Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, standing out against injustice, robbing the rich to give to the poor and having their home in Sherwood forest, has been a popular figure from the middle ages right up to today.
His exploits were related in ballads by minstrels long before they were written down. The earliest text of a Robin Hood ballad, which is preserved in Cambridge University, was 'Robin Hood and the Monk', written down just after 1450. This sets Robin in Nottingham and includes Little John and Much the Miller’s son, as well as the bitter enmity between Robin and the Sheriff.
Plays about Robin and his exploits were also popular in medieval times in the May Day celebrations held in villages throughout the land. Maid Marian and a jolly Friar (probably the forerunner of Friar Tuck) also figured in the May Dav games and probably entered the legend this way.
A very popular work 'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode', the longest Robin Hood story of the time, was printed about 1500 and reprinted many times throughout the following century. It has many strands to the story including the contest of the ‘Silver Arrow.’
In these early sources, Robin is a yeoman, a freeman farmer or person serving in a noble household, definitely a commoner. But later stories portray him as a nobleman himself who has been robbed of his lands and outlawed by the evil Sheriff. In 1598, Anthony Munday wrote a play called 'The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon', in which he identified Robin Hood as this Earl.
By this time, Robin Hood is a firm favourite with authors and audience alike, and he even appears in an unfinished play, 'The Sad Sheppard' by Ben Johnson, a well known contemporary of Shakespeare. Indeed Shakespeare mentions Robin Hood in two of his plays, 'The Two Gentleman of Verona and As You Like It.'
Is there an historical background to the legends?
Richard the Lionheart
Nowadays, Robin Hood is seen as a loyal supporter of King Richard the Lionheart, who went off to fight in the Crusades, leaving England in the incompetent, and sometimes evil, hands of his brother John. This idea first appeared in the 16th century.
Earlier ballads, however, put Robin in the reign of King Edward, though which one of the three early Edwards is not clear, and he is not necessarily a supporter of the king.
About 1420, Andrew of Wyntoun wrote 'Orygynale Chronicle'; in this he places ‘Lytil Jhon and Robyne Hude’ as being in residence in Barnsdale, South Yorkshire, area about the year 1283.
Discovered in Eton College library in 2009 by Julian Luxford, was a reference, written by a monk in 1460, in the margin on the 'Polychronicon' in Latin. It talks about Robin Hood and his accomplices infesting Sherwood and other areas of England with robberies.
Under the year 1266, in the 'Scotichronicon', written by Walter Bower, the text refers to the ‘famous murderer’ Robin Hood and also Little John. Here they are shown as supporters of Simon de Montfort, who led a revolt against King Henry III. This may have been mixing him up with a well-known outlaw called Roger Godberg, who was also a supporter of de Montfort.
Many chronicles and registers from later periods show the name Robin Hood, all in a variety of spellings, as an outlaw or thief, some from Nottinghamshire, others from Yorkshire, and yet others from as far away as Somerset. But the name was fairly common and there can be no certainty that any of them is the precursor of the Robin Hood of the legends.
What about Maid Marian?
Maid Marian receiving a dagger from Robin Hood - film 1922
Robin Hood and Maid Marian were not linked in the earliest stories. Maid Marian was a figure in the May Games festivities, possibly the Queen of the May. A jolly fat Friar usually accompanied her in the frolicsome plays and stories. She was often represented as a feisty character and a skilled archer in her own right.
Robin also became associated with the May Games, forestry and archery being important skills in medieval times. However, their plays were usually different ones.
Anthony Munday brings Marian into his play, 'The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon', in 1598. Her name is really Matilda, daughter of the Earl of Fitzwalter, but she takes the name Marian when she follows her love into the forest.
In a number of stories, Matilda, who is pursued by Prince John, escapes his attentions by running away into the forest to join Robin Hood and his men, as Maid Marian.
In the 16th century, 'The ballad of Robin Hood and Maid Marian', Marian is a very capable swordswoman who disguises herself as a page to flee to the forest to join Robin. When she meets up with him, also in disguise, they do not recognize each other and fight on equal terms for an hour before they realize who they are fighting. “They drew out their swords, and to cutting they went,
At least an hour or more”.
Marian’s character has changed over the centuries according to how women were perceived at the time. Victorian heroines were not expected to be active but demure and modest. However, she has stayed ‘noble born’ and nowadays, the feisty young woman, participating to the full in the outlaws’ adventures, is favoured once again.
Where did the action take place?
The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest today
Many early ballads do place Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. The first recorded rhyme in the early 15th century, only 4 lines long, starts “Robyn hode in scherewode stod”.
However, other early ballads also place him in the Barnsdale area of what is now South Yorkshire. There was a small wooded area on the Great North Road, renowned for its use by outlaws as cover for robbing travellers. This area borders onto Nottinghamshire. But it was not a Royal Forest, like Sherwood, and therefore would not have been patrolled by Foresters, on the outlook for people poaching the king’s deer.
Not far away from Doncaster is Robin Hood’s Well in Skellow, which has had associations with Robin since 1422.
Robin Hood is often called Robin of Loxley or (Locksley). Loxley was a village near Sheffield, South Yorkshire (it is now a suburb). Sometimes he has been called the Earl of Huntingdon, which is in the East of England, but that may be a corruption of Huntington, which is just north of York. And York features in a number of the stories, especially St. Mary’s Abbey, with Robin often falling foul of the corrupt Abbot. Kirklees Abbey, Mirfield, is a traditional place for Robin’s death and there are claims made that a headstone there is his.
Returning to Sherwood Forest, it was much larger then than nowadays, stretching from Nottingham to Worksop. The Sheriff of Nottingham is very likely also to have been Sheriff of large parts of Derbyshire. The village of Hathersage claims that Little John was born and died there.
Within Sherwood stands the Major Oak, which, it is claimed sheltered Robin, Marian and the outlaws. Although it is indeed about 800 years old, it was probably only a youngster during Robin’s time. Nice to imagine, however, that maybe it grew from an acorn from one of the trees which did indeed yield shelter. Nearby Edwinstowe is the village in which Robin and Marian are said to have married.
Nottingham itself is the home of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and many of the Robin Hood legends, with much of the action taking place within Nottingham Castle and the surrounding area: and today, Robin Hood is most closely associated with Nottingham and Sherwood Forest.