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The Greatest Enemy - Robin Hood, the People, and the Church

The Greatest Enemy is an ongoing series exploring the evolution of societal constructs through their inclusion in the Robin Hood legend. The church, the economy, international relations - this is the place where we'll break them down!

Through the years, each interpretation, reinvention or all-out rehash of the Robin Hood legend has had its own unique thing - the look, the sound, the story. There are traits that link them all, whether it's the classic archery contest, the Crusades, the hat. There's one element that's almost always present, whether it's in the background or at the forefront; the power and corruption of the church. It's been a staple of Robin Hood tales from the very beginning, with Robin fighting monks and bishops in the earliest ballads. It's an inherent part of the story because it was such an influence on the real lives of the earliest storytellers, undoubtedly down to Robin himself, whoever he was. Within the ballads and plays of old, there has always been a struggle between the true and the wicked, with Robin as the devout servant of the Virgin Mary, and later, the embodiment of spirituality in Friar Tuck. In this article, we'll look at three major periods for the church in Robin's tales - the iron grip of the clergy in the Middle Ages; the Golden Age of Hollywood's forgetful view of the church through its adaptation starring Errol Flynn; and the influence and agony of the church in the present day, reflected in the most recent edition starring Taron Egerton.

Canon law was in place as early as the High Middle Ages (800-1300), even for university students, all of whom were legally considered clerics themselves. The church’s dodging of the law and the forgoing of its moral duties to its parishioners enabled it to become a far-reaching organisation, so large that there were frequently contests of leadership, particularly between the Roman Popes and European kings, or rival nations proposing their own native Pope. For its status as a landowner and a literal path to God, the church commanded great political power, with the approval of a bishop or cardinal a great accolade for a potential leader. It wasn’t above holding the faith of its followers for ransom; when Thomas a’Becket was killed by knights of King Henry, the Pope threatened to place the entire nation of England ‘on hold,’ with no mass or confessions, with all who died going directly to Hell. Moral corruption is a matter of perspective in many ways; despite the vow of chastity, many priests and nuns engaged in sexual acts, often becoming parents (even a Pope raised a son!). A simple giving in to ‘Earthly pleasures’ such as drink and sex wasn’t the problem; the problem was the exploiting of the position in order to achieve these things – thieving from naïve parishioners to pay for the wine, or rape, or murder. All the evil acts of the medieval church were committed by those outside the organisation, too - the difference is the duty the church holds to the people under its influence.

The church wasn’t above pimping itself out for profit, either. For example, the common act of ‘simony’ was to sell positions in the church to the highest bidder, regardless of their religious affiliations or level of literacy (which was particularly low anyway, with the church’s standards for membership falling if the price was right). The act of ‘buying’ penance or salvation is standard to this day, with donations twice during a standard mass. In the Middle-Ages, these donations came in countless forms; charging pilgrims to visit holy sites that were previously public became standard, as was the issuing of ‘indulgences,’ certificates exonerating people of a sin – these indulgences were originally granted directly by the Pope, but were soon available to purchase through any local churchman, who even encouraged them as a simple get-out-of-jail free card for sins. You could even pay a priest to say a specific prayer for you to get into heaven. Another common practice was selling household materials and claiming them to be a holy relic, such as finger bones (from a saint) or straw (from Jesus’ manger). Basically, regardless of whether these men of position in the church were true believers or not, they used the machine of the church to wring money out of everyone from peasants to lords. From as early as the medieval period, the church was a business; there was ‘franchising’ of their money-making schemes, giving universities and townships licences to sell church positions and artefacts. All this was under the guise of religion, with each act supposedly a mere expectation for God's love and mercy. It was, of course, nothing but a rouse. If the people of Europe believed they were going to heaven, it was at their literal expense – the church all but decreed money was God.

For a hero of medieval popular culture – a yeoman fighting for the interests of the common man – the church was a natural villain for Robin Hood. Even before his deeds became heroic, when he was robbing merchants and foresters alike, Robin was thieving from monks and abbots, too. Robin Hood and the Bishop, one of the ‘Child Ballads’, Robin Hood stories collected by American scholar Francis James Child, is a fantastic example of the duality between the spirituality of the protagonists and the spiritual corruption of the antagonists in Robin Hood texts. Robin is walking through the forest when he sees a bishop riding with his cohorts. Fearing capture, he flees to a cottage and swaps clothing with an elderly woman and leaves. Upon arriving at the cottage, the bishop believes her to be the outlaw, and takes her on the road. Later ambushed by the disguised Robin and Little John, the bishop is captured by the outlaws and robbed of his money. Before letting him go, John forces the bishop to say Mass for the Merry Men – they release him, asking him to say a kind prayer for Robin! This exhibits a lot of the spiritual traits almost always found in the Merry Men and their leader. They are godly men, worshipping Christ and with an utter devotion to the Virgin Mary. The bishop is a figure to be mocked and disrespected, not only because of his inherent cruelty towards figures he sees to be beneath him, but because he is a willing cog in the machine, exploiting the faith of the people and paying the price for it when he runs into Robin Hood. The bishop, along with all the clergy of the ballads, are seen as figures falsely doing the will of God and the king. They are wrapped in gold, living in grand structures, apparently the saintly, honest and trustworthy leaders of the community, all the while eating and drinking and hoarding off the people’s backs. The Merries, in contrast, are seen by their enemies as grubby cutthroats, loyal to no-one, godless; rather, they steal from the greedy to give to the poor, they worship God as faithfully as the holiest man of the cloth, often asking forgiveness for slaying a knight or a forester, praying for their friends and their king. And, importantly, they are utterly loyal to anyone who has aided them in the past.

Important in exploring the church in the ballads is the later inclusion of Friar Tuck. Some 150-odd years after Robin’s story started to be told, Tuck first appears in a section of a play in 1475; his inclusion in the Merry Men must have been a surprise to some, with Robin’s most famous enemy, at that time, being the clergy. Tuck was introduced into the legend via the May Games, a character appearing in the festivities as the jovial and portly friar we all know; he loves nature, wine and food, and is often shown as a skilled swordsman, besting Robin on some occasions. He is often held in contempt by his contemporaries; this is often because of his gluttonous ways, but it’s also due to his opposition to the more immoral acts of the church, such as miserly behaviour. Robin and Tuck’s first meeting often takes place at a river, with the latter living in a simple hut downstream from the local abbey (traditionally Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire) with his hunting dogs, catching fish. Everything about Tuck’s lifestyle, including his swordsmanship, is representative of what Robin, and the audience, needs the clergy to be; simple and kindly figures, indulging in all the same worldly pleasures as they, though with the wisdom and strength of God in addition. Indeed, Tuck is often a figure of guidance for Robin and the Merries; David Harewood’s Tuck drags Robin from his self-destruction to remind him of his responsibilities to Nottingham; Alexander Gauge is a confidant, a shoulder to lean on and seek wisdom from; Phil Rose is the companion, the life coach, the rock. Tuck tears the skepticism and spitefulness out of the church, making the continued jibes at the church a just one, reminding the audience that though the church may have lost its way, more important than money and power is the faith itself. This is the true message of Robin Hood’s ongoing fight against the clergy – keep the faith and you will not lose your way.

In the original ballads and songs shared in the 13th and 14th centuries, the earliest time for Robin’s adventures, the Merry Men are presented as a troupe of God-fearing, well-meaning and good-intentioned figures, robbing and mocking their enemies at every opportunity. It’s not a small detail that, before the charitable element of the gang’s exploits was introduced, Robin was a trickster, often going to great lengths to disguise himself in order to simply embarrass his enemies (Little John once spent a year in the Sheriff’s service disguised as a forester, and after a while even he forgot why he was there!). Hitting the church for the sake of it was as important a message as giving that money to those who needed it; for the common man, the church was something to be feared, not only because of the hair’s-breadth that was the chance to live forever, but because of the sweeping harm that the organisation caused the average family. Through Robin Hood, the church was being attacked philosophically by a simple yeoman, and the people could hear these stories guilt-free - they weren't the ones doing it. Puritan writers in the 16th century often went out of their way to criticise a new publication of Robin Hood tales, believing them to be an influence on popular thought and therefore a threat to the Protestant religion. It’s a simple idea; attack in fiction those who attack you. The fact that we're still telling these stories about these groups now, and that it was happening 800-odd years ago in the same way, is staggering. Fast-forward centuries and, though the people’s relationship with these groups have changed, the fight continues.

It’s no secret that, generally, religion has played a big part in forming societal norms in the United States. In the 20th century, religious groups on all planes of the political spectrum have been interested in shaping the cultural landscape, whether through the prudish censoring of films and art in pre-code Hollywood, to the extremist homophobic and reproductive-rights lobbies of today. In the 1930s, the waves of Catholic opinion were formed by the congregation themselves, often in what they heard via the Pope’s letters in sermon. As is the case now, and always has been, religious leaders were often kind and welcoming, progressive along with the members of its clergy; so too was there crippling conservatism, with everyday actions deemed a sin and having to be paid for in either flesh or coin. The US has always had a history of devout religious members in their congress, with President Roosevelt famously taking a lot of his cues from the writings of the church. The 1930s also saw the church itself produce a swarm of essays on social reform, even on topics as serious as economic stimulus. This was an attempt to drag Catholicism, already seen to be old hat a few decades earlier, into the modern world. This was not by choice, but in an attempt to curb the growing anti-religious sentiments in popular thought - driven by the hard fascism brewing in western Europe – by adopting modern political ideas into the views of the church itself in order to remain an essential part of American life. This had a knock-on effect for the next few decades, with the church stepping out of its own bubble and becoming more vocal about and involved in current events, especially in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The influence of the church in everyday life in the 1930s was, it can be said, a fight for survival.

When it comes to the depiction of such a beloved, albeit complex, organisation on film, the decade saw everything from mild-mannered servants of the community to outright Christ-like career politicians. In The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, the impact the church was currently having didn’t necessarily impact on the representation of the organisation on-screen, though can be spotted. The film is set in the period of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), as per modern tradition, and so the then-current state of the church isn’t a factor in portraying the group in the 12th century. It is, however, interesting to compare this film against one set in the same period, though heavily influenced by current events – 2018’s Robin Hood.

In the Errol Flynn-starring epic, the church is mostly represented by the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love), a crass and churlish man and a supporter of Prince John (Claude Rains). The Bishop, probably inspired by the Bishop of Hereford from the classic ballads, is instrumental in Prince John’s plot to steal the throne from the absent Richard (Ian Hunter). It’s the Bishop who discovers Richard’s secret return to England, and he plots the monarch’s assassination with John and Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). The Bishop is, apart from Tuck, the sole representative of the church in the film. Robin and his men, like the stories of old, are loyal to the king and to God, considering the Bishop and those like him ‘bad eggs,’ mere individuals ruining the sacred institution that is the church. The Bishop is a conspirator in killing the king, gleeful at crowning Prince John the following day; with Much disrupting the assassination and Robin and his men disguising themselves as the Black Canons, even with a knife in his back, the Bishop cannot hide his dismay that Robin has halted their plans. The Bishop craves power for power’s sake, aligning himself with John and Gisbourne through their mutual plans for domination over the realm. The Bishop uses his influence as a high-ranking churchman to bully those around him, being seen to abuse a landlord for food and drink and a bed for the night, even berating complete strangers (Richard’s cohort) until he suspects they’re more than they appear. His contempt for anyone who isn’t an ally is no doubt fuelled by his position in the church, as the reason he has such power and influence in the first place is because of his position. He can speak openly, without fear of reprimand from the prince, such is his status.

The failure of the film to show the church outside of this single order is probably a mere result of the story not requiring it, though it’s interesting to note that, of all the Robin Hood films that had come before or have been since, this one places the least importance on the role of the church, instead focussing on a single, small chapter. Perhaps this is because the church wasn’t as important to everyday life as it used to be, the Bishop taking the role of bully rather than fallen idol.

In the 21st century, the church arguably has more power, and more skeptics, than ever. The estimated wealth of the Vatican is $15b USD, and is often thought to be the largest landowner in the world. The greatest scandal the church has faced in the last century is the deeply ingrained child sex abuse at the hands of men and women of the cloth alike, with their victims either paid off, silenced or, in some documented cases, killed. Instances have come to light in the last few decades of clergymen and women committing serious offences, such as rape, and having the finances and influence of the church to cover their tracks, either by soliciting silence or by the order itself moving the offender into a new region; often, these people continue their nefarious behaviour. There are hundreds of ongoing investigations in the UK, US and Australia alone, with convictions finally starting to become a regular occurrence after years of bribery or escape. Apart from the crimes themselves, the most damning evidence that has become public knowledge is that the church, its senior figures, even Popes themselves, knew of and facilitated these crimes, encouraged and protected the perpetrators, or simply turned a blind eye to the evils around them. The extent of the church’s wealth is openly on display, too; recently, a high-profile cardinal was convicted of child sex offences, and a media suppression order was immediately put in place, with outlets of the entire country in question unable to report the story (and I’m being airy too, being a citizen of that same country). The order was given to reduce the likelihood of prejudice in the upcoming sentencing trial; similar trials with high-profile individuals have not received such orders in recent years. The man in question was already despised by the general public because of his homophobic and sexist views; there is very little left to prejudice the public further. The case is notable in the Vatican’s support of the cardinal despite the clarity of the evidence given. The suppression order was a surprise to all due to the frequent coverage before the conviction; the suppression order was the news story that day, and everyone knew what it meant. So, too, did everyone know how the order appeared in the first place; a very deep pocket.

In contrast to 1938’s entry, 2018’s Robin Hood is notable in its British attitudes behind the camera; it was written by Americans, Ben Chandler and David James Kelly, but was directed by Englishman Otto Bathurst. Judging by the press tour interviews given by Bathurst and the cast, the film owes a lot to Bathurst’s personal sensitivities, with the director saying it was the present-day religious corruption and influence over government that contributed to his taking the job and playing with those ideas within the story. As a result, the finished film features the church not only in a similar light to the wicked clergy of previous entries, but as the chief antagonists. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) is working with the church, specifically an unnamed arch deacon and cardinal(Ian Peck and F. Murray Abraham, respectively), to use money ripped from the poor of Nottingham to fund the Saracen army fighting against the Christian forces in Syria; their goal is to help the Saracens defeat the king and claim absolute power for themselves. The church is, as the Sheriff says, 'the bank and beating heart' of England, and therefore the war. Little John, teaming up with Robin, plots to rob the church of their money, and therefore their power. The church as presented in the film is an organisation of absolute evil, corruption and violence. From the get-go, it’s stated that everything in the society centres around the church - it's the largest, grandest building in the city, a fortress, with the palace [implied to be] built underneath it. Even the rich lords, in on the Sheriff’s scheme, couch up every day at Mass to add to the war chest. The church praises the brave crusaders in the Holy Land in order to drum up support from the people, when they think nothing of destroying the Christian soldiers in order to forward their plans; indeed, the entire plan is hinged on the killing of Christians. Outside of the usual money hoarding, extravagant lifestyles, gambling, drink and sex, this version features probably the most deplorable representation of the church yet – one that actively plots to destroy its own followers in order to claim the country. Interesting, too, is the Sheriff's backstory; he tells Robin that he suffered abuse from clergymen and lords alike at the 'foundling house' where he grew up, he and others being regularly beaten with canes and forced to drink brandy when they became too distraught. It's not explicitly mentioned, but with the terms used and in the current climate, it's hard to pretend the Sheriff wasn't implying the same types of abuse the church are infamous for today.

The only beacon of light in the church is Tuck (Tim Minchin), the Sheriff’s personal friar, who preaches the gospels and stands against the Sheriff, albeit nervously, when he’s overstepping his legal boundaries. Tuck, however, is never seen as a supporter of the church itself; he’s a devout follower, asking God to help him in dire circumstances, but every aspect of his life in the church is protecting himself from the wrath of the Sheriff and the arch deacon, while secretly working with Marian (Eve Hewson) to discover what the church is plotting by taking money in such large quantities. When Robin defrocks him, a rouse to get closer to the visiting cardinal, Tuck is openly grateful to Robin for releasing him from his position in the church – “You set me free.”

It’s an interesting take that the church as an entire organisation is the villainous force behind the movie, with even the Sheriff intimidated by the power they hold; indeed, a simple arch deacon is able to strip the Sheriff down, putting him in his place and threatening to destroy him if the thief isn’t caught. It’s surely reflective of the current attitudes toward the church; it seems that only believers have faith in the organisation, either because they’re part of the problem or because they happen to be a member of a kinder, more progressive chapter. On the whole, religious organisations regardless of their denomination are under more scrutiny than ever, with public exposure of past wrongdoings a regular occurrence, as is the demand for justice to be done for those who have wronged innocents, either by committing crimes or by opposing anything dissimilar to them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an extreme, like sexual misconduct, or an everyday, like churches’ failure to pay taxes while taking from the poor - the public now has a hardball approach to ensuring the church of the 21st century is held accountable for its actions.

It seems the film plays on this element, that even if not every member of the group is a bad apple, the basket itself is bad. Tuck is rare; there are no allies in the church, no unassuming, scuttling priests. They are all in on the growth of the church, the success of their careers, the theft of the populace to fund either their schemes or their cellars. The church is never shown in a positive light; it’s always a looming, corrupting influence on the world around it, even down to Robin’s reflections on the crusade he fought in. When the cardinal arrives from Rome to box the Sheriff’s ears about the Hood’s thefts, things only become more transparent – the church is a social manipulator. The arch deacon says to the Sheriff of the people, “[The Hood]’s got our commoners looking up seeing hope. There’s been whispers of a revolution. Unchecked, those whispers will turn into a roar. We want their heads bowed and their backs broken.” The cardinal tells him, “Fear is the greatest weapon in our arsenal. It’s why the church invented Hell.” The cardinal also jumps at the chance to have such a young figure as the Lord of Loxley on their side, saying “The young are God’s gift to the church.” All leading figures of the church are represented as lecherous, greedy puppet-masters, with the people as their playthings to use as they please. Tuck is the only good piece of the puzzle, and even then, he resents what the church has forced his faith to become; he speaks of the gospels’ forgiving nature, the Sheriff quipping to him, “How can you believe in a god that gives you that faith?”, and the arch deacon laughs along with him. It’s an inherently cruel organisation, a practicing symbol of the phrase, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ It's an unforgiving portrayal, with the church a totalitarian presence in Nottingham, but it says a lot that, since Flynn’s time, representation of the church has evolved from the odd miserly quasi-politician to the organisation being the sole encompassing villain. It always has been Robin’s adversary, and unless the church of the present day decides to turn over its wealth to the poor, own up to its crimes and give the people it promises to comfort the support they need, it will continue to be his villain for years to come.

Since the middle ages, organised religion, regardless of denomination or faith, has been corrupted by men and women out for selfish ends; they have systematically stripped the spirituality from their followers and turned their churches into cash cows, funding the extravagant and often criminal lifestyles of their most senior figures. While the presence of gods is a personal journey of faith and discovery, the impact of organised religion cannot be held at arms-length by either believers or non-believers. Religious faith is more than an aspect of a person’s life; it inherently raises the stakes, making what happens next as important as time on Earth. One's calling should be a duty towards the community and the world around us; for true believers of a faith, this is with the additional umbrella of the Bible or the Qu‘ran or the Torah, and so on. What all these groups have in common, however, is the hijacking of their faith by those in these same organisations, those who place themselves in positions of leadership to lead the masses astray, stealing their money and their time to create a playground for themselves on the people’s backs. Religion isn’t the enemy of the people; it’s as common a cultural marker as language, custom or costume. It’s something that an individual holds and shares, and should never try to impose on another without their consent or understanding. Religion should be personal, not corralled into a ‘bank and beating heart.’ Charity is charity because it gains nothing; if it benefits, it is not charity. If a church benefits from the people, it’s not a charity – it’s a business. As long as the church benefits from the people, Robin will be there to rob it of its riches and give it back to where it belongs – the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. That’s our job, too;

What would you like to have discussed? A big movie, an obscure show, a weird knick-knack from a forgotten decade? Let me know in the comments or send a message!

Additional images care of the University of Rochester.

Additional images care of Look and Learn.

Additional images care of Children in History.

Additional images care of Mythology and Folklore.

Additional information care of Encyclopedia.com.

Additional information care of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Additional information care of Cambrian School District.

Additional information care of Robin Hood Legend.

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