Was Robin Hood a real person
Robin Hood is one of the most recognizable characters in popular culture. He has been the hero of countless books, comics, plays and of course motion pictures. Everyone has read or seen tales of the adventures of the outlaw and his band of ‘Merry Men’. He has become a by-word for a popular hero who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. It is assumed by many that he is only a legendary. There are others who assume that he was a historical character. There has been a great deal of debate on the historicity of the famous outlaw. This article examines some of the latest research and theories on this question and tries to determine if there was a real Robin Hood?
The story of Robin Hood
The story of Robin Hood is so well known. The story is set in the 13th century Robin Hood was the alias of Robin of Locksley an Earl. He was a follower of King Richard I (the Lionheart) who when he went on Crusade had his throne usurped by his brother John. Robin is forced to become an outlaw by the evil King John who was a cruel tyrant. The Sheriff of Nottingham the agent of the King attempts to capture and kill the brave Robin. However, he defies him and in a series of adventures he escapes the clutches of the Sheriff and his henchmen. Robin assembles together a number of colorful outlaws such as Will Scarlett, Little John, and Friar Tuck. The hero is concerned for the welfare of the poor and he is opposed to the corrupt aristocracy and clergy. He is a great archer and is a thorough gentleman. The outlaw is typically shown to be in love with the beautiful Maid Marian. At the end of the tales of Robin Hood, he manages to outwit the Sheriff of Nottingham and helps the rightful king Richard the Lionheart reclaim the throne of England. This monarch pardons Robin and even marries him to Maid Marion. However, this is the modern version of the tale of Robin and there have been many earlier versions of the adventures of the outlaw and these are often very different from the one that we all know so well .
The development of the legend
The name Robin Hood or similar names seems to have been a term uses to describe outlaws, who were engaged in crimes such as poaching, which was a capital crime in England. There are a number of references to Robe Hood or Robehod, who were bandits and outlaws. It appears that the name was part of the oral tradition and many tales of him were told in the Shires of England in the Middle Ages . The first literary reference to the outlaw was in the classic Medieval epic poem Piers Ploughman, written in the mid-to-late 14th century. The first stories of Robin Hood are narrated in some ballads that date from the 15th century. In some, he is a hero but in others, he is involved in comic adventures. Unlike the modern version in these ballads, the outlaw is a member of the Yeoman class, who were mainly small landowners. Robin was very popular in English folklore and his life and adventures were the subject of many plays and dramas. However, there is no definitive version. In one tale Maid Marion is shown to be a witch and the enemy of the great bowman. By the 15th century, the stories of Robin and his ‘Merry Men’ became associated with May Day festivities. These were celebrations that marked the beginning of summer and for many centuries was more popular than Christmas. There were many portrayals of and references to Robin in Elizabethan and Jacobian dramas. Shakespeare referred to the ‘good’ bandit and his band in several of his dramas. For example, in one of his comedies he has one of his characters say, ‘By the bare scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar/This fellow were a king for our wild faction!’ . By the end of the 16th century, the development of printing made Robin known to a wider audience. During the 18th century, the standard version of Robin was formed. This was mainly because of the English writer Ritson. He compiled an anthology of medieval ballads on the life and adventures of the outlaw and his band. It was only in the 19th century that the present version of Robin Hood was fully developed, and this was mainly thanks to the depiction of the character in the novel ‘Ivanhoe’ by Sir Walter Scott. His work was based on the compilation by Ritson. This version was then popularized by the authors of children’s books. These sanitized versions of the medieval folktales were popular on the stage and later Hollywood made motion pictures based on them.
Robin of Locksley
In the modern version of Robin Hood that is now known around the world, the bandit’s real name is Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntingdon. Robin went on Crusade with the great heroic king Richard the Lionheart. However, he returned to England only to find King John had seized the throne of his brother Richard the lawful monarch. There was a Robin of Locksley and he was indeed the Earl of Huntington and his grave is often referred to locally as the grave of the Bowman and bandit. There are some problems with this theory, Locksley is in Yorkshire and not in Nottinghamshire, the setting of the legend of Robin and there is no evidence that the Earl was outlawed . Moreover, it is highly unlikely that an aristocratic figure such as Locksley would ever have used a bow and arrow. This was a weapon that was mainly used by the lower orders especially Yeomen. Furthermore, in the earliest ballads, the hero is referred to as a commoner and most definitely not a noble, like the Earl of Huntingdon.
Other candidates for Robin Hood
There was an outlaw called Robin Hood who had been outlawed in Yorkshire and not in Nottingham. He was known as Robin Hood of York. There are many references to him in local court records. However, this figure was not a great archer and he definitely did not steal from the rich and gave it to the poor. In reality, this Robin was outlawed because he owed money to the Church. Another theory is that Robin de Deyville (or De Vile) was the real Robin Hood. He was an adherent of Simon de Montfort, an aristocratic rebel who sought to curb royal power. After Montfort’s defeat at the Battle of Evesham, de Deyville fled to the forests and became a bandit. There are some similarities between this historical figure and the legendary outlaw, and some Early Modern writers believed that he was the historical character upon which the outlaw was based. Another potential candidate to be the ‘real’ Robin Hood is Roger Godberd. He was from the Nottingham area and lived in the 13th century. He was originally a friend of the Sheriff of Nottingham but the two fell out after a local power struggle. Godberd was persecuted by the Sherriff and took to the forests and lived a life outside of the law. After a series of adventures as a bandit and robber, he was eventually pardoned by the King and became a local landowner. However, while there are undoubted similarities between Godberd and the well-known adventures of the Nottingham bandit, there is no evidence to suggest that he was ever known as Robin Hood.
Robin Hood as a mythological figure
Since the Tudor era, there have been several scholars who claim that the legendary outlaw was, in reality, a spirit of the forest. This is based on his remarkable fortune and skill with the bow. Some have suggested that the story of Robin Hood, who was very much opposed to the established Church was somehow related to a pagan cult, a survival of the old Celtic religion, that continued to flourish in the dense forests. For example, his traditional color’ green, is often associated with the fairies. Some have even argued that he was the embodiment of one of the spirits of the forest. Many believe that the origin of the outlaw figure was in the Northern European folkloric figure known as Hodekin. He was regularly portrayed with a felt hat and he was seen as a ‘good’ spirit, like the outlaw-hero. Then there are those who claim that Robin was really Puck the well-known goblin . However, the claims that the famous Bowman was a spirit are now largely discredited.
Robin Hood- a nickname
The theory that is now generally accepted that there was no historical figure by that name. The name Robin which is a diminutive of Robert was very common in medieval England. Then the surname Hood was also popular and in the English of the time, it was also a name for the woods . There were probably many Robin Hoods and some of them were probably outlaws and went to the forest which was beyond the control of the King and his officials. It seemed that many outlaws and fugitives from the law began to use the name, Robin Hood. In all probability, the name was a nickname given to any who have been outlawed by the Royal authorities, over time. One theory suggests that the name was an alias that was used by thieves and robbers to hide their real identity. The name Robin Hood became associated with the tradition of outlawry. In medieval England, there were many bands of bandits and robbers in the forest such as Sherwood Forest . Among the common people, robbers and poachers who defied the Royal agents were often seen as heroes. It seems that these ‘Robin Hoods’ were the subject of ballads and became part of the oral tradition. These were popular and were incorporated into celebrations that marked May Day and other festivities. It seems that even in the official records that the name was used to describe a person who had been outlawed for committing serious crimes such as poaching and murder. Robin Hood was a term that was commonly used for an outlaw. The various balladeers and storytellers began to use the name of Robin Hood as a stock character. So whenever, someone wanted to tell a tale of an outlaw that they simply used the name of the most popular outlaw in Medieval England. There were so many references to the name that people began to assume that he was a historical figure. Many writers later connected the legend to a variety of historical figures. The best-known example of this is the link that some writers made between the story of the outlaw and Robin of Locksley . As a result, over time, what started as a story or a nickname came to be regarded as a real-life person. This is something that has regularly happened down the centuries in a variety of cultures.
Robin Hood is perhaps the most famous bandit of all time. However, it is highly likely that there was no person who had been outlawed in Medieval England by that name. There were many called by that name or used it as an alias. It seems that the name was a nickname or epitaph that eventually became synonymous with those who engaged in banditry in England in the Middle Ages and who lived outside of the law. Balladeers and writers took up the legend and they greatly embellished it. The stories about the Merrie Men, the Sherriff of Nottingham and Maid Marion are just tales. There was no historical Robin Hood but that does not mean that we cannot enjoy the tales and stories about the character.
Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: an Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976), pp. 63-64.
Evans, Michael R. 'Robin Hood in the landscape: place-name evidence and mythology', in: Phillips, Helen, ed. Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval (Dublin, 2005), pp. 181-87
Graves, Robert, ed. English & Scottish Ballads (London: Melbourne; Toronto, 1957), pp. xvi-xvii, 149-60
Knight, Stephen Thomas. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. (Cornell, Cornell University Press, 2004).
Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London, 1936).
- Kennedy, D.N. 'Who was Robin Hood?', Folklore, vol. 66 (1955), pp. 413-415
- Kennedy, p 410
- Kennedy, p 413
- Shakespeare, William, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, scene 3
- Kennedy, p 412
- Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London, 1936), p 145
- Coghlan, Ronan. The Robin Hood Companion (London, Xiphos Books, 2003), p 13
- Coghlan, p 15
- Wright, Thomas. Essays on Subjects connected with the Literature, Popular Superstitions, and History of England in the Middle Ages (London, 1846), vol. II, pp. 164-211