The man and the legend

Lithe and listen, gentlemen,

That are of freeborn blood,

I shall you tell of a good yeoman,

His name was Robin Hood

– A Gest of Robyn Hood (c. 1450)

Who was Robin Hood?

The story of the outlaw, Robin Hood, has been told for centuries, having been continually re-imagined in poems, songs, plays, books, films, and TV shows. He is one of England’s most famous “historical” heroes, eclipsing the fame of many English kings, and Robin is known the world over as the noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. But who was the real Robin Hood, and can the facts be separated from fiction?

As to who the real Robin Hood is, well, nobody quite knows for certain. There is a man who appears in the Yorkshire assize records for 1225-26 who is listed as ‘Robin Hood, fugitive’. A few years later, we also find this man crop up again in court records, where he is listed as ‘outlaw and evil-doer of our land’. This candidate is particularly interesting because the man charged with hunting him down was Eustace of Lowdham, the Sheriff of York. Before Eustace got his job as Sheriff of York, however, he lived in Nottingham, serving as the sheriff of that town. Although no historian can ever be certain that this man was the Robin Hood, it is extremely likely.

While we know next to nothing about the details of Robert Hood of Wetherby’s life, stories about a man named Robin Hood, whose arch-enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham were in circulation since at least the late 1300’s. In William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1377), a lazy priest named Sloth reveals that, for him, tales of Robin Hood were more enjoyable than even the Lord’s Prayer:

I know not perfectly my Paternoster as the priest sings it,

But I know rhymes of Robin Hood, and Randalf, Earl of Chester.

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A 17th-century illustration of Robin Hood, Little John, and Will Scarlet

These rhymes were spread by word of mouth, and only three survive to the present day because their texts written down by people: Robin Hood and the Monk (c. 1465), which is the oldest Robin Hood poem in existence; Robin Hood and the Potter (c. 1468); and the longest and most famous poem entitled A Gest of Robyn Hode, first printed in 1495. Many familiar story lines, such as Robin splitting the arrow, and his reconciliation and pardon from the king, are present in these early poems. In these stories, however, he is very different to the man you would recognise today: he and his men are very violent people, unafraid to kill travelers who are passing the forest; the only men he has with him are Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Millers’ Son;  he does not steal from the rich and give to the poor, and in the Gest, the only person he helps out financially is an impoverished knight, and he is completely unconcerned with the plight of medieval peasants; neither do Maid Marian or the fat and jolly Friar Tuck make an appearance in these early tales.

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Friar Tuck features in many modern Robin Hood stories
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Robin and Maid Marian

Myth or Fact?

Maid Marian and Friar Tuck, in fact, are completely fictional figures, being characters played by villagers at early modern May Day celebrations, and who over time were joined with in local Robin Hood festivals. From there, Marian and Tuck made their way into two highly influential plays written Anthony Munday, a contemporary of William Shakespeare’s, entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98). It is from Munday’s plays that we get the idea that Robin Hood was a lord. In the earlier Robin Hood poems, Robin and his men are yeomen which, roughly speaking, was a member of the medieval middle classes, below the nobility and the gentry but higher than the serfs. Later plays of Robin Hood, during the Stuart and Georgian eras, never fared well on the stage, and during the 1600s and 1700s, most people would have heard of Robin Hood through songs; badly-written but very popular, these were printed on single sheet of paper and sold for a penny by street sellers.

Gradually, the idea that Robin stole from the rich and gave money to the poor entered the corpus of stories in the early modern period. By the 1800s, Robin Hood became what essentially was an action hero in novels, with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) adding a new and completely fictional aspect to Robin Hood’s character by depicting him as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter. Scott’s depiction of the middle ages was so convincing and so well-researched that the idea of Robin Hood as a Saxon was assumed to be a historical fact (if you are visiting the Royal Armouries specially for the ‘Legends’ weekend, perhaps you might venture further up into Leeds city centre to see the Ivanhoe statue in Thornton’s Arcade, where there are life size statues of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Richard I, and Wamba the Jester).

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The Prioress of Kirklees leads Robin Hood to his death (19th-century illustration)

How did Robin Hood die?

Tales of Robin Hood’s life have always been popular, but how did he die? In both the Gest, as well as an early modern ballad entitled The Death of Robin Hood, we are told that Robin died at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees. As an old man, Robin falls ill and goes to see the prioress to be bled, for bleeding was a common treatment for a variety of ailments back then. But the prioress, in league with one of Robin’s enemies, lets out too much blood, causing him to die. Surely this story must be true? There is, after all, a grave on the grounds of Kirklees priory which allegedly marks the spot where the last arrow that he shot supposedly landed. Unfortunately, there is nothing to say that the grave which still stands there is his grave, and the current marker dates, not from the medieval period, but from the early modern era.

Obviously a lot of Yorkshire place names have been mentioned so far. The question, perhaps most pertinent for a Robin Hood event due to be held in Yorkshire, is whether he was actually from Yorkshire or Nottingham. While the most likely historical figure is indeed found in records from Yorkshire, the early poems, Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter clearly place him in Nottingham. On the other hand, the Gest puts him in Barnsdale, Yorkshire. Having said this, it is unlikely that people today, in either Britain or America, would ever think of Robin as being from anywhere else other than Nottingham, even if historians were to find a ‘smoking gun’ piece of evidence which clearly showed that Robin was from Yorkshire.

So Robin Hood was not a lord, he was not an Anglo-Saxon, it is unclear whether he even stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but whoever he may have been, and wherever he may have lived it is the fictional stories about him which have captivated people throughout the centuries. The story of a noble outlaw who is the poor man’s friend will most likely continue to be told in years to come, which echoes the thoughts of the poet, Michael Drayton:

And to the end of time, the Tales shall ne’r be done,

Of Scarlock, George a Greene, and Much the Millers sonne,

Of Tuck the merry Frier, which many a Sermon made,

In praise of Robin Hood, his Out-lawes, and their Trade.

Stephen Basdeo is a lecturer at the Leeds campus of Richmond American International University. He is the author of several peer-reviewed articles; he has recently written a book on the medieval rebel, Wat Tyler; he also has a forthcoming book entitled The Legend of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern, which is due to be published by Pen and Sword Books in late 2018.

Note on images: All images featured in this blog post are from out of copyright books in the Stephen Basdeo’s personal collection.