History Explorer: the legend of Robin Hood

Sean McGlynn and Spencer Mizen visit Nottingham Castle to explore its links with English history's most celebrated outlaw

Robin Hood statue outside Nottingham Castle. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Robin Hood is everywhere in Nottingham. You can take a ride in a Robin Hood taxi, sup an ale in a Robin Hood pub, ride a motorbike from Robin Hood Harley-Davidson and flex your muscles in Robin Hood Gymnastics Club. You can even send your children to Robin Hood Primary School.

Yet nowhere in this east Midlands city does the great medieval outlaw feel closer to hand than in the grand building that sits atop a cliff right in the middle of the town centre: Nottingham Castle.

Robin Hood is surely the most celebrated outlaw in history. His adventures have been captivating audiences since the depths of the Middle Ages. And, for much of that time, Nottingham Castle – along with its evil sheriff, its grisly dungeons and nearby Sherwood Forest – has played a starring role.

Poised for action

As within the city, Robin is never too far away when you stroll around the castle today. There’s an exhibition dedicated to his life and times in the museum, while a multi-million pound inter-active Robin Hood Gallery, due to be opened in the castle by 2020, will only cement the links between Notting-ham and its most celebrated son.

But as I stood next to the famous statue of Robin – poised to unleash an arrow with unerring accuracy – just outside the castle walls, one question inevitably arose: was this man merely the product of a medieval storyteller’s fertile imagination, or could he have been a flesh-and-blood person who once walked this city’s streets?

If he did, then we know for sure that it was before the 1370s. “It’s then,” says Sean McGlynn, lecturer in history at Plymouth University at Strode College, “that he first shows up in English literature in a poem called Piers Plowman, written by William Langland. ‘I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it,’ says the character Sloth. ‘But I know rhymes of Robin Hood.’”

It’s a fleeting reference, but the sign of things to come. For soon there was a flowering of tales dedicated to Robin Hood – no fewer than eight in the second half of the 15th century – five of which were collected into the Gest of Robyn Hode, which Sean describes as “the first linear tale of Robin’s life”. By now, the tale of the great outlaw, heroically battling aristocratic oppressors from his forest base, was firmly established in the nation’s consciousness.

But these were works of fiction, written for the delectation of a medieval audience that craved high-octane adventure stories – filled with blood and guts, heroism and revenge – every bit as much as we do today. They never claimed to be history, and nor were they.

So what of that historical record? Can that help us find the real-life Robin? “The name ‘Robin Hood’ crops up in court documents long before it appears in the literary canon – as far back as the early 13th century,” says Sean. “The first example we know about is in a court document from between 1213 and 1216. This tells us that a chap called Robert Hood, who was in the employment of the abbot of Cirencester, killed someone going by the name of Ralph.

“Then, little more than a decade later, there was a more famous case of a ‘Robert Hod’ being fined for being a fugitive in the 1225 assizes of York.”

Statue of Robin Hood near Nottingham Castle.
Statue of Robin Hood near Nottingham Castle. (Getty Images)

Breaking the law

So could either of these men have been our ‘real’ Robin? “I don’t think we should be getting too excited,” says Sean. “You’ve got to remember that Robert (or Robin) Hood was a popular name in the 13th century – especially around Wakefield in Yorkshire – and some of these many Hoods would undoubtedly have broken the law.”

And there’s something else to consider here: it seems that, by this time, the name ‘Robin Hood’ was already well established as an alias for a bandit. That might explain why you get fugitives referred to as ‘Robyn Hod’ or ‘Robin Hood’ in 13th-century court records.

But this, argues Sean, doesn’t consign those searching for a historical Robin to certain failure. Instead it demands a change of tactic. Rather than trawling the records in search of some kind of Holy Grail, we should, he counsels, start considering the political backdrop that may have produced him. “I believe that the historical inspiration behind the tale – if there was one – was most likely to be forged at a time of great upheaval. Because it’s in times of flux and war that people tend to look for heroes.

“For me, that makes both Hereward the Wake and William of Kensham strong contenders. Both earned their reputations during times of war, and both were widely celebrated as heroic outlaws.

“Hereward was one of the great icons of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman conquest. He led a great rebellion against William the Conqueror in east England, holding out against a massive siege and – for a long time at least – eluding all Norman attempts to capture him.”

William of Kensham was also a bandit, feted for leading a brilliant resistance campaign against a French army when it invaded England in 1216. “What makes William so interesting in the context of Robin Hood is that he harried the French from deep in the forests of southern England at the head of a band of archers,” says Sean.

So do these two men – one of whom made his name in East Anglia, the other in the south of England – leave Nottingham’s claim to being the home of Robin Hood in tatters?

“Far from it,” says Sean. “Nottingham was often at the centre of political upheaval in the Middle Ages – and it’s this conflict that makes the city’s links with Robin so powerful.”

High and mighty

Nottingham Castle was constructed in 1067 during the reign of William the Conqueror. A century later, Henry II spent a fortune on it, transforming the original wooden structure into a massive stone one that dominated the city from atop a natural promontory called Castle Rock. (The original castle was to be razed during the Civil War; the building you see today was constructed in the 19th century.)

By the time of Henry’s death, Nottingham’s position as a key strategic post on the route between the north and south of England was well established. “It was the largest, most important city in the region,” says Sean, “and the fact that it had a royal castle only reinforced that.”

And, in 1194, that castle was to find itself at the centre of a dramatic clash between warring royal brothers – one that would ultimately be woven into the fabric of the Robin Hood tale.

“Richard the Lionheart is often presented as a virtuous king who was undermined by his treacherous brother, John,” says Sean. “Richard wasn’t quite as saintly in real life, but the legend was right in one respect – John did double-cross his older brother while he was away on crusade, attempting to usurp his throne and making Nottingham Castle one of the bases of his power.”

When Richard returned to England in 1194, he besieged and seized Nottingham Castle, hanged some of the garrison and forced John to submit.

As anyone who’s watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves will attest, Richard’s moment of triumph is often employed as the climax to the Robin Hood tale. “There’s absolutely no evidence to support the theory that a Robin Hood assisted Richard in the defeat of his unruly brother,” says Sean.

“But the fact that the wider story is rooted in history – and Nottingham Castle played a major role in it – is undeniable.”

Also undeniable is the existence of Philip Marc, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire from 1208 until 1217 and a bona fide contender for being the inspiration behind the fictional Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin’s dastardly sparring partner. “Marc was high sheriff at the time of John’s reign, and was generally considered a bad egg,” says Sean. “He was the principal instrument of royal justice in the area, responsible for imprisoning ‘criminals’ in the castle’s dungeons and putting them on trial.”

Whether Marc really did pursue a band of outlaws led by a real-life Robin around Nottingham or not, the city and the outlaw were soon inextricably linked in the public’s imagination. By the 15th century, the castle was turning up in the Robin Hood ballads frequently – it’s used as the scene of archery contests at least twice, Little John is imprisoned here and, in one telling of the story, Robin Hood kills the Sheriff of Nottingham within its walls.

That may be because Robin Hood was a man of Nottinghamshire; it may be serendipity. Either way, it’s the version of events that has stuck and seen Robin Hood become a global phenomenon – the star of Hollywood blockbusters, bestselling books and popular computer games.

“Robin Hood is an all-action hero, a good guy standing up for the poor and oppressed, all in this wonderful, mysterious medieval setting. That’s why he’s remained so popular for so long,” says Sean.

And that popularity shows no signs of diminishing – which is surely great news for Nottingham’s schools, gymnastics clubs and, of course, its castle.

Sean McGlynn is lecturer in history at Plymouth University at Strode College. Words: Spencer Mizen.

Robin Hood: five more places to explore

1) Ely (Cambridgeshire)

Where Hereward defied William I

Ely found itself at the eye of one of the great Anglo-Saxon rebellions against Norman rule – led by Hereward the Wake who, some historians believe, may be an inspiration for the Robin Hood story. Ely Cathedral is well worth a visit.

Go to visitely.org.uk

2) Dover Castle (Kent)

Where the French were assailed

It was at Dover Castle that William Kensham, who Sean McGlynn has put forward as a possible historical Robin Hood, enjoyed one of his finest hours.

In 1217, William pounced on invading French forces as they prepared to attack the fortification, earning himself the status of an English hero.

Visit english-heritage.org.uk

3) Whittington Castle (Shropshire)

Where a Norman rebel resided

A third candidate for the title of historical Robin Hood is the powerful marcher lord Fulk FitzWarin. After spectacularly falling out with his childhood friend King John, he led an uprising against the unpopular king and was declared an outlaw. Whittington Castle, now a picturesque ruin, was Fulk’s ancestral home.

Visit whittingtoncastle.co.uk

4) Kirklees Priory West (Yorkshire)

Where Robin is said to have died

According to legend, Kirklees Priory is where Robin Hood met his end, bled to death by a malevolent abbess. The original gatehouse still stands (on private land) and there are occasional organised walks that include the monument known as Robin Hood’s Grave.

Visit calderdaleheritagewalks.org.uk

5) King John’s Palace (Clipstone, Nottinghamshire)

Where royals went hunting

It’s a ruin now but, back in the Middle Ages, King John’s Palace was used as a hunting lodge by English kings. Robin Hood is said, at one time, to have entered the palace and freed the prisoners in its dungeon while King John was away.

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Visit castleuk.net