The first clear reference to 'rhymes of Robin Hood' is from the alliterative poem Piers Plowman, thought to have been composed in the 1370s, but the earliest surviving copies of the narrative ballads that tell his story date to the second half of 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 where he is mentioned in a Robin Hood play script.
In modern 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 earliest surviving text of a Robin Hood ballad is the 15th century "Robin Hood and the Monk". This is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48. Written 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. 1500), 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.
Other early texts are dramatic pieces, the earliest being the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham (c. 1475). 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 early 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.Of my good he shall haue some,Yf he be a por man.
As it happens the next traveller is not poor, but it seems in context that Robin Hood is stating a general policy. The first explicit statement to the effect that Robin Hood habitually robbed from the rich to give the poor can be found in John Stow's Annales of England (1592), about a century after the publication of the Gest. But 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:loke ye do no husbonde harmeThat tilleth with his ploughe.No more ye shall no gode yemanThat walketh by gren-wode shawe;Ne no knyght ne no squyerThat wol be a gode felawe.
And in its final lines the Gest sums up:he was a good outlawe,And dyde pore men moch god.
Within Robin Hood's band, medieval forms of courtesy rather than modern ideals of equality are generally in evidence. In the early ballad, 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 17th 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.
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 This play is distinct from the English legends. although Dobson and Taylor 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. 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.
The earliest preserved script of a Robin Hood play is the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham This apparently dates to the 1470s and circumstantial evidence suggests it was probably performed at the household of Sir John Paston. This fragment appears to tell the story of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne There is also an early playtext appended to a 1560 printed edition of the Gest. This includes a dramatic version of the story of Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar and a version of the first part of the story of Robin Hood and the Potter. (Neither of these ballads are known to have existed in print at the time, and there is no earlier record known of the "Curtal Friar" story). The publisher describes the text as a 'playe of Robyn Hood, verye proper to be played in Maye games', but does not seem to be aware that the text actually contains two separate plays An especial point of interest in the "Friar" play is the appearance of a ribald woman who is unnamed but apparently to be identified with the bawdy Maid Marian of the May Games. She does not appear in extant versions of the ballad.
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). These plays drew on a variety of sources, including apparently A Gest of Robin Hood, and were influential in fixing the story of Robin Hood to the period of Richard I. Stephen Thomas Knight has suggested that Munday drew heavily on Fulk Fitz Warin a historical 12th century outlawed nobleman and enemy of King John, in creating his Robin Hood. The play identifies Robin Hood as Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, probably for the first time, and identifies Maid Marian with 'one of the semi-mythical Matildas persecuted by King John'. The plays are complex in plot and form, the story of Robin Hood appearing as a play-within-a-play presented at the court of Henry VIII and written by the poet, priest and courtier John Skelton. Skelton himself is presented in the play as acting the part of Friar Tuck. Some scholars have conjectured that Skelton may have indeed written a lost Robin Hood play for Henry VIII's court, and that this play may have been one of Munday's sources. Henry VIII himself with eleven of his nobles had impersonated "Robyn Hodes men" as part of his "Maying" in 1510. Robin Hood is known to have appeared in a number of other lost and extant Elizabethan plays. In 1599, the play George a Green, the Pinner of Wakefield places Robin Hood in the reign of Edward IV. Edward I, a play by George Peele first performed in 1590-1, incorporates a Robin Hood game played by the characters. Lleweleyn, the last independent Prince of Wales, is presented playing Robin Hood.
Fixing the Robin Hood story to the 1190s had been first proposed by John Major in his Historia Majoris Britanniæ (1521), (and he also may have been influenced in so doing by the story of Fulk Fitz Warin) This was the period in which King Richard was absent from the country, fighting in the Third Crusade.
William Shakespeare makes reference to Robin Hood in his late-16th-century play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. 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'. Justice Silence sings a line from an unnamed Robin Hood ballad, the line is "Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John" in Act 5 scene 3 of Henry IV, part 2. In Henry IV part 1 Act 3 scene 3, Falstaff refers to Maid Marian implying she is a by-word for unwomanly or unchaste behaviour.
Ben Jonson produced the (incomplete) masque The Sad Shepherd, or a Tale of Robin Hood in part as a satire on Puritanism. It is about half finished and writing may have been interrupted by his death in 1637. It is Jonson's only pastoral drama, it was written in sophisticated verse and included supernatural action and characters. It has had little impact on the Robin Hood tradition but needs mention as the work of a major dramatist.
The London theatre closure 1642 by the Puritans interrupted the portrayal of Robin Hood on the stage. The theatres would reopen with the Restoration in 1660. Robin Hood did not appear on the Restoration stage unless one includes "Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers" acted in Nottingham on the day of the coronation of Charles II in 1661. This short play adapts the story of the king's pardon of Robin Hood to refer to the Restoration.
However Robin Hood appeared on the 18th century stage in various farces and comic operas. Tennyson would write a four act Robin Hood play at the end of the 19th century, "The Forrestors". It is fundamentally based on the Gest but follows the tradition of placing Robin Hood as the Earl of Huntingdon in the time of Richard I, and making the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John rivals with Robin Hood for Maid Marian's hand. The return of King Richard brings about a happy ending.
With the advent of printing came the Robin Hood broadside ballads. Exactly when they displaced the oral tradition of Robin Hood ballads is unknown but the process seems to have been completed by the end of the 16th century. Near the end of the 16th century an unpublished prose life of Robin Hood was written, and included in the Sloane Manuscript. Largely a paraphrase of the Gest, it also contains material revealing that the author was familiar with early versions of a number of the Robin Hood broadside ballads. Not all of the medieval legend was preserved in the broadside ballads, there is no broadside version of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne or of Robin Hood and the Monk, which did not appear in print until the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. However, the Gest was reprinted from time to time throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
No surviving broadside ballad can be dated with certainty before the 17th century, but during that century, the commercial broadside ballad became the main vehicle for the popular Robin Hood legend. These broadside ballads were in some cases newly fabricated but were mostly adaptions of the older verse narratives. The broadside ballads were fitted to a small repertoire of pre-existing tunes resulting in an increase of "stock formulaic phrases' making them 'repetitive and verbose', they commonly feature Robin Hood's contests with artisans: tinkers tanners and butchers. Among these ballads is Robin Hood and Little John telling the famous story of the quarter-staff fight between the two outlaws.
Dobson and Taylor wrote, 'More generally the Robin of the broadsides is a much less tragic, less heroic and in the last resort less mature figure than his medieval predecessor'. In most of the broadside ballads Robin Hood remains a plebeian figure, a notable exception being Martin Parker's attempt at an overall life of Robin Hood, A True Tale of Robin Hood, which also emphasises the theme of Robin Hood's generosity to the poor more than the broadsheet ballads do in general.
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. The prose life of Robin Hood in Sloane Manuscript contains the substance of the Alan-a-Dale ballad but tells the story about Will Scarlet.
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 tradesmen 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).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Robin Hood ballads were mostly sold in "Garlands" of 16 to 24 Robin Hood ballads; these were crudely printed chap books aimed at the poor. The garlands added nothing to the substance of the legend but ensured that it continued after the decline of the single broadside ballad. In the 18th century also, Robin Hood frequently appeared in criminal biographies and histories of highwaymen compendia.
In 1765 Thomas Percy (bishop of Dromore) published Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, including ballads from the 17th century Percy Folio manuscript which had not previously been printed, most notably Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is generally regarded as in substance a genuine late medieval ballad.
In 1795 Joseph Ritson published an enormously influential edition of the Robin Hood ballads Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems Songs and Ballads now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw 'By providing English poets and novelists with a convenient source book, Ritson gave them the opportunity to recreate Robin Hood in their own imagination,' Ritson's collection included the Gest and put the Robin Hood and the Potter ballad in print for the first time. The only significant omission was Robin Hood and the Monk which would eventually be printed in 1806. Ritson's interpretation of Robin Hood was also influential. Himself a supporter of the principles of the French Revolution and admirer of Thomas Paine Ritson held that Robin Hood was a genuinely historical, and genuinely heroic, character who had stood up against tyranny in the interests of the common people.
In his preface to the collection Ritson assembled an account of Robin Hood's life from the various sources available to him, and concluded that Robin Hood was born in around 1160, and thus had been active in the reign of Richard I. He thought that Robin was of aristocratic extraction, with at least 'some pretension' to the title of Earl of Huntingdon, that he was born in an unlocated Nottinghamshire village of Locksley and that his original name was Robert Fitzooth. Ritson gave the date of Robin Hood's death as 18 November 1247, when he would have been around 87 years old. In copious and informative notes Ritson defends every point of his version of Robin Hood's life. In reaching his conclusion Ritson relied or gave weight to a number of unreliable sources, such as the Robin Hood plays of Anthony Munday, and the Sloane Manuscript. Nevertheless, Dobson and Taylor credit Ritson with having 'an incalculable effect in promoting the still continuing quest for the man behind the myth', and note that his work remains an 'indispensable handbook to the outlaw legend even now'.
Ritson's friend Walter Scott used Ritson's anthology collection as a source for his picture of Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, written in 1818, which did much to shape the modern legend.
In the 19th century the Robin Hood legend was first specifically adapted for children. Children's editions of the garlands were produced and in 1820 a children's edition of Ritson's Robin Hood collection. Children's Robin Hood novels began to appear. It is not that children did not read Robin Hood stories before, but this is the first appearance of a Robin Hood literature specifically aimed at them. A very influential example of these children's novels was Pierce Egan the Younger's Robin Hood and Little John (1840) This was adapted into French by Alexandre Dumas in Le Prince des Voleurs (1872) and Robin Hood Le Proscrit (1873). Egan made Robin Hood of noble birth but raised by the forestor Gilbert Hood.
Another very popular version for children was Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which influenced accounts of Robin Hood through the 20th century. Pyle's version 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. Pyle's Robin Hood is a yeoman and not an aristocrat.
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 adapted some elements from Reynard into Robin Hood, thus making the title 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 1990s BBC sitcom Maid Marian and her Merry Men parodied the Moorish character with Barrington, a Rastafarian rapper played by Danny John-Jules. 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 had 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 historicity of Robin Hood has been debated for centuries. A difficulty with any such historical research is that Robert was a very common given name in medieval England, and 'Robin' (or Robyn), was its very common diminutive, especially in the 13th century; it is a French hypocorism, already mentioned in the Roman de Renart in the 12th century. The surname Hood (or Hude, Hode, etc.) was also 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, medieval records mention a number of people called 'Robert Hood' or 'Robin Hood', some of whom are known to have fallen foul of the law.
Another view on the origin on the name is expressed in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica which remarks that 'hood' was a common dialectical form of 'wood'; and that the outlaw's name has been given as 'Robin Wood'. There are 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.
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 1261 onward, the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Robbehod' occur in the rolls of several English Justices as nicknames or descriptions of malefactors. 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.
Leaving aside the reference to the "rhymes" of Robin Hood in Piers Plowman in the 1370s, 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:
Lytil Jhon and Robyne HudeWayth-men ware commendyd gudeIn Yngil-wode and BarnysdaleThai oysyd all this tyme thare trawale.
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.
Then [c. 1266] arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.
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.
Another reference, discovered by Julian Luxford in 2009, appears in the margin of the "Polychronicon" in the Eton College library. Written around the year 1460 by a monk in Latin, it says:
Around this time [ie reign of Edward I], according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.
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 antiquarian Joseph Hunter (1783–1861) believed that Robin Hood had inhabited the forests of Yorkshire during the early decades of the fourteenth century. Hunter pointed to two men whom, believing them to be the same person, he identified with the legendary outlaw:
- Robert Hood who is documented as having lived in the city of Wakefield at the start of the fourteenth century.
- "Robyn Hode" who is recorded as being employed by Edward II of England during 1323.
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 legal records mentioning a person called Robin Hood (Robert Hod) are from 1226, found in the York Assizes, when that person's goods, worth 32 shillings and 6 pence, were confiscated and he became an outlaw. Robert Hod owed the money to St Peter's in York. The following 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.
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.
There is at present little or no scholarly support for the view that tales of Robin Hood have stemmed from mythology or folklore, from fairies or other mythological origins, any such associations being regarded as later development. It was once a popular view, however. The "mythological theory" dates back at least to 1584, when Reginald Scot identified Robin Hood with the Germanic goblin "Hudgin" or Hodekin and associated him with Robin Goodfellow. Maurice Keen provides a brief summary and useful critique of the evidence for the view Robin Hood had mythological origins. While the outlaw often shows great skill in archery, swordplay and disguise, his feats are no more exaggerated than those of characters in other ballads, such as Kinmont Willie, which were based on historical events.
Robin Hood has also been claimed for the pagan witch-cult supposed by Margaret Murray to have existed in medieval Europe, and his anti-clericalism and Marianism interpreted in this light. The existence of the witch cult as proposed by Murray is now generally discredited.
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:
'Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies'.
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. Dendrologists have contradicted this claim by estimating the tree's true age at around eight hundred years; it would have been relatively a sapling in Robin's time, at best.
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 northernmost 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 an early 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,
I made a chapel in Bernysdale,That seemly is to se,It is of Mary Magdaleyne,And thereto wolde I be.
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,
Hear underneath dis laitl steanLaz robert earl of HuntingtunNe’er arcir ver as hie sa geudAn pipl kauld im robin heudSick [such] utlawz as he an iz menVil england nivr si agenObiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247
Despite the unconventional spelling, the verse is in Modern English, not the Middle English of the thirteenth century. The date is also incorrectly formatted—using the Roman calendar, "24 kal Decembris" would be the twenty-third day before the beginning of December, that is, 8 November. The tomb probably dates from the late eighteenth century.
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.
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 Richard Grafton'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. 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.
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.
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).
A Neolithic causewayed enclosure on Salisbury Plain has acquired the name Robin Hood's Ball, although had Robin Hood existed it is doubtful that he would have travelled so far south.
Ballads dating back to the 15th century are the oldest existing form of the Robin Hood legends, although none of them were recorded at the time of the first allusions to him, and many are from 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.A Gest of Robyn HodeRobin Hood and the MonkRobin Hood and the Potter
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.Robin Hood's DeathRobin Hood and Guy of GisborneRobin Hood and the Curtal FriarRobin Hood and the ButcherRobin Hood Rescuing Will StutlyRobin Hood Rescuing Three SquiresThe Jolly Pinder of WakefieldRobin Hood and Queen KatherineA True Tale of Robin HoodRobin Hood and the BishopRobin Hood and the Bishop of HerefordRobin Hood and the Golden ArrowRobin Hood and the Prince of AragonRobin Hood and the RangerRobin Hood and the ScotchmanRobin Hood and the TannerRobin Hood and the TinkerRobin Hood and the Valiant KnightRobin Hood Newly RevivedRobin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and MarriageRobin Hood's ChaseRobin Hood's DelightRobin Hood's Golden PrizeRobin Hood's Progress to NottinghamThe Bold Pedlar and Robin HoodThe King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin HoodThe Noble Fisherman
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.Robin Hood (a.k.a. Robin of Loxley or Locksley)The band of "Merry Men"Little JohnFriar TuckWill ScarletAlan-a-DaleMuch the Miller's SonMaid MarianKing Richard the LionheartPrince JohnSir Guy of GisbourneThe Sheriff of Nottingham