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Reference group
Band of merrie men (act. 12th–21st cent.)
are a group, fictional but possibly with some historical antecedents, associated with the legendary English outlaw Robin Hood, whom they assist and often rescue from predicaments in the greenwood. The number of ‘merrie men’ varies in different versions of the legend from a handful to several hundred; the most common total mentioned in the Robin Hood ballads being seven score, or 140.

Origins and members

Any discussion of the merrie men inevitably involves the broader issue of the origins of the Robin Hood legend itself. Medieval historians and literary scholars continue to debate whether this was based upon a real historical figure or whether the outlaw hero was a purely fictional creation, and there are similar arguments surrounding the most prominent merrie men. The earliest reference to Robin Hood's being accompanied by a named companion occurs in the Orygynale Chronicle (c.1420) by the Scottish prior Andrew Wyntoun, who described ‘Litil John and Robert Hude’ as ‘Waythmen’ or forest outlaws (quoted in Knight, Robin Hood: Mythic Biography, 4) . Wyntoun's chronicle of Scotland, which runs to 1408, records the pair under the years 1283–5, while two later Scottish historians, Walter Bower in the 1440s and John Mair (Major) in the 1520s, trace Robin and Little John to 1266 and 1193–5 respectively. By the fifteenth century there are also references to Robin Hood's being supported by a band of outlaws who were not specifically identified by name. Dating from 1439, for example, a court record from Tutbury in Staffordshire compares a criminal named Piers Venables, who had ‘gadered and asembled unto hym many misdoers’, to ‘Robyn Hode and his meyne’ (ibid., 6).

The term ‘merrie men’ is first used in the oldest surviving ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450), in which Little John declares that:
a more mery man than I am one
Lyves not in Christianté.
(lines 15–16)
The ballad opens with Robin's intention to worship at St Mary's Church, Nottingham, and the recommendation of ‘Moche, the mylner sun’ to take with him ‘twelve of thi wyght yemen / Well weppynd, be thi side’ (lines 29, 31–2). Robin declines the company of ‘my mery men’ (line 35) and, alone, is then betrayed by a monk, captured by the sheriff, and ultimately rescued from Nottingham Castle by his band. Though the early Robin Hood ballads do not explain how the merrie men came together, a number of origin stories are found in the seventeenth-century popular tradition. The most common way in which men were asked to join the band was after impressing Robin Hood by besting him in a fight. These episodes show that in the earliest versions of the legend it was not always assumed that Robin Hood was the leader of the band.

A number of individual characters—Little John, Much the Miller's Son, Will Scarlet, Arthur a Bland, and David of Doncaster—join Robin Hood in the early ballads. Of these characters Little John emerged as the most important and in most versions he appears as Robin's second in command. Little John was initially depicted as Robin's equal in both intelligence and fighting ability; in later versions of the legend it is the latter attribute, along with the physical bulk that gave rise to his ironic nickname, that is emphasized. As in the case of Robin Hood, it is unclear to what extent Little John is based upon a real-life figure. There are a number of references to John Littles and Little Johns in medieval legal and other records, but none of these can be definitively identified as Robin Hood's companion. According to the early seventeenth-century antiquarian Roger Dodsworth, Little John's ‘grave’ was to be found in St Michael's churchyard in Hathersage, Derbyshire, though the present-day marker is unlikely to be authentic.

After Little John the most prominent member of the merrie men is Friar Tuck, whose rotund appearance and jovial demeanour belie his talent with a quarterstaff. Unlike Little John, who emerged within the Robin Hood legend itself, Friar Tuck came from a separate tradition in the May games, the popular festivities that took place from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries in which plays featuring Robin Hood as a ‘lord of misrule’ were often performed. A ‘Frere Tuck’ first appears in a fragment of a play dating from about 1475. His first appearance in a ballad occurs in Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, the earliest extant version of which dates from 1663 but which probably has a late medieval origin. Of all the characters in the Robin Hood legend, Friar Tuck may be the most likely to have a real historical antecedent. Two royal writs from 1417 demand the arrest of an outlaw who ‘assumed the name of Frere Tuck’. A letter of 1429 states that the outlaw was still at large and identifies him as Robert Stafford, a clergyman from Lindfield, Sussex. It is not clear whether Stafford was the first to use the pseudonym Friar Tuck, or whether he adopted the name from a previously existing outlaw tradition.

Despite her gender, Maid Marian is often included among the merrie men. She, too, came from the May games: the earliest reference to her in that context dates from Kingston, Surrey, in 1509. She customarily appeared as Friar Tuck's morris-dancing partner and was often played by a cross-dressing male. In the earliest versions of the legend Robin Hood had no female companion; it was only through the May games that he and Marian became associated as Robin and Little John joined Marian and Tuck in a dancing quartet. Unlike Little John and Friar Tuck, Marian is assumed to be an entirely fictional creation with no historical antecedent. Her character probably originated as the shepherdess in the French pastoral romance Robin and Marion, which apart from the name of the main character has no other connection to the Robin Hood legend. There is also a possible link to Robin Hood's worship of the Virgin Mary in the early ballads, but the spirited and lewdly sexual Marian of the May games has little to do with conventional Christianity. She appears in a number of the subsequent ballads, most prominently in the late seventeenth-century Robin Hood and Maid Marian, in which she fights Robin to a draw while disguised as a man.

Will Scarlet first appears in the early sixteenth-century ballad A Gest of Robin Hood, as an impetuous, dandyish young man. He retains an important, though ancillary, role in the legend over the succeeding centuries and has re-emerged in recent years as a prominent character. Additional members of the merrie men who are named in the early ballads include Much the Miller's Son, Arthur a Bland, and David of Doncaster; these characters have all but disappeared from the legend over the centuries. Though they would later come to be characterized as ‘yeomen’, originally a number of members of the merrie men were practitioners of trades, including the tinker Wat o' the Crabstaff, the pedlar Gamble Gold, the tanner Arthur a Bland, and the pinder George a Green. Apart from Maid Marian there are only occasional references to women among the merrie men, and never as independent characters, only as the wives of the male members of the band.

Early modern merrie men

In the Tudor period Robin Hood was gentrified as a fallen aristocrat, usually identified as the earl of Huntingdon. The merrie men accordingly rose with him in social stature, being depicted as independent yeomen who joined the band of their own volition. Maid Marian, meanwhile, became Matilda, the daughter of a nobleman. It was also in this period that the merrie men acquired their socially levelling agenda of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. This aspect of their activities was first mentioned by the Scottish scholar John Mair in his Historia majoris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae (1521). By this date Robin Hood was clearly established as the band's leader. Mair claimed that Robin ‘supported by his plundering one hundred bowmen, ready fighters every one, with whom four hundred of the strongest would not dare to engage in combat’ (p. 27). This view was seconded by William Warner in his verse history Albion's England, or, Historicall Map of the Same Island (1586). Warner described Robin Hood as a ‘Countie’, or earl, who:
with a troop of Yeomandry did rome
Braue Archers and deliuer [dextrous] men, since nor before so good
Those took from rich to giue the poore, and manned Robin-Hood
He fed them well, and lodg'd them safe in pleasnt caues and bowers
Oft saying to his merry men, what iuster life than ours?
(p. 132)
Early modern authors further justified the actions of the merrie men by relocating them to the late twelfth century, where they could be depicted as heroic defenders of the true king, Richard I, against his tyrannous brother John. Initially this helped to remove even more of the legend's subversive connotations, but in the seventeenth century the issue of rebellion against royal authority had obvious political implications. In 1605, for example, the courtier Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury, referred to Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot as ‘Robin Hoods’ (Holt, 151).

Over the next two centuries the merrie men were transformed from rebellious outlaws into patriotic loyalists to the English state. In 1661 a play entitled Robin Hood and his Crew of Soldiers was performed in Nottingham to celebrate the coronation of Charles II. In the play the merrie men become representatives of the English population as a whole: when Robin Hood submits to the king at the play's conclusion, they sing and dance with joy, symbolizing the nation's welcome to the restored monarch. In the eighteenth century the reclamation of the outlaws by the forces of loyalty and conservatism continued, in keeping with the rising nationalism of the period. In Leonard Macnally's comic opera Robin Hood, or, Sherwood Forest (1784), the merrie men are determined to defend ‘our country, Queen and King’ from a threatened French invasion, sentiments whose political meaning is sharpened when Macnally's Irish birth and staunch opposition to the growing United Irish movement are taken into account.

Victorian merrie men

Accompanying the nineteenth-century interest in medievalism [see also Knights of the round table] was the continued emergence of the Robin Hood legend as a focus of patriotic sentiment—part of a broader effort to construct a glorious national past to present Britain as both distinct from and superior to its rivals. Beginning with Sir Walter Scott's extremely influential Ivanhoe (1820), the merrie men were recast as Saxon resisters to the Norman yoke, which in the period immediately following the Napoleonic wars had clear anti-French connotations. As the nineteenth century wore on, this vision of the legend came to have not only patriotic but also racial implications. In the opera Robin Hood (1860) by Sir George Macfarren and John Oxenford, the merrie men sing:
Our fathers were of Saxon race,
With Hengist here they came;
And when they found this resting-place,
They lit a sacred flame,
It did not blaze from altar or from pyre;
But burning in the English heart is still that deathless fire!
In the late Victorian era the inwardly moving trajectory of the legend, in which the outlaws retreat further into the forest in the face of external pressures, became a focus of the anti-imperial cause. The damage done to England by the absence of Richard I during the crusades was compared to the wasteful expenditure of money and manpower on the conquest of useless colonies, and the merrie men often became spokesmen for these ideas. In Edward Gilliat's novel Wolf's Head: a Story of the Prince of Outlaws (1899), Robin Hood's follower Gaffer John declares indignantly, ‘God put us in England; why must we haunt to them foreign parts?’ (p. 161).

Modern merrie men

In the twentieth century film and television brought the merrie men before new audiences. Many of these depictions tended to duplicate previous versions rather than introduce new elements, though the context often imposed different meanings. The oath that Robin Hood (played by Errol Flynn) administered to the merrie men in the Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) incorporated a number of previously introduced motifs:
You the freeman of the forest swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless, to protect all women rich or poor, Norman or Saxon, and swear to fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign Richard the Lionheart, and swear to fight to the death against all oppression.
But although these words could have appeared in many earlier versions of the legend, they take on new connotations in the year before the outbreak of the Second World War.There were also more explicit changes to the merrie men in the twentieth century. In the action-oriented films and television series that characterized on-screen depictions of the Robin Hood legend, members of the band were often used not only as loyal adherents but also as foils to the hero, either as comic relief or as rivals to increase the dramatic tension. In the latter usage Will Scarlet re-emerged as a prominent character, usually portrayed as a young, hot-headed challenger to Robin Hood's leadership. In the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), starring Kevin Costner, for example, Scarlet (Christian Slater) is Robin's petulant, jealous half-brother; the two are only reconciled at the film's conclusion.

The most prominent change in the merrie men in recent decades involves their increasing ethnic diversity. Since the 1980s they have been joined in several versions by an Arab who comes to England in the wake of the crusades. This character was first introduced in 1983 in the pilot for the British television series Robin of Sherwood, in which the assassin Nazir is brought to England as the servant of the villain Simon de Belleme but escapes and joins the outlaws. In the 1991 film a Moor named Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman, escapes with Robin Hood from a Saracen prison in the opening scenes and becomes his most loyal and useful companion. In the BBC television series Robin Hood (2006), the Arab character was transformed into a woman, depicted by Anjali Jay. Further adding to the multicultural flavour of the band, the merrie men of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves also included a black martial artist named Kemal. A similar character appeared in the television series The Many Adventures of Robin Hood in 1997. The BBC series Maid Marian and her Merrie Men (1988) went so far as to include a ganja-smoking Rastafarian named Barrington among the outlaws.

Also reflecting changes in late twentieth-century cultural sensibilities, Maid Marian emerges in some recent versions of the legend as a feminist icon. Disguised in armour, she fights Robin Hood to a draw in Prince of Thieves, and she is the protagonist of the Disney film Princess of Thieves (2001), starring Keira Knightley, in which she is the physical equal of Robin Hood. Marian is also rendered as an active, physically adept, and intelligent heroine in a number of novels, including Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood (1989), Jennifer Roberson's Lady of the Forest (1992), and Teresa Tomlinson's The Forestwife (1993). The most recent depiction of the Robin Hood legend on screen, however, seems to retreat from both the multicultural and feminist elements that have been introduced into the merrie men in recent years. Despite using the crusades as an important part of the plot, Robin Hood (2010), starring Russell Crowe, features exclusively English merrie men, with Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett) portrayed as a conventional, chaste heroine who demonstrates physical strength only when her virtue is threatened.

Despite some fluctuations in their membership and despite adaptations to the changing political and cultural context, the merrie men have retained a consistent role as the loyal followers of Robin Hood over the centuries. Their most prominent members—Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian—have appeared in the majority of versions of the legend. The question of their historical reality, however, will probably never be conclusively resolved.

Stephanie L. Barczewski

Sources  

S. L. Barczewski, Myth and national identity in nineteenth-century Britain: the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (2000) · R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, eds., Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English outlaw (1976) · T. G. Hahn, ed., Robin Hood in popular culture: violence, transgression, and justice (2000) · C. Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’, Puritanism and revolution (1958), 50–122 · R. Hilton, ed., Peasants, knights and heretics: studies in medieval English social history (1976) · J. C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (1989) · M. Keen, The outlaws of medieval legend (1961) · S. Knight, Robin Hood: a complete study of the English outlaw (1994) · S. Knight, Robin Hood: a mythic biography (2003)

Likenesses  

D. Maclise, oils ([Robin Hood and his merry men entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest]), Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery [see illus.]