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 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?
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.