We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Hood, Robin (supp. fl. late 12th–13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero, is wellnigh impossible to identify, first because of the sparsity and peculiar nature of the evidence, and second because Robin quickly became a composite figure of an archetypal criminal, and then an outlaw hero.

Historical foundation

Only three early writers attempted to place Robin in a historical context. Andrew Wyntoun, who by 1420 had completed a rhyming chronicle of Scotland up to 1408, referred to Robin Hood and Little John under the years 1283–5. In the 1440s Walter Bower inserted a notice of Robin Hood and Little John into his continuation of Fordun's Scotichronicon under the year 1266. Then in 1521, in his Historia majoris Britanniae, John Mair assigned Robin and Little John to the years of Richard I's captivity in Germany, 1193–4. All three writers were Scots. On this matter they are independent of one another. Their sources for these statements are unknown. They were not copied by English historians, and no medieval English historian made any such attempt to identify Robin Hood. Of the three, John Mair's date is the best. This is because Robin Hood, in all probability, was already a legendary criminal by 1261–2.

The earliest indication of the legend is to be found in the surname Robinhood and its variants (Rabunhod, Robehod, and so on), which first appear in the late thirteenth century. Some eight examples, widely scattered, have so far been discovered. Such a name formation is rare, and the most likely explanation of it is that one so called, or those who gave him the name, knew something of the legend of Robin Hood. The earliest example, coming from Berkshire in 1261–2, is crucial. It begins with an entry on the king's remembrancer's memoranda roll of Easter 1262 which notes a pardon of a penalty imposed on the prior of Sandleford for seizing without warrant the chattels of William Robehod, fugitive. The same case occurs on the roll of the justices on eyre in Berkshire in 1261, which records the indictment and outlawry of a criminal gang suspected of robberies and the harbouring of robbers. The gang included one William, son of Robert le Fevre (Smith), whose chattels had been seized by the prior of Sandleford. Without any doubt William Robehod of the memoranda roll and William, son of Robert le Fevre, of the plea roll were one and the same person. Someone along the administrative channel from the justices on eyre to the king's remembrancer changed the name. He probably did so because William, son of Robert, had Robert in his name and was a member of an outlaw gang. So he became William Robehod. It follows that whoever changed the name knew of Robin as an exemplary outlaw.

The discovery of this evidence by Dr David Crook in 1984 was decisive. The original Robin Hood, if such there was, must have lived before 1261 and probably some considerable time before, sufficient at any rate to generate this kind of fame. This gives some credence to John Mair's date. It is further supported by the appearance of a Robert Hod, fugitive, who failed to appear before the justices at the York assizes in 1225 and whose chattels, worth 32s. 6d., were accordingly forfeit at the account of the exchequer in Michaelmas 1226. Finally, and much later, Thomas Gale, dean of York (1697–1702), left among his papers a note of an epitaph which recorded that Robin died on 24 Kalends December 1247. This is late evidence, and there is no such date in the Roman calendar; yet the interval between 1225 and 1247 exactly matches the final twenty-two years of his life which, in legend, Robin spent in the greenwood. So, in a somewhat tendentious reconstruction, a shadowy biography emerges: Robin was an active outlaw in 1193–4, outlawed again in 1225, dead in 1247, and already a legendary figure by 1261–2. In that outline the dates 1225 and 1261–2 are firm; and this Robert Hod is the only possible original who is known to have been an outlaw. There is even a hint that he became legendary: when the account for his chattels was repeated in 1227 he was recorded as ‘Hobbehod’. The only other morsel of information is that the account was due from the liberty of St Peter's; Robert Hod must accordingly have been a tenant of the archbishopric of York.

However, what the evidence of 1261–2 gives with one hand it takes away with the other. Certainly it provides a terminus ante quem for a prototype Robin Hood. Yet it also demonstrates how Robin Hoods were made. If William, son of Robert le Fevre, could become a Robin Hood, so could others. In the case of Robert Hod of 1226–7 the real name and nickname coincided; it is the only case where this is certainly so, and he could well have started the legend. But in many other cases criminals could have used or attracted the nickname without its leaving any trace of itself in the record of their crimes. It is only through luck that the flash of illumination from the case of William, son of Robert le Fevre exists. So it could well be, and almost certainly was, that the legend as it is now originated in multiple Robin Hoods, a composite person embodying real people and real incidents all brought together under the umbrella of a single persona. There were other outlaws with other names—some real, some legendary. This one snowballed, absorbing other legends and continuing to gather new material down to the present day.

Early tales of Robin Hood

In this context the evidence from 1261–2 ceases to be a touchstone. Instead scholars have attempted to match real incidents and real people with the legend of Robin Hood as it first appeared in written form in the fifteenth century. The first tales to survive in manuscript come from about 1450. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, found in a manuscript collection that includes a prayer against thieves and robbers, is a thriller, a story of treachery and revenge. Robin is betrayed to the sheriff by a knavish monk while at worship in the church of St Mary, Nottingham. He is then rescued from Nottingham Castle by Little John and the rest of the gang. ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’, part of a manuscript collection of romances and moralistic pieces probably written shortly after 1503, is by contrast a burlesque. Robin, after challenging and fighting a travelling potter, takes the potter's dress and wares in order to inveigle his way into Nottingham Castle and lure the sheriff to the outlaw lair in Sherwood. The Gest of Robyn Hode, assembled in the fifteenth century, most probably after 1450, is a collection of tales then current, which it presents as an integrated geste in a roughly constructed chronological sequence. It attracted the attention of the early printers, in no fewer than five editions produced between the last years of the fifteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century. It is in effect a minstrel's serial, designed to be recited at intervals. It includes what is perhaps the earliest story of all, the tale of the impoverished knight. In this story, Robin assists a knight who has mortgaged his lands to the abbot of St Mary's, York, by robbing the monks themselves to repay the loan. The knight later becomes Sir Richard of the Lee who fortifies his castle to protect Robin and his men from the vengeful sheriff. The Gest includes much else, including two archery contests held in Nottingham, also an encounter between the king and Robin in Sherwood, and a summary tale of Robin's death at Kirklees Priory in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which was later amplified in a seventeenth-century version. The main setting of the Gest is Wentbridge and Barnsdale (West Riding), but it is partly obscured by the intrusion of a tale of Little John and the sheriff of Nottingham, and by the setting of the meeting of Robin and the king in Sherwood. The canon is completed by a separate tale, ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, which is the story of a medieval bounty hunter whom Robin defeats and kills. This also is set in Barnsdale. Its early date is confirmed by a dramatic fragment of c.1475 which covers much the same ground.

Together these tales make up the authentic medieval legend. The Gest is much the largest and most important item, a long poem of 456 four-line stanzas. The thematic material of the Gest is generally accepted as coming earlier rather than later in the development of the legend. Partly because of this, it is primarily in the Gest that scholars have sought to find the traces of real people. However, 200 years, and more, separated the composition of the Gest from the William Robehod of 1261–2, and very little is known of the development of the legend in that interval. The only landmark is William Langland who, in 1377, had Sloth declare that he could recite rhymes of Robin Hood and Ranulf, earl of Chester. That remains the earliest literary reference. So the search for real individuals is made more difficult by the total ignorance of when and how the surviving tales were generated. There is only one point of certainty. In the Gest the king has no other name but Edward. In 1852 Joseph Hunter established that the circuit of ‘Edward our comely king’ through the royal forests of Yorkshire and Lancashire and thence to Nottingham, as described in the Gest, fitted only one royal progress, namely that of Edward II between April and November 1323. Nothing that has been discovered since has disturbed Hunter's conclusion. This part of the Gest is based on Edward II's journey and must have been composed after 1323. It may, nevertheless, be intrusive.

The search for authenticity

It is within these limits that the search for real people has been carried out. It has yielded some real probabilities, some possible candidates, one disappointing rejection in which for a time great confidence was placed, and a rag-bag of assertive speculations which do not merit serious consideration. The first concerns Eustace of Lowdham, who acted as sheriff or deputy in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire at various times between 1217 and 1233. He combined in these offices the two geographic locations of the Robin tales. In this respect he fits the bill of the legendary sheriff; he is one of the few sheriffs to do so. In 1225, as sheriff of Yorkshire, he was instructed to seek, take, and behead one Robert of Wetherby as an outlaw and evil-doer. Robert was quickly caught and his body suspended in chains, an outlaw at the right time, in the right place, and with the right forename, but by Robin Hood's standards a failure. Yet incidents lying behind these bare records may have contributed to the legend, especially perhaps to the violent tale of Guy of Gisborne. Another possible contributor was Roger Godberd, who led an outlaw gang which terrorized Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire in the years after the Montfortian rebellion of 1265. He was pursued by various posses and, after evading capture for many years, ended his days in Newgate Prison in 1276. The final charges against him were that he and other malefactors had robbed an abbey, taking money, stock, and horses, and slain one of the monks (though of Stanley, Wiltshire, not St Mary's, York). Roger gained some protection from a local knight of some prominence named Richard Foliot, who in 1272 was accused of harbouring Godberd and had to surrender his castle of Fenwick and find sureties of good behaviour. Like Sir Richard of the Lee he was a knightly patron of outlaws, and his land lay in the right place: Fenwick is 6 miles or so from Barnsdale, and Foliot also held estates on the eastern bounds of Sherwood. So he too fits the bill. He surrendered his castle; Sir Richard of the Lee fortified and defended his; otherwise their roles are identical, and the coincidence of outlaw and knightly patron is remarkable. A third set of possible originals has been advanced from a later period: Thomas Moulton, abbot of St Mary's, York, 1332–59, as the abbot of the Gest; Geoffrey Scrope, chief justice of the king's bench, 1324–38, as the corrupt justice; and John Oxenford, sheriff of Nottingham for most of the years 1334–9, as the vicious sheriff. These are less acceptable. Such strength as the case has depends on the coincidence of the three, and the context does not include an outlaw leader as a possible contributor to Robin.

These suggestions have all arisen since 1955, some since 1980. None of them has gained anything like the acceptance of the hypothesis put forward by Joseph Hunter in 1852. He identified Robin Hood with a Robert Hood of Wakefield, who is well recorded in the rolls of the manor court up to 1317. The crux of his argument was that Robert Hood vanished from the Wakefield records by 1323 (there being no surviving rolls for 1317–23), while a Robyn Hod appeared as one of the porters of the king's chamber in 1324. This seemed to occur at just the right place and moment—at Nottingham, at the end of Edward II's northern progress which matches so exactly the king's journey in the Gest, after which Robin made his peace with the king and entered the royal service as a yeoman. This concordance seemed utterly convincing, and it has been much embroidered, partly by Hunter who advanced the guess that Robert Hood had been outlawed as a supporter of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, who had been defeated at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, but mainly by later antiquaries who have compounded their enthusiasm with bad judgement, worse understanding of record, and, on occasion, rank mistranslation of Latin. But it scarcely matters, for Hunter missed crucial evidence which put beyond doubt that Robyn Hode, porter of the chamber, was already in the royal service six months before Edward came to Nottingham. That is sufficient to bring the whole edifice tumbling down. The last heard of the porter is that he retired through incapacity (either of age or health) with a grant of 5s. in November 1324. There were two men, then, not one: Robert Hood of Wakefield and Robyn Hode, porter of the chamber; and there is no evidence that either of them contributed to the legendary Robin.

The development and enrichment of the legend

The legend had a life of its own. New personae were constantly absorbed. The early tales contain no Friar Tuck and no Maid Marion. The friar is of special interest because he demonstrates once again how the doings of real people were pressed into service for the story. The original was Robert Stafford, parson of Lindfield, Sussex, who gathered around him a band of evil-doers who committed murders and robberies and threatened the peace of Surrey and Sussex between 1417 and 1429. He assumed the name of Friar Tuck, and puzzled royal officials recorded that he was ‘newly so called in common parlance’. By 1475 the friar figured in the first surviving fragment of a Robin Hood play. Maid Marion in contrast was a literary and dramatic figment. She originated in a French pastoral play, Robin et Marion, composed c.1283 by Adam de la Halle; she was then taken over in Gower's Mirour de l'omme of 1376–9 where she participates in rustic festivals; and by 1500 or shortly afterwards Robin Hood and Marion had come to figure as king and queen of May in the May games. But Marion was by no means the first literary component. Once the story had become an entertainment in the hands of minstrels it was contaminated by other tales. The earliest written versions share analogues and topoi with romances of other outlaw heroes—Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, Fulk Fitzwarine (d. 1256). These all belong to the thirteenth century. All Robin's literary links are with adventures of this kind, all concerned with real men. The argument that he was some kind of woodland sprite, linked with Robin Goodfellow or the Green Man, which originated with Thomas Wright (1846) and culminated in Margaret Murray's God of the Witches (1931), is no longer seriously entertained.

One other element is also missing from the earliest versions. All the early notices of Robin treat him as a criminal. In 1433, for the first time, he is described as ‘Goodman’. The early written tales contain little if anything of what has become Robin's best-known characteristic, that he robbed the rich to give to the poor. This was foisted on the legend in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was further developed by the radical antiquary Joseph Ritson in his edition of the tales of 1795. The notion probably originated in the Robin Hood plays. These are first recorded in Exeter in 1425. By the beginning of the sixteenth century they were widespread in southern England as a feature of the spring festival. They were licensed by ecclesiastical authority, and in some centres Robin and his players conducted charitable collections, sometimes far from gently. The churchwardens met the expenses for dress and entertainment and received an account of the collection. In effect, and under licence, Robin was taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

The claim that Robin Hood was of noble birth is derived from Leland, later much expanded in Anthony Munday's Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington (1598). It has no further warrant. In the medieval legend he is a yeoman, nothing else. His association with Saxon resistance to the Normans stems from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and is equally fictitious. Scott's depiction of Robin of Locksley in this, his most popular novel, ensured Robin's prominence in the age of mass culture. Many plays and popular stories about him appeared in the nineteenth century (though Tennyson's verse play, The Foresters, failed disastrously in 1892). The legend lent itself easily to film and television, with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn, the best of a long series.

Robin Hood was supposedly buried at Kirklees. Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 sketched a grave slab which is now much damaged. As with Little John's supposed grave at Hathersage, no body lies underneath. At Castle Hill near Wentbridge, the most exact of all the locations in the Gest, Johnston also sketched a plan of what he took to be a small motte and bailey castle. This has not been excavated.

J. C. Holt

Sources  

J. C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (1989) · R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 2nd edn (1979) · D. Crook, ‘Some further evidence concerning the dating of the origins of the legend of Robin Hood’, EngHR, 99 (1984), 530–34 · D. Crook, ‘The sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood: the genesis of the legend?’, Thirteenth century England: proceedings of the Newcastle upon Tyne conference [Newcastle upon Tyne 1987], ed. P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd, 2 (1988), 59–68 · J. R. Maddicott, ‘The birth and setting of the ballads of Robin Hood’, EngHR, 93 (1978), 276–99 · M. H. Keen, The outlaws of medieval legend, 2nd edn (1977) · E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive rebels, 3rd edn (1971) · F. J. Child, The English and Scottish popular ballads, 5 vols. (1882–98) · A. Freeman, Robin Hood, the ‘Forresters’ manuscript (1993) · D. Wiles, The early plays of Robin Hood (1981) · W. H. Clawson, The gest of Robin Hood (1909) · J. H. Gable, Bibliography of Robin Hood (1939) · J. Hunter, Mr. Hunter's Critical and historical tracts, 4: The great hero of the ancient minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood (1852) · S. Knight, Robin Hood (1994) · M. Ikegami, ‘The language and the date of A Gest of Robyn Hode’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 3/96 (1995), 271–81 · J. Richards, Swordsmen of the screen (1977) · S. Knight, ed., Robin Hood: an anthology of scholarship and criticism (1999)

Likenesses  

J. Woodford, statue, 1949, Castle Green, Nottingham