Who Was Robin Hood?
Updated: Oct 6, 2018
"In times of tyranny and injustice when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history." Robin Hood (2010), dir. Ridley Scott The character of the 'good outlaw' has been a staple of popular entertainment for generations, but none have been as impactful as Robin Hood. He embodies the charitable traits we all have, but don't necessarily act on, and so becomes a figure we can live vicariously through, robbing the greedy to knock them down a peg, giving to the poor to fulfil our sense of moral duty. Unlike other popular figures that exist outside the law, Robin Hood acts selflessly, fighting the good fight simply because it's good, all the while having adventures and romances, this too fulfilling our need to feel thrilled without acting on these dangerous urges ourselves. But this image of the heroic Robin Hood hasn't been there since the beginning. Indeed, the earliest tales are that of mockery, trickery, theft, and downright murder. The first mention of Robin Hood that we know of is actually a namedrop, a medieval equivalent of a pop-culture reference; in William Langland's epic poem Piers Plowman, the sly character Sloth admits he doesn't know his prayers, but can recite all the tales of Robin Hood;
This is a throwaway line in the piece, but is significant in the hunt for a real Robin Hood. Sloth declares his godlessness, but asserts his character by knowing the story of the outlaw. This is important, because it tells us that by as early as 1370, the tales of Robin Hood were widely known, certainly enough for a lowly character like Sloth to know them, but also for Langland to make a casual reference knowing his audience will understand what these, 'rhymes' are. While the first mention of Robin Hood we have is a simple reference, it's important in letting us know the significance of the character in such an early period. But who was the real Robin Hood? Short answer - no-one knows. Long answer - well, that's what this blog is for! Over the coming weeks, I'll discuss in greater detail the candidates for the real Robin Hood, of which there are more than a few. (The most likely candidate being a Robert Hod of York - stay tuned!) For now, I'll touch on the holy grail for Robin Hood Easter eggs - legal documents, the historian's best friend.
The most well-known mention in these court documents comes from the Yorkshire Assizes (basically minutes from legal proceedings) from between 1226 and 1234, marking a Robert Hod as fugitive, and that he held possessions and property to the sum of 32 shillings and sixpence.
The following year, the same man is listed in the court documents as, 'Hobbehod,' a nickname attributed to him by the clerk writing the document.
(While not a red flag in and of itself, it's important to note that Robert Hod
was an active outlaw with a commonly-known nickname.)
Robert Hod appears in nine consecutive yearly Assizes, either under this name, Hobbehod or, tantalisingly, 'Robert[i] Hood.' The details of this man's life we'll get into in another article soon, but this seems to be a big fat X marking the search for the man himself.
From this point, the name 'Robin Hood' and its variations explode into many different counties and their legal proceedings, a moniker for other criminals and miscreants. These names range from sound-alikes, from, 'Robbehod,' to simply, and tellingly, 'Robinhood.' Robinhood as a surname appears at the tail end of the 13th century, one of the earliest examples being a Gilbert Robynhod in Sussex in 1296. As Holt points out, it's not unusual for surnames to be combined and inherited by children, variations of Hood or Hode being common at the time, but the combination of a surname like these with a Christian name, like Robin, is very rare, and is therefore likely to be a direct association with the tales of the outlaw. While Piers Plowman is the earliest literary reference we have to Robin Hood, from around 1370, names such as these tell us that the story was well established by at least 1296.
Historians have tried to associate the earliest ballads of Robin Hood with these court documents, attempting to piece together a singular history. There have been interesting theories, but many have
failed in their attempts due to single details. Antiquarian Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) famously managed to trace the plot of A Gest of Robyn Hode, the earliest complete Robin Hood manuscript, to a Robert Hood living in Wakefield in the time of King Edward II (reign 1307-1327). In the Gest, Robin is outlawed, lives in the forest, is visited by the king, pardoned, and entered into the royal house; he then becomes bored of his new life in court and flees into the forest forevermore. Hunter recollected the annual trip of the king through the country in 1323, looking to the records of his journey through Nottingham, which included a visit to Sherwood Forest. Robert Hood then appears in the royal court's wages register for a period of 18 months, after which he is struck from the next respective listing, with the clerk implying Hood left the position of his own accord. This evidence is striking, direct and exciting, until one little detail destroys it - Robert Hood was already in the King's service weeks prior to his journey to Nottingham.
This presents us with a problem; there are so many examples that could fit into the 'canonical' legend, so which one is true? Tradition says Robin is betrayed by his cousin, the abbess of Kirklees Abbey, in his later years, letting his blood (a common practice thought to cure illnesses) to the point of death. Robert Hood of Wakefield did have a cousin who lived at Kirklees Abbey most of her life. Are they the original inspiration for the story? Maybe, maybe not. There lies the frustrating task at hand; for all we know about the past, with its archeological clues and details hidden deep in centuries-old documents, we also know very little.
The question then becomes one of association. If Robin Hood can't be pinned down, the
candidates have to be cross-checked with records of his friends - Little John, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, to name a few. These individuals, too, have their fair share of histories. Marian and Tuck, we know, become associated with the Robin Hood legend from a very fixed point, namely May Day celebration games. The relationship between Robin and Marian, in particular, was solidified in popular consciousness by a duo of plays by Anthony Munday, the man who was master of the English language before he was eclipsed by his contemporary, Mr. Shakespeare. In The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, Munday is the first author to associate Robin Hood with this title, and was one of the first to transform Robin from a simple yeoman (landowner) into an outcast nobleman.
Maid Marian was already a fixture of Robin Hood stories by this time, almost arbitrarily entered into the legend by association; from the earliest [incomplete] Robin Hood manuscript, Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin is absolutely devoted to the Virgin Mary, to the point where he insists on attending Sunday mass despite Will and John's protests, where he is promptly captured.
Connecting the devotion of Mary to the May Games' popular figure of Maid Marian was an easy in, especially when the female presence in Robin Hood ballads is limited to a reference to the Sheriff's wife, once or twice (Christ am I excited to do do a feminist expose on this topic!). A French play, Robin et Marion, written around 1283, was already popular, in which a shepherdess avoids the lecherous advances of a knight
while remaining devoted to her lover, Robin. The play was a fixture of the May Games in France, and it was carried over to England and transmuted into a simple association between Robin Hood and the Queen of May herself. (It's easy to see how the Marian-Robin-Guy-of-Gisbourne-love-tiangle storyline originated!) For his piece, Munday transformed the character of Maid Marian into Matilda, the daughter of a noble and lover of the earl, and the name has been the biggest red herring to Robin Hood chasers ever since. The earlier-mentioned Robert Hood of Wakefield was married to a woman named Matilda; it was specifically Matilda's cousin who was the abbess of Kirkless for a time. Everything can be connected if you try hard enough; the tricky thing is finding out which of these many alternative histories is the truth.
Tuck, too, we can trace to a specific period, with authors introducing him into Robin Hood's band in a ballad from around 1475, but this may be an early example of a cross-over - as Holt notes, a
chaplain named Robert Stafford from Lindfield, Sussex, assembled a group of miscreants and terrorised travellers and the king's foresters in 1417. (They made a point of burning down foresters' huts, presumably in a protest to their harsh deliverance of justice to poachers!) Stafford worked under a pseudonym - Frere Tuk. It's worth mentioning that this name had apparently never been heard before, with the chaplain's reign of terror lasting for over a decade. From this point, it seems, when other criminals have dubbed themselves Friar Tuck, the name had quickly and firmly become a nickname for an unruly, violent monk. While the original Tuck dates from well later than our 1296 marker, it's interesting to find that while not every member of Robin Hood's band may have lived at the same time, least of all alongside him, they may still have lived at all, enough to create an impression worthy enough of inclusion into Robin's Merry Men.
So who was Robin Hood? Little John? Marian and Tuck and Will Scarlett, or Stutely, or Scathlock? We already have a treasure trove of candidates. The trouble (and the fun!) is to keep digging, trying to find the details lost to time or hiding in plain sight. Over the weeks, we'll look into more of these individuals, the times they would have lived in, the people receiving and sharing these tales down the Great North Road from the Midlands to London, then to the world. Robin Hood, whoever he was, remains anonymous, but immortal.
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!
Court roll images care of Tony Wait's Disney's Robin Hood blog at disneysrobin.blogspot.com
Piers Plowman excerpt care of Robin Hood: The Facts and the Fiction at robinhoodlegend.com/piers-plowman
Munday play image care of Here Begynneth A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood at gesteofrobinhood.com
Additional information from "The Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood: The Genesis of the Legend?" by Peter Cross and S. D. Lloyd (1999) & "Robin Hood" by James C. Holt, 1982