What do you think of when you hear mention of Robin Hood? Do you think of a handsome man depriving greedy abbotts, princes and sheriffs of their coin and jewels, and then gallantly taking them to distribute among the poor? A criminal? A murderer? Do you think of a debonair hero whisking his lady love onto his horse for a romantic ride? Or do you think of a humorous fox? Tell me, what does Robin Hood mean to you?
(To the left is a memorial statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham.)
The first references to Robin Hood were not told in romantic or even bawdy ballads. They weren't written in stories or records of the affluent or the poor. No, a mere mention here and there in various rolls of the English Justices across England. The name was spelled differently, often seen as Robinhood, Robehod, Hobbehod or Rabunhod. The name started to pop up in the 13th century. But it wasn't in reference to one person. In actuality, it appeared that our dear Robin was just another name for crook and criminal. But who's to say that they didn't start calling all thieves of the nobles Robin's after the hero in our imaginations, started to truly do his deeds?
The name took hold and would continue to brand those with treacherous backgrounds well into the middle ages and beyond, with even Guy Fawkes calling Robert Cecil and his followers, Robin Hoods, in 1605.
Starting in the 14th century you will begin to see the name pop up in a more literary fashion, such authors as William Langdon and his poem, (1377) "The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman." Andrew of Wyntoun, and his work Orygynale Chronicle written in 1420, and written in the late 13oo's and edited in 1440 by Walter Bower, John of Fordun's Scotichronicon. In this last particular tale, it must be noted that the battle in Sherwood Forest, is very similar to a battle that took place there with Roger Godberd, who has often been sited as perhaps being the "real" Robin Hood. Here is a passage from Scotichronicon:
"Then arose the famous siccarius, [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."
Another great tale of Robin Hood, is The Gest of Robyn Hode, written supposedly sometime in the mid-15th century. Here is the first lines of this ballad:
“Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.”
(Here's a link to read the whole thing, I highly recommend you do: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/gest.htm)
There is some speculation that the real Robin Hood was actually the Earl of Huntington. The below inscription is on a grave in Kirkless Priory, however many say the grave cannot possibly have come from the 13th century. But according to legend, this is where he travelled to where he was killed by the prioress and Sir Roger of Doncaster. This same inscription was written in notes by Thomas Gale, Dean of York in the 17th century, insinuating the very real existence of such a man.
"Hear undernead dis laitl stean
Lais Robert Earl of Huntingun
Near arcir der as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im Robin Heud
Sic utlaws as hi an is men
Vil England nivr si agen.
Obiit 24 Kal Dekembris 1247"
One thing you will find repeatedly in all tales of this gallant, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor man, are the names of his "merry men" and of course his love interest, Maid Marian. There's Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Allan a Dale, and of course the very evil Sheriff of Nottingham, and Prince John. He's always portrayed as a brilliant archer. We know he lived in Sherwood Forest, where today although the acreage has gone from nearly 100,000 from Robin's time to 450, visitors still flock to the Major Oak, where tales tell us was the major meeting point for the band. Back in the day Sherwood forest was dense and packed not only with trees and the King's deer, but outlaws. It was easy to hide from the law in that forest... His hometown was referred to as Locksley, most likely Loxley of Yorkshire. These are the major key points, as time progressed the story has changed a little at a time, but never strays from the key characters and setting.
So do you think this mystery man existed? I for one do. Most ballads and tales came from something. I suspect there was such a man, perhaps not as notorious as stories would have you believe, but there must have been someone to promote such a strong legend that even fascinates us today, some 800 years later.