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
Tuck, Friar (fl. 15th cent.), legendary outlaw, may have originated in a real individual, but his mythic qualities as a member of Robin Hood's band are his own, and have become indelibly established in the popular mind. In the developed stories he enters the band, like other recruits, by a personal encounter with Robin Hood in which a contest of wits and physical prowess brings each to respect the other. Once in the greenwood, he dispenses joviality and brings a sly wisdom to the outlaws' councils. His clericity, ordinarily not much in evidence, gives him a status that strengthens rather than disturbs the structure of the band.

Like Sherwood itself, Friar Tuck does not appear in the verses that are the earliest surviving manifestations of the legend, though he is named with other members of the company in a dramatic fragment of c.1475. He is probably prefigured in the tale of a curtal or kirtled friar—a friar wearing a travelling habit—whom Robin finds at Fountains Abbey, an unusual lodging for a friar even when in a travelling mode. In the late fifteenth century, when there are explicit references to the themes of the May day games, their characters include Maid Marian, who was subsequently assimilated to the outlaws in Sherwood, and a friar, who is unnamed but may by that time have already made the same transition.

The earliest known use of the name Friar Tuck attributes it to a disturber of the peace in Surrey and Sussex, in Henry V's reign. A parliamentary petition of 1417 complains of armed gangs at large, said to contain Lollards, heretics, and rebels who defied capture. The Lollards and rebels are probably echoes of Oldcastle's rising in 1414, but violent disturbances were endemic. In February 1416 a commission was issued for the apprehension of one assuming the name of Friar Tuk, marauding in Sussex and Surrey with his followers. It was repeated in May 1417, with a pained reference to the miscreant's unusual name and a list of his depredations in parks and forests, including the theft of game and the burning of foresters' lodges and houses. Nobody was arrested, and the chase was abandoned in 1429, when the offender was pardoned and his identity revealed as Richard Stafford, a Sussex chaplain.

The commissions can be read in two ways. The name is explicitly an alias, so it is either Stafford's own invention, or a familiar invocation to which others would respond. If Stafford was the first man to call himself Friar Tuck he secured both local anonymity and an enduring vicarious fame. On the other hand he may have had the friar in mind as a popular hero who harassed officials and dined on venison, and borrowed his name to his own greater glory. In 1422 there was a reference in king's bench to Richard Herring, alias Juliana wife of Friar Tuck. Who was concealing what from whom on that occasion is uncertain, but either Stafford's fame had spread rapidly or the name of Tuck was known as a present help. The appearance of Juliana weakens rather than strengthens the argument that Stafford was the original Friar Tuck, but the fact remains that the earliest use of the name is, by a narrow margin, attached to a historical individual who was also a runagate cleric.

The indeterminate factor is the early currency of the Robin Hood tales, which were recited before, and probably very long before, they were written down. The earliest known reference to them occurs in Langland's Piers Plowman of about 1377, where Sloth, who can be bothered with little else, claims to know their rhymes. Friar Tuck may therefore have been at large well before 1416, but it is not known that he was. As a friar, he could hardly predate the appearance of the mendicant orders in England in the early thirteenth century, though that would still give him time to have made his mark.

Given the great cultural change of the Reformation, after which English perceptions of the medieval church rapidly blurred, what is most important is that Tuck was established as one of Robin Hood's companions before the end of the fifteenth century. He can therefore be assessed in a medieval context beyond the riotous anachronisms of his later adventures. His role in the greenwood is that of a chaplain: not such a hedge-priest as Richard Stafford might be presumed to be, but a confessor and counsellor to Robin Hood and his quasi-royal household. Without disparagement to any order he is more probably a Franciscan than a Dominican, Carmelite, or Augustinian. Friars were resolute champions of orthodoxy, but they set out to redress the pastoral deficiencies of the medieval church, and they were often inclined to radicalism. Friar Tuck is not evidently learned, but he is resourceful and resilient, and undeniably radical. He is also some 600 years old, and shows no sign of flagging, on or off the screen.

G. H. Martin

Sources  

J. C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (1989) · B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robin Hood, 2nd edn (1997) · M. Keen, The outlaws of medieval legend, 2nd edn (1977) · E. Powell, Kingship, law, and society: criminal justice in the reign of Henry V (1989) · CPR, 1416–22 · I. Fennessy, ‘Friar Tuck, no Franciscan’, Newsletter of the Irish Franciscan Province, 189 (March–April 1995), 6–7