We all know the legendary story of Robin Hood. In the time of Richard the Lionheart a minor noble of Nottinghamshire, one Robin of Loxley, was outlawed for poaching deer. At that time the deer in a royal forest belonged to the king, and killing one of the king’s deer was therefore treason and punishable by death. So Robin took to the greenwood of Sherwood Forest, making a living by stealing from rich travelers and distributing the loot among the poor of the area. In the process he gained a band of followers and a spouse, Maid Marian. Despite the best efforts of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood avoided capture until the return of King Richard from the Crusades brought about a full pardon and the restoration of Robin’s lands. In some versions he dies at the hands of a kinswoman, the abbess of Kirklees Priory.
That, in a very nutshell, is the legend. The question is: What is the truth behind it?
Many historians are convinced that Robin Hood was a real person, placed in the 13th century. Alternatively, the origin of the legend is claimed by some historians to have stemmed from actual outlaws, such as Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, Fulk FitzWarin, and William Wallace. And there are other historians convinced Robin Hood is entirely a creation of the ballad-muse, with origins purely mythological. The truth of it will probably never be known for certain.
A large part of the problem is that “Robert” was in medieval England a very common given name, and “Robin” (or Robyn), especially in the 13th century, was its very common diminutive. 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.
Court records of the York Assizes refer to a “Robert Hod” who was a fugitive in 1226. In the following year the assizes referred to the same man as “Robinhud.” By 1300 at least eight people were called Robinhood, and at least five of those were fugitives from the law. It has long been suggested that “Robin Hood” became 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 because he had been outlawed. From there it is logical to see how a number of different outlaws built upon the reputation of a fugitive in the forest, and over time, the legend grew.
In 1439 a Parliament petition cites one Piers Venables of Aston, Derbyshire, as “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 first literary reference to “rhymes of Robin Hood” is from the 1362 poem Piers Plowman. However, the earliest surviving written copies of the narrative ballad dates to the late 15th century or first decade of the 16th century. In these early accounts, Robin Hood’s partisanship of the lower classes, outstanding skill as an archer, and animosity towards the Sheriff of Nottingham are well established. Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlet (as Will “Scarlok” or “Scathelocke”) appear, but not Maid Marian or Friar Tuck.
Nor do the early ballads place Robin Hood as a contemporary of Richard the Lionheart. A Gest of Robyn Hode, printed between 1492 and 1534, 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, existing in manuscript from about 1450, gives even less support to the picture of Robin Hood as a partisan of the true king.
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.
One thing to note about the early legends is that Robin Hood was not an aristocrat, but a simple yeoman (commoner) driven to a life of crime by the harsh rule of the law of the rich. In the 16th century the attempts to elevate Robin Hood to the nobility began. In the decades and centuries to follow, the Robin Hood legend was expanded upon by dozens of writers, including Sir Walter Scott in 1819.
In essence Robin Hood developed a fan-fiction following like the characters in Pride and Prejudice!