The real Robin Hood

The Real Robin Hood

The Real Robin Hood

Robin Hood, a charismatic fellow of folk lore and fairy tales. Did he really exist, and was he a hero?

There is little concrete information on the real Robin Hood, and a great deal of fantasy has arisen around the figure in the form of story books, comics, television programs, and films. So how did the legend come about?

Earliest records of Robin Hood (Robyn Hode)

There is more historical truth in many of the old ballads than in many modern histories

John Selden (1584-1654), keeper of records in the Tower of London.

The earliest record of Robin Hood is the child ballad Robin Hood and the Monk which exists in a manuscript dating back to sometime after 1450.  This text characterises Robin Hood’s strong religious faith and hostility towards aristocrats and royalty. It speaks in a far less lighthearted tone than the tales of today.

“This traytur name is Robyn Hode,
Under the grene wode lynde;
He robbyt me onys of a hundred pound,
Hit shalle never out of my mynde.”

Read my post on Robin Hood and the Monk.

A Gest of Robin Hood

A Gest of Robin Hood

A second publication, the ballad A Gest of Robin Hood, or A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode, was published between 1492 and 1534, and is possibly the second oldest record of Robin Hood. The ballad is lengthy and consists of eight fyttes. It is believed to be comprised of a number of existing tales dating back to 1450, as stated by James Holt.

This tale differs from Robin Hood and the Monk in that in portrays Robin as the charismatic outlaw we know and love today. The anti-establishmentarianistic Robin is loved by the poor and feared by the rich. Robin is portrayed as a “good outlaw”, fighting a system which is shown to be corrupt. He commits crimes, but his crimes are necessary retaliations against a system that has wronged him, his family, and his people. His crimes are for the greater good.

A Gest of Robin Hood can be read in it’s full middle-English entirety here.

Even earlier mentions

If I shulde deye bi this day-me liste nought to loke;
I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster- as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn hood-and Randolf erle of Chestre,
Ac neither of owre lorde ne of owre lady-the leste that evere was made.

The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman– William Langland (c. 1377).

The Scottish poet Andrew of Wyntoun (c. 1350 – c. 1423) refers to Robin Hood and Little John in his eight-syllabled metre Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland. Under the year 1283, Wyntoun speaks of Robin and Little John as real people, perhaps with relevance to Scotland’s own outlaw William Wallace. Another interesting fact of this document is that it is the first record of the word “Catholic”, of which Wyntoun was devout. You can read the publication in it’s entirety here.

Another Scott, the chronicler Walter Bower (1385 – 1449), wrote the following in his Scotichronicon (Scottish Chronicles) (c. 1440). He writes in Latin, under the year 1266:

the famous murderer, Robin Hood, as well as Little John.

A third Scott, the philosopher and chronicler John Mair, spoke of Robin Hood in his Historia majoris Britannae, tam Angliae quam Scotiae (1521). In his text he associates Robin Hood to the period of Richard I, which differs from earlier ballads that refer to king Edward (either I or II). John Mair’s text was popularised by novelist Sir Walter Scott in his work Ivanhoe (1820), and was then used as a basis by future novelists  and film directors.

Substance of facts?

Robin Hood and Little John by Louis Rhead 1912

Robin Hood and Little John

There is substance in John Mair’s association of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I (1189 – 1199). According to J Holt, a biographer of Robin Hood, he was seen as an active criminal between 1193-1194. Later, during the reign of King Henry III (1216 – 1272), during 1225, Robin Hood became outlawed.  L.V.D. Owen, a researcher, found a record in the Yorkshire assize roles for 1225-1226 a mention of  a “Robert Hod, fugitive, had chattels worth 32s. 6d.” The money owed was to the Liberty of St. Peter’s York, a figure Holt notes as a tenant of the Archbishop of York.  Owen’s further research unearthed further references to Robert Hod, and one using the nickname Hobbehod.

Holt claims Hood was dead by 1247, based on a note by Thomas Gale, Dean of York (1697 – 1702) that Robin died on 24th December 1247.

Still, there are other suggestions about the history of Robin Hood. Robin Hood researcher David Crook has found evidence of the fugitive Robert of Wetherby, otherwise named Robert Hood, who resided in Yorkshire in 1225 (the same year Robin Hood was believed to be outlawed). According to records, Robert Hood was hunted down by the Sheriff of Yorksire (former Sheriff of Nottingham) and when caught, decapitated on capture and hung in public.

So what of Maid Marion or Friar Tuck?

The early ballads and records contain no mention of Maid Marion or Friar Tuck. It would seem Marion was a purely fictitious creation, perhaps since the French pastoral play Robin et Marion (c. 1283). Friar Tuck, however, is another story…

Further reading

Robin Hood and the Monk

From a manuscript preserved at Cambridge University, possibly the earliest recording of the real Robin Hood, or Robyn Hode.

Robin Hood and the Monk

Robin Hood and the Monk

Robin Hood and the Monk

Ref: Cambridge University Manuscript Ff 5.48.

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,

To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene wode tre.

Hit befel on Whitson
Erly in a May mornyng,
The son up feyre can shyne,
And the briddis mery can syng.

“This is a mery mornyng,” seid Litull John,
“Be Hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man then I am one
Lyves not in Cristianté.

“Pluk up thi hert, my dere mayster,”
Litull John can sey,
“And thynk hit is a full fayre tyme
In a mornyng of May.”

“Ye, on thyng greves me,” seid Robyn,
“And does my hert mych woo:
That I may not no solem day
To mas nor matyns goo.

“Hit is a fourtnet and more,” seid he,
“Syn I my Savyour see;
To day wil I to Notyngham,” seid Robyn,
“With the myght of mylde Marye.”

Than spake Moche, the mylner sun,
Ever more wel hym betyde!
“Take twelve of thi wyght yemen,
Well weppynd, be thi side.
Such on wolde thi selfe slon,
That twelve dar not abyde.”

“Of all my mery men,” seid Robyn,
“Be my feith I wil non have,
But Litull John shall beyre my bow,
Til that me list to drawe.”

“Thou shall beyre thin own,” seid Litull Jon,
“Maister, and I wyl beyre myne,
And we well shete a peny,” seid Litull Jon,
Under the grene wode lyne.”

“I wil not shete a peny,” seyd Robyn Hode,
“In feith, Litull John, with the,
But ever for on as thou shetis,” seide Robyn,
“In feith I holde the thre.”

Thus shet thei forth, these yemen too,
Bothe at buske and brome,
Til Litull John wan of his maister
Five shillings to hose and shone.

A ferly strife fel them betwene,
As they went bi the wey;
Litull John seid he had won five shillings,
And Robyn Hode seid schortly nay.

With that Robyn Hode lyed Litul Jon,
And smote hym with his hande;
Litul Jon waxed wroth therwith,
And pulled out his bright bronde.

“Were thou not my maister,” seid Litull John,
“Thou shuldis by hit ful sore;
Get the a man wher thou wille,
For thou getis me no more.”

Then Robyn goes to Notyngham,
Hym selfe mornyng allone,
And Litull John to mery Scherwode,
The pathes he knew ilkone.

Whan Robyn came to Notyngham,
Sertenly withouten layn,
He prayed to God and myld Mary
To bryng hym out save agayn.

He gos in to Seynt Mary chirch,
And knelyd down before the rode;
Alle that ever were the church within
Beheld wel Robyn Hode.

Beside hym stod a gret-hedid munke,
I pray to God woo he be!
Ful sone he knew gode Robyn,
As sone as he hym se.

Out at the durre he ran,
Ful sone and anon;
Alle the gatis of Notyngham
He made to be sparred everychon.

“Rise up,” he seid, “thou prowde schereff,
Buske the and make the bowne;
I have spyed the kynggis felon,
For sothe he is in this town.

“I have spyed the false felon,
As he stondis at his masse;
Hit is long of the,” seide the munke,
“And ever he fro us passe.

“This traytur name is Robyn Hode,
Under the grene wode lynde;
He robbyt me onys of a hundred pound,
Hit shalle never out of my mynde.”

Up then rose this prowde schereff,
And radly made hym yare;
Many was the moder son
To the kyrk with hym can fare.

In at the durres thei throly thrast,
With staves ful gode wone;
“Alas, alas!” seid Robyn Hode,
“Now mysse I Litull John.”

But Robyn toke out a too-hond sworde,
That hangit down be his kne;
Ther as the schereff and his men stode thyckust
Thedurwarde wolde he.

Thryes thorow at them he ran then,
For sothe as I yow sey,
And woundyt mony a moder son,
And twelve he slew that day.

His sworde upon the schireff hed
Sertanly he brake in too;
“The smyth that the made,” seid Robyn,
“I pray to God wyrke hym woo!

“For now am I weppynlesse,” seid Robyn,
“Alasse! agayn my wyll;
But if I may fle these traytors fro,
I wot thei wil me kyll.”

Robyn in to her churche ran,
Thro out hem everilkon,


Sum fel in swonyng as thei were dede,
And lay stil as any stone;
Non of theym were in her mynde
But only Litull Jon.

“Let be your rule,” seid Litull Jon,
“For His luf that dyed on tre,
Ye that shulde be dughty men;
Het is gret shame to se.

“Oure maister has bene hard bystode
And yet scapyd away;
Pluk up your hertis, and leve this mone,
And harkyn what I shal say.

“He has servyd Oure Lady many a day,
And yet wil, securly;
Therfor I trust in hir specialy
No wyckud deth shal he dye.

“Therfor be glad,” seid Litul John,
“And let this mournyng be;
And I shal be the munkis gyde,
With the myght of mylde Mary,
And I mete hym,” seid Litul John
“We will go but we too.

“Loke that ye kepe wel owre tristil-tre,
Under the levys smale,
And spare non of this venyson,
That gose in thys vale.”

Forthe then went these yemen too,
Litul John and Moche on fere,
And lokid on Moch emys hows;
The hye way lay full nere.

Litul John stode at a wyndow in the mornyng,
And lokid forth at a stage;
He was war wher the munke came ridyng,
And with hym a litul page.

“Be my feith,” seid Litul John to Moch,
“I can the tel tithyngus gode;
I se wher the munke cumys rydyng,
I know hym be his wyde hode.”

They went in to the way, these yemen bothe,
As curtes men and hende;
Thei spyrred tithyngus at the munke,
As they hade bene his frende.

“Fro whens come ye?” seid Litull Jon,
“Tel us tithyngus, I yow pray,
Of a false owtlay,
Was takyn yisterday.

“He robbyt me and my felowes bothe
Of twenti marke in serten;
If that false owtlay be takyn,
For sothe we wolde be fayn.”

“So did he me,” seid the munke,
Of a hundred pound and more;
I layde furst hande hym apon,
Ye may thonke me therfore.”

“I pray God thanke you,” seid Litull John,
“And we wil when we may;
We wil go with you, with your leve,
And bryng yow on your way.

“For Robyn Hode hase many a wilde felow,
I tell you in certen;
If thei wist ye rode this way,
In feith ye shulde be slayn.”

As thei went talking be the way,
The munke and Litull John,
John toke the munkis horse be the hede,
Ful sone and anon.

Johne toke the munkis horse be the hed,
For sothe as I yow say;
So did Much the litull page,
For he shulde not scape away.

Be the golett of the hode
John pulled the munke down;
John was nothyng of hym agast,
He lete hym falle on his crown.

Litull John was so agrevyd,
And drew owt his swerde in hye;
The munke saw he shulde be ded,
Lowd mercy can he crye.

“He was my maister,” seid Litull John,
“That thou hase browght in bale;
Shalle thou never cum at oure kyng,
For to telle hym tale.”

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.

Ther thei beryed hem bothe,
In nouther mosse nor lyng,
And Litull John and Much in fere
Bare the letturs to oure kyng.

Litull John cam in unto the kyng
He knelid down upon his kne:
“God yow save, my lege lorde,
Jhesus yow save and se!

“God yow save, my lege kyng!”
To speke John was full bolde;
He gaf hym the letturs in his hand,
The kyng did hit unfold.

The kyng red the letturs anon,
And seid, “So mot I the,
Ther was never yoman in mery Inglond
I longut so sore to se.

“Wher is the munke that these shuld have brought?”
Oure kyng can say.
“Be my trouth,” seid Litull John,
“He dyed after the way.”

The kyng gaf Moch and Litul Jon
Twenti pound in sertan,
And made theim yemen of the crown,
And bade theim go agayn.

He gaf John the seel in hand,
The scheref for to bere,
To bryng Robyn hym to,
And no man do hym dere.

John toke his leve at oure kyng,
The sothe as I yow say;
The next way to Notyngham
To take he yede the way.

Whan John came to Notyngham
The gatis were sparred ychon;
John callid up the porter,
He answerid sone anon.

“What is the cause,” seid Litul Jon,
“Thou sparris the gates so fast?”
“Because of Robyn Hode,” seid porter,
“In depe prison is cast.

“John and Moch and Wyll Scathlok,
For sothe as I yow say,
Thei slew oure men upon oure wallis,
And sawten us every day.”

Litull John spyrred after the schereff,
And sone he hym fonde;
He oppyned the kyngus privé seell,
And gaf hym in his honde.

Whan the scheref saw the kyngus seell,
He did of his hode anon:
“Wher is the munke that bare the letturs?”
He seid to Litull John.

“He is so fayn of hym,” seid Litul John,
“For sothe as I yow say,
He has made hym abot of Westmynster,
A lorde of that abbay.”

The scheref made John gode chere,
And gaf hym wyne of the best;
At nyght thei went to her bedde,
And every man to his rest.

When the scheref was on slepe,
Dronken of wyne and ale,
Litul John and Moch for sothe
Toke the way unto the gale.

Litul John callid up the jayler,
And bade hym rise anon;
He seyd Robyn Hode had brokyn the prison,
And out of hit was gon.

The porter rose anon sertan,
As sone as he herd John calle;
Litul John was redy with a swerd,
And bare hym throw to the walle.

“Now wil I be jayler,” seid Litul John,
And toke the keyes in honde;
He toke the way to Robyn Hode,
And sone he hym unbonde.

He gaf hym a gode swerd in his hond,
His hed ther with to kepe,
And ther as the wallis were lowyst
Anon down can thei lepe.

Be that the cok began to crow,
The day began to spryng;
The scheref fond the jaylier ded,
The comyn bell made he ryng.

He made a crye thoroout al the town,
Wheder he be yoman or knave,
That cowthe bryng hym Robyn Hode,
His warison he shuld have.

“For I dar never,” seid the scheref,
“Cum before oure kyng;
For if I do, I wot serten
For sothe he wil me heng.”

The scheref made to seke Notyngham,
Bothe be strete and styne,
And Robyn was in mery Scherwode,
As light as lef on lynde.

Then bespake gode Litull John,
To Robyn Hode can he say,
“I have done the a gode turne for an ill,
Quit me whan thou may.

“I have done the a gode turne,” seid Litull John,
“For sothe as I the say;
I have brought the under the grene-wode lyne;
Fare wel, and have gode day.”

“Nay, be my trouth,” seid Robyn,
“So shall hit never be;
I make the maister,” seid Robyn,
“Of alle my men and me.”

“Nay, be my trouth,” seid Litull John,
“So shalle hit never be;
But lat me be a felow,” seid Litull John,
“No noder kepe I be.”

Thus John gate Robyn Hod out of prison,
Sertan withoutyn layn;
Whan his men saw hym hol and sounde,
For sothe they were full fayne.

They filled in wyne and made hem glad,
Under the levys smale,
And yete pastes of venyson,
That gode was with ale.

Than worde came to oure kyng
How Robyn Hode was gon,
And how the scheref of Notyngham
Durst never loke hym upon.

Then bespake oure cumly kyng,
In an angur hye:
“Litull John hase begyled the schereff,
In faith so hase he me.

“Litul John has begyled us bothe,
And that full wel I se;
Or ellis the schereff of Notyngham
Hye hongut shulde he be.

“I made hem yemen of the crowne,
And gaf hem fee with my hond;
I gaf hem grith,” seid oure kyng,
“Thorowout all mery Inglond.

“I gaf theym grith,” then seid oure kyng;
“I say, so mot I the,
For sothe soch a yeman as he is on
In all Inglond ar not thre.

“He is trew to his maister,” seid oure kyng;
“I sey, be swete Seynt John,
He lovys better Robyn Hode
Then he dose us ychon.

“Robyn Hode is ever bond to hym,
Bothe in strete and stalle;
Speke no more of this mater,” seid oure kyng,
“But John has begyled us alle.”

Thus endys the talkyng of the munke
And Robyn Hode I wysse;
God, that is ever a crowned kyng,
Bryng us alle to His blisse!