We know, or think we know, quite a lot about Robin Hood – the heroic archer in English folklore who supposedly robbed the rich and gave to the poor – but hard facts about him are decidedly thin on the ground. Here, as the latest Hollywood film about Robin Hood (starring Taron Egerton) hits cinemas, we look back at our article written by the late historian David Baldwin busting some of the most popular myths surrounding the legendary archer...
Robin Hood is an invented, archetypical hero, whose career encapsulates many of the popular frustrations and ambitions of his era. Robin (or Robert) Hood (aka Hod or Hude) was a nickname given to petty criminals from at least the middle of the 13th century – it may be no coincidence that Robin sounds like ‘robbing’ – but no contemporary writer refers to Robin Hood the famous outlaw we recognise today.
There were men like Robin Hood, however, such as fugitives who flouted the harsh forest laws [unpopular laws that retained vast areas of semi-wild landscape over which the king and his court could hunt], and these fugitives were largely admired by the oppressed peasantry. But the individual(s) whose deeds inspired the legend of Robin Hood may not have been called Robin Hood from birth, or indeed even during in his own lifetime.
Robin lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart
Robin Hood is often portrayed as the enemy of the ambitious Prince John and the ally of his brother, the imprisoned Richard I (1189–99), but it was Tudor writers of the 16th century who first brought the three men together in this context.
Alternatively, Robin Hood has been identified (not very convincingly) with one of a number of Robin Hoods mentioned in the Wakefield Court Rolls during the reign of Edward II (1307–27), and, more probably, as a disinherited supporter of Simon de Montfort, who was slain at Evesham in 1265.
All we can say with certainty is that Robin the Outlaw had entered popular mythology by the time William Langland wrote The Vision of Piers Plowman in 1377. In it, Sloth the chaplain says: “I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth, But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf, Erl of Chestre.”
Unfortunately, it is not clear if Robin was associated with Ranulf ‘de Blundeville’, earl of Chester (d1232) in some way, or if the ‘rymes’ about them sprang from entirely separate traditions.
Robin Hood was a philanthropist who robbed the rich to give to the poor
It was the Scottish historian John Major who in 1521 wrote that “[Robin] permitted no harm to women, nor seized the goods of the poor, but helped them generously with what he took from abbots”.
But earlier ballads are more reticent: the longest, and possibly also the oldest, rhyme or ballad about Robin Hood is The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode, believed to have been written down c1492–1510 but probably composed c1400. It concludes with the comment that Robin “did poor men much good”.
But while Robin is willing to lend to a knight who finds himself in financial difficulties, in The Lyttle Geste and in other early ballads there is no mention of money being distributed among the peasants or of society being reordered to their advantage. On the contrary, stories that have the outlaws mutilating a vanquished enemy and even killing a child on one occasion show them in a quite different light.
Robin was a dispossessed nobleman, the Earl of Huntington
Again, there is no real basis for this theory – the Robin of the early ballads is always a yeoman, and his attitudes are those of his class.
So from where did the idea originate? John Leland, writing in the 1530s, refers to Robin as a nobilis exlex – a noble outlaw, meaning, in all probability, that he was high-minded. And in 1569 historian Richard Grafton claimed to have found evidence in an “old and ancient pamphlet” that Robin had been “advanced to the dignity of an earl” on account of his “manhood and chivalry”; an idea subsequently popularised by Anthony Munday in his plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington, both written in 1598.
Furthermore, Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood, published in 1632, stated unequivocally that the “renowned outlaw, Robert Earl of Huntington, vulgarly called Robin Hood, lived and died in AD 1198”, but the real Earl of Huntingdon (the only possible interpretation of ‘Huntington’) at this date was David of Scotland, who died in 1219. Following the death of David’s son, John, in 1237, there were no more earls of Huntingdon until the title was granted to William de Clinton a century later.
Robin married Maid Marian at St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe
Maid Marian is now as much a part of the Robin Hood story as Robin himself, yet she was originally the subject of a separate series of ballads. Curiously, the Robin and the outlaws of the earliest stories do not appear to have had wives or families – the only slight feminine interest was Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Robin was buried at Kirklees Priory in Yorkshire and his grave can today be seen there
According to legend, Robin went to Kirklees Priory for medical treatment (date unknown), was deliberately over-bled by the prioress, and with his last ounce of strength shot an arrow indicating where he wanted to be buried.
However, the Tudor writer Richard Grafton thought that the prioress had interred Robin by the side of the road: “Where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way. And upon his grave the sayde prioresse did lay a very fayre stone, wherein the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldesborough, and others were graven. And the cause why she buryed him there was, for that the common strangers and travailers, knowyng and seeyng him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their jorneys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlawes. And at either end of the sayde tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seen there at this present”.
A drawing made by the Pontefract antiquarian Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 shows a slab decorated with a cross ‘fleuree’ (the standing crosses had presumably disappeared by his day), and the inscription “Here lie Roberd Hude, Willm Goldburgh, Thoms…” carved round the edge. Nothing is known of William of Goldesborough or Thomas, and the inscription was said to be “scarce legible” some years before Johnston drew it. Robin Hood could have been buried in a grave that already contained other bodies, but if the monument was erected shortly after his death (whenever that was), it is curious that there is no mention of it before about 1540.
Kirklees Priory came into the possession of the Armitage family following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and in the 18th century Sir Samuel Armitage had the ground beneath the stone excavated to a depth of three feet. His main fear was that grave robbers had been there before him, but in fact the real problem was the lack of a grave to rob. The site did not appear to have been dug previously, and Armitage concluded that the memorial had been “brought from some other place, and by vulgar tradition ascribed to Robin Hood”.
The stone was regularly attacked by souvenir hunters and by others who believed that pieces of it could cure toothache. The Armitages subsequently enclosed the site within a low brick wall topped by iron railings, the remains of which are still visible today.
Some of Robin’s friends, and equally some of his protagonists, can be identified with persons known to history
Little John, Will Scarlett and Much the Miller’s son are associated with Robin in the earliest ballads, but other members of his band – Friar Tuck, Alan a Dale, etc – were added later. Of these, Little John is undoubtedly the most prominent, but there are almost as many references to Little Johns – or John Littles – in contemporary documents as there are to Robin Hoods. The historical John is as elusive as his master, but what is alleged to be his grave in Hathersage churchyard in Derbyshire is not without interest. The stones and railings are modern, but part of an earlier memorial, bearing the weathered initials ‘L’ and ‘I’ (which looks like a ‘J’) can still be seen in the church porch.
James Shuttleworth, who owned the manor, excavated the site in 1784, and found a particularly large femur 28½ inches long – a bone that is said to have been responsible for much ill luck until it was finally reburied. Two cottages, one in Little Haggas Croft at Loxley (Yorkshire) and the other in Hathersage (a village in the Peak District in Derbyshire), were said to be the houses in which Robin was born and in which Little John spent his final years respectively; but Robin’s was ruinous by 1637, and John’s was demolished in what was described as “recent times”.
An alternative approach has been to try to place Robin in a particular historical context by identifying some of his opponents, but the ballads refer merely to the Sheriff of Nottingham; the Abbot of St Mary’s, York; and others only by these titles – never to named individuals who held the offices between known dates. The lack of precise information is frustrating, but we should always remember that we are here dealing with popular literature, not with documents intended to record facts.
The late David Baldwin was the author of Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked (Amberley Publishing, 2010; reprinted in 2011).
This article was first published by History Extra in 2015