Was Robin Hood a real person?

Statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham, England

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 often assumed that he is only a legend, but others contend 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 was set in 13th century England, and 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 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.

Effigy of Richard I the Lionheart

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 the outlaw, 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.[1].

The development of the legend

The name Robin Hood or similar names seems to have been as terms to describe outlaws, who were engaged in crimes such as poaching, which was a capital crime in England. There are many references to Robe Hood or Robehod, who were bandits and outlaws. It appears that it was part of the oral tradition and many tales of him were told in the Shires of England in the Middle Ages.[2]

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 were narrated in some ballads that date from the 15th century. In some, he is a great 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.

The alleged burial site of Robin of Locksley, often believed to be the historical Robin Hood

Robin was very popular in English folklore, and his life and adventures were the subjects of many plays. However, there is no one definitive version of the tales. In one story 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’ had become associated with May Day festivities. [3] May Day marked the beginning of summer, and it was for centuries 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!’ [4]

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 coalesced because of the English writer Ritson. He compiled an anthology of medieval ballads on the life and adventures of the outlaw and his fellow bandits.

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. Scott's book was based on the compilation of stories 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 centers around 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.

Robin of Locksley is a historical figure who was the Earl of Huntington. Robin Locksley's grave is often referred to locally as the grave of the Robin Hood. But there are some problems with this theory, Locksley was from Yorkshire and not in Nottinghamshire, the setting of the legend of Robin. Additionally, there is entirely no evidence that the Earl was an outlaw or bandit.[5] Moreover, it is highly unlikely that an aristocratic figure such as Locksley would ever have used a bow and arrow. The bow was a weapon that was used primarily by soldiers who yeomen, not the nobility. 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 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 initially a friend of the Sheriff of Nottingham, but the two fell out after a local power struggle. Godberd was prosecuted 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 claimed that the legendary outlaw was, in reality, a spirit of the forest. This theory was 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 relic 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 Puck, the well-known goblin.[6] However, the claims that the famous Bowman was a mythical spirit has been somewhat discredited.

Robin Hood- a nickname

The most widely accepted theory is there was no one historical figure by that name. The name Robin is a diminutive of Robert was an extraordinarily common name in medieval England. The surname Hood was also common in England during this time period. Hood is also a word that was a name for the woods. [7]

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. Robin Hood would be comparable to the Dread Pirate Roberts from the book and movie The Princess Bride. In that story, each Dread Pirate Roberts would pass the title to someone else who would take his place.

The name Robin Hood also became associated with the tradition of outlawry. In medieval England, there were many bands of bandits and robbers in the forests such as Sherwood Forest.[8] 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. In time, the 'Robin Hoods' became so popular that they were incorporated into celebrations that marked May Day and other festivities.

Even official records began to refer to 'Robin Hood' as a way to describe a person who had been outlawed for committing serious crimes such as poaching and murder. Essentially, the term 'Robin Hood' became interchangeable with '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.[9] 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.

Conclusion

Robin Hood is perhaps the most famous bandit of all time. However, it is highly likely that there was no single person known as Robin Hood. Robin Hood morphed into an alias in England in the 1300s-1600s. 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.

Further Reading

Knight, Stephen Thomas. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. (Cornell, Cornell University Press, 2004).

Dobson, R.B., ed.; Taylor, J., ed. Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw (London, 1976).

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

Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London, 1936).

References

  1. Kennedy, D.N. 'Who was Robin Hood?', Folklore, vol. 66 (1955), pp. 413-415
  2. Kennedy, p 410
  3. Kennedy, p 413
  4. Shakespeare, William, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2, scene 3
  5. Kennedy, p 412
  6. Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London, 1936), p 145
  7. Coghlan, Ronan. The Robin Hood Companion (London, Xiphos Books, 2003), p 13
  8. Coghlan, p 15
  9. 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