The Real Robin Hood

Today’s snippets are on the search for the real Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is almost impossible to identify with any degree of accuracy since there is little concrete evidence which survives, and the man so quickly morphed into a folk hero and criminal outlaw that the Robin we think of today is in fact a composite of many men.

Three early writers did attempt to locate Robin in an historical context. In 1420 Andrew Wyntoun referred to a Robin Hood and Little John during the years 1283-5. Walter Bower mentions a Robin Hood and a Little John in his continuation of Fordun’s Scotichronicon, 1266. And in 1521 John Mair placed Robin Hood and Little John in the reign of Richard I. John Mair’s date is probably the most historically accurate, since Robin was almost certainly a legendary outlaw by 1261-2. This date is further supported by a certain Robert Hod, a fugitive who failed to attend a hearing at the York assize in 1225, and whose belongings, worth 32s.6d., were then forfeited. Thomas Gale, dean of York 1697-1702, left a note among his papers that Robin died on 24th December 1247.

According to J Holt, Hood’s biographer, Robin was an active criminal in 1193-4, was outlawed in 1225, and dead by 1247. Robert Hod is almost certainly the original Hood. When an account of his chattels was published in 1227 he was recorded as ‘Hobbehod’.

There have been attempts to match historical incidents with real people in order to uncover Robin Hood. The first stories about him come from 1450, including Robin Hood and the Monk, a manuscript which includes a prayer against robbers. It is purportedly a thrilling story of revenge and treachery. Robin is betrayed to the sheriff by a knavish monk while at worship in the church of St Mary, Nottingham. He is then rescued from Nottingham Castle by Little John and the rest of the gang. Robin Hood and the Potter, part of a manuscript collection  written shortly after 1503, in which Robin, after challenging and fighting a travelling potter, takes the potter’s dress and wares in order to inveigle his way into Nottingham Castle and lure the sheriff to the outlaw lair in Sherwood. The Gest of Robyn Hode, collected in the fifteenth century, is another collection of tales.’It includes what is perhaps the earliest story of all, the tale of the impoverished knight. In this story, Robin assists a knight who has mortgaged his lands to the abbot of St Mary’s, York, by robbing the monks themselves to repay the loan. The knight later becomes Sir Richard of the Lee who fortifies his castle to protect Robin and his men from the vengeful sheriff.’ The Gest also includes includes two archery contests held in Nottingham, an encounter between the king and Robin in Sherwood, and a tale of Robin’s death at Kirklees Priory in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The canon of Robin Hood stories is completed by a separate tale, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, in which Robin kills a medieval bounty hunter.

These early stories contain no Maid Marion or Friar Tuck.’The friar is of special interest because he demonstrates once again how the doings of real people were pressed into service for the story. The original was Robert Stafford, parson of Lindfield, Sussex, who gathered around him a band of evil-doers who committed murders and robberies and threatened the peace of Surrey and Sussex between 1417 and 1429. He assumed the name of Friar Tuck, and puzzled royal officials recorded that he was “newly so called in common parlance”‘. By 1475 the friar appeared in the first surviving fragment of a Robin Hood play. In contrast, Maid Marion seems to have been a purely literary creation, originating in a French pastoral play, Robin et Marion, composed c.1283 by Adam de la Halle. She was then taken over in Gower’s Mirour de l’omme of 1376–9 where she participates in rustic festivals. By 1500 Robin and Marion had come to figure as king and queen of May in the May games.

All early references to Robin refer to him as a criminal, but in 1433 he is descried as ‘Goodman.’ So the early stories bear little resemblance to the current legend of Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. This Robin didn’t appear until the 16th and 17th centuries, when Joseph Ritson and others expanded on the stories. The legend of Robin has continued to delight and fascinate since then, with movies, comic books, and television series devoted to Hood and his exploits.  Whatever the truth about the real man, it is clear that the exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry Men will live on for generations.

Source: J Holt: DNB.

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  • April 20, 2010 - 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately only some churchwarden’s accounts for the summer games and plays survive. But they do show how the popularity of Robin Hood grew. Here are some examples:

    In Thame in Oxfordshire a ‘Church Ale’ became known as the ‘Robin Hood Ale’ in 1474. In 1492 a ‘Robertus Hod’ is recorded for the first time in the Summer Games in Edinburgh. A few years later he had toppled the ‘Abbots of Bon-accord and Unreason’ as ‘Lord of the May Game’.
    His popularity in these games also spread to Aberdeen and Perth.

    At Willenhall Fair in Staffordshire, neighbouring villages attended ‘with the captains called the Abbot of Marham or Robyn Hodys to the intent to gather money with their disportes to the prefight of the churches of the seid Lordshippes.’

    In 1485 a Richard Wells payed the part of ‘Roben Hode’ in Croscombe Somerset and managed to gather for the Parish ‘for yere past 23/-.’ The maidens managed to earn 9/6d.

    In 1498 In Wednesbury in Staffordshire, a Roger Marshall used the name ‘Robyn Hood’ and allegedly led a gang of a hundred men to Willenhall fair in a ‘lawless affray.’ Marshall denied this and claimed he had gone to the fair ‘to gather money to the profit of the churches of the said Lordship’s, whereby great profit hath grown to the said churches in time past.’

    In 1499 at Henley on Thames in September, the council decided to spend money received from the ‘Robin Hood Game’ on a silver censor. In Aberdeen Robin Hood and Little John took over the procession in 1508 from the ‘Abbot of Bon-accord and the Prior’. The procession was held on Sundays in May and the council decreed that a fine of twenty shillings was to be paid by’ burgess, merchant or craftsmen if they do not carry bows and arrows and ride behind Robin Hood and Little John dressed in green and yellow.’

    In Edinburgh Robin Hood and Little John had replaced the penniless ‘Abbot of Na-rent’ and other popular characters in the Summer Games by 1518 and in 1523 at Kingston-on-Thames the churchwardens accounts show that they had purchased four yards of buckram for the ‘Moreny’s coat.’ As the ‘mowren’ appears to be an early version of the name Marian it could be derived from the name ‘Moor’ as does ‘Morris.’ A ‘Marian’ appears in the ‘Summer Game’ for the first time in St. Lawrence’s Reading in 1529.

    I hope this is of interest.

  • April 19, 2010 - 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments. I’d be interested to know how the Robins and Marions corresponded to, or were conflated with, the Lord of Misrule in the May festivals. Any thoughts?

  • April 19, 2010 - 4:44 pm | Permalink

    A very well written account of the legend. I would just add that the ‘robbing the rich ro give to the poor’ tag that has stuck with him down the centuries probably arose from the Summer Games.

    During the May and Summer festivals the village chose a ‘Robin Hood’ and the prettiest girl in the village to be Maid Marian. At various times during the procession and games they would collect money from the wealthy spectators on behalf of the church for the poor.

    This along with the characters from the May games like Friar Tuck and the Maid Marian seem to have influenced the later Robin Hood ballads and tradition.

  • April 18, 2010 - 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing your research.

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