"Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode."
-A Gest of Robyn Hode
The earliest surviving written record of Robin Hood comes from William Langland’s poem, “Piers Ploughman” written between 1362AD and 1386AD. In the poem, Sloth the lazy Priest states;
“I kan not parfitly the Paternoster as the Preest it singeth. But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood”
“I know not perfectly the Our Father as the priest sings it. But I know rhymes of Robin Hood.”
It is incredible to believe that a Priest does not know the Lord’s Prayer; it is obviously an exaggeration for humorous effect. Nevertheless it shows that even then Robin was well enough known to be sung of in Ballads. His tales have captivated us through the centuries, why? And was there such a person in reality? There are facts and there is conjecture, the truth is something we probably will never know.
The mythology of Northern Europe is full of references to the “Green Man” Cernunnos to the Celts and Herne the Hunter to the Germanic people; he is the Wild God of the forest. Often seen in Pagan art and folklore as the consort of the Goddess, his is the face seen in every tree. He resides in the greenwood, a friend to all in need and a refuge to those who need comfort and sanctuary. Another association to Cernunnos was that up until fairly recent times it was common in Northern England to have May Games around the 1st of May (May Day) when Robin Hood plays were put on.The early tales place Robin in the role of champion and defender of those wrongly used. His devotion to Mary is reminiscent of Goddess worship. His depiction as being a man in green with a secret forest refuge, all these things point to the pre-Christian God of the Forest. When Cernunnos is not depicted as being covered in green leaves he is shown with antlers on his head. In the tales of Robin Hood, much is made of him hunting the king’s deer. This is not only his mark as an outlaw but could also be another way of attaching him to the earlier mythos. In one of the early ballads, Little John tricks the sheriff of Nottingham by telling him he has seen a magnificent Stag, when the sheriff enters Robin’s camp Little John states, “Lo Sir! Here is your hart.” Interestingly, just as the celebration of Cernunnos was killed by encroaching Christianity, so Robin was finally killed by a Prioress. It is easy to see how the figure of a bold outlaw could enter the popular consciousness and be continued down through the ages, touching a deep memory of the time before the industrial revolution when Europe and most of the Earth was covered in forest.
Sting and the Cheiftains. With excerpts from the television series.
Who was Robin Hood?
During the middle ages Friars were wandering Monks who moved from town to town teaching. They relied on gifts for their sustenance. Robbers soon figured this out and would dress themselves up as friars and take money from the unsuspecting. They were known as “Robbers in the Hood” Robin Hoods perhaps?
So who was the “Real” Robin Hood? If indeed, there was such an individual. The legend has changed greatly over the years with characters being added according to the popular fancy at the time the tales are being told. Since the 16th century it has been common to place Robin as a supporter of the 12th century King Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, during the time that Richard was away at the third Crusade and England was ruled by his unpopular brother John. None of this has any scholarly support. The earliest ballads refer to King Edward, though whether this is the I, II, or III is still debated. Either way Robin would have lived about a century after Richard. For example; The Scottish historian Walter Bower (1385 – 1449) Wrote, in reference to 1266;
“Then 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.”
All the early tales refer to Robin as a “Yeoman” A yeoman could be a craftsman but was always a commoner. This did not sit well with the aristocracy of the 16th century. The idea of a common man being a leader was politically unwelcome and socially dangerous, so the notion was spread that he was really a disinherited nobleman fighting to regain his honor. An example is contained in the “Chronicles at large” by Richard Grafton, printer to King Henry VIII, written in 1569.
“But an olde auncient Pamphlet I finde this written of the sayd Robert Hood. This man (sayeth he) discended of a noble parentage: or rather beyng of a base stocke and lineage, was for his manhood and chiuarly aduanced to the noble dignitie of an Erle.”
The “Old ancient pamphlet” described here is very suspect.
Robin is usually depicted as being from Locksley or Loxley as it was originally spelt, though the ballads place him in Barnsdale in Yorkshire.
The Loxley association derives mainly from the following reference though it names only one of the candidates for the original Robin.
(Bodleian Library MS. Dodsw. 160, fol. 64r)
, "Robert Locksley, born in the Bradfield Parish of Hallamshire wounded his stepfather to death at plough, fled into the woods and was relieved by his mother till he was discovered. Then he came to Clifton upon Calder, and became acquainted with Little John, that kept the kine. Which said John is buried at Hathersage in Derbyshire where he hath a fair tombstone with an inscription. Mr Long saith that Fabyan saith, Little John was Earl Huntley's son. After, he joined with Much the Miller's son."
Sherwood Forest extended well into Yorkshire in those days and was the home to many itinerant bandits.
Another difficulty in finding Robin is that Robert was a fairly common name in mediaeval England and it was usual to call anyone named Robert or Roger as “Robin.” So the name appears in a number of places.
Wikipedia gives a possible source for the legend of Robin Hood in the historical character, Roger Godbert. A man outlawed for fighting against Henry III in the baron’s revolt.
In 1266 Reynold de Grey was appointed Sheriff of Nottingham. Court records for 1272 relate;
“May 29. Mandate to Reynold de Grey, justice of Chester, who by order of the Westminster king, lately took Roger Godbert, charged with homicides and larcenies, and detains him in prison, to cause the said Roger to come under safe conduct to the castle of Bruges to be delivered to the constable of that castle; as the king wills that he be kept in prison there until further order.
Feb. 11. Whereas on the showing of the magnates of the council, and the Westminster complaint of many others the king lately understood that in the counties of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, as well in the common ways as in the woods, numbers of robbers, on horseback and on foot, were abroad and that no religious or other person could pass without being taken by them and spoiled of his goods, and perceiving that with-out greater force and stouter pursuit these could not be taken or driven from the counties, he, after consultation with the council, ordered that 100 marks should be levied of the said counties and paid to Reynold de Grey to attach them ; and whereas the said Reynold has pursued them manfully and captured one Roger Godberd, their leader and master, and delivered him to prison, and W. archbishop of York, has delivered 100 marks of his own to the said Reynold as the king ordered, the king wills that that sum shall be levied of the said counties, to wit, 35 marks of Nottingham, 35 marks of Leicester and 30 marks of Derby, and paid to the archbishop for his loan so made, and commands all persons of the counties to contribute their proportions and to be intending to their Sheriffs, who have been commanded to levy the same and deliver it to the archbishop, in levying this.”
An alternative and very interesting candidate for Robin Hood has been discovered, almost by accident, by Author and researcher; Jayne Susannah Lockwood-Allen.
“We came across a Robert Hode a forester of the Wakefield manor who lived next door to my ancestor Thomas Aleyn on Bichill, Wakefield. Thomas Aleyn ran the Guest House at Kirklees Priory on behalf of the nuns and if the supposed grave is to be believed Thomas is also buried with Robert.
Then we found, whilst looking at my partners family, a William Locwode who lived also on Bichill Wakefield and on numerous occasions Robert Hode's representatives in court were both Thomas Aleyn and William Locwode. William locwode is the son of John Locwode who was killed in his bed by Sheriff of Yorkshire's men this became the Elland Fude in which John Elland Sheriff of Yorkshire was ambushed and killed by an archer from a band of men lead by Adam and John Locwode (Williams brothers)Adam and John Beaumont, Quarmby and de Lacy,following this the group were outlawed.
This coupled with other details uncovered during research work for a client in Hebden Bridge which connects Robert Hode forester of the manor of Wakefield with a John Littsells, William Stoodley(Stoodley and Hode recorded as having a battle with Littsells regarding the right to cross a bridge over the river Colden at Heptonstall), William Clericus (a church mendicant often confused with monks), a Michael (Much) son of Stephen Molendenarius (Miller) of Eastwood (Eastwood between Hebden and Todmorden easily confused with Eastwood Nottingham).
Add this to other evidence uncovered and this Robert Hode comes so close to the Robin Hood of legend that it is near impossible to discount him from being a possible origin of the legend.”
Her book detailing the results of her research is eagerly awaited.
- Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham
This is a tale within a tale. Taken from the early 16th century ballad A little jest of Robin Hood It tells of how Little John made mischief with the Sheriff of Nottingham.
- A Little Jest of Robin Hood
The earliest complete tale of Robin Hood comes from a 16th cebtury ballad called "A little jest of Robin Hood" I have taken the Rhyme made by Sue Bradbury and converted a small piece of the ballad into story.
All images are from this site. Great stills from the British T.V. series.
- Robin Hood -- Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood
Robin Hood resources - well-researched historical articles, ballads, interviews, pictures and more for beginners and longtime fans of Robin's legend.
From then till now
Other characters in the story come from other times and places. Maid Marion was never featured in the early tales. However around 1280 there was a French play about a shepherdess named Marian and her shepherd lover, Robin. It is most likely that the addition of Robin’s love interest was taken from Adam de la Halle’s “Le Jeu de Robin et Marion.”
”As England became more and more Protestant, so the tales of Robin and his devotion to the Virgin Mary became replaced by his attraction to Maid Marian. She probably entered during the May Day plays mentioned earlier. The earliest of those plays depict her as a Lady in distress whom Robin must rescue from the clutches of a “Lustfull Knight” A recurring theme until these more enfranchised times.
Also suspect is Friar Tuck, though it should be pointed out that if he indeed was one of Robin’s band he provides further proof that Robin could not have lived in the days of Richard I because Friars did not enter Britain until the 14th century. He is another character that was most likely introduced into the legend from the May Day plays. As was Allan A’ Dale.
The Robin Hood portrayed in the movies and television series of today is a far cry from the Robin of early legend. He is grimmer and a lot less merry than the Robin of mediaeval plays, possibly even grimmer than the original bandit. He is certainly less pious. These more secular times would rather dwell on his affair with Marian than his devotion to Mary.
The modern infatuation with pre-Christian beliefs that has Robin’s contemporaries dealing in Magic misses the point that the magic is Robin himself. Just like Cernunnos of old, he stands in the forest, very alive and full of the vitality of the Earth. He stands ready to help those who go to him in righteous need, the friend of the friendless and a refuge for the forsaken.
The legend may change to suit the mood of the time but the core of the legend remains. Robin Hood still dwells in the greenwood of our imagination. Behind every tree is a smiling outlaw. Be wary of him if you have more than is righteously yours, seek his help when you have less than you need. Either way accept his hospitality. For as long as there is the memory of vast forests and as long as there are oppressed people Robin Hood will always be alive.