Robin Hood, England's most popular folk hero, is also the most elusive. Many historians have tried to establish the reality of his existence but with little success. Tradition insists that he was real, but Robin Hood remains as elusive to us now as ever he was to the Sheriff of Nottingham!
Legend places the time of Robin Hood in the 1190s, during the reign of Richard I known as 'the Lionheart'. Richard was overseas fighting the Crusades for most of his reign. He left his younger and very unpopular brother John to rule England while he was away.
ROBIN HOOD IMAGES
This Robin Hood web page is neccessarily short of genuine images because no-one knows who he was or even exactly when or where he lived. Many artists have portrayed him throughout the ages according to their understanding and appreciation of his character and deeds. Some of these pictures are very expressive while others are silly or even hideous.
For me, Robin Hood is best portrayed by Errol Flynn in 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' (1938). However, whilst exploring Sherwood Forest to take photographs for this website, I suddenly came face to face with Robin of Sherwood himself! What's more, he actually posed for me while I took his picture. To see the photograph I took of Robin of Sherwood, click here.
ROBIN HOOD'S CHARACTER
Robin Hood avenged many of the wrongs which had been done to the people he met. He was cheerful, just and fair, chivalrous, God-fearing, patriotic and hotheaded. He was also dignified, well-mannered, gracious and a master archer who could split a peeled willow stick with an arrow at 400 paces. His ruling principle was robbing the rich and sharing the spoils with the poor. His enemies were priests, tax-collectors, unjust officials and anyone of a villainous nature, rich or poor alike.
Robin had a regular habit of not eating until a guest had arrived. Such guests were often compelled to visit Robin and dine with him. If the guest had money, he would be expected to pay handsomely for the lavish feast provided. Should the guest plead poverty, his goods and belongings were examined. Untruthful guests forfeited all of their valuables, while truthful guests were treated fairly or not charged at all. Sometimes, if needed, Robin would even give the guest money or goods!
It is interesting to note that Robin is never presented as a Superhero with superhuman powers, and he does not fight with monsters or giants as other legendary medieval heros did. His stories do not involve the supernatural, although this element is forced into the tales at the present day.
ROBIN HOOD IN HISTORY
It is worth restating that no-one knows for certain if there ever was a real Robin Hood. On the other hand, a pub in London was called the Robin Hood in 1294, 13 years before the rule of Edward II. The earliest known mention of Robin Hood in recorded history is found in William Langland's The Vision of Piers the Plowman, written around 1377 AD. A character named Sloth says:
"I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth,But I kan rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre."
Which, being interpreted, is:
"I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings itBut I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester."
This suggests that by 1377 the Robin Hood stories were not only very popular, but were regarded by some as simply a way of wasting time, like watching too much TV!.
A later ballad from around 1400 AD and now preserved in Lincoln Cathedral library, reads in modern language as follows:
"Robin Hood in Sherwood stoodHooded and hatted and hosed and shodFour and twenty arrowsHe bore in his hands."
THE ROBIN HOOD BALLADS
Many Robin Hood stories were spread by medieval minstrels and ballad singers who travelled all over England. In this way, the stories became universally known to rich and poor alike, and five early Robin Hood ballads have survived.
The earliest (14th century) of these ballads, called A Lyttell Gest (poem) of Robyn Hode, is hand-written. It has 456 four-line verses telling some of the well-known stories and introducing Robin, Little John, Will Scarlock (Scarlet) and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
These documents, together with other early ballads, provide most of what we know about Robin Hood and his doings. Of the real Robin Hood, around whom these ballads collected for hundreds of years, we know nothing.
However, the broad outline of his story is the same in all the ballads, and it is only reasonable to suppose that it was based on the character and doings of a real man. His exploits would have been rewritten and enhanced with the passage of time, so they should not be regarded as history, but simply as good stories with a foundation of truth.
THE BASIC ROBIN HOOD STORIES
The Robin Hood stories include:
Robin Hood and the Monk. Robin is captured and imprisoned in Nottingham Castle. He is rescued by Little John.
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. Robin fights and defeats Guy of Gisborne.
Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. Robin fights with and befriends Friar Tuck.
Robin Hood and the Knight. Introduces Little John, Will Scarlet and Much the Miller's son.
Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The story of the archery contest.
The King and Robin Hood. King Richard appears and pardons Robin. Robin dies at Kirklees Priory.
Robin and Marian. This story first appears in the 16th century. There was also another French tale with the same title in which Marian is a shepherdess wooed by a knight. She stays faithful to Robin, her true love.
Robin Hood and Alan a'Dale. 17th century. Robin prevents the marriage of a rich old knight to Alan's true love. Little John, disguised as a bishop, weds her to Alan instead.
ROBIN HOOD'S COMPANIONS
The Robin Hood saga introduces a whole cast of characters, both good and bad, not just a single hero. Here are some of them:
Little John. Robin's right-hand man and his most trusted companion. His real name, John Little, was humourously changed because of his size (he was 7 feet tall) and he was a nail-maker by trade. His supposed grave can be seen in Hathersage in Derbyshire, where he allegedly came from.
Maid Marian. A high-born lady who provides the romantic interest, but she did not appear in the ballads until the 16th century. Marion and Robin are said to have been married in Edwinstowe church.
Will Scarlet. Originally Will Scarlock or Scathelock, he was one of the founding members of the band. He is said to have been a kinsman of Robin, and his grave and stone can be seen in Blidworth churchyard.
Friar Tuck. Also known as 'Frere Tuk.' He fought with Robin before joining his band of outlaws and first appeared in a play performed in the 1470s.
Alan a Dale. The minstrel of Robin's merry band, playing his harp and singing songs to the outlaws. Robin helped him to win his lady love from the clutches of a rich knight. They are said to have been married in Papplewick church.
Much the Miller's Son. The son of a miller. A stout and slightly stupid member of the band who provides the humourous interest in many stories.
Sir Richard of Leigh. In the oldest ballad he is known as 'Sir Richard at the Lee'. Robin helped him to settle his debts and Sir Richard later repaid him and became his friend. His home is identified as Lee in Wyresdale, in Lancashire.
Guy of Gisborne. In an early ballad entitled, "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne" Guy tries to capture Robin. They fight and Robin cuts off Guy's head and takes it to the Sheriff of Nottingham, claiming that it is Robin Hood's head. Sir Guy's town, Gisborne may be Gisburne in Lancashire, which is near Sir Richard's home village of Lee.
The Sheriff of Nottingham. The original and chief baddie. He is killed off in two different ballads, once by Robin and once by Little John. He may actually have been John of Oxenford, an unpopular real-life Sheriff of Nottingham, who stole supplies, took bribes and raised unlawful taxes. He was charged and outlawed in 1341 when he did not appear to answer his accusers, but was pardoned by the king in the following year.
King Richard and Prince John. Niether are mentioned in the earliest ballads. 'Edward our comely king' is mentioned, but there were three Edwards who ruled England in the 1200s and 1300s.
THE INFLUENCE OF ROBIN HOOD ON OUR CULTURE
What is commonly known about Robin Hood is mostly derived from modern films, which are often wrong, slanderous or biased to include the supernatural. They also tend to dwell on, and to exaggerate, the more sinister, depressing and bloodthirsty aspects of our existence. It is ironic to note that the enduring strength of the Robin Hood stories arises from their totally positive message. Hope is encouraged in seemingly hopeless circumstances and Robin never gives up entirely.
Astonishingly, the fame of Robin Hood reaches around the world and he is currently very popular in Japan. People everywhere are powerfully attracted to this basic idea of a just and upright person, forced to live beyond the law, but who still wants to put things right for other people. Apart from this, few people, especially in England, know much more about him or his doings.
The effect of Robin Hood on literature is staggering. Nottingham City Library alone has more than 700 books devoted to this subject and I have no doubt that there are many more. Listed in the table below are some that I have read.
ROBIN HOOD BOOKS
Robin of Sherwood Major C Gilson
Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood H Gilbert
Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children HE Marshall
Robin Hood EC Vivian
Kevin Costner is Robin Hood Prince of Thieves S Green
Tales of Robin Hood T Allan
Rymes of Robyn Hood Dobson/Taylor
Robin Hood and His Merrie Men Dean Classics
Robin Hood, His Life and Legend B Miles
Maid Marian T Love Peacock
Many films have been made about Robin Hood. Some of them are listed in the table below:
ROBIN HOOD FILMS
Robin Hood and His Merrie Men Unknown actor 1908
Robin Hood Outlawed Brian Plant 1912
Robin Hood Douglas Fairbanks 1922
The Adventures of Robin Hood Errol Flynn 1938
The Story of Robin Hood R Todd and J Price 1952
Robin Hood Richard Greene TV series 1955-58
Sword of Sherwood Forest Richard Greene 1961
Robin Hood Walt Disney cartoon 1973
Robin and Marian Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn 1975
Robin of Sherwood M Praed and J Connery TV series 1984-86
Robin Hood Patrick Bergen 1991
Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves Kevin Costner 1991
Robin Hood and the Sorcerer ?
Son of Robin Hood ?
A Challenge for Robin Hood ?
Rogues of Sherwood Forest ?
The Bandit of Sherwood ?
Men of Sherwood Forest ?
Men of Sherwood Forest ?
The general influence of Robin Hood can be considerable. For example, we have many pubs called 'The Robin Hood' and in certain areas even the menu is affected by him. The following Robin Hood items are included on the menu currently in use (March 2003) at the Maid Marian Restaurant, Edwinstowe (Telephone 01623 822266).
* Forester's Folly. Six snails baked with a sauce of garlic butter, herbs, cream and pernod.
* Yeoman's Yearnings. Sweetbreads cooked in a cream sauce with bacon and mushrooms, topped with fried bread.
* Robin's Reward. Boned breast of chicken stuffed with smoked ham and mushrooms, wrapped in puff pastry, baked and served with a spicy tomato sauce.
* Tuck's Treasure. Scallops and scampi, sauted in white wine, flamed in brandy, finished with cream, topped with cheese and baked.
* Richard's Venison. Traditional casserole of venison, button mushrooms, onions, red wine, herbs and spices.
* Little John's Lamb. Lamb cutlets taken off the bone, grilled and flavoured with basil and rosemary, finished with rose wine and cream.
* Will Scarlet's Feast. Beef steak braised slowly in burgundy with mushrooms, baby onions, bacon, herbs and garlic.
* Sheriff's Beef. Fillet steak, coated in peppercorns, pan fried with cream and Djon mustard sauce.
* Poacher's Penance. Whole pheasant served with a red wine sauce.
* Baron's Beef. Fillet steak covered with pate, mushrooms and onions, wrapped in puff pastry.
* Outlaw's Fancy. Venison steak chasseur, cooked in a red wine sauce.
* Robin's Roast. Roast rack of lamb.
* Sir Guy's Chicken. Whole roast chicken served with a cream and garlic sauce.
* Friar Tuck's Homemade Pie. Fish, prawn and potato pie with peas.
In addition, similar fare is to be had at the Forest Table Restaurant in Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre. In this case, you can, for instance, enjoy "Maid Marion's High Teas for Two" in Sherwood Forest itself.
Did Robin Hood and his merry men exist? I think they did because there is ample indirect evidence to support this assertion. As some wit once said, "If Robin Hood had not existed, it would have been neccessary to invent him!"
A curious epilogue in the book Robin Hood, His Life and Legend by Bernard Miles, tells the strange story of two miners sinking a shaft for coal in the 1820s. The site was in an area connected by legend with one of Robin Hood's caves on the borders of Sherwood Forest (Bolsover).
The digging was suddenly interrupted because the side of their shaft fell away to reveal a cave lower down. The miners cautiously descended and discovered a series of caves containing bows and arrows, cooking implements, old sacks, a fireplace, a smithy, a cauldron and a variety of such-like items.
Exploring further, they discovered a skeleton "wrapped in an old woollen habit, lying at the foot of a flat piece of wall, one hand holding a crucifix, the other a chisel." Carved on the wall was a long list of names. The last line read, "I was the last, Michael Tuck."
Not surprisingly, the two men were by now getting anxious, so they started to climb back up the slope to get help and advice. As they climbed, the stone began to break away under their feet and they barely made it to safety in a shower of stones and dust. Looking back, there was nothing now to be seen except great blocks of stone settling into the cave they had just left.
Badly shaken, they told their tale, but no one would believe them. In time they began to doubt it themselves and at last they forgot about it. They died in due course and the secret died with them.
But - if such a cave really did exist, then it must still be there. Perhaps it will yet be found?