we have an outlaw called Robin Hood. However, they are only fragments, so it is difficult to glean much by way of any definitive detail from them.
Of these, Robert Hod of York really stands out. He was an outlaw from the right part of the world. Using several alternative names, such as ‘Hobbehod’, suggested a possible track record of attempts to obscure his identity. He had fallen foul of a man who would go on to become the Sherriff of Nottingham. However, there is nothing to show that he was ever known as ‘Robin’ and unpaid debt hardly suggests a legendary criminal career.
No Sign of Robin
Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that, after 1226, we see nothing in the historic record relating to Robin Hood for the next few decades. There is no mention of Robin Hood in any chronicle. There are no surviving ballads. In fact, there is no record of any kind. Later, Robin Hood becomes a popular folk hero but there is no evidence of this happening between 1226 and at least 1260. Given how famous Robin became and how many stories were eventually written about the man, we would expect to see at least something.
So, there is no evidence of any ‘legend of Robin Hood’ emerging during the late C12th or early half of the C13th. The silence is deafening.
We have nothing that can conclusively demonstrate that the ‘real’ Robin Hood lived at this time. The only credible possibly is the Robert Hod mentioned in the York Assizes in 1226. However, we would have to concede that even this seems less than likely.
In the next article in this series I look at the proposition of the antiquarian, Joseph Hunter – that a certain Robert Hode of Wakefield was, in fact, the real Robin Hood.
I’ll also be taking a close look at what people who lived in the Middle Ages thought about Robin Hood. You can read the next article in this series here.
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References and Further Reading
Rebellion against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians – David Pilling
Robin Hood Ballads: Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (Translation)
Robin Hood Ballads: Robin Hood and the Monk (Translation)
Robin Hood with King Richard – Walter Crane.
Robin Hood greeting Maid Marion – Walter Crane.
Map of locations associated with Robin Hood – Palosirkka/P Watts/W Crane.
King John signing the Magna Carter – Arthur C Michael
Medieval Manor Courtyard – Arnold William Brunner.