A popular legendary figure since at least the 14th century, Robin Hood is commonly believed to have been a master of tricks and disguise, not to mention an accomplished archer and singlestick fighter.
Although details of his life are vague, stories about ‘the merry outlaw’ have long been recounted, added to and adapted through the generations. In addition to his skills with a bow, the English say that he robbed the rich to give to the poor. In early sources, he was localized in Yorkshire, but is these days said to have come from the Nottingham area.
The stories are usually set in the 1190s, with King Richard away on crusade and his deceitful brother John left to rule in his absence. The area of greenwood is generally taken to be Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, or Barnsdale near Wentbridge – although Barnsdale in Rutland is also a possibility. Robin was said to be loyal to the king, who pardoned him upon his return.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, he was promoted as Robin of Loxley, the rightful earl of Huntingdon; later still, it was said that his bloodline could be traced back to the 11th century and Waltheof, earl of Northumberland. The idea of Robin as an impoverished earl first appeared in Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at Large (1569), and was expanded on in Anthony Minday’s plays (1598-9) and Martin Parker’s ballad, A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632).
In his book, The Robin Hood Handbook (2006), Mike Dixon-Kennedy claimed that Robin never actually set foot in the city of Nottingham. The author also suggested that he was born in 1160 and died in 1247. However, none of the many and varied attempts to offer an historical identity for him is particularly convincing – the clues tend to be thin on the ground, and ‘Robert’ and ‘Hood’ were both common medieval names. In addition to this, court records discovered in the 1990s show that the nickname Robin Hood attached to criminals between the 1260s and 1290s, leading one to suspect that he was already a legend at this time. Perhaps, then, if Robin was an actual person, he really was alive during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and John.
The earliest known references to Robin appear in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c.1377), in which a character says that he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood. However, the earliest detailed written source has been dated to about 1420.
What about Robin hood and Maid Marian?
His love interest, Maid Marian, was a 16th century addition to the story (first mentioned by the poet, Alexander Barclay).
Robin Hood and Maid Marian were not linked in the earliest stories. Maid Marian was a figure in the May Games festivities, possibly the Queen of the May. A jolly fat Friar usually accompanied her in the frolicsome plays and stories. She was often represented as a feisty character and a skilled archer in her own right.
Robin also became associated with the May Games, forestry and archery being important skills in medieval times. However, their plays were usually different ones.
Anthony Munday brings Marian into his play, ‘The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon’, in 1598. Her name is really Matilda, daughter of the Earl of Fitzwalter, but she takes the name Marian when she follows her love into the forest.
In a number of stories, Matilda, who is pursued by Prince John, escapes his attentions by running away into the forest to join Robin Hood and his men, as Maid Marian.
In the 16th century, ‘The ballad of Robin Hood and Maid Marian’, Marian is a very capable swordswoman who disguises herself as a page to flee to the forest to join Robin. When she meets up with him, also in disguise, they do not recognize each other and fight on equal terms for an hour before they realize who they are fighting. “They drew out their swords, and to cutting they went,
At least an hour or more”.
Marian’s character has changed over the centuries according to how women were perceived at the time. Victorian heroines were not expected to be active but demure and modest. However, she has stayed ‘noble born’ and nowadays, the feisty young woman, participating to the full in the outlaws’ adventures, is favoured once again.
His enemies were generally figures of authority such as the sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne.
Robin Hood and The Merry Men
Robin Hood’s gang of highwaymen (the Merry Men) were said to have carried English longbows and dressed in Lincoln green. In The Knight’s Tale, Chaucer wrote that Robin was most popular in medieval times for robbery and for the killing of landowners – especially Church landowners. Indeed, the ballads clearly have an anti-clerical slant, and the one priest in his outfit, Friar Tuck, was anything but spiritual.
During the Tudor period, Robin Hood and his Merry Men would appear in May Day revels throughout southern England and the Midlands, leading some folklorists to deduce that his roots lay in popular paganism.
Gangs like the Merry Men were prominent in 13th century records. They were usually large, powerful, well-organized bands of criminals that flourished in a land without a police force. Markets and fairs were particularly vulnerable to these medieval robbers, just as the Robin Hood legend suggests.
Nevertheless, penalties for outlawry were severe in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. Property was seized and the bandit would be pronounced outside the law and thenceforth ‘bore the wolf’s head’ – meaning that anyone could hunt him down and kill him.
Legend has it that when he fell ill, Robin went to Kirkless Abbey, Mirfield, Yorkshire, to have his blood let (a common medieval healing technique) by the Prioress, where he was allowed to bleed to death at the suggestion of Sir Roger of Doncaster – sometimes said to be her lover.
As he lay dying, he is said to have called for his bow and arrow. He shot an arrow through the window and asked to be buried at the spot where it landed. It is possible to view his supposed tomb on Saturday afternoons with permission from Kirklees Estate.
At first it bled the thick blood
And afterwards the thin
And well then wist good Robin Hood
Treason was there within.
Numerous rocks and barrows throughout England are named after Robin Hood where tradition says that he lived. Various plays, novels, films and children’s books also present him as a symbol of gallantry, freedom and justice.
Whether he was a real historical figure that fought tyranny and injustice will no doubt remain open to debate, however, he is an enduring folk hero for many people throughout the world, and that cannot be disputed.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Robin Hood" https://englishhistory.net/folklore/robin-hood/, February 8, 2022