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Robin Hood: Fiction Based on Fact?

Updated on September 7, 2016

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Nearly all iconic legendary figures sprang from, at least, a kernel of truth. Others were created based on an amalgamation of imaginative story tellers utilizing real-life events and locations from throughout the ages. The mythic Robin Hood may embody the former; and as far as the latter: the legacy points toward events and places that suggest such a person may have actually existed. Robin Hood’s legend has burgeoned since the early Middle Ages through word of mouth, songs, and the printed word; however, at the core of this legend (which the vast majority of people believe to be entirely fictional), did a man exist who was the genesis of the myth?

Over the course of the last 700 years, the legend of the noble outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor has grown to be common knowledge and a familiar point of reference. Beginning in the 15th Century, and perhaps even earlier, Christian revelers celebrated May Day with games commemorating, images of, and relics honoring, a folk hero who resembled the iconic characterization of Robin Hood. The ideal behind Robin Hood resonated with the peasantry at the time based on its anarchist and anti-establishment tenets. Because agrarian discontent had begun to erode the feudal system, the concept of a noble outlaw murdering government agents, and corrupt wealthy landowners alike, struck a chord within the collective masses.

Additionally, research into 13th Century legal records has produced an interesting find which verifies the potential existence of Robin Hood. A variety of bandits from the period had adopted aliases such as “Robehod” and “Rabunhod,” along with other variations on the legend’s moniker. Remarkably, variations on the Robin Hood appellation became so common over a length of time, that in 1439, a petition presented to Parliament requested that anyone appearing before the bench who claimed this identity be considered an “itinerant felon” by default. Yet were these nicknames based on a fictional tale that had, even at that time, already become prolific; were they lifted from a real-life cult figure and The first known reference to a person known as “Robin Hood” came in the form of an archaic poem. The only lines from the poem which survived are in the form of a brief yet interesting passage: “Robyn hode in scherewode stod.” This reference led to the universally-held tenet that Robin operated in Sherwood Forest which is located in Nottinghamshire, England. However, the true region which can legitimately lay claim to the activities of Robin Hood is a gray area. Despite this earliest passage referencing Sherwood; subsequent minstrels, in the form of ballad lyrics, suggested that Yorkshire (along with several other divergent territories) were Robin’s actual base of operations.

The earliest surviving samples of these ballads that convey the exploits of a man named Robin Hood date back to the end of the late 15th and the beginning of the 16th Centuries. And, although the variety of songs provides dissension as to their subject matter’s home base, they do provide unanimity as to other famous elements of Robin Hood lore. Robin’s affinity for championing the lower classes, an extremely chivalrous nature towards women, skill as an archer, and his animosity for the Sheriff of Nottingham, are all recurring themes that are mentioned in each piece. Moreover, characters called Little John, Much the Miller’s Son, and Will Scarlett appear in all of these early ballads. Although, two particularly popular characters in contemporary Robin Hood lore did not appear until sometime later--Maid Marian and Friar Tuck were noticeably absent from the earliest accounts. Speculation suggests that these characters were subsequently added in order to bring novelty, along with an increased number of roles for participation, to the aforementioned May Day games and re-enactments.

Another marked discrepancy in the tales of Robin Hood is the question of where his political allegiances were held. In all depictions of the Robin Hood character of later vintage, the protagonist is a contemporary of, and fiercely loyal to, the late 12th Century king Richard the Lionheart. According to popular lore, while the genuine ruler is away with the Third Crusade, Robin is forced into banditry to combat Richard’s villainous brother John (who was the default ruler while the king was away). However, the earliest ballads contradict this fervent loyalty along with the very identity of the king in question. In “A Gest of Robin Hode,” the king mentioned is named Edward; moreover, the song asserts that Robin repudiated the king after accepting his pardon, then “returned to Greenwood.”

Also in question is the social stratus from which Robin Hood originated. Later pieces of written folklore and musical composition state that the legendary figure was a displaced noble or lord (such as in a 16th Century play penned by Anthony Munday, where Robin is positioned as the fallen Earl of Huntingdon). However, the earliest known references to the man identify him as a commoner—perhaps a yeoman. Texts posit that Robin was “neither a knight nor a peasant or ‘husbonde’ but something in between.” Reciprocally, the early pieces contain frequent references to Christianity, and suggest a person with a strong Judeo-Christian faith; yet, an infamous pagan/witch cult known to have existed in England during the medieval period also laid claim to Robin Hood as a fellow practitioner of black magic.

As far as a specific identity for a potential Robin Hood candidate, a number of literary scholars believe that he actually was a living, breathing person. These academicians are quick to point out that he may have held a slight variation on the first name, but that the surname was the same (although it would have presented a foreign spelling to today’s audience due to the Middle English of the time). They suggest that he may have actually been named “Robert Hood:” a more prevalent Christian first name during the period. This group postulates that since the earliest references link the figure of Robin to real places, along with legitimate contemporary environments including socio-economic conditions, that the accounts must be “more or less” factual and genuine.

Skeptics of this theory counter that, as previously stated, the name “Robin Hood” is based more on an ideal than on an actual human heritage. This collection of researchers asserts that the ideal behind the name caused it to be commandeered by any vagabond or ne’er do well that required an alias for his “occupation.” Similarly, one historian has suggested that the name Robin Hood was simply an all-inclusive pseudonym for all of the ancient Lords of Wellow, Nottinghamshire.

While it is tenuous as to whether Robin Hood ever existed outside of the lyrics of a ballad, the pages of venerable texts, or the film of numerous Hollywood incarnations; there are plausible reasons to believe that this iconic figure may have, in fact, existed. Either way, young and old fans alike still flock to the Nottinghamshire region of England to tour the historic locations thought to be the haunts of Robin Hood—from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest to a handful of centuries-old pubs. Whether Robin Hood really existed will probably never be determined; but the ideal behind the man of aiding the poor and righting society’s wrongs will flourish forever.

Robin Hood statue in Sherwood forest
Robin Hood statue in Sherwood forest
Kevin Costner in one of the Robin Hood film adaptations
Kevin Costner in one of the Robin Hood film adaptations
Russell Crowe took a big screen Robin Hood turn, as well
Russell Crowe took a big screen Robin Hood turn, as well

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