Robin Hood

Robin Hood (also known as Robin Hoode and Robyn Hode) was, according to English folklore, the quintessential antihero, an outlaw with a penchant for robbing the rich and giving to the poor. At first a common yeoman, Robin is later depicted as an aristocrat [1] wrongfully relieved of lands and title by a villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. In popular culture he along with his “Merry Men” are said to have lived in Sherwood Forest (some say Barnsdale) near Nottingham, having been driven to outlawry during the misrule of King John. Typically today he is seen as a supporter of King Richard the Lionheart, and everyone's champion he has been portrayed by such Hollywood stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe.

But did he really exist?

Robin Hood and his world (or at least our perception thereof) is derived in large part from the early ballads of medieval England and Scotland, a collection of anonymous stories, tragic, comic and heroic, composed in short stanzas and conveyed (at first) in the oral tradition.

Robin Hood and the Monk (Child ballad 119 [2] original manuscript circa 1450) is often cited as the oldest extant Robin Hood ballad. It begins with an argument between Robin and his lieutenant, Little John, continues with a treacherous monk betraying Robin to the Sheriff of Nottingham and concludes with a successful rescue, of Robin, by Little John and Much the miller's son.

Robin Hood and the Potter (Child ballad 121) was written around 1500. The story begins with a confrontation between Robin, Little John and a potter who refuses to pay a toll. The potter bests Robin, knocking him to the ground with a quarterstaff. [3] Taking his defeat in good stead, Robin changes clothes and identities with the potter as a penalty. While in Nottingham selling the potter's wares he encounters the Sheriff who asks him if he knows Robin Hood. Our hero replies in the affirmative and offers to show him the outlaw's hideaway. The Sheriff accepts is duped and then forced to return home minus his horse and belongings from the depths of Sherwood.

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (Child ballad 118) was probably existent pre-1475. The story is somewhat complex but the gist involves the death of two of Robin's men, the capture of Little John and the slaying, by Robin, of Gisborne a hired killer. Later Robin, disguised as Guy, convinces the Sheriff that it's Hood that's been slain and asks as reward that he be allowed to kill Little John. The Sheriff, though taken aback, agrees but instead Robin frees his large friend who then shoots the Sheriff.

Robin Hoode his Death (Child ballad 120) begins with Robin's declaration, that feeling poorly, he is going to Churchlees (Kirklees Priory) to have his blood let. [4] Will Scarlett warns of possible trouble with a “good yeoman” (presumably Red Roger) [5] and urges him to take fifty good men as bodyguard. Robin, in typical fashion, declines agreeing only to Little John. At the priory the duo are greeted by Robin's kin, a somewhat overly zealous and soon to be duplicitous prioress. Later, bled to excess and betrayed, Robin is attacked but even in a weakened state manages to mortally wound his assailant (Red Roger). Refusing Little John's plea for revenge, and near death, he asks his friend to carry him outside and bury him beside a nearby street.

"Now give me leave, give me leave, master," he said,
"For Christs love give leave to me,
To set a fier within this hall,
And to burne up all Churchlee."

'That I reade not,' said Robin Hoode then,
'Litle Iohn, for it may not be;
If I shold doe any widow hurt, at my latter end,
God,' he said, 'wold blame me;

'But take me vpon thy backe, Litle Iohn,
And beare me to yonder streete,
And there make me a full fayre graue,
Of grauell and of greete.

'And sett my bright sword at my head,
Mine arrowes at my feete,
And lay my vew-bow by my side,
My met-yard wi [...]

* A more recent version of the ballad has Robin shooting one last arrow to mark his grave.

"I never hurt fair maid in all my time,
Nor at mine end shall it be,
But give me my bent bow in my hand,
And a broad arrow I'll let flee;
And where this arrow is taken up,
There shall my grave digged be.

On a lighter note:

A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (Child ballad 117) or sometimes simply A Geste of Robyn Hode begins with Robin telling Little John, Will Scarlok (Scarlet) and Much the miller's son to find him a guest for dinner:

'And walke up to the Saylis [6]
And so to Watlinge Strete,
And wayte after some unketh gest,
Up chaunce ye may them mete.

'Be he erle, or ani baron,
Abbot, or ani knyght,
Bringhe hym to lodge to me;
His dyner shall be dight.'

After walking up to the Saylis the trio spy then corral a poorly dressed knight who they take back to their camp for dinner. The knight is desperate and badly in debt. Robin helps him out with a four hundred pound loan and sends him off with Little John as attendant.

In the second fytte [7] the knight repays his debt, returns home and after saving the money heads back to Barnsdale to pay back Robin rescuing a stranger from an angry crowd on the way.

In the third fytte Little John takes part in an archery contest. After winning he is taken into the Sheriff's service where he fights with and then befriends the cook. They steal the Sheriff's silver plate and head to the outlaw's camp. Later the Sheriff  is hoodwinked into appearing before Robin and to his chagrin forced to eat from his own stolen tableware. Eventually the Sheriff is allowed to depart after swearing an oath to never harm or injure Robin or any of his men.

In the fourth fytte Robin's men capture a monk from St Mary's Abbey who lies about the amount of money he's carrying (eight hundred pounds). Robin confiscates the money claiming it as just compensation for the four hundred pounds owed him by a knight who had been indebted to the Abbey. Later the knight arrives explaining he is tardy because he saved a yeoman from death. Robin claims him as a friend and refuses the knight's repayment. The knight presents Robin with a gift of longbows and arrows and Robin gifts the knight with half the amount obtained from the monk.

In the fifth fytte Robin and his men enter an archery contest which Robin wins. Unfortunately he is recognized by the Sheriff as he claims his prize. They escape, with Little John wounded, and take refuge in the castle of Sir Richard at the Lea (the once poor knight).

In the sixth fytte the Sheriff, unable to gain access to the castle, journeys to London and complains to the king. The king promises to visit Nottingham in two weeks and dismisses the Sheriff. Later Sir Richard is captured by the Sheriff and taken to Nottingham. Sir Richard's wife seeks Robin's help. Robin rides to Nottingham rescues Sir Richard and kills the Sheriff. 

In the seventh fytte Edward the king arrives in Nottingham and after discovering the plight of his deer decides to punish Robin. Disguised as a monk he ventures into the forest where he is captured by the outlaws and taken to their camp. After a meal the frivolity begins with the setting up of an archery contest. The rules are that anyone who misses the target has to suffer a blow. Robin misses and is struck and knocked down by the “abbot” who then reveals himself as the king. All present kneel in homage.

In the eighth fytte the king takes Robin, now pardoned, to court. Robin soon tires of the courtly life, however, and returns to the greenwood.

Near the end of the Geste Robin dies after being betrayed by the prioress of Kyrkesly (Kirklees) and mortally wounded by her consort Red Roger.

The Geste ends with the words:

Cryst have mercy on his soule,
That dyed on the rode!
For he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god.

* Noticeably missing from the early ballads any mention of two of the Robin Hood legends most beloved figures Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. Both seem to have originated later as stock characters in the traditional celebrations known as the May Games.

There are a number of problems in trying to identify a real Robin Hood, not the least of which it's a name referenced many times in medieval records and many of those mentioned are know to have been outlaws. It's also possible, even probable, that “Robin Hood” was a pseudonym used by footpads and highwaymen in pursuit of anonymity. 

A number of historical contenders for the Robin Hood character are listed below:

In 1746 the Rev. Dr. William Stukeley, archaeologist and antiquarian, suggested that the true identity of Robin Hood was Robert fitz Odo (or Fitzooth). According to Dr. Stukeley, Fitzooth was born in the year 1160 in Loxley (today a village and suburb of the city of Sheffield, England). He was outlawed around the turn of the century, his lands taken by Ranulf, Earl of Chester, the name associated with Robin Hood in the allegorical poem entitled "The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman," and he passed away in 1247.

As translated:

“I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it.
But I know the rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, Earl of Chester.”

In 1852 Joseph Hunter, a Unitarian minister and like Stukeley an antiquarian, argued in a paper on Robin Hood that the famous outlaw was actually Robert Hood  a miscreant who appeared in the Wakefield Court Rolls (records) of 1316/17. According to his hypothesis Robert Hood became an outlaw not through theft but because of his support for Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was executed following a failed insurrection against Edward 11. After defeat Hood and other rebels were supposedly stripped of their possessions and destitute forced to seek refuge in nearby Barnsdale Forest.

In 1936 Professor L. V. D. Owen suggested another candidate for the real Robin Hood. In 1226, records of the York assizes (criminal courts) included 32 shillings and 6 pence owed for the chattels of Robert Hod fugitive. In all the account appeared nine times between 1226 and 1234, the name appearing six times as Robert Hod once as Robert Hood and twice as “Hobbehod.” Apparently Hod a tenant of the archbishopric (the church district over which an archbishop has jurisdiction) was a felon who had fled the dominion of the court.

Authors Brian Benison (Robin Hood: The Real Story) and David Baldwin (Robin Hood:The English Outlaw Unmasked) believe the man who inspired the legend is a thirteenth century rogue/landowner named Roger Godberd.

In 1267 Godberd supposedly settled in Sherwood Forest after being outlawed for fighting against King Henry 111 in the Battle of Evesham. He remained there, along with his friend Walter Devyas (thought to be the basis for the “Little John” character of popular legend) and other outlaws, for more than four years before being captured in the grounds of Rufford Abbey by the Sheriff of Nottingham and taken to Nottingham Castle from which, along with his companions, he soon escaped.

A prominent local knight named Richard Foliot (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Richard at the Lee from A Geste of Robyn Hode fame) afforded them sanctuary, [8] until upon the approach of a vengeful Sheriff they were forced to flee. Eventually recaptured and sent to jail Godberd spent more than three years in three different prisons before being pardoned by Edward 1 upon his return from the Eighth Crusade. Some say, upon release, he moved back to his farm living there quietly till his death, while others say, still the rapscalion, he died in Newgate Prison.

Places of Interest:

Edwinstowe an historic village with strong ties to the Robin Hood legend located in the heart of Sherwood Forest.

Kirklees Priory and Robin Hood's grave, Kirklees Park, Clifton near Brighouse, West Yorkshire. (Please note that the priory gatehouse and grave are located on privately owned land.)

Little John's grave, St Michael's Church graveyard, Hathersage, Derbyshire.

Saint Mary's Abbey in York (the Benedictine abbey to which the poor knight in the Geste was indebted).

The Major Oak, a large English oak tree located near Edwinstowe, which was, according to local folklore, used as shelter by Robin and his men.

Loxley churchyard in Warwickshire (according to author, historian and lecturer David Baldwin the resting place of Roger Godberd).

[1] At the end of the 16th century English playwright Anthony Munday presented Robin Hood in two influential plays as the Earl of Huntington.

[2] The Child ballads are a collection of 305 traditional English and Scottish ballads along with their American variants collected in the 19th century by American scholar and folklorist Francis James Child.

[3] The only person to use a quarterstaff in the early ballads is the potter. (Robin does not take to the quarterstaff until the eighteenth century.)

[4] Bloodletting is the ancient practice of withdrawing blood from a patient to prevent or cure illness and disease.

[5] Red Roger (Sir Roger of Doncaster) was purportedly the consort of Robin Hood's kinswoman the prioress of Kirklees.

[6] The Saylis or Sayles was a small tenancy, valued at one tenth of a knight’s fee (a knight's fee was a fief which furnished sufficient income to equip and support one knight [about 20 pounds per year]), located on high ground just shy of a third mile (460 meters) to the east of the village of Wentbridge in the manor (estate) of Pontefract. The high ground which overlooks the area is still known as the Sayles, a plantation on the eastern side of the A1 (or Great North Road) fly-over.

[7] Fytte or fit is an archaic term for the division of a poem.

[8] It's been suggested that Richard Foliot was related to Roger Godberd's sidekick Walter Devyas, thus the offer of sanctuary.

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