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Robin Hood (spelled Robyn Hode in older sources) is a heroic outlaw found in English folklore who, according to legend, was also a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Traditionally depicted as being dressed in Lincoln green, he is often portrayed as "robbing from the rich and giving to the poor" alongside his band of "Merry Men". Robin Hood became a popular folk figure in the medieval period, and continues to be widely represented in modern literature, films and television.
Ballads are the oldest existing form of the Robin Hood legends, although none of them are recorded at the time of the first allusions to him, and many are much later. They share many common features, often opening with praise of the greenwood and relying heavily on disguise as a plot device, but include a wide variation in tone and plot. The ballads are sorted into three groups, very roughly according to date of first known free-standing copy. Ballads whose first recorded version appears (usually incomplete) in the Percy Folio may appear in later versions and may be much older than the mid-17th century when the Folio was compiled. Any ballad may be older than the oldest copy that happens to survive, or descended from a lost older ballad. For example, the plot of Robin Hood's Death, found in the Percy Folio, is summarised in the 15th-century A Gest of Robyn Hode, and it also appears in an 18th-century version.
The historicity of Robin Hood has been debated for centuries. Modern academic opinion maintains that the legend is based in part on a historical person, although there is considerable scholarly debate as to his actual identity. A difficulty with any such historical research is that "Robert" was in medieval England a very common given name, and "Robin" (or Robyn), was its very common diminutive, especially in the 13th century. The surname "Hood" (or Hude or Hode etc.) was fairly common because it referred either to a Hooder, who was a maker of hoods; or alternatively to somebody who wore a hood as a head-covering. Unsurprisingly, therefore, reference is made to a number of people called "Robert Hood" or "Robin Hood" in medieval records. Some of these individuals are even known to have fallen afoul of the law.
In 1632, Martin Parker published a ballad about Robin Hood. He also sought to make him a historical person. He titled his account, 'A True Tale of Robin Hood' and claimed to present 'truth purged from falsehood'. Parker wrote of 'Robert Earle of Huntington vulgarly called Robin Hood who lived and died in AD 1198'. Parker wrote an epitaph that he claimed to have seen on Robin Hood's gravestone. It read:
The antiquarian Roger Dodsworth identified Robin Hood with 'Robert Loxley', and stated that he was born in Bradfield parish in Hallamshire (South Yorkshire). He believed that Robin was first outlawed for killing his stepfather when ploughing. It is said that his mother gave him aid while he was hiding in the forest. He met Little John at Clifton upon Calder. Dodsworth believed that it was Little John rather than Robin Hood who was earl of Huntingdon. There is no way of knowing whether Dodsworth derived his material from some unknown source or simply invented it. However, a record of the appearance of a "Robert de Lockesly" in court is found, dated 1245. As "Robert" and its diminutives were among the most common of names at the time, and also since it was usual for men to adopt the name of their hometown ("De Lockesly" means simply, "Of [or from] Lockesly"), the record could just as easily be referring to any man from the area named Robert. In consequence, it cannot be proven whether or not this is the man himself. Roger Dodsworth's commentary remains an interesting, unconventional, account.
The antiquarian Joseph Hunter believed that Robin Hood had inhabited the forests of Yorkshire during the early decades of the thirteenth century. Hunter pointed to two men whom, believing them to be the same person, he identified with the legendary outlaw:
Hunter developed a fairly detailed theory implying that Robert Hood had been an adherent of the rebel Earl of Lancaster, who was defeated by Edward II at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. According to this theory, Robert Hood was thereafter pardoned and employed as a bodyguard by King Edward, and in consequence he appears in the 1323 court roll under the name of "Robyn Hode". Hunter's theory has long been recognised to have serious problems, one of the most serious being that recent research has shown that Hunter's Robyn Hood had been employed by the king before he appeared in the 1323 court roll, thus casting doubt on this Robyn Hood's supposed earlier career as outlaw and rebel.
The earliest known Robin Hood (Robert Hod) was found in 1226 and the record comes from York assizes, when his goods, worth thirty-two shillings and six pence, were confiscated and he became an outlaw. Robert Hod owed the money to St Peter's in York. In the next year, he was called 'Hobbehod'. Robert Hod of York is the only early Robin Hood known to have been an outlaw. L. V. D. Owen in 1936 floated the idea that Robin Hood might be identified with an outlawed Robert Hood, or Hod, or Hobbehod, all apparently the same man, referred to in nine successive Yorkshire Pipe Rolls between 1226 and 1234. There is no evidence however that this Robert Hood, although an outlaw, was also a bandit. He remains one of the strongest candidates to be the real Robin Hood ever found by historians.
Dr David Baldwin identifies Robin Hood with the historical outlaw Roger Godberd, who was a die-hard supporter of Simon de Montfort, which would place Robin Hood around the 1260s. There are certainly parallels between Godberd's career and that of Robin Hood as he appears in the Gest. John Maddicott has called Godberd "that prototype Robin Hood". Some problems with this theory are that there is no evidence that Godberd was ever known as Robin Hood and no sign in the early Robin Hood ballads of the specific concerns of de Montfort's revolt.
It has long been suggested, notably by John Maddicott, that "Robin Hood" was a stock alias used by thieves. What appears to be the first known example of "Robin Hood" as stock name for an outlaw dates to 1262 in Berkshire, where the surname "Robehod" was applied to a man apparently because he had been outlawed. This could suggest two main possibilities: either that an early form of the Robin Hood legend was already well established in the mid-13th century; or alternatively that the name "Robin Hood" preceded the outlaw hero that we know; so that the "Robin Hood" of legend was so called because that was seen as an appropriate name for an outlaw.
The idea of Robin Hood as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter opposing oppressive Norman lords found popular appeal in the nineteenth century. The most notable contributions to the idea are Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and Augustin Thierry's Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre par les Normands, A History of the Conquest of England by the Normans (1825). Robin Hood appears as a character along with his "merry men" in Ivanhoe, a historical novel by Sir Walter Scott published in 1820, and set in 12th-century England. The character that Scott gave to Robin Hood in Ivanhoe helped shape the modern notion of this figure as a cheery noble outlaw. In the novel Robin is depicted as a follower of King Richard the Lionheart and helps him and Wilfred Ivanhoe to fight against the Knights Templar. It is in this work that the modern Robin Hood – "King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows!" – as Richard the Lionheart calls him – makes his debut!
Academics indicate that there are a number of verifiable historical clues that allude to the legend's Anglo-Saxon origins. In particular, The Coucher Book of Selby Abbey, a manuscript dating from the eleventh century, records that 'a certain Prince of Thieves by the name of Swain, son of Sigge, constantly prowled around Yorkshire's woods with his band on perpetual raids.' The medieval chronicler speaks of how a 'cursed villain' in Swein's gang robbed Abbot Benedict of Selby, mirroring a story telling how Robin Hood robbed an abbot of York contained in the Gest. J. Green indicates that Hugh fitz Baldric, the late eleventh century Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, held responsibility for bringing Swein-son-of-Sicga to justice. William E. Kapelle indicates that Hugh fitz Baldric needed to travel around Yorkshire in the company of a small army because of the threat that was posed to his safety by the region’s outlaws.
Historians indicate that the deeds of Yorkshire's eleventh century outlaws, men such as Swein-son-of-Siccga, and their battles against the Sheriff of Nottingham, merged together to form the legend that is today universally known as The Adventures of Robin Hood. In identifying the legend's eleventh century origins, historians point to a number of topographical clues contained within the medieval and Tudor sources that date directly to the late eleventh century. In particular, attention is brought to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene at Campsall, which was built in the late eleventh century by Robert de Lacy II Baron on Pontefract. Local legend maintains that Robin and Marion married at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene at Campsall. And, historians propose the site of Robin's death as being the hospital of St. Nicholas at Saxon Kirkby (modern Pontefract).
The Victorian folklorist Francis James Child declared that "Robin Hood is absolutely a creation of the ballad-muse" and this view has been neither proven or disproven. Another view is that Robin Hood's origins must be sought in folklore or mythology; The "mythological theory" dates back to 1584, when Reginald Scot identified Robin Hood with the Germanic goblin "Hudgin" or Hodekin and associated him with Robin Goodfellow. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica remarks that 'hood' was a common dialectical form of 'wood'; and that the outlaw's name has been given as "Robin Wood". There are indeed a number of references to Robin Hood as Robin Wood, or Whood, or Whod, from the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest recorded example, in connection with May games in Somerset, dates from 1518. A. J. Pollard (2004) stressed the symbolical significance of the "perpetual springtime" of the ballads. Robin Hood has been claimed for the pagan witch-cult supposed by Margaret Murray to have existed in medieval Europe. Modern authors reject this line of argument as untenable. In rejecting Robin Hood's mythological origins historians note that while the outlaw often shows great skill in archery, swordplay and disguise, his feats are no more exaggerated than those characters in other ballads, such as Kinmont Willie, which were based on historical events. Another theory is that Robin Hood originates in the French medieval "Robin and Marian" folk play. Dobson and Taylor in their survey of the legend, in which they reject the mythological theory, nevertheless regard it as "highly probable" that this French Robin's name and functions travelled to the English May Games where they fused with the Robin Hood legend.
The first clear reference to "rhymes of Robin Hood" is from Line 5396 of the late-14th-century poem Piers Plowman, but the earliest surviving copies of the narrative ballads that tell his story date to the 15th century, or the first decade of the 16th century. In these early accounts, Robin Hood's partisanship of the lower classes, his Marianism and associated special regard for women, his outstanding skill as an archer, his anti-clericalism, and his particular animosity towards the Sheriff of Nottingham are already clear. Little John, Much the Miller's Son and Will Scarlet (as Will "Scarlok" or "Scathelocke") all appear, although not yet Maid Marian or Friar Tuck. It is not certain what should be made of these latter two absences as it is known that Friar Tuck, for one, has been part of the legend since at least the later 15th century.
In popular culture, Robin Hood is typically seen as a contemporary and supporter of the late-12th-century king Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to outlawry during the misrule of Richard's brother John while Richard was away at the Third Crusade. This view first gained currency in the 16th century. It is not supported by the earliest ballads. The early compilation, A Gest of Robyn Hode, names the king as "Edward"; and while it does show Robin Hood accepting the King's pardon, he later repudiates it and returns to the greenwood.
The oldest surviving ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, gives even less support to the picture of Robin Hood as a partisan of the true king. The setting of the early ballads is usually attributed by scholars to either the 13th century or the 14th, although it is recognised they are not necessarily historically consistent.
The early ballads are also quite clear on Robin Hood's social status: he is a yeoman. While the precise meaning of this term changed over time, including free retainers of an aristocrat and small landholders, it always referred to commoners. The essence of it in the present context was "neither a knight nor a peasant or 'husbonde' but something in between". Artisans (such as millers) were among those regarded as "yeomen" in the 14th century. From the 16th century on, there were attempts to elevate Robin Hood to the nobility and in two extremely influential plays Anthony Munday presented him at the very end of the 16th century as the Earl of Huntingdon, as he is still commonly presented in modern times.
As well as ballads, the legend was also transmitted by "Robin Hood games" or plays that were an important part of the late medieval and early modern May Day festivities. The first record of a Robin Hood game was in 1426 in Exeter, but the reference does not indicate how old or widespread this custom was at the time. The Robin Hood games are known to have flourished in the later 15th and 16th centuries. It is commonly stated as fact that Maid Marian and a jolly friar (at least partly identifiable with Friar Tuck) entered the legend through the May Games.
The early ballads link Robin Hood to identifiable real places. In popular culture, Robin Hood and his band of "merry men" are portrayed as living in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire. Notably, the Lincoln Cathedral Manuscript, which is the first officially recorded Robin Hood song (dating from approximately 1420), makes an explicit reference to the outlaw that states that "Robyn hode in scherewode stod." In a similar fashion, a monk of Witham Priory (1460) suggested that the archer had 'infested shirwode'. His chronicle entry reads:
Nobody knows exactly what the monk's source was, but the fact that he used the term 'according to popular opinion' has led historians to conclude that his source may have been nothing more than simple word of mouth.
Specific sites in the county of Nottinghamshire that are directly linked to the Robin Hood legend include Robin Hood's Well, located near Newstead Abbey (within the boundaries of Sherwood Forest), the Church of St. Mary in the village of Edwinstowe and most famously of all, the Major Oak also located at the village of Edwinstowe. The Major Oak, which resides in the heart of Sherwood Forest, is popularly believed to have been used by the Merry Men as a hide-out. However, scientists have contradicted this claim by estimating that the tree is approximately eight hundred years old, which means that it would have only been an acorn at the time that Robin lived.
Nottinghamshire's claim to Robin Hood's heritage is disputed, with Yorkists staking a claim to the outlaw. In demonstrating Yorkshire's Robin Hood heritage, the historian J. C. Holt drew attention to the fact that although Sherwood Forest is mentioned in Robin Hood and the Monk, there is little information about the topography of the region, and thus suggested that Robin Hood was drawn to Nottinghamshire through his interactions with the city's sheriff. And, the linguist Lister Matheson has observed that the language of the Gest of Robyn Hode is written in a definite northern dialect, probably that of Yorkshire. In consequence, it seems probable that the Robin Hood legend actually originates from the county of Yorkshire. Robin Hood's Yorkshire origins are universally accepted by professional historians.
A tradition dating back at least to the end of the 16th century gives Robin Hood's birthplace as Loxley, Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. The original Robin Hood ballads, which originate from the fifteenth century, set events in the medieval forest of Barnsdale. Barnsdale was a wooded area covering an expanse of no more than thirty square miles, ranging six miles from north to south, with the River Went at Wentbridge near Pontefract forming its northern boundary and the villages of Skelbrooke and Hampole forming the southernmost region. From east to west the forest extended about five miles, from Askern on the east to Badsworth in the west. At the northern most edge of the forest of Barnsdale, in the heart of the Went Valley, resides the village of Wentbridge. Wentbridge is a village in the City of Wakefield district of West Yorkshire, England. It lies around 3 miles (5 km) southeast of its nearest township of size, Pontefract, close to the A1 road. During the medieval age Wentbridge was sometimes locally referred to by the name of Barnsdale because it was the predominant settlement in the forest. Wentbridge is mentioned in what may be the earliest Robin Hood ballad, entitled, Robin Hood and the Potter, which reads, "Y mete hem bot at Went breg,' syde Lyttyl John". And, while Wentbridge is not directly named in A Gest of Robyn Hode, the poem does appear to make a cryptic reference to the locality by depicting a poor knight explaining to Robin Hood that he 'went at a bridge' where there was wrestling'. A commemorative Blue Plaque has been placed on the bridge that crosses the River Went by Wakefield City Council.
The Gest makes a specific reference to the Saylis at Wentbridge. Credit is due to the nineteenth century antiquarian Joseph Hunter, who correctly identified the site of the Saylis. From this location it was once possible to look out over the Went Valley and observe the traffic that passed along the Great North Road. The Saylis is recorded as having contributed towards the aid that was granted to Edward III in 1346–47 for the knighting of the Black Prince. An acre of landholding is listed within a glebe terrier of 1688 relating to Kirk Smeaton, which later came to be called "Sailes Close". Professor Dobson and Mr Taylor indicate that such evidence of continuity makes it virtually certain that the Saylis that was so well known to Robin Hood is preserved today as "Sayles Plantation". It is this location that provides a vital clue to Robin Hood's Yorkshire heritage. One final locality in the forest of Barnsdale that is associated with Robin Hood is the village of Campsall.
The historian John Paul Davis wrote of Robin's connection to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene at Campsall. A Gest of Robyn Hode states that the outlaw built a chapel in Barnsdale that he dedicated to Mary Magdalene,
Davis indicates that there is only one church dedicated to Mary Magdalene within what one might reasonably consider to have been the medieval forest of Barnsdale, and that is the church at Campsall. The church was built in the late eleventh century by Robert de Lacy, the 2nd Baron of Pontefract. Local legend suggests that Robin Hood and Maid Marion were married at the church.
The backdrop of Saint Mary's Abbey at York plays a central role in the Gest as the poor knight who Robin aids owes money to the abbot.
At Kirklees Priory in Yorkshire stands an alleged grave with a spurious inscription, which relates to Robin Hood. The fifteenth-century ballads relate that before he died, Robin told Little John where to bury him. He shot an arrow from the Priory window, and where the arrow landed was to be the site of his grave. The Gest states that the Prioress was a relative of Robin's. Robin was ill and staying at the Priory where the Prioress was supposedly caring for him. However, she betrayed him, his health worsened, and he eventually died there. The inscription on the grave reads,
The grave with the inscription is within sight of the ruins of the Kirklees Priory, behind the Three Nuns pub in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Though local folklore suggests that Robin is buried in the grounds of Kirklees Priory, this theory has now largely been abandoned by professional historians.
A more recent theory proposes that Robin Hood died at Kirkby, Pontefract. Drayton's Poly-Olbion Song 28 (67–70) composed in 1622 speaks of Robin Hood's death and clearly states that the outlaw died at 'Kirkby'. Acknowledging that Robin Hood operated in the Went Valley, located three miles to the southeast of the town of Pontefract, historians today indicate that the outlaw is buried at nearby Kirkby. The location is approximately three miles from the site of Robin's robberies at the now famous Saylis. In the Anglo-Saxon period, Kirkby was home to All Saints' Church. All Saints' Church had a priory hospital attached to it. The Tudor historian Richard Grafton stated that the prioress who murdered Robin Hood buried the outlaw beside the road,
Where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way ... and the cause why she buryed him there was, for that common strangers and travailers, knowing and seeing him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their journeys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlaes.
In a similar fashion, the Gest reads,
Cryst have mercy on his soule, That dyed on the rode! For he was a good outlawe, And dyde pore men moch god. All Saints' Church at Kirkby, modern Pontefract, which was located approximately three miles from the site of Robin Hood's robberies at the Saylis, accurately matches both Richard Grafton's and the Gest's description because a road ran directly from Wentbridge to the hospital at Kirkby.
Within close proximity of Wentbridge reside several notable landmarks relating to Robin Hood. One such place-name location occurred in a cartulary deed of 1422 from Monkbretton Priory, which makes direct reference to a landmark named Robin Hood's Stone, which resided upon the eastern side of the Great North Road, a mile south of Barnsdale Bar. The historians Barry Dobson and John Taylor suggested that on the opposite side of the road once stood Robin Hood's Well, which has since been relocated six miles north-west of Doncaster, on the south-bound side of the Great North Road. Over the next three centuries, the name popped-up all over the place, such as at Robin Hood's Bay near Whitby Yorkshire, Robin Hood's Butts in Cumbria, and Robin Hood's Walk at Richmond Surrey. Robin Hood type place-names occurred particularly everywhere except Sherwood. The first place-name in Sherwood does not appear until the year 1700, demonstrating that Nottinghamshire jumped on the bandwagon at least four centuries after the event. The fact that the earliest Robin Hood type place-names originated in West Yorkshire is deemed to be historically significant because, generally, place-name evidence originates from the locality where legends begin. The overall picture from the surviving early ballads and other early references indicate that Robin Hood was based in the Barnsdale area of what is now South Yorkshire (which borders Nottinghamshire), and that he made occasional forays into Nottinghamshire.
The oldest references to Robin Hood are not historical records, or even ballads recounting his exploits, but hints and allusions found in various works. From 1228 onward, the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Robbehod' occur in the rolls of several English Justices. The majority of these references date from the late 13th century. Between 1261 and 1300, there are at least eight references to 'Rabunhod' in various regions across England, from Berkshire in the south to York in the north.
In a petition presented to Parliament in 1439, the name is used to describe an itinerant felon. The petition cites one Piers Venables of Aston, Derbyshire, "who having no liflode, ne sufficeante of goodes, gadered and assembled unto him many misdoers, beynge of his clothynge, and, in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that countrie, like as it hadde be Robyn Hude and his meyne." The name was still used to describe sedition and treachery in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his associates were branded "Robin Hoods" by Robert Cecil.
The first allusion to a literary tradition of Robin Hood tales occurs in William Langland's Piers Plowman (c. 1362–c. 1386) in which Sloth, the lazy priest, confesses: "I kan [know] not parfitly [perfectly] my Paternoster as the preest it singeth,/ But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre."
The first mention of a quasi-historical Robin Hood is given in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle, written in about 1420. The following lines occur with little contextualisation under the year 1283:
The next notice is a statement in the Scotichronicon, composed by John of Fordun between 1377 and 1384, and revised by Walter Bower in about 1440. Among Bower's many interpolations is a passage that directly refers to Robin. It is inserted after Fordun's account of the defeat of Simon de Montfort and the punishment of his adherents. Robin is represented as a fighter for de Montfort's cause. This was in fact true of the historical outlaw of Sherwood Forest Roger Godberd, whose points of similarity to the Robin Hood of the ballads have often been noted.
The word translated here as "murderer" is the Latin siccarius (Eng: "knife-man" or "dagger-man"), from the Latin for "knife". Bower goes on to tell a story about Robin Hood in which he refuses to flee from his enemies while hearing Mass in the greenwood, and then gains a surprise victory over them, apparently as a reward for his piety.
William Shakespeare makes reference to Robin Hood in his late-16th-century play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of his earliest. In it, the character Valentine is banished from Milan and driven out through the forest where he is approached by outlaws who, upon meeting him, desire him as their leader. They comment, "By the bare scalp of Robin Hood's fat friar, This fellow were a king for our wild faction!" Robin Hood is also mentioned in As You Like It. When asked about the exiled Duke Senior, the character of Charles says that he is "already in the forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England".
This inscription also appears on a grave in the grounds of Kirklees Priory near Kirklees Hall (see below).
The earliest surviving text of a Robin Hood ballad is "Robin Hood and the Monk". This is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48. It was written shortly after 1450. It contains many of the elements still associated with the legend, from the Nottingham setting to the bitter enmity between Robin and the local sheriff.
The first printed version is A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1475), a collection of separate stories that attempts to unite the episodes into a single continuous narrative. After this comes "Robin Hood and the Potter", contained in a manuscript of c. 1503. "The Potter" is markedly different in tone from "The Monk": whereas the earlier tale is "a thriller" the latter is more comic, its plot involving trickery and cunning rather than straightforward force. The difference between the two texts recalls Bower's claim that Robin-tales may be both 'comedies and tragedies'.
Other early texts are dramatic pieces such as the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham (c. 1472). These are particularly noteworthy as they show Robin's integration into May Day rituals towards the end of the Middle Ages; Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, among other points of interest, contains the earliest reference to Friar Tuck.
The plots of neither "the Monk" nor "the Potter" are included in the Gest; and neither is the plot of "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne", which is probably at least as old as those two ballads although preserved in a more recent copy. Each of these three ballads survived in a single copy, so it is unclear how much of the medieval legend has survived, and what has survived may not be typical of the medieval legend. It has been argued that the fact that the surviving ballads were preserved in written form in itself makes it unlikely they were typical; in particular stories with an interest for the gentry were by this view more likely to be preserved. The story of Robin's aid to the "poor knight" that takes up much of the Gest may be an example.
The character of Robin in these first texts is rougher edged than in his later incarnations. In "Robin Hood and the Monk", for example, he is shown as quick tempered and violent, assaulting Little John for defeating him in an archery contest; in the same ballad Much the Miller's Son casually kills a "little page" in the course of rescuing Robin Hood from prison. No extant ballad actually shows Robin Hood "giving to the poor", although in a "A Gest of Robyn Hode" Robin does make a large loan to an unfortunate knight, which he does not in the end require to be repaid; and later in the same ballad Robin Hood states his intention of giving money to the next traveller to come down the road if he happens to be poor.
As it happens the next traveller is not poor, but it seems in context that Robin Hood is stating a general policy. From the beginning Robin Hood is on the side of the poor; the Gest quotes Robin Hood as instructing his men that when they rob:
And in its final lines the Gest sums up:
Within Robin Hood's band medieval forms of courtesy rather than modern ideals of equality are generally in evidence. In the early ballads Robin's men usually kneel before him in strict obedience: in A Gest of Robyn Hode the king even observes that "His men are more at his byddynge/Then my men be at myn." Their social status, as yeomen, is shown by their weapons; they use swords rather than quarterstaffs. The only character to use a quarterstaff in the early ballads is the potter, and Robin Hood does not take to a staff until the 18th century Robin Hood and Little John.
The political and social assumptions underlying the early Robin Hood ballads have long been controversial. It has been influentially argued by J. C. Holt that the Robin Hood legend was cultivated in the households of the gentry, and that it would be mistaken to see in him a figure of peasant revolt. He is not a peasant but a yeoman, and his tales make no mention of the complaints of the peasants, such as oppressive taxes. He appears not so much as a revolt against societal standards as an embodiment of them, being generous, pious, and courteous, opposed to stingy, worldly, and churlish foes. Other scholars have by contrast stressed the subversive aspects of the legend, and see in the medieval Robin Hood ballads a plebeian literature hostile to the feudal order.
Although the term "Merry Men" belongs to a later period, the ballads do name several of Robin's companions. These include Will Scarlet (or Scathlock), Much the Miller's Son, and Little John – who was called "little" as a joke, as he was quite the opposite. Even though the band is regularly described as being over a hundred men, usually only three or four are specified. Some appear only once or twice in a ballad: Will Stutely in Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly and Robin Hood and Little John; David of Doncaster in Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow; Gilbert with the White Hand in A Gest of Robyn Hode; and Arthur a Bland in Robin Hood and the Tanner.
Printed versions of the Robin Hood ballads, generally based on the Gest, appear in the early 16th century, shortly after the introduction of printing in England. Later that century Robin is promoted to the level of nobleman: he is styled Earl of Huntingdon, Robert of Locksley, or Robert Fitz Ooth. In the early ballads, by contrast, he was a member of the yeoman classes, which included common freeholders possessing a small landed estate.
By the early 15th century at the latest, Robin Hood had become associated with May Day celebrations, with revellers dressing as Robin or as members of his band for the festivities. This was not common throughout England, but in some regions the custom lasted until Elizabethan times, and during the reign of Henry VIII, was briefly popular at court. Robin was often allocated the role of a May King, presiding over games and processions, but plays were also performed with the characters in the roles, sometimes performed at church ales, a means by which churches raised funds.
A complaint of 1492, brought to the Star Chamber, accuses men of acting riotously by coming to a fair as Robin Hood and his men; the accused defended themselves on the grounds that the practice was a long-standing custom to raise money for churches, and they had not acted riotously but peaceably.
It is from the association with the May Games that Robin's romantic attachment to Maid Marian (or Marion) apparently stems. A "Robin and Marion" figured in 13th-century French "pastourelles" (of which Jeu de Robin et Marion c. 1280 is a literary version) and presided over the French May festivities, "this Robin and Marion tended to preside, in the intervals of the attempted seduction of the latter by a series of knights, over a variety of rustic pastimes." In the Jeu de Robin and Marion, Robin and his companions have to rescue Marion from the clutches of a "lustful knight". The naming of Marian may have come from the French pastoral play of c. 1280, the Jeu de Robin et Marion, although this play is distinct from the English legends. Both Robin and Marian were certainly associated with May Day festivities in England (as was Friar Tuck), but these may have been originally two distinct types of performance – Alexander Barclay in his Ship of Fools, writing in c. 1500, refers to "some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood" – but the characters were brought together. Marian did not immediately gain the unquestioned role; in Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage, his sweetheart is 'Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses'. Clorinda survives in some later stories as an alias of Marian.
In the 16th century, Robin Hood is given a specific historical setting. Up until this point there was little interest in exactly when Robin's adventures took place. The original ballads refer at various points to "King Edward", without stipulating whether this is Edward I, Edward II, or Edward III. Hood may thus have been active at any point between 1272 and 1377. However, during the 16th century the stories become fixed to the 1190s, the period in which King Richard was absent from the country, fighting in the Third Crusade. This date is first proposed by John Mair in his Historia Majoris Britanniæ (1521), and gains popular acceptance by the end of the century.
Giving Robin an aristocratic title and female love interest (Maid Marian), and placing him in the historical context of the true king's absence, all represent moves to domesticate his legend and reconcile it to ruling powers. In this, his legend is similar to that of King Arthur, which morphed from a dangerous masculine story to a more comfortable, chivalrous romance under the troubadours serving Eleanor of Aquitaine. From the 16th century on, the legend of Robin Hood is often used to promote the hereditary ruling class, romance, and religious piety. The "criminal" element is retained to provide dramatic colour, rather than as a real challenge to convention.
In 1598, Anthony Munday wrote a pair of plays on the Robin Hood legend, The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (published 1601). The 17th century introduced the minstrel Alan-a-Dale. He first appeared in a 17th-century broadside ballad, and unlike many of the characters thus associated, managed to adhere to the legend. This is also the era in which the character of Robin became fixed as stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
In the 18th century, the stories began to develop a slightly more farcical vein. From this period there are a number of ballads in which Robin is severely "drubbed" by a succession of professionals including a tanner, a tinker and a ranger. In fact, the only character who does not get the better of Hood is the luckless Sheriff. Yet even in these ballads Robin is more than a mere simpleton: on the contrary, he often acts with great shrewdness. The tinker, setting out to capture Robin, only manages to fight with him after he has been cheated out of his money and the arrest warrant he is carrying. In Robin Hood's Golden Prize, Robin disguises himself as a friar and cheats two priests out of their cash. Even when Robin is defeated, he usually tricks his foe into letting him sound his horn, summoning the Merry Men to his aid. When his enemies do not fall for this ruse, he persuades them to drink with him instead (see Robin Hood's Delight).
The continued popularity of the Robin Hood tales is attested by a number of literary references. In As You Like It, the exiled duke and his men "live like the old Robin Hood of England", while Ben Jonson produced the (incomplete) masque The Sad Shepherd, or a Tale of Robin Hood as a satire on Puritanism. Somewhat later, the Romantic poet John Keats composed Robin Hood. To A Friend and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a play The Foresters, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian, which was presented with incidental music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1892. Later still, T. H. White featured Robin and his band in The Sword in the Stone – anachronistically, since the novel's chief theme is the childhood of King Arthur.
The Victorian era generated its own distinct versions of Robin Hood. The traditional tales were often adapted for children, most notably in Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which influenced accounts of Robin Hood through the 20th century. These versions firmly stamp Robin as a staunch philanthropist, a man who takes from the rich to give to the poor. Nevertheless, the adventures are still more local than national in scope: while King Richard's participation in the Crusades is mentioned in passing, Robin takes no stand against Prince John, and plays no part in raising the ransom to free Richard. These developments are part of the 20th century Robin Hood myth.
The idea of Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon fighting Norman lords also originates in the 19th century. The most notable contributions to this idea of Robin are Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry's Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre par les Normands (1825) and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819). In this last work in particular, the modern Robin Hood – "King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows!" as Richard the Lionheart calls him – makes his debut.
The 20th century grafted still further details on to the original legends. The 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, portrayed Robin as a hero on a national scale, leading the oppressed Saxons in revolt against their Norman overlords while Richard the Lionheart fought in the Crusades; this movie established itself so definitively that many studios resorted to movies about his son (invented for that purpose) rather than compete with the image of this one.
In the 1973 animated Disney film, Robin Hood, the title character is portrayed as an anthropomorphic fox voiced by Brian Bedford. Years before Robin Hood had even entered production, Disney had considered doing a project on Reynard the Fox. However, due to concerns that Reynard was unsuitable as a hero, animator Ken Anderson lifted many elements from Reynard into Robin Hood, thus making the titular character a fox.
The 1976 British-American film Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery as Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, portrays the figures in later years after Robin has returned from service with Richard the Lionheart in a foreign crusade and Marian has gone into seclusion in a nunnery. This is the first in popular culture to portray King Richard as less than perfect.
Since the 1980s, it has become commonplace to include a Saracen (Muslim) among the Merry Men, a trend that began with the character Nasir in the 1984 ITV Robin of Sherwood television series. Later versions of the story have followed suit: the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and 2006 BBC TV series Robin Hood each contain equivalents of Nasir, in the figures of Azeem and Djaq, respectively. The latest movie version, 2010's Robin Hood, did not include a Saracen character. The character Azeem in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was originally called Nasir, until a crew member who worked on Robin of Sherwood pointed out that the Nasir Character was not part of the original legend and was created for the show Robin of Sherwood. The name was immediately changed to Azeem to avoid any potential copyright issues.
Between 1963 and 1966, French television broadcast a medievalist series entitled Thierry La Fronde (Thierry the Sling). This successful series, which was also shown in Canada, Poland (Thierry Śmiałek), Australia (The King's Outlaw), and the Netherlands (Thierry de Slingeraar), transposes the English Robin Hood narrative into late medieval France during the Hundred Years' War.
The Robin Hood legend has been subject to numerous shifts and mutations throughout its history. Robin himself has evolved from a yeoman bandit to a national hero of epic proportions, who not only supports the poor by taking from the rich, but heroically defends the throne of England itself from unworthy and venal claimants.
A record of the appearance of a "Robert de Lockesly" in court is found, dated 1245. As "Robert" and its diminutives were among the most common of names at the time, and also since it was usual for men to adopt the name of their hometown ("De Lockesly" means simply, "Of [or from] Lockesly"), the record could just as easily be referring to any man from the area named Robert. Although it cannot be proven whether or not this is the man himself, it is further believed by some that Robin had a brother called Thomas – an assertion with no documentary evidence whatsoever to support it in any of the stories, tales or ballads. If the Robert mentioned above was indeed Robin Hood, and if he did have a brother named Thomas, then consideration of the following reference may lend this theory a modicum of credence:
It is again, however, equally likely that Nicolas, John, Robert and Thomas were simply members of a family that came from the area.
The Sheriff of Nottingham also had jurisdiction in Derbyshire that was known as the "Shire of the Deer", and this is where the Royal Forest of the Peak is found, which roughly corresponds to today's Peak District National Park. The Royal Forest included Bakewell, Tideswell, Castleton, Ladybower and the Derwent Valley near Loxley. The Sheriff of Nottingham possessed property near Loxley, among other places both far and wide including Hazlebadge Hall, Peveril Castle and Haddon Hall. Mercia, to which Nottingham belonged, came to within three miles of Sheffield City Centre. But before the Law of the Normans was the Law of the Danes, The Danelaw had a similar boundary to that of Mercia but had a population of Free Peasantry that were known to have resisted the Norman occupation. Many outlaws could have been created by the refusal to recognise Norman Forest Law. The supposed grave of Little John can be found in Hathersage, also in the Peak District.
Further indications of the legend's connection with West Yorkshire (and particularly Calderdale) are noted in the fact that there are pubs called the Robin Hood in both nearby Brighouse and at Cragg Vale; higher up in the Pennines beyond Halifax, where Robin Hood Rocks can also be found. Robin Hood Hill is near Outwood, West Yorkshire, not far from Lofthouse. There is a village in West Yorkshire called Robin Hood, on the A61 between Leeds and Wakefield and close to Rothwell and Lofthouse. Considering these references to Robin Hood, it is not surprising that the people of both South and West Yorkshire lay some claim to Robin Hood, who, if he existed, could easily have roamed between Nottingham, Lincoln, Doncaster and right into West Yorkshire.
There are also modern theories that Robin Hood was in fact Welsh, and was called Rybyn Hod. In fact, the Welsh city of Swansea has in recent years been known as "Hodsville" in reference to the mythical figure. Sites around Swansea that lend credence to this theory include Rybyn Hod's Hatshop, Rybyn Hod's Stoop, Rybyn Hod's Wad (a thicket of trees located off Rifleman's Row) and Rybyn Hod's Fortress, which according to local legend was on the site of the current Morriston Tabernacle.
A British Army Territorial (reserves) battalion formed in Nottingham in 1859 was known as The Robin Hood Battalion through various reorganisations until the "Robin Hood" name finally disappeared in 1992. With the 1881 Childers Reforms that linked regular and reserve units into regimental families, the Robin Hood Battalion became part of The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment).
NB. The first two ballads listed here (the "Death" and "Gisborne"), although preserved in 17th century copies, are generally agreed to preserve the substance of late medieval ballads. The third (the "Curtal Friar") and the fourth (the "Butcher"), also probably have late medieval origins.
Some ballads, such as Erlinton, feature Robin Hood in some variants, where the folk hero appears to be added to a ballad pre-existing him and in which he does not fit very well. He was added to one variant of Rose Red and the White Lily, apparently on no more connection than that one hero of the other variants is named "Brown Robin". Francis James Child indeed retitled Child ballad 102; though it was titled The Birth of Robin Hood, its clear lack of connection with the Robin Hood cycle (and connection with other, unrelated ballads) led him to title it Willie and Earl Richard's Daughter in his collection.
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