Fighting Freedom and JusticeRobyn was a proud outlaw," the anonymous author of the late 15th-century ballad Littel Geste of Robyn Hode wrote in introducing his hero. "He wente hyrn forth full mery syngynge, As men have told in tale."
In four related stories, the reader meets the intrepid leader of a band of merry men of the forest who prey on the rich in order to give to the poor. In the first story, Robin lends both money and his squire Little John to an impoverished knight in order to turn the tables on a greedy abbot. In the second, he tricks the despised sheriff of Nottingham into joining him in a dinner of venison poached from the lawman's preserve in Sherwood Forest; he then makes the sheriff shed his rich clothes for the outlaw band's simple livery of Lincoln green. In the third, Robin sees through the disguise of King Edward - come to investigate the lawbreakers - and, pledging his loyalty, enters the service of his sovereign. The final story of the ballad, printed about 1495, tells of Robin's return to banditry and the treachery of the prioress of Kirklees Abbey, who bleeds him to death when he goes to her for a cure.
These are only the first documented tales of Robin Hood, tales no doubt told and retold for at least the preceding century and a half and added to during the following centuries. As late as 1819, Sir Walter Scott used Robin Hood as the model for one of the characters in his novel Ivanhoe, and the hero survives today in children's books, on television, and in motion pictures.
The Man Behind the MythIt is easy to account for Robin Hood's enduring popularity. Proud and independent, he placed himself in opposition to those who used their rank and wealth - mainly officers of the law and churchmen - to cheat and oppress the common folk. But he remained loyal to the king and accepted religion, counting the earthy Friar Tuck among his followers. It was not the existing social order that he challenged, only abuses of it by the unprincipled and avaricious. So appealing is the character of Robin Hood that historians have long sought the real man behind the legend.
In the 1377 edition of his poetic masterpiece Piers Plowman, William Langland refers to "rymes of Robyn Hode." His contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer mentions "hazellwood where Jolly Robin plaied" in Troilus and Criseyde. Moreover, "The Tale of Gamelyn," incorporated into Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, features a bandit hero. To literary detectives these references suggest that ballads about Robin Hood were probably already well known by the mid-1300's, some 150 years before they were first printed. They have proposed several possible candidates for the historical person on which the outlaw of Sherwood Forest could have been modeled.
The census rolls of 1228 and 1230 contain the name Robert Hood, nicknamed Hobbehod, and describe him as a fugitive from justice. A movement led by Sir Robert Thwing about that time was characterized by raids on monasteries, from which grain was seized for distribution to the poor. But the name Robert Hood was not an uncommon one, as later manor rolls reveal, and this slim evidence for so early a Robin Hood is generally dismissed. More persistent is the identification of Robin Hood as one Robert Fitzooth, a claimant to the earldom of Huntingdon, who was born about 1160 and died in 1247. Some reference works actually cite these dates for Robin Hood, but skeptics point out that contemporary records contain no mention of a rebellious nobleman named Robert Fitzooth.
Who Was Robin Hood's King?Among the problems in dating the origin of the Robin Hood stories are the references in different versions to various English monarchs. An early historian, Walter Bower, confidently placed Robin Hood in the 1265 revolt against King Henry III led by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. Following de Montfort's defeat at the Battle of Evesham, many of the rebels remained in arms and lived much as did the Robin Hood of the ballads. "At this time," writes Bower, "the famous robber Robin Hood . . . rose to prominence among those who had been disinherited and banished on account of the revolt. These men . . . love to sing of their deeds in all kinds of romances, mimes, and snatches." The major difficulty with Bower's thesis is the longbow, which features so prominently in the Robin Hood ballads. It had not been invented at the time of Simon de Montfort's rebellion.
A document of 1322 refers to a "stone of Robin Hood" in Yorkshire, suggesting that the ballads - if not the actual man - were well known by that date. Those who would place the original Robin Hood at this date propose Robert Hood, a tenant of Wakefield involved in the uprising that year of the earl of Lancaster, as the model for the fugitive hero. The next year, they point out, King Edward II visited Nottingham and took into service as court valet one Robert Hood, to whom payments were made during the next 12 months, or until he retired "because he can no longer work." This evidence fits in nicely with the third story in Littel Geste of Robyn Hode.
The reference to King Edward II would place the outlaw hero in the first quarter of the 14th century. But in other versions, Robin Hood appears as a champion of King Richard I, the Lionhearted, who reigned in the final decade of the 12th century, and as an opponent of Richard's brother and successor John Lackland - so called for the territories he lost in France.
Embellishing the TalesWhat is certain about Robin Hood is the evolving nature of his legend. In the early ballads there is no mention of Maid Marian, Robin's lady love. She first appears in late 15th-century versions, at a time when folk plays and morris dances were becoming popular in May festivities. The giant Little John is with Robin's band in the initial ballads, but Friar Tuck appears only in the later tale in which he ducks Robin in a stream. The original Robin is a simple yeoman; later, he is described as a fugitive nobleman.
With so many contradictory additions to the Robin Hood legend, it is unlikely that the real hero will ever be identified. Most scholars now agree that he represents a type - the outlaw hero - that was celebrated in ballads handed down from generation to generation from at least the early 1300's. As the storytellers spun their yarns, they would freely interpolate contemporary events and the exploits of real people into the story of a man who probably never existed. Robin Hood, as one professor has written, was "the pure creation of the ballad muse," the invention of anonymous poets who wanted to celebrate a simple man who fought for justice against oppression by the high and mighty. And this accounts for his universal and lasting appeal, epitomized by the ballad maker's benediction:
Cryst have mercy on his soule, That dyed on the rode; For he was a good outlaw, And clyd pore men much good.