Who Was The Real Maid Marian?
As much of a staple as Little John or Friar Tuck, Maid Marian has long been an essential figure in Robin Hood stories. While the histories of some characters are murky, Marian is unique in that her direct association with the outlaws of Sherwood can be clearly pin-pointed. She came into the story as a character in the May Games, as did Tuck - does this make her a wholly fictional addition to the legend? Or was there some individual who fuelled the creation of the character? Was there a real outlaw muse, who was then associated with the May Games' figure? The answer is, likely, both!
While Robin's origins certainly date to the early to mid-13th century, Marian's inclusion in the legend doesn't appear until well into the 16th. The names themselves were already linked, by a French play from 1283 titled 'Robin et Marion' - in the play, shepherdess Marion is devoted to her lover Robin, and resists the lecherous advances of a knight. This may have caused the association between the Queen of May, a lone female figure in May Games' dances, with the ever-popular inclusion of Robin and his Merry Men in festivities during the early 1400s. The French play was performed in their equivalent of the May Games, being brought to England in the 1370s; as Holt notes, this likely predates the poem Piers Plowman, the first [known] literary reference to Robin Hood. This is important, as it associates these two specific names in the Games before Robin Hood and his love Maid Marian were a widely known item. Given Robin's historic devotion to the Virgin Mary, it's not too much of a stretch to think that this association with the Queen of May, later Maid Marian, is a natural cultural evolution for the character. Marian, too, as an earthy, almost pagan figure, would fit well into Robin's cultural sphere of that time, when he was a simple yeoman, one of the people.
Marian wasn't even a presence in the original ballads; there was no female presence whatsoever, in fact, apart from the odd nun or Sheriff's wife. Rarely, Robin is shown with an entirely different love interest, either an unnamed shepherdess, or the same figure given the name Clorinda. This was soon twisted to be Marian as disguise, as a way for her to associate with the outlaws in public. The point is that Marian came into the legend almost fully formed, with no substantial context to being associated with the tale. This was obviously a popular move, as she has been an intrinsic part of the tale ever since.
This creation of Maid Marian as a romantic, pedestal'd figure seems to be the reason why she evolved into a noblewoman, having societal status as well as cultural. Robin had a 'gritty reboot' in the form of a duo of plays by Shakespeare's contemporary Anthony Munday, in The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingon in 1598; it was here that Robin was first given his noble origins, connecting him with Richard the Lionheart and Prince John. So too was Marian given a 'backstory,' becoming Matilda, the daughter of the Lord Fitz Walter, who, as per this new English tradition, resists the advances of a suitor other than Robin. This cemented Marian as a figure of the noble classes, with Robin either her equal suitor, fallen into outlawry and forbidden love, or as a ragamuffin wolfshead who teaches this sheltered woman the true ways of the world, what it means to be a part of a fair and charitable society. While Robin can be linked to several historical figures, this cannot be said of Marian, whose sudden appearance in Robin's stories aren't necessarily arbitrary, but are certainly unessential. It may be telling, however, that Munday chose the name 'Matilda' for his character - figures with this name have been connected to candidates for the real Robin.
The most conspicuous case comes from historian Joseph Hunter - admittedly, Hunter's research has long been dismissed, but the conclusion he drew has some merit for its association with names. A public records' keeper in York from around 1831 to his death in 1861, Hunter's approach to discovering the true history of Robin Hood was to confirm details from the earliest surviving full text, A Gest of Robyn Hode. Attempting to place a firm historical stamp on the story, he deduced that the journey of the 'comely king' in the story was King Edward II's 1323 annual tour through England, stopping in Nottingham; Hunter thereby hypothesised that Robin's entrance into the king's service in the Gest was, in reality, a result of this journey. The latter is almost entirely imaginative, and this is the downfall of Hunter's ideas - based on history, but fuelled by legend. As part of this conclusion, he 'reveals' Robin's identity as Robert Hood of Wakefield, shown to be in the king's employ; his wife, Matilda, is listed alongside him in the Wakefield court registers for 1316 to 1317, making their life in the location known by the time of the king's journey in 1323. He then goes on to note that Matilda had a relative who was the Prioress of Kirkless, the famous nun of later tradition who killed Robin Hood in his bed. While this connection is based in historical fact, there is no evidence that the Robert Hood of the king's register and Robert Hood, husband of Matilda, are one and the same person. As noted previously, Robert was a common name, as was Hood. The historical basis for a Matilda, later Marian, being romantically linked with an outlaw named Robin Hood is sketchy at best, but it's interesting to note that, at least to some degree, it's not without [a murky] history.
So where does that leave Marian today? As she wasn't based in historical fact, merely historical conjecture, she has become as much of a blank slate as the other members of Robin's band whose identities, similarly, are just a name. Over the years on cinema screens and televisions, we have seen a swathe of different interpretations, with Marian planted in several unique social and political settings. One of the most iconic portrayals was Olivia de Havilland's turn opposite Errol Flynn in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. A surprisingly modern take, this Marian was both the romantic sweetheart and the political rival, with Robin and Marian's first meeting marred by her disgust for this scruffy outlaw and his violent ways, but also in his actual Saxon heritage. This sheltered, privileged Marian doesn't see the plight of the Saxons against the Normans' oppression as a genuine concern, referring to Saxon revelry in Sherwood Forest as 'revolting.' It's only when Robin explains their philanthropic nature, as well as touring her through a camp of sickly, injured villagers receiving Robin's care, that she sees them as a true, suffering people. This changes her entire attitude, not just in her view of the Saxons, but of her own place in the Norman regime, and of charitable actions. This is a fantastic approach, especially for a film of the 1930s, because it makes Robin and Marian's romance bloom from a genuine concern and interest in the world, with each as 'mouthpieces' for one another, where often Robin and Marian are romantically linked simply because they are by tradition - Marian's eventual love for Robin is born out of her coming-of-age, finding her voice with her new sense of justice.
The same can be said of Lucy Griffiths' Marian opposite Jonas Armstrong on the BBC's series in 2006-7, though she is a more influential player. In this version, Marian has been fighting poverty long before Robin returns from the Third Crusade; she takes to the streets in disguise by night, the 'Nightwatchman', giving medicine and food to the poor and sick, taking supplies from her own noble home of Knighton Hall. Having been betrothed to Robin in their youth, a pact broken by Robin's journey to the Holy Land, Marian is a strong and fierce maiden, unwilling to be defined by her relationships with men, and is critical of Robin's naivety in rushing into an open fight against the Sheriff, when she has been working carefully in the shadows, from the inside. Over her time in the series, she comes to realise that her actions sometimes have to go beyond the streets of her own home and must extend to all who are oppressed, not just he sick and dying, but all who suffer because of inequity. Her noble stature is largely a veil to hind behind, with her social standing often the only reason she doesn't face severe punishment for her words or actions.
On the other side of the fence, plenty of interpretations of Marian have been of relatively simple origins. Judi Trott's Marian in Robin of Sherwood is a no-nonsense combination of both historical backstories. The daughter of a minor noble, Sir Richard of Leaford, she meets Robin while in residence at Nottingham Castle, as he's being chased through the grounds by Gisbourne. She and her cohort are robbed on the road by Robin's men and he escorts her to an abbey for safety. The two bond quickly and in a wistfully youthful way, fuelling her arc of striving for acceptance amongst the Merry Men. She marries Robin in a pagan ceremony in the second episode of the series, and spends the rest of her time with the first Hooded Man, Michael Praed's Robin, as an 'outlaw queen,' wife of Robin and a fighter of equal repute and ability as the rest of the band. Indeed, a fun tradition in ballads and books is Marian's either equal or greater ability with the longbow; this is exhibited by Trott's Marian several times, proving her to be one of the most integral parts of the band. It's a clever twist to give her both backgrounds of Maid Marian, her beauty and grace despite her outlawry being a [perhaps incidental] nod to the character's origins in the as the Queen of the May Games. She is both strong as a warrior and fearless in the face of male threats, refusing to be intimidated by either Gisbourne or her numerous captors. She brings not only a homely, welcoming personage to the Merries, but is a wise and cool-headed adviser to Robin.
Most recently, Eve Hewson's Marian comes from very humble beginnings; she is introduced as a thief, aiming to steal one of Robin of Loxley's horses so her impoverished neighbour can plough his fields. Her relationship with Rob begins before his journey to the Holy Land, begun in youthful innocence, rather than any sort of big societal admiration. After he returns, in his dual life as both toff Loxley and the Hood, Robin finds Marian actively involved in planning and operating food drives and kitchens for the poor; Robin begins to rekindle his relationship with Marian after she discovers he is the one stealing from the Sheriff and giving to the impoverished. With Robin having been declared dead, she begins a relationship with local politician Will Tillman, a man also willing to very publicly denounce the injustices in Nottingham. This Marian isn't afraid to call the Sheriff's evil deeds out to his face, either before the assembled people of Nottingham or at the Sheriff's own party. She also serves as Rob's greatest inspiration as the Hood, wanting to not only be back in her life but living up to the good work she herself does. Almost her sole motivation in life is to better the lives of others, her own standing in life neither here nor there.
Marian is a character now forever linked to Robin through her sheer popularity; cemented in the age of courtly love, Marian's strength has evolved over the years from being a motivating presence on a pedestal to a challenge for Robin Hood, socially, morally. She is as much of an example to Robin as anyone else in his life, often lacking the ego that makes Robin lose focus of his goals. Instead, she is the hero Robin wishes himself to be, whether she is fighting beside him or defying the cold shackles of her own people in stuffy halls. Wherever Robin goes next, you can be sure Marian will be leading the charge with him!
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