The search for Robin Hood

Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (she asserted on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) grew up on stories about Robin Hood, that dashing outlaw of Sherwood Forest who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and assorted other medieval baddies, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and who did it all while looking fabulous in green tights and a nifty little hat with a feather. 

Yeah, that Robin. You’ve met him in movies, in comic books, in novels. His arrow never missed its target, his tights never bagged at the knee, and his merry men never got cold or hungry or even wet, living out there in the forest. 

Was he a real person?

Hmm. Probably not–or at least there’s no evidence that he was. The giveaway is those tights that never bagged or sagged. Who thought that was possible? 

But let’s take a quick run through the legends and see what we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: no idea what this is called, but it adds some color to the winter.

The first mention that’s come down to us is in a 1377 manuscript that’s now in the British Museum, In this version he was born around 1160 in South Yorkshire, in Lockersley, which might well be modern-day Loxley. 

But don’t get too attached to that. In another manuscript, he’s from Wakefield and fought in Thomas of Lancaster’s 1322 rebellion. The manuscripts do at least agree that he’s a northerner.

When you go into documents from the period, you’ll find an assortment of outlaws called Robin Hood, or called variations on the name. There’s one to be had in 1226 and another in 1354, and that seems to be a fairly random selection. It may have been a name many outlaws called themselves. Probably after watching too many movies, or possibly listening to too many ballads, because Robin may have been someone troubadours sang about. In Piers Ploughman (written in the late fourteenth century, a bit before The Canterbury Tales), a character says he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood.

We, unfortunately, don’t.

In the fifteenth (or sixteenth; I’ve seen both cited) century–and for all we know, earlier (or later; don’t ask me)–a Robin Hood-like figure showed up in May Day celebrations and took on an almost religious cast. Whatever that may mean. I couldn’t find anything more than a passing reference to that, and an assertion that it was the May Day games that kept the legend alive so that it came down to us. 

In his earliest form, Robin wasn’t a disaffected aristocrat but a commoner–a yeoman, which meant he was higher than a peasant but lower than a knight–and he treated the rich and powerful the way they treated the poor and powerless, which is to say he beat them, robbed them, and killed them. This wasn’t a sentimental era. Doing that would’ve made him an attractive figure.

It’s also in the fifteenth century that Robin starts to rob from the rich and give to the poor. In the Geste of Robin Hood, he says, “If he be a pore man, / Of my good he shall have some.” He makes rules about who can be beaten, robbed, and killed (bishops, archbishops, the Sheriff of Nottingham) and who can’t (peasants, yeomen, virtuous squires).

In this century, Robin not only kills the Sheriff of Nottingham, he: 

  • Version A: shoots him with an arrow, then cuts his throat.
  • Version B: kills him, then mutilates his corpse, using a knife–an act which, I’m sorry, would have spattered his clothes and mussed his tights.

Like I said, it wasn’t a sentimental time.

Why was Robin an outlaw? In early versions of the tale, he just was. It may have been so easy to transgress the law that no explanation was necessary. It’s only later that explanations start to turn up. For what it’s worth, just by living in Sherwood Forest, he would have been breaking the Law of the Forest, which kept people from putting the woodland to any productive use so the nobility could hunt in it. Acts forbidden to commoners included (but weren’t limited to) hunting, carrying a bow or spear (gotcha there, Robin), and cutting wood. 

Scholars can have all kinds of fun aligning Robin with assorted breakdowns of order and conflicts in English history: the conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans; the twelfth-century civil war later known as the Anarchy; or the fourteenth-century Black Death, Hundred Years War, and Peasants’ Revolt (it was a tough century). Not being scholars and not having to convince anyone that we know what we’re talking about, we can nod sagely at all of that and go on our merry way. Or we can write novels setting Robin in the middle of any of it and still sit safely at home eating ice cream.

In early versions of the tale, Robin grew old enough to become ill and went to Kirklees Priory, where his aunt was the prioress, to be treated, but Sir Roger of Doncaster–whoever he may have been–convinced her to kill him and instead of just bleeding him (which was a respectable way to treat the sick) she bled him to death. As loving aunties sometimes will with inconvenient nephews. 

You have  been warned.

By the sixteenth century, Robin had been domesticated by the nobility, although they weren’t in a position to offer him ice cream, so you should be able to outbid them if you want him in your novel. All they could offer was a promotion from yeoman to noble–something they must’ve felt they had to do if they were going to keep company with him.

And keep company with him they did. In 1516, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s May Day festivities featured a couple of hundred men dressed in green and one dressed as Robin Hood to lead them to the feast. 

This is when other characters start to appear: Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, all those folks. One article speculates that Maid Marian was introduced after the Reformation to make up for Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary having been edited out.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

What does it all mean? An outlaw hiding in the wilds (Robin in the forest, Hereward the Wake in the fens) and wreaking vengeance on the arrogant and powerful is a powerful part of English lore. It’s natural enough that it would resonate commoners, especially peasants, who had little enough outlet for their frustrations. They couldn’t take vengeance themselves, so bring on the lurid tales.

Why it was taken up by the nobility is anyone’s guess. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if by Henry’s time they hadn’t tied themselves up with so much protocol and good manners that pretending to be an outlaw living wild and unwrinkled in the forest, answering to no one, bound by no one’s rules, and never missing a shot would have appealed to them.  

In recent times, Robin’s been played by everyone from Errol Flynn to Daffy Duck and Kermit the Frog.  That at least needs no explanation.

113 thoughts on “The search for Robin Hood

  1. I never know what to make of Robin Hood. On the whole, I think it’s probably all fairy tales. Real outlaw bands, like that of the Folvilles, in the fourteenth century, were pretty terrifying for aristocracy and peasant alike.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We spent endless hours as children playing Robin Hood in a grove of trees near our house. I got to be Maid Marian. It was when my brother began sharpening sticks and shooting them with is homemade bows that things got hairy. I have a scar! But now I have another scar, knowing the truth about Robin Hood. *sigh*

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting! I didn’t realise that Henry VIII was such a fan (he was also a big fan of King Arthur and had his round table “discovered”, its in Winchester now). That’s a good point about the post-reformation development of the legend, adding all those extra characters to repalce his devotion for the Blessed Virgin.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My mother always knew what the Saturday matinee movie was…from the kitchen window, she could see kids who’d vested a sixpence for a cinema ticket [yeah, that long ago!] coming home.She counted herself an expert on discerning cowboys, pirates,polar explorers by the role-playing after the matinee. She never said whether or not Robin existed, but she gave him a fair chance because “he seemed to espouse socialist causes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you as far as Loxley. After that, you outran my small store of local knowledge. I only listen to the Archers in the car, and if my partner’s either riding with me or driving, then for the sake of our relationship I have to turn it off.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Robin Hood showed up in our village hall last night! “Oh no he didn’t!” “Oh yes he did!” “Oh no he didn’t!” “Oh yes ………”ad infinitum!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this explanation of the legend. I have a difficult time thinking of RH as a commoner–a yeoman, but then I’ve been brainwashed by Kevin Costner’s embodiment of RH. I didn’t realize how sentimental our era is until I read what you said and realized the truth of it. Fascinating topic all around.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was about eleven I saw the movie with Richard Todd as Robin Hood. Around 1953. I was pretty silly even for an eleven year old, but good entertainment. Happy group of guys and good looking maid happily living in a camp in the forest. King John was a very nasty villein. King Richard was a saintly old man with a neat beard, well manicured.

    Never went to see any other Robin Hood movie. Did not want to spoil the image.

    We have Jesse James as a Robin Hood type figure. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Taking revenge on the evil banks and railroads.

    Hood guys in myths live forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Even in rural Texas the Tales of Robin Hood were great reading for me when I checked them out from the Grimes County Bookmobile that stopped in front of my granddaddy’s barber shop every two weeks. By then I recall Maid Marian was a tad more interesting for me than Robin – perhaps I felt the wrong person wore those tights.
    After seeing Errol Flynn as Robin, I visualized myself as the hero in those tights running around doing good with a beautiful Maid Marian trailing behind me.
    Ah, those were the good old memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wheee.

      I can’t remember what version of Robin Hood I stumbled across in the fifties, but I didn’t get as far as picturing myself as Robin. More’s the pity, because I’d have been able to work with that. What I do remember was that Maid Marian was a sap–a complete nonentity.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Ellen,
    Still enjoying your column and betting it will get even more acute after Brexit “happens”–I use quotes because I still don’t know what or when it will fully be–love the irrelevant but cheerful pictures! Paralleling the Folvilles but a bit later, Rob Roy MacGregor ( who may actually have been a Campbell as he was under the protection of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell, who was a secret Jacobite) was a folk hero who really existed and mostly ran a protection racket of blackmail: people herding cattle to a lowland market had to pay him to protect them from raiders–or he would raid and steal their cattle themselves, which was kind of one in the eye for the English market.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The Loxley variant was the one I’ve always thought most likely, or should I say least unlikely, to have a kernel of truth about it. But who knows? Our inherited legend has it, as you say, that Mr Hood and his chaps were based in the north midlands, which is always confusing to me when I think of the May Day festival in Helston, Cornwall. This festival has the folk song Hal An Tow attached to it – the song name checks Robin and Little John. Maybe Robin operated some sort of a franchise system in other parts of England?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I don’t know. Tights are the thing in all the superhero movies. Maybe they’re what a beleaguered outlaw needs in order to get the message across.

      This is the second of two of your comments that I dug out of spam this evening. Sorry, I wasn’t ignoring you. The other one disappeared somewhere once I hit Approve, so I haven’t been able to hit Like to let you know I responded. If I don’t find it, more apologies.


      • If somebody wanted to get out there and do a little bit of much-needed wealth-redistribution, I wouldn’t object to their wearing tights, or a tutu and a tiara for that matter.
        And no need to worry about the comments. You somehow manage to respond to so many comments with such wit and aplomb that I feel honored that you reply at all. Though it does make me wonder what I did to offend the WP gods such that they relegate me to the spam dungeon.
        And a happy Brexit to you, by the way. (Is that the appropriate greeting? Maybe it’s Merry Brexit. Not sure.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • You raise an important issue about what the right greeting is–one I haven’t heard anyone pronounce on, authoritatively or otherwise, so I’ll have to do it myself. It is, from this moment hence, Have a spiteful Brexit.

          And the comments are the best part of the blog. They do take time, but they are (with a very few exceptions) a hell of a lot of fun.


            • I still haven’t quite figured out how powerful a swearword bloody is. I think it’s on the mild end of the spectrum, but it still seems to make the air vibrate a little. Another 13 years in this country and I may have it figured out. In the meantime, I lean toward the old standbys. I know when and where to use them (and sometimes even when and where not to use them) and what effect they’ll have.

              And thanks. It did get, um, interesting when I included a couple of pieces on guns in my news roundups. But after a few tense exchanges, the people involved ran out of reply buttons and instead of starting a new thread faded back into the woodwork. In hindsight, I realized I should have asked how they found me, but it was too late by then.

              Liked by 1 person

              • It’s an interesting topic, these cultural differences in swearing. There’s a certain word that Brits use quite easily which is, to my ear at least, the most offensive word in the English language. I can’t even bring myself to say it now. And yet, they come here and toss it around without a thought. Likewise, Americans travel to the UK and are often not at all aware of how much we offend. We think because we share a language that our culture is pretty much the same, but I find that we step on one another’s toes a lot more than we realize.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Ah, yes, that bit of the female anatomy. Interesting you should raise that, because a couple of British friends were saying just a couple of days ago how offensive they find it. Oddly enough, it doesn’t bother me, and I’m not going to try to explain that, even to myself.

                I’m aware of lots of words Americans use one way that the British use differently, but I can’t think of any that are offensive in British. They can dissolve into gales of laughter, however, at the thought of someone asking, “Does my fanny look too big in that.”

                Liked by 1 person

              • This is such an interesting topic (to me, at least) that I can’t let it go. Sorry to monopolize so much of your time and space, but….
                I only recently learned (learnt) about the differences in the meaning of “fanny”. Not that it’s something that comes up much in casual conversation; especially as I’m only ever conversing as a tourist when I’m over there. Another one that seems to cause a lot of chuckling is “pants”. The funny thing is that we’re told to watch out for “biscuit” and “chips” and maybe “[car] boot” but there are actually a whole lot of words that are used differently. Maybe I ought to start a list.

                Liked by 1 person

              • The first time we were in the UK, we saw endless boot sale signs. Why only one boot? I started asking (not anyone useful, of course–my partner, who knew no more than I did).

                Gas is another one that calls up fits of laughter. I once told friends I had to fill the car with gas. They dissolved. I’d just told them I was going to fart until the car couldn’t hold any more.

                Liked by 1 person

  11. I think people need heroes. We’re pretty short of them. And someone who takes from the abusive powerful and gives to the poor is pretty appealing. The trouble is, most of these folks (the James brothers, Floyd, etc.) were pretty murderous and their kind deeds didn’t outweigh the murderousness. But maybe that’s where fiction and fantasy come in…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. If anyone cares to “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle – It’s available on Project Gutenberg. I love the opening of the Preface:

    “You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourself up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy; you who think that life hath nought to do with innocent laughter that can harm no one; these pages are not for you.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I can’t speak for the whole of the US, but I feel comfortable saying that everyone in my little corner of the country knows who Robin Hood is. How do I know this? Whenever anyone asks the husband where in England he’s from, he skips saying “Newark” because he knows they won’t know where that is and it will result in a long, pointless explanation, and instead he says, “120 miles north of London on the Old Roman Road – in the Sherwood Forest area” or something like that. The people nod knowingly and make other noises that indicate they know about Sherwood Forest. And of course, the only reason anyone around here has heard of Sherwood Forest is because they’ve heard of Robin Hood.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, you seem to be right. But Ruth Goodman, a historian who specializes in recreating the ways people actually did things such as cooked, washed, ate, and generally lived, argues that they kept clean not so much by washing their bodies but by rubbing them with a dry cloth. She tried that for a period of (if I remember right) months and it worked surprisingly well. She based it on something that a person of that period wrote.

      Another historian working on the same project tried some alternative approach and smelled so bad they could barely get near him. Neither of them, however, ended up looking like Errol Flynn.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Every era that’s re-created him seems to create the Robin Hood they want to believe in. I still have trouble wrapping my head around Henry VII and his court creating a version of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Or even just stole, since Henry was the embodiment of the law.


  14. Thanks for linking up at the GATHERING OF FRIENDS LINK PARTY 11. I enjoyed your story! I think we all need a hero, even a flawed one sometimes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sylvia. If our history’s any guide, we do seem to need heroes–we’re always creating them. And re-creating them to fit the needs of each new time.

      Thanks, as always, for all the work you put in to keep the linkup going.


  15. As always Ellen, your Wordsmithiness knows no bounds… an excellent post which I enjoyed immensely. Most Yorkshire people claim Robin as one of their own, as, we believe, he was born in Loxley and had no real connection with Nottinghamshire other than his dislike of the Sherriff.
    Whilst researching the great Sheffield Flood of 1864 for a documentary film I’m aspiring to make, I discovered the fact that Robin and Little John often frequented the hamlet of Little Matlock in Loxley valley, using it as a retreat from the rigours of giving the Sherriff of Nott., a kicking and living in the wet and windy forest … that is another fact, being a Yorkshire man, that I’m clinging to in order to claim Robin as one of our own Tykes. There is also, if you’re not too bored to read on, the fact that Little John’s grave, clearly marked, is in Hathersage Cemetary, not an arrow draw from Sheffield. Anyway, tights with baggy knees and ice cream notwithstanding, I commend you for this extremely good read and, I might add, you may just have inspired me to take up the QWERTY pen and start blogging again ( I’ve neglected my Blog in favour of my Vlog for too long ) Thanks again xxx.

    Liked by 1 person

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