The many faces of Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a legend – but was the medieval outlaw and expert archer also a real man? Whoever the figures were who inspired the Robin Hood story, it’s almost certain that none of them stole from the rich to give to the poor, writes Jonny Wilkes for BBC History Revealed

Robin Hood statue outside Nottingham Castle

We all know the story. He was the wronged yet unfalteringly heroic outlaw, wearing Lincoln green and wielding a bow and arrow with unfailing precision. Hiding in Sherwood Forest with his band of Merry Men, he confounds the Sheriff of Nottingham at every opportunity, thwarting the corrupt and robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

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During his adventures, he falls for the beautiful Maid Marian, disguises himself to take part in archery contests under his pursuers’ noses and eventually foils the tax-happy Prince John, saving the English throne for King Richard the Lionheart.

The tale of Robin Hood is globally recognised and adored, but few figures from history display such a cavernous gulf between their legend and what is known about their reality.

We can’t even say for sure whether Robin Hood existed at all beyond the literature about him, let alone confirm his identity or period or location – while Nottinghamshire may be ‘Robin Hood country’, Yorkshire boasts a claim to the outlaw too.

The lack of information is not a result of records being lost over the centuries. Robin Hood had already become more legend than man in medieval times, so that by the time of the earliest-known reference – a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention in The Vision of Piers Plowman written by William Langland in c1377 – he was well-established in the public consciousness.

A series of 15th-century ballads with the outlaw as the titular hero, beginning with Robin Hood and the Monk and culminating in a collection called A Gest of Robyn Hode, then built on the details of his life.

Robin was a yeoman – a class between peasant and noble – who fought immoral officials, landowners and clergy with the help of his friend, Little John, from their forest hideout, possibly in Sherwood Forest or Barnsdale in South Yorkshire.

Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, where Robin is alleged to have had his hideout
Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, where Robin is alleged to have had his hideout (Photo by Getty)

But there was little evidence of his alleged gallant, unimpeachable character or famed altruism. One ballad sees him kill and behead Guy of Gisborne (who in this telling is a hired killer rather than the Sheriff of Nottingham’s deputy), before sticking Gisborne’s severed head on his bow and gleefully mutilating its face with his knife. In another, Robin’s men murder an innocent boy so he wouldn’t give them away.

Violent deeds and a quick temper did not make Robin less of a medieval icon, though. Every year, people dressed as Robin Hood as part of the lively games and plays at May Day celebrations, which is also where Maid Marian and Friar Tuck first enter the legends. Even a young Henry VIII got in on the act, donning green along with his courtiers to entertain his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1510.

Soon, new elements were introduced to the story, including Robin Hood’s status as a veteran of the Crusades who returns home to find his lands seized.

The Scottish chronicler John Major wrote in his 1521 A History of Greater Britain that Robin lived in the time of King Richard I, specifically when his brother John attempted to seize the throne in the late 12th century – although this comes without any proof. Major similarly claimed Robin would “lay in wait in the woods but spoiled of their goods those only who were wealthy”.

Evolving symbol

As his stories were retold – countless times, in cheap publications called ‘broadside ballads’ – Robin Hood became the champion of the downtrodden and an adversary of corruption. In 1883, the children’s book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire by Howard Pyle brought the outlaw to a global audience, which couldn’t get enough of him. New life is breathed into the mantle of Robin Hood with every screen portrayal, from the iconic – Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks and a talking fox – to the idiotic.

The reasons why Robin Hood would appeal in any era are clear. He is a figurehead of discontent, a noble rebel, living free and outwitting the stalwarts of an unjust establishment in his fight against tyranny and the abuse of law. Yet medieval England was fertile ground for such a legend to blossom. At a time of crises in authority, rebellions, lawlessness, oppression and the Black Death, the country saw outlaws thrive. But not all these real Robin Hoods were the stuff of movie legend.

An outlaw was beyond the protection of the law. While a criminal was still bound to the law – and so could only be punished by it – an outlaw had no legal rights, such as a trial. If an outlaw were caught, he could be immediately killed.

Robin Hood in the Records

While the ballads of the 15th century were intended more for entertainment than historical record, there are a number of references in earlier legal documents that have long intrigued theorists hoping to prove Robin Hood’s existence.

Variations of the name ‘Robin Hood’ were recorded at an assizes in York in 1225, where a fine of 32 shillings and sixpence was handed down to a fugitive called ‘Robert Hod’, and the King’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll of 1262, which documented an incident involving an outlaw named ‘William Robehod’.

Neither offer anything conclusive, however,and it seems more likely that names like Robehod were being used as common monikers for outlaws – in a similar way to how the name ‘John Doe’ is used today. This may suggest that Robin Hood was already so established in the public consciousness that his name was a byword for outlawry.

Another tactic has been to try and confirm details from the ballads, especially the account of Robin Hood’s death. Knowing he was about to die at Kirklees Priory near Huddersfield, he supposedly fired an arrow out of the window and asked Little John to bury him where it landed. A mound in Kirklees Park still exists, purporting to be the site, but there is no evidence of a grave.

As medieval England had no institutional police force, declaring a man an outlaw (for women, the term was ‘waived’) was designed to bring quick and unforgiving justice. It could be done for failing to answer a court summons or for serious felonies, the most heinous being treason.

Though outlaws were generally despised, some had been thrust into times of political instability where they fought against an authority they believed to be illegitimate. One person’s outlaw is another’s freedom fighter, after all.

The 12th century saw a chaotic breakdown in law and order due to The Anarchy, a civil war for the throne of England that lasted nearly two decades. Then the reign of King John (1199–1216) angered both commoners, who were resentful at the extension of Forest Law – the legislation by which kings apportioned huge tracts of the country as their personal hunting grounds – and nobles, who made the King agree to Magna Carta.

Rebels rise

Out of such periods of civil unrest emerged two freedom-fighting outlaws: William of Kensham and Roger Godberd. The former stood against an occupying French army invited to England by a group of barons waging war against John; the latter was a supporter of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, who led baronial opposition against Henry III in the 1260s.

During the First Barons’ War (1215-17), the south of England was invaded by an army led by the future King Louis VIII of France, and was essentially under foreign rule for well over a year.

A young loyalist, William of Kensham raised a force of archers able to attack the French in the huge forested area between London and the Channel called the Weald, and swiftly disappear into the trees. The chronicler Roger of Wendover wrote: “They attacked and disrupted the enemy, and as a result of their intense resistance many thousands of Frenchmen were slain.”

William, also known as William of Cassingham or Williken of the Weald, led a successful ambush at Lewes and harassed the French as they retreated. Louis attempted to besiege Dover Castle in 1217, only to find William’s archers burning his camp. To the occupying invaders and rebelling barons, he was an outlaw.

To the Crown and across the country, he was a hero, rewarded with a pension and title of Warden of the Seven Hundreds of the Weald.

The woodland also made an ideal hideout for Roger Godberd. He had been outlawed for fighting against Henry III at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, retreating into Sherwood Forest to escape execution. There, he gathered aband of around 100 men and launched raids across a number of counties as an act of defiance for four years.

The Fight for the Forests

Sherwood Forest is as much a character of the Robin Hood legend as Little John, Maid Marian or Friar Tuck. This was not only because it was an ideal hiding place for a band of merry men, but the forests of medieval England held a symbolic significance in the deeds of outlaws.

The word ‘forest’ did not necessarily mean woodland only. It also included areas of open grassland, wetlands and even villages – any wild landscape being kept as the private preserve of the king for the use of royal hunts.

William the Conqueror had established Forest Law in order to protect the ‘venison’ (beasts) and ‘vert’ (vegetation) of the royal forests, and the punishments that were introduced by his successors for breaking it were severe. Offences such as cutting down trees could result in being blinded or losing a hand, while anyone caught hunting game was sentenced to death.

Forest Law was extremely unpopular among people who relied on the resources of the land, and this only intensified when Richard I and John designated more and more land as royal forest. For outlaws to use them as their hideouts was regarded as a symbolic act of defiance against a king and his laws.

The landscape changed in 1217 when Henry III put his seal to the Charter of the Forest, as well as a second version of Magna Carta. It reformed the law and established greater rights for those using the forest areas for farming and foraging. The charter would be reissued in 1225 and some of its clauses remained in effect until well into the 20th century.

Godberd was captured in 1272 but, in true Robin Hood-style, managed to escape from Nottingham Castle. He was eventually seized for good in 1275. What happened next is debated: he may have been pardoned, but some claim he died in prison.

Both William and Roger have often been cited as inspirations for the Robin Hood legends, but another outlaw from a much earlier period of civil strife also fits the bill. Hereward the Wake (meaning ‘watchful’) was a leader of Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Normans. He had been declared an outlaw under Edward the Confessor and exiled to mainland Europe.

He returned after the Norman Conquest and established a base on the Isle of Ely, surrounded by the marshlands of Cambridgeshire. In 1070, he joined an army sent by King Sweyn of Denmark and sacked Peterborough Abbey under the guise, he claimed, of protecting the religious treasures from the sacrileges of the Normans.

Hereward was soon surrounded at Ely, which was taken in 1071, and while he managed to escape, accounts differ as to whether he was later caught, killed or lived on. His deeds would survive in a manuscript known as the Gesta Herewardi, albeit either embellished or entirely fabricated, elevating him to a near-mythical legacy. Robin Hood’s existence may be debated, but Hereward was a real man whose life was partly lost to legend. And he wasn’t the only one.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men entertaining a grateful Richard I in Sherwood Forest
Many adaptations of the legend end with this apocyphal scene: Robin Hood and his Merry Men entertaining a grateful Richard I in Sherwood Forest (Photo by Getty)

A 14th-century romance titled Fouke le Fitz Waryn related the adventures of a lord-turned-outlaw named Fulk FitzWarin. As the story goes, he was a childhood friend of the future King John, until they fought over a game of chess and John broke the board over Fulk’s head. Years passed, and when John came to the throne he awarded his former friend’s ancestral holding at Whittington Castle in Shropshire to an old foe.

Fulk murdered the man, fled, and mustered supporters to fight John’s forces for the first three years of the 13th century. He became much-fêted among John’s opponents in England, but could be ruthless – aptly demonstrated by his response on learning a thief was using his name. Fulk forced the thief to kill his own men before beheading him.

Despite his acts of violence and defiance, Fulk was eventually pardoned and granted his ancestral lands. Indeed, outlaws were frequently granted pardons, as many were members of the nobility. They still held regional influence, were too powerful to be left unchecked, and were trained in warfare (some having fought in the Crusades) so could prove useful when the King needed armies.

It does, however, give a different meaning to the noble outlaw – the notion of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor doesn’t apply.

Ignoble acts

Nobles could essentially form their own private militias, which often amounted to little more than brutish gangs of hired muscle. Not exactly bands of merry men. The two most prominent were active in the 14th century, and actually sometimes joined forces: the Folvilles in Leicestershire and the Coterels in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

The early 1320s witnessed another lawless time in England in the form of the Despenser War, a baronial revolt against Edward II. In stepped the Folville brothers. When the eldest, John, inherited the family lands, his six younger siblings, led by Eustace, turned to outlawry to build money and power.

In 1326, the gang murdered a despised baron of the exchequer named Roger Bellars, a long-time rival who had used his position to seize land. From then on, they became outlaws for hire, committing robberies, beatings and extortions.

Still, the Folvilles gained a favourable reputation as rumours spread that they targeted crooked officials such as the Bellars. Supportive locals refused to give information that would result in their capture, and in the political chaos that ensued when Edward II was deposed in 1327, the Folvilles received pardons.This began a familiar pattern of being pardoned whenever the King, willing to forgive and forget, needed outlaws to fight in his army.

There was a familiar pattern of outlaws being pardoned whenever the King, willing to forgive and forget, needed them to fight in his army.

Not that the Folvilles stopped their crimes. In 1332, they kidnapped Sir Richard Willoughby, a corrupt Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and demanded a huge sum for his life and his oath of loyalty to the gang, both of which were given. Helping them with that kidnapping cwere the Coterel family, led by James and his two brothers. The gang robbed and murdered for anyone who paid them, and ran their own protection rackets on the side.

In 1328, they had assaulted a vicar in Bakewell, Derbyshire, after being hired by the previous incumbent of the parish, who had been removed for stealing funds. Again, they never faced justice. Sir Roger de Wennesley, Lord of Mappleton, was sent to arrest them, but ended up joining their gang. And like the Folvilles, they were offered pardons for serving in the Edward III’s armies against the Scots and the French.

Eustace Folville died a respected nobleman in 1347, having served in Scotland and the Hundred Years War. His brother Richard would be the only member of the Folvilles not to escape retribution, for in the early 1340s he was dragged from the church in Teigh, Rutland (where he was rector), and beheaded. As the execution was on holy ground, the killers had to pray for forgiveness outside the churches in the area and were then whipped. As for the Coterels, one of the brothers, Nicholas, was made the Queen’s bailiff for the High Peak District of Derbyshire.

Meanwhile, in Europe

Outlawry wasn’t unique to medieval England, as the existence of these five felons from mainland Europe attest

Eusatce the Monk

Eustace Busket turned from his calling as a Benedictine monk in France to become a pirate. Having been hired by King John of England, he captured the Channel Island of Sark in 1205, but then switched sides to work for the French. An English fleet caught up with him at the Battle of Sandwich in 1217, and Eustace was beheaded.

Momchil

During the Byzantine civil war of the 1340s, this Bulgarian bandit played both sides against each other as he built a personal army and established a stronghold in the Rhodope mountain range. The two enemies sided together to attack his city of Peritheorion.

The Archpriest

Arnaud de Cervole was an actual archpriest in France, but he was stripped of his title and turned to outlawry instead. In 1358, his forces surrounded Avignon, essentially taking the pope hostage, and demanded a hefty ransom. It all went wrong when he was stabbed to death by his own men.

Roger de Flor

A Sicilian adventurer who was thrown out of the Knights Templar, but not before making a fortune charging extortionate fees to take civilians to safety from the Siege of Acre in 1291. Forming a mercenary band called the Great Catalan Company, he fought the Turks on behalf of the Byzantine Empire while looting Byzantine lands. He was assassinated in 1305.

Seguin de Badefol

In the 1360s, the region around Lyon, France, was ravaged by a huge band of around 2,000 bandits led by Seguin de Badefol. Even an entire army couldn’t get rid of him. He met his end, however, after eating either a poisoned quince, pear or fig.

Not every gang was a noble family affair and so afforded the same protections. The colourfully named Adam the Leper led a band of robbers in the southeast in the 1330-40s. He and his gang waited until a fair was in town and then plundered homes while the owners were out enjoying the revels. When they were done, they would set the building on fire.

The gang’s most successful heist was of a London merchant in possession of jewels belonging to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault. They laid siege to his house, set it on fire and purloined the treasure as the merchant ran for safety.

Idols of the Poor

The outlaws of medieval England were violent, thought nothing of harming anyone and acted with impunity, but still became folk heroes in their own times and in the years that followed.

In The Vision of Piers Plowman – the earliest-known reference to Robin Hood – the murderous and brutal Folvilles are described as a law unto themselves in the face of “false men”. Whether accurate or not, outlaws were increasingly regarded as standing up to oppressors, preferring to be outside of society than live in an unjust one.

In the 14th century, people chose to believe these men were just as much victims of the same laws that caused dissatisfaction in their own lives, such as the Statute of Labourers, created in 1351 to prohibit increases in wages or the movement of workers. At a time when the Black Death was ravaging the country, it easy to imagine that there might have been a need for people to have heroes living free.

That was enough for the legends of men like William of Kensham, Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace Folville to take root. But not only that – the appeal of brave, bold and just outlaws in medieval England saw these legends inspire and embolden the tales of one of the most enduring folk heroes in history. Robin Hood remains a man whose tales we cannot help but be struck by, as if by one of his expertly shot arrows.

Jonny Wilkes is a journalist specialising history and a former staff writer on BBC History Revealed.

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This content was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed