is a hero in English folklore, a highly-skilled archer and
outlaw. In particular, he is known for "stealing from the rich and giving to
the poor" assisted by a group of outlaws known as his "Merry Men".
Robin and many of his men wore Lincoln green clothes.
There are many songs and stories about him, starting in medieval times, and
continuing through more modern literature, films and television series. In
the earliest sources Robin Hood is a commoner, but he was often later
portrayed as an aristocrat, wrongfully dispossessed of his lands and made
into an outlaw.
In popular culture, Robin Hood and his band of merry men are usually
portrayed as living in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire. Much of the
action in the early ballads does take place in Nottinghamshire, and the
earliest known ballad does show the outlaws fighting in Sherwood Forest.
So does the very first recorded Robin Hood rhyme, four lines from the
beginning of the 15th century beginning, "Robyn hode in scherewode stod."
However, the overall picture from the surviving early ballads and other
suggest that Robin Hood may have been based in the Barnsdale area of what is
now South Yorkshire (which borders Nottinghamshire).
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Other traditions point
to a variety of locations as Robin's "true" home both inside Yorkshire and
elsewhere, with the abundance of places named for Robin causing further
A tradition dating back at least to the end of the 16th century gives his
birthplace as Loxley, Sheffield in South Yorkshire, while the site of Robin
Hood's Well in Yorkshire has been associated with Robin Hood at least since
1422. His grave has been
claimed to be at Kirklees Priory, Mirfield in West Yorkshire, as implied by
the 18th-century version of Robin Hood's Death, and there is a headstone
there of dubious authenticity.
The first clear reference to "rhymes of Robin Hood" is from the late
14th-century poem Piers Plowman, but the earliest surviving copies of the
narrative ballads which tell his story have been dated to the 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 animus 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
In 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 evil brother John while
Richard was away at the Third Crusade. This view first gained currency in
the 16th century, but it has very little scholarly support.
It is certainly 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 as 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".
We know that 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
The early ballads link Robin Hood to identifiable real places and many
are convinced that he was a real person, more or less accurately portrayed.
A number of theories as to the identity of "the real Robin Hood" have their
supporters. Some of these theories posit that "Robin Hood" or "Robert Hood"
or the like was his actual name; others suggest that this may have been
merely a nick-name disguising a medieval bandit perhaps known to history
under another name.
At the same time it is possible that Robin Hood has always been a fictional
character; the folklorist Francis James Child declared "Robin Hood is
absolutely a creation of the ballad-muse" and this view has not been
disproved. Another view is
that Robin Hood's origins must be sought in folklore or mythology;
and, despite the frequent Christian references in the early ballads, Robin
Hood has been claimed for the pagan witch-religion supposed by Margaret
Murray to have existed in medieval Europe.
Friar Tuck lifts
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 1228 onwards the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Hobbehod'
occur in the rolls of several English Justices. 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.
The term seems to be applied as a form of shorthand to any fugitive or
outlaw. Even at this early stage, the name Robin Hood is used as that of an
archetypal criminal. This usage continues throughout the medieval period. In
a petition presented to Parliament in 1439, the name is again 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 first allusion to a literary tradition of Robin Hood tales occurs in
William Langland's Piers Plowman (c. 1362–c. 1386) in which Sloth,
the lazy priest, confesses: "I kan [know] not parfitly [perfectly]
my Paternoster as the preest it singeth,/ But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood".
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 Hude
- Wayth-men ware commendyd gude
- In Yngil-wode and Barnysdale
- Thai 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 which 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
The word translated here as "murderer" is the Latin
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, 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.
William Shakespeare makes reference to Robin Hood in his late
16th-century play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of his earliest.
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!",
implying that they imagine themselves as similar to the Robin Hood story.
References to Robin as Earl of Huntington
Another reference is provided by Thomas Gale, Dean of York
(c. 1635–1702), but this
comes nearly four hundred years after the events it describes:
- [Robin Hood's] death is stated by Ritson to have taken place on
the 18th of November, 1247, about the eighty-seventh year of his age;
but according to the following inscription found among the papers of the
Dean of York...the death occurred a month later. In this inscription,
which bears evidence of high antiquity, Robin Hood is described as Earl
of Huntington - his claim to which title has been as hotly contested as
any disputed peerage upon record.
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
This inscription also appears on a grave in the grounds of Kirklees
Priory near Kirklees Hall (see below). Despite appearances, and the author's
assurance of 'high antiquity', there is little reason to give the stone any
credence. It certainly cannot date from the 13th century; notwithstanding
the implausibility of a 13th-century funeral monument being composed in
English, the language of the inscription is highly suspect. Its orthography
does not correspond to the written forms of Middle English at all: there are
no inflected '-e's, the plural accusative pronoun 'hi' is used as a singular
nominative, and the singular present indicative verb 'lais' is formed
without the Middle English '-th' ending. Overall, the epitaph more closely
resembles Modern English written in a deliberately 'archaic' style.
Furthermore, the reference to Huntingdon is anachronistic: the first
recorded mention of the title in the context of Robin Hood occurs in the
1598 play The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington by Anthony Munday.
The monument can only be a 17th-century forgery.
Therefore Robert is largely fictional by this time. The Gale note is
inaccurate. The medieval texts do not refer to him directly, but mediate
their allusions through a body of accounts and reports: for Langland, Robin
exists principally in "rimes", for Bower, "comedies and tragedies", while
for Wyntoun he is, "commendyd gude". Even in a legal context, where one
would expect to find verifiable references to Robert, he is primarily a
symbol, a generalised outlaw-figure rather than an individual. Consequently,
in the medieval period itself, Robin Hood already belongs more to literature
than to history. In fact, in an anonymous song called Woman of
c. 1412, he is treated in precisely this manner - as a joke, a figure that
the audience will instantly recognise as imaginary:
- He that made this songe full good,
- Came of the northe and the sothern blode,
- And somewhat kyne to Robert Hoad.
There is little scholarly support for the view that tales of Robin Hood
have stemmed from mythology or folklore; from fairies (such as Puck under
the alias Robin Goodfellow) or other mythological origins. When Robin Hood
has been connected to such folklore, it is apparently a later development.
Maurice Keen provides a
brief summary and useful critique of the once popular view that Robin Hood
had mythological origins, while (unlike some)
refraining from utterly and finally dismissing it.
While Robin Hood and his men often show superb skill in archery, swordplay,
and disguise, they are no more exaggerated than those characters in other
ballads, such as Kinmont Willie, which were based on historical
events. Robin Hood's role
in the traditional May Day games could suggest pagan connections but that
role has not been traced earlier than the early 15th century. However it is
uncontroversial that 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"
And in the Jeu de Robin and Marion Robin and his companions have to
rescue Marion from the clutches of a "lustful knight".
Dobson and Taylor in their survey of the legend, in which they reject the
mythological theory, nevertheless 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.
The origin of the legend is claimed by some to have stemmed from actual
outlaws, or from tales of outlaws, such as Hereward the Wake, Eustace the
Monk, Fulk FitzWarin, and
William Wallace. Hereward
appears in a ballad much like Robin Hood and the Potter, and as the
Hereward ballad is older, it appears to be the source. The ballad Adam
Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee runs parallel to Robin Hood and the Monk, but it is not clear whether either one is the
source for the other, or whether they merely show that such tales were told
of outlaws. Some early
Robin Hood stories appear to be unique, such as the story where Robin gives
a knight, generally called Richard at the Lee, money to pay off his mortgage
to an abbot, but this may merely indicate that no parallels have survived.
There are a number of theories that attempt to identify a historical
Robin Hood. A difficulty with any such historical search is that "Robert"
was in medieval England a very common given name, and "Robin" (or Robyn)
especially in the 13th century was its very common diminutive.
The surname "Hood" (or Hude or Hode etc), referring ultimately to the
head-covering, was also fairly common. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are
a number of people called "Robert Hood" or "Robin Hood" to be found in
medieval records. Some of them are on record for having fallen foul of the
law but this is not necessarily significant to the legend.
The early ballads give a number of possible historical clues, notably the
Gest names the reigning king as "Edward", but the ballads cannot be assumed
to be reliable in such details.
For whatever it may be worth, however, King Edward I took the throne in
1272, and an Edward remained on the throne until the death of Edward III in
1377. On the other hand 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 after he had been outlawed, and
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. It has long been suggested, notably by
John Maddicott, that "Robin Hood" was a stock alias used by thieves.
Another theory of the origin of the name needs to be mentioned here. The
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica remarks that 'hood' was a common dialectical
form of 'wood'; and that the outlaw's name has been given as "Robin Wood".
There are indeed 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.
One well-known theory of origin was proposed by Joseph Hunter in 1852.
Hunter identified the outlaw with a "Robyn Hode" recorded as employed by
Edward II in 1323 during the king's progress through Lancashire. This Robyn
Hood was identified with (one or more people called) Robert Hood living in
Wakefield before and after that time. Comparing the available records with
especially the Gest and also other ballads Hunter developed a fairly
detailed theory according to which Robin Hood was an adherent of the rebel
Earl of Lancaster, defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.
According to this theory Robin Hood was pardoned and employed by the king in
1323. (The Gest does relate that Robin Hood was pardoned by "King Edward"
and taken into his service.) The theory supplies Robin Hood with a wife,
Matilda, thought to be original of Maid Marian; and Hunter also conjectured
that the author of the Gest may have been the religious poet Richard Rolle
(1290-1349) who lived in the village of Hampole in Barnsdale.
This theory has long been recognised to have serious problems, one of the
most serious being that "Robin Hood" and similar names were already used as
nicknames for outlaws in the 13th century. Another is that there is no
direct evidence that Hunter's Hood had ever been an outlaw or any kind of
criminal or rebel at all, the theory is built on conjecture and coincidence
of detail. Finally
recent research has shown that Hunter's Robyn Hood had been employed by the
king at an earlier stage, this casting doubt on this Robyn Hood's supposed
earlier career as outlaw and rebel.
Another theory identifies him 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.
Another well-known theory, first proposed by the historian L. V. D. Owen
in 1936 and more recently floated by J. C. Holt and others, is that the
original 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.
Ballads and tales
The earliest surviving text of a Robin Hood ballad is "Robin Hood and the
Monk". This is preserved
in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48, which was written shortly 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. 1475), a
collection of separate stories which 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. The difference between the two texts recalls
Bower's claim that Robin-tales may be both 'comedies and tragedies'. Other
early texts are dramatic pieces such as the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the
Shryff off Notyngham
(c. 1472). These are particularly noteworthy as they show Robin's
integration into May Day rituals towards the end of the Middle Ages.
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 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. 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 harme
- That tilleth with his ploughe.
- No more ye shall no gode yeman
- That walketh by gren-wode shawe;
- Ne no knyght ne no squyer
- That 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 ballads 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 18th 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.
Although the term "Merry Men" belongs to a later period, the ballads do
name several of Robin's companions.
These include Will Scarlet (or Scathlock), Much the Miller's Son, and Little
John - who was called "little" as a joke, as he was quite the opposite.
Even though the band is regularly described as being over a hundred men,
usually only three or four are specified. Some appear only once or twice in
a ballad: Will Stutely in Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly and Robin Hood and Little John; David of Doncaster in
Robin Hood and the
Golden Arrow; Gilbert with the White Hand in A Gest of Robyn Hode;
and Arthur a Bland in Robin Hood and the Tanner.
Printed versions of the Robin Hood ballads, generally based on the
Gest, appear in the early 16th century, shortly after the introduction
of printing in England. Later that century Robin is promoted to the level of
nobleman: he is styled Earl of Huntingdon, Robert of Locksley, or Robert
Fitz Ooth. In the early ballads, by contrast, he was a member of the yeoman
classes, which included common freeholders possessing a small landed estate.
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
It is from this association that Robin's romantic attachment to Maid
Marian (or Marion) stems. The naming of Marian may have come from the French
pastoral play of c. 1280, the Jeu de Robin et Marion, although this
play is unrelated to the English legends.
Both Robin and Marian were certainly associated with May Day festivities in
England (as was Friar Tuck), but these were originally two distinct types of
performance - Alexander Barclay, 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
Clorinda survives in some later stories as an alias of Marian.
In the 16th century, Robin Hood is given a specific historical setting.
Up until this point there was little interest in exactly when Robin's
adventures took place. The original ballads refer at various points to "King
Edward", without stipulating whether this is Edward I, Edward II, or Edward
III. Hood may thus have
been active at any point between 1272 and 1377. However, during the 16th
century the stories become fixed to the 1190s, the period in which King
Richard was absent from his throne, fighting in the crusades.
This date is first proposed by John Mair in his Historia Majoris
Britanniæ (1521), and gains popular acceptance by the end of the
Giving Robin an aristocratic title and female love interest, and placing
him in the historical context of the true king's absence, all represent
moves to domesticate his legend and reconcile it to ruling powers. In this,
his legend is similar to that of King Arthur, which morphed from a dangerous
male-centred story to a more comfortable, chivalrous romance under the
troubadours serving Eleanor of Aquitaine. From the 16th century on, the
legend of Robin Hood is often used to promote the hereditary ruling class,
romance, and religious piety. The "criminal" element is retained to provide
dramatic colour, rather than as a real challenge to convention.
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). 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.
This is also the era in which the character of Robin became fixed as
stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
In the 18th century, the stories become even more conservative, and
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
professionals 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.
The continued popularity of the Robin Hood tales is attested by a number
of literary references. In As You Like It, the exiled duke and his
men "live like the old Robin Hood of England", while Ben Jonson produced the
(incomplete) masque The Sad Shepherd, or a Tale of Robin Hood
as a satire on Puritanism. Somewhat later, the Romantic poet John Keats
composed Robin Hood. To A Friend
and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a play The Foresters, or Robin Hood and
Maid Marian, which was
presented with incidental music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1892. Later still,
T. H. White featured Robin and his band in The Sword in the Stone -
anachronistically, since the novel's chief theme is the childhood of King
The Victorian era
generated its own distinct versions of Robin Hood. The traditional tales
were often adapted for children, most notably in Howard Pyle's The Merry
Adventures of Robin Hood, which influenced accounts of Robin Hood
through the 20th century.
These versions 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. 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 has grafted still further details on to the original
legends. The 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood 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.
The 1976 British and 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 Lion
Hearted in a foreign crusade and Marian has gone into seclusion in a
Since the 1980s, it has become commonplace to include a Saracen among the
Merry Men, a trend which began with the character Nasir in the 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 Robin Hood legend has thus been subject to numerous shifts and
mutations throughout its history. Robin himself has evolved from a yeoman
bandit to a national hero of epic proportions, who not only supports the
poor by taking from the rich, but heroically defends the throne of England
itself from unworthy and venal claimants.
Connections to existing locations
In modern versions of the legend, Robin Hood is said to have taken up
residence in the verdant Sherwood Forest in the county of Nottinghamshire.
For this reason the people of present-day Nottinghamshire have a special
affinity with Robin Hood, often claiming him as the symbol of their county.
For example, major road signs entering the shire depict Robin Hood with his
bow and arrow, welcoming people to 'Robin Hood County.' BBC Radio Nottingham
also uses the phrase 'Robin Hood County' on its regular programmes. The
Robin Hood Way runs through Nottinghamshire and the county is home to
literally thousands of other places, roads, inns and objects bearing Robin's
name. Specific sites linked to Robin Hood include the Major Oak tree,
claimed to have been used by him as a hideout,
Robin Hood's Well, located near Newstead Abbey (within the boundaries of
Sherwood Forest), and the Church of St. Mary in the village of Edwinstowe,
where Robin and Maid Marian are historically thought to have wed.
However, the Nottingham setting is a matter of some contention. While the
Sheriff of Nottingham and the town itself appear in early ballads, and
Sherwood is specifically mentioned in the early ballad Robin Hood and the
Monk, certain of the original ballads (even those with Nottingham
references) locate Robin on occasion in Barnsdale (the area between
Pontefract and Doncaster), some fifty miles north of Sherwood in the county
of Yorkshire; furthermore, it has been suggested that the ballads placed in
this area are far more geographically specific and accurate.
This is reinforced for some by the alleged similarity of Locksley to
the area of Loxley in Sheffield, where in nearby Tideswell, which was the
"Kings Larder" in the Royal Forest of the Peak, a record of the appearance
of a "Robert de Lockesly" in court is found, dated 1245. As "Robert" and its
diminutives were amongst the most common of names at the time, and also
since it was usual for men to adopt the name of their hometown ("De Lockesly"
means simply, "Of [or from] Lockesly), the record could just as easily be
referring to any man from the area named Robert. Although it cannot be
proven whether or not this is the man himself, it is further believed by
some that Robin had a brother called Thomas - an assertion with no
documentary evidence whatsoever to support it in any of the stories, tales
or ballads. If the Robert mentioned above was indeed Robin Hood, and if he
did have a brother named Thomas, then consideration of the following
reference may lend this theory a modicum of credence:
- 24) No. 389, f0- 78. Ascension Day, 29 H. III., Nic Meverill,
with John Kantia, on the one part, and Henry de Leke. Henry released to
Nicholas and John 5 m. rent, which he received from Nicolas and John and
Robert de Lockesly for his life from the lands of Gellery, in
consideration of receiving from each of them 2M (2 marks). only, the
said Henry to live at table with one of them and to receive 2M. annually
from the other. T., Sampson de Leke, Magister Peter Meverill, Roger de
Lockesly, John de Leke, Robert fil Umfred, Rico de Newland, Richard
Meverill. (25) No. 402, p. 80 b. Thomas de Lockesly bound himself that
he would not sell his lands at Leke, which Nicolas Meveril had rendered
to him, under a penalty of L40 (40 pounds).
A pound was 240 silver pence, and a mark was 160 silver pence (i.e., 13
shillings and fourpence).
It is again, however, equally likely that Nicolas, John, Robert and
Thomas were simply members of a family which came from the area.
In Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire there is a well known as Robin Hood's Well
(by the side of the Great North Road), a Little John's Well (near Hampole)
and a Robin Hood's stream (in Highfields Wood at Woodlands). There is
something of a modern movement amongst Yorkshire residents to attempt to
claim the legend of Robin Hood, to the extent that South Yorkshire's new
airport, on the site of the redeveloped RAF Finningley airbase near
Doncaster, although ironically in the historic county of Nottinghamshire,
has been given the name Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield. Centuries
ago, a variant of "as plain as the nose on your face" was "Robin Hood in
There have been further claims made that he is from Swannington in
This debate is hardly surprising, given the considerable value that the
Robin Hood legend has for local tourism. 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,
amongst 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. The supposed grave of Little John can
be found in Hathersage, also in the Peak District.
Robin Hood himself was once thought to have been buried in the grounds of
Kirklees Priory between Brighouse and Mirfield in West Yorkshire, although
for the reasons given above this theory has now largely been abandoned.
There is an elaborate grave there with the inscription referred to above.
The story said 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
Before he died, he told Little John (or possibly another of his Merry
Men) 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 grave with the
inscription is within sight of the ruins of the Kirklees Priory, behind the
Three Nuns pub in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. The grave can be visited on
occasional organised walks, organised by Calderdale Council Tourist
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
A British Army Territorial (reserves) battalion formed in Nottingham in
1859 was known as the 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.
List of traditional ballads
Ballads are the oldest existing form of the Robin Hood legends, although
none of them are recorded at the time of the first allusions to him, and
many are 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 below 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 which 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.
Early ballads (i.e., surviving in 15th- or
early 16th-century copies)
- A Gest of Robyn Hode
- Robin Hood and the Monk
- Robin Hood and the Potter
Ballads appearing in 17th-century Percy Folio
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 Death
- Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
- Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar
- Robin Hood and the Butcher
- Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly
- Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires
- The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield
- Little John and the Four Beggars
- Robin Hood and Queen Katherine
- A True Tale of Robin Hood
- Robin Hood and the Bishop
- Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford
- Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow
- Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon
- Robin Hood and the Ranger
- Robin Hood and the Scotchman
- Robin Hood and the Tanner
- Robin Hood and the Tinker
- Robin Hood and the Valiant Knight
- Robin Hood Newly Revived
- Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage
- Robin Hood's Chase
- Robin Hood's Delight
- Robin Hood's Golden Prize
- Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham
- The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood
- The King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin Hood
- The 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.
Songs, plays, games, and later novels, musicals, films, TV series and
even a psychology quiz have developed Robin Hood and company according to
the needs of their times, and the myth has been subject to extensive
In moral theology, Robin Hood is a character often used in the debate of
whether or not the ends justify the means, since his good intentions (giving
to the poor) may or may not justify his bad means (stealing).
In DC Comics, Batman's sidekick, Robin, is named after Robin Hood.
Robin Hood has become shorthand for a good-hearted bandit who
steals from the rich to give to the poor. It is also a proverbial expression
for somebody who takes other people's giveaways and gives them to people he
or she knows who could use them. This can be called "Robin Hood giving."
There have even been so-called "Robin Hood laws" which involve the
government taking money from wealthy judicial areas (such as school
districts) and redistributing it to poorer ones. Many countries and
situations boast their own Robin Hood characters.