Historical Figures: Robin Hood

Robin Hood is one of this country's greatest legends. A fallen nobleman who, aided by a band of outlaws, lived in Sherwood Forest and robbed from the rich to give to the poor, while at the same time defying a corrupt sheriff and a king who many felt had no right to rule England. But what do we know about him? Did he even exist?

Robin Hood

Folk Hero

Sadly, the answer is probably not. Not at least, in the form that we come to know and love. He is essentially an archetype, a symbol of freedom against tyranny. His legend has endured for centuries because he is a timeless symbol of a noble, selfless individual who brought their own brand of justice to the people.

As with many folk tales, from the Greek writings of Aesop and Homer to the tale of King Arthur, his legend is one of social commentary. In this case Robin Hood represents the redressing the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots. It has also helped boost Nottingham's tourist industry for years!

Outlaw or Murderer?

The legend goes back to medieval times, with the oldest references being found not in terms of a historical character, but merely as allusions in various writings. From the early 13th Century several English justices across the country referred in their written records to the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Rabunhod' and it seems to be used as a form of shorthand to any fugitive or outlaw.

However, the first mention of an alleged historical Robin Hood can be found in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle, written about 1420, referring to “Lytil Jhon and Robyne Hude”, interestingly bringing up the debut of his second in command, known to millions nowadays as Little John.

The next reference worth mentioning comes in the work of Scottish chronicler John Fordun, writing between 1377 and 1384. To give it a historical context, Robin appears when Fordun is writing about 1266, the year after the failed attempt to challenge Henry III by Simon De Montford. However, Fordun is less than complimentary:

“Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.” .

Maid Marion and the Merry Men

Over time many ballads and tales emerged about the character of Robin Hood but none of them give a single, unified description of the man at the centre of the stories, nor what he actually did.

Some of these ballads link Robin to the historical figure of Robert Hood of Wakefield, who - as Robyn Hod - may have ended up working for Edward II after the Lancastrian revolt of 1322. Other tales say Robin Hood was actually Robin of Loxley, a nobleman from Yorkshire who was robbed of his land. The 1991 film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, relies heavily on this as well as Robin’s relationship with Maid Marion and his Merry Men.

These characters came from the ballads written in the 15th Century. Along with Little John, we are introduced to Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, Friar Tuck and Maid Marion. During this time Robin Hood became associated with May Day celebrations and it is from these festivities that we are told for the first time of how Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor.

The 16th Century saw the point when the legend of Robin Hood was actually given a historical setting - the 1190s, when King Richard the Lionheart was away fighting in the crusades - and moved away from a tale of a band of men to a more chivalrous and romantic adventure, defending honour and one’s country, no doubt reflecting the mood of the times.

In the last two hundred years or so the tales have developed further, including the pitiful character of Prince John, who ruled over England while Richard was absent, and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The Victorian era even made Robin a national figure, a Saxon leading his fellow men against the Norman invaders. This idea was used as the plot of the celebrated 1938 Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood. .

Down in Sherwood Forest

The 16th Century saw the point when the legend of Robin Hood was actually given a historical setting - the 1190s, when King Richard the Lionheart was away fighting in the crusades - and moved away from a tale of a band of men to a more chivalrous and romantic adventure, defending honour and one’s country, no doubt reflecting the mood of the times.

In the last two hundred years or so the tales have developed further, including the pitiful character of Prince John, who ruled over England while Richard was absent, and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The Victorian era even made Robin a national figure, a Saxon leading his fellow men against the Norman invaders. This idea was used as the plot of the celebrated 1938 Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood. .

Why Nottingham?

To this day Nottingham – in particular Sherwood Forest - is Robin Hood’s spiritual home, but there is no real reason for this; while there are references to Nottingham and Sherwood in many of the ballads composed over centuries, there are just as many that talk of Robin coming some fifty miles north in Yorkshire, which is where the Robin of Loxley character became associated with the legend of Robin Hood. However, even this figure has been lost to history.

The problem is there are two Loxleys in England. True enough, there is a small village named Loxley to the north west of the city of Sheffield, which has long been associated with the legends of Robin Hood with the Robin Hood Inn, built in 1799, being an attempt to exploit this fame.

However, there is another Loxley in Warwickshire, near Stratford-upon-Avon and here some historians have traced Robin Hood back to an ancestor of one of the Norman invaders who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there!

Nevertheless, Nottingham will always be Robin Hood country and the county attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world each year, keen to see among other things the famous 1000 year old Major Oak tree, cited as being Robin Hood’s home in Sherwood Forest.

In all it seems that Robin Hood, along with his Merry Men, is a mishmash of all of the above. An amalgamation of various tradition, historical characters and romantic ideals. Robin Hood has been forged by history and has become something that none of the potential historical characters on which he may be based could have ever achieved: immortality.