Robin Hood: how the legendary figure has been portrayed across the centuries

Robin Hood - the legendary English archer who famously (or infamously) 'steals from the rich, to give to the poor' - has been portrayed in film and television numerous times. Here, following the release of a new film about Robin Hood, historian Sean McGlynn explores the outlaw's enduring appeal and considers whether he was based on a real person…

A still from the 2018 film 'Robin hood', in which actor Taron Egerton plays the legendary English archer. (Photo by Alamy)

How historically accurate is the latest Robin Hood film, starring Taron Egerton?

A film about one of the great legends of the past that starts with the line: “I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen”, is not one that sets out to engage the affections of historical enthusiasts. But at least the new Hollywood blockbuster Robin Hood (2018) – released at the end of November and starring Taron Egerton – is being honest, as there is no attempt at anything but the most superficial nods to any historical context whatsoever.

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The film offers few clues as to when it is (approximately) set. Robin Hood comes back from “the crusades”, we are told – but which one? We have no named king of England, and the clothing and armour bear no resemblance to any historical period; they are deliberately designed to appeal to a modern audience who have come for a superhero-style adventure film rather than a faithful rendering of a medieval legend. Overall the whole style of the movie is a mishmash of medieval retro, steampunk and 21st-century, anti-globalist protestor. Think of the sci-fi dystopian world of Mad Max, and you’ll be along the right lines.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark in the TV series 'Poldark'. (Photo by Adrian Rogers)

None of this matters greatly. The film is, after all, just another Hollywood adventure film designed to entertain, telling the story of a ‘people’s hero’ fighting for justice against oppressive and corrupt rulers. As such, this part of the film is true in spirit to the earliest Robin Hood ballads – written in c1450 – which present the archer as a champion  of righteousness and of the downtrodden – all the while entertaining the audience. 

Why is Robin Hood such a popular hero?

It is this attractive combination that enables Robin to be the popular hero who can be endlessly reinvented to match the changing demands of the times. In the interwar period, for example, his swashbuckling joviality was an antidote to war, economic depression and fascism. This is very much the Robin portrayed by actor Errol Flynn in 1938 – and also by Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922).

Enid Bennett, Douglas Fairbanks and Sam De Grasse in a scene from the film 'Robin Hood', 1922. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)
Enid Bennett, Douglas Fairbanks and Sam De Grasse in a scene from the film ‘Robin Hood’, 1922. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

In the era of communism and McCarthyism, meanwhile, Robin was both a Cold War freedom fighter and defender of justice. The film Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) in particular portrays the outlaw as a defender of democracy and an opponent to excessive government taxation and control – which some have interpreted as representing the tyranny of communism.

A depiction of Robin Hood, the heroic archer in English folklore who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Later, in the mid-1980s, the successful TV series Robin of Sherwood was – for many in the UK – a commentary on the political and economic movements of the day. The free-market capitalism of the government was considered by some to have led to the poor elements of society being left behind and uncared for. Hence a new Robin Hood steps in to protect these people.

The TV series Arrow (2012–), a modern re-imagining of a comic book hero inspired by Robin Hood, accommodates the post 9/11 and post-2008 financial crisis age. Thus, in the new 2018 film, Robin takes on the medieval equivalent (as the filmmakers see it) of big business, corrupt corporations and ‘fat cats’.

The medieval Robin Hood

But what if we go a little further back? Robin Hood was certainly popular in late medieval England. At this stage, it is probable that more people knew about the outlaw through plays and May games [entertainments held around May Day] – rather than through ballads and texts. And what is a film but a modern form of a play? May games, in particular, were an important medium of transmission for the Robin Hood legend – and also for the introduction of the characters Maid Marian and Friar Tuck into the story. Marian, incidentally, seems to have been a separate character before joining the Robin Hood family.

The widespread appeal of these May games can be gauged from the participation of Henry VIII’s court and rituals of 1515. Edward Hall’s 16th-century Chronicle depicts Henry and his queen, Catherine, being ambushed by “a company of tall yeoman, clothed all in green with green hoods and bows and arrows”; they were, of course, led by someone who called himself Robin Hood. The royal party were entertained with an archery display and then invited into a specially made bower for a hearty poacher’s meal of venison. (The archers were men of the King’s guard.)

The lack of historical authenticity in the latest Robin Hood offering is actually appropriate in many ways, as even professional historians who write about the legendary archer face significant problems in identifying not just the specific timeframe of the legend but even the man himself (if he actually even existed). The two most well-known Hollywood Robin Hood films place the story close together in time: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, with Kevin Costner) sets the scene during the reign of King Richard (1189–99), while Robin Hood (2010) (in which the actor Russell Crowe struggles as heroically with a northern accent as he does with the Sheriff of Nottingham) is set immediately afterwards, during the start of King John’s reign (1199–1216).

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This historical period – the late 12th century and first few years of the 13th century – is by far the favourite setting for cinematic and TV adaptations of the Robin Hood tale. It is also preferred in literary and dramatic representations through the ages from the end of the 16th century. But there is no evidence to suggest that this period provides the setting for the original, ‘real-life’ Robin Hood. The first person to put forward this timeframe was the Scottish chronicler John Major in a work published in 1521, in which he wrote that Robin Hood and Little John were active “about the time of King Richard, according to my estimate”. But by this time the legend was almost certainly 300 years old already – as distant from the original Robin Hood as we are today from Dick Turpin.

Variations of the name ‘Robin Hood’ appear repeatedly in criminal records from the early 13th century

The first literary reference to Robin Hood is in Langland’s Piers Plowman from c1377, in which the character Sloth (one of the seven deadly sins) claims to “know rhymes of Robin Hood”. Variations of the name ‘Robin Hood’ appear repeatedly in criminal records from the early 13th century. It was often the case that scribes added the sobriquet ‘Robehod’ or similar alongside the names of actual thieves and outlaws. But the name actually means little in trying to identify a real-life Robin Hood, as it is a medieval criminal version of John Doe or Joe Bloggs, or of a trade nickname like ‘Sparks’ or ‘Sparky’ for an electrician or ‘PC Plod’ for a policeman. However, it is, of course, central to following the historical development of the legend itself.

Robin Hood fights a tanner in this illustration from the 18th century. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Robin Hood fights a tanner in this illustration from the 18th century. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Even the setting for the latest Robin Hood film – Nottingham and Sherwood Forest – is not to be relied on, either. The late medieval legend certainly settled on this area, which is now “official Robin Hood country”, but that is not the same as determining that the legend actually begun there. As I argue in my new book, ballad singers and drama troupes would tailor their performances to local audiences, rather like a pantomime adapts local topics and places for its comic material.

Who was the real Robin Hood?

In an interview about the latest Robin Hood film, actor Taron Egerton – who plays the titular role – said that “more than anything, I wanted my Robin Hood to be real”. Many historians and folklorists also want Robin to be real, but most of us accept that he is almost certainly a fictional composite character. I believe it is highly probable that there was a real-life inspiration behind the legend who helped to either initiate the folklore. Or, at the very least, one that was responsible for its taking hold and thereby ensuring the legend’s survival for future generations down to the present day.

It has been established to the satisfaction of most (though not all) historians that the Robin Hood legend was in circulation in England by 1261. Therefore to look for a real-life inspiration for the origin to the tales, one has to delve back before this moment in time. What I find especially interesting here is that romances and tales popular in this period are often based on genuine historical figures whose dramatic lives are embellished further in stories with fiction and fantasy.

King Arthur addresses his knights in a 12th-century Arthurian manuscript now held in Rennes, France. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Thus we have: The Deeds of Hereward, an early 12th-century telling of an 11th-century hero, but popular again in the early 13th century; The Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine, in which Fulk rebels against King John in the early part of the reign; and The Romance of Eustace the Monk, also set in the early 13th century, ending in 1217. All combine fact and fantasy – and all have been considered as being the ‘real’ Robin Hood. Certainly, they go some way to resolve the ‘hero/outlaw’ paradox: the fact that a criminal can also be a heroic figure. But Fulk is a knightly, chivalric figure, not a yeoman like Robin Hood; Hereward is a very strong contender, but there is no mention of Robin Hood until a century later; and Eustace is, well, French (and his outlawry far exceeds any of his heroic acts).

Such a figure did exist – and his name was William of Kensham

But what if there were medieval ballads and tales that have not survived about another real-life hero that fits the timing perfectly? A hero who was a legend in his own lifetime, led a force of archers in the forest, and who perfectly resolves the hero/outlaw paradox? Such a figure did exist – and his name was William of Kensham, who was believed to have been born in the 1190s and died in c1257.

William earned his fame as a young man fighting against the French invasion of England in 1216–17. This frequently forgotten event (the subject of my second book) was almost a second Norman Conquest; the writers from the time all reveal the extent of the national crisis it caused, with half of England at one point under French rule. During the 16 or so months of French occupation, William led his archers in attacks on the French, and was thus both an outlaw, due to his resistance, but also a national hero, for the same reason. Numerous chroniclers and government records all attest to his fame and laud the actions of this yeomanry resistance fighter. His service was even noted and rewarded by two kings. That the Robin Hood legend takes hold so soon afterwards would suggest that this is not a coincidence.

As one of the most famous and instantly recognisable legendary icons of all-time, Robin has remained an appealing figure of fascination across the centuries. As a heroic champion of the downtrodden and oppressed, he will likely remain a part of the cultural landscape for centuries to come.

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Dr Sean McGlynn’s latest book is Robin Hood: A True Legend (Sharpe Books, November 2018). He lectures on the history, heritage and archaeology degree programme for Plymouth University at Strode College, Somerset – which includes an undergraduate module on Robin Hood and medieval outlaws.