There are a number of historical Robin Hoods. The legendary character could be based on one of them. I have studied each and came to no conclusion.
Robin Hood memorial statue in Nottingham
Robin Hood and his Historical Context
"I kan [know] not parfitly [perfectly] my Paternoster as the preest it singeth,/ But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood"
- William Langland's Piers Plowman
Robyn hod in sherewod stod
hodud and hathud and gosu and schod
four and thuynti arrows
he bar in his hondus
Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
hooded & hated and hosed and shod.
Four and twenty arrows he bore in his hands.
- From a poem dating from around 1400 and the original document is preserved in the library of Lincoln Cathedral.
The Robin Hood legends form part of a corpus of outlaw stories which date from around the reign of King John. Two other key outlaws, Fulk fitzWarin and Eustace the Monk, were historical figures whose lives can be clearly identified at this time, but Robin Hood himself is much more problematical.
What is striking about these stories is that they reveal that, in an age when the Rule of Law was respected as the foundation of good government, those who put themselves outside the law had become popular heroes. This is in complete contrast to public perceptions of the outlaw at the beginning of King Henry II's reign, and shows that the existing order had come to be regarded as tyrannical. Tyranny was the abuse of law.
If the existing order was founded on the arbitrary will of evil men who could twist the law to their own ends, then it was the role of the outlaw to seek redress and justice by other means. In a violent age, these means were invariably violent. Robin Hood and his contemporaries were cunning, merciless and often brutal (in one instance Much the Miller's Son murders a monk's page to prevent him giving them away); but by the codes of their time, they were also honourable.
The legendary Major Oak
In all these tales, the forest figures prominently. The forest in the Middle Ages included very extensive areas of cultivated land as well as wood and waste land. They were the private preserve of the king and his officers, and were protected by a harsh series of forest laws, against which there could be no appeal - not even to the ecclesiastical courts.
Forest law was extremely unpopular, among all sections of society, but it achieved its purpose of retaining vast areas of semi-wild landscape over which the king and his court could hunt. Yet the very wildness of the land made it a perfect place for fugitives to hide out, and this is why areas such as Sherwood Forest and Barnsdale feature so prominently in outlaw legend.
The origins of the Robin Hood legend are very obscure. The first literary reference to Robin Hood comes from a passing reference in Piers Plowman, written some time around 1377, and the main body of tales date from the fifteenth century. These are found in the tales of Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450); The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode (written down c.1492-1510, but probably composed c.1400); and the C17th Percy Folio, which contains three C15th stories: Robin Hoode his Death, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.
Within these literary references, there is nothing to suggest that Robin Hood should date to the time of King John: in fact the only king mentioned is 'Edward our comely king', which probably refers to a visit to Nottingham of King Edward II in 1324. Yet a court roll from Berkshire indicates that the legend of Robin Hood dates much earlier than this.
The real Robin?
The King's Remembrancer's Memoranda Roll of Easter 1262 notes the pardoning of the prior of Sandleford for seizing without warrant the chattels of one William Robehod, fugitive. This case can be cross-referenced with the roll of the Justices in Eyre in Berkshire in 1261, in which a criminal gang is outlawed, including William son of Robert le Fevere, whose chattels were seized without warrant by the prior of Sandleford.
This William son of Robert and William Robehod were certainly one and the same, and some clerk during transcription had changed the name. It follows that the man who changed the name knew of the legend and equated the name of Robin Hood with outlawry.
This is merely the earliest of several such references to Robehods or Robynhods, most of them outlaws, after the mid-C13th, and it provides a useful terminus ante quem for the existence of the legend. Robin Hood must have existed before 1261 for his name to have been misused in such a way.
We should not be surprised at such misuse. There are numerous cases in the C13th & C14th of outlaws deliberately taking on the pseudonyms of Robin Hood and Little John, and it seems likely that the original Friar Tuck who got accreted to the legend was one Robert Stafford who was active in Sussex between 1417 and 1429. Yet this in itself indicates just how difficult it is to tie Robin Hood down, since each misuse of the legend adds details of its own.
It is simply not possible to locate the historical Robin Hood with any certainty. The literary corpus very firmly locates the activities of the outlaw in the north, around the Barnsdale area and Sherwood Forest.
This possibly indicates that the legend as we have it already derives from two separate sources, probably two separate 'Robin Hoods'. The Scottish historian John Major, writing in 1521, maintained that Robin Hood was active in 1193-4, at the time of John's attempted coup against Richard, and it is possible to construct an argument which supports this.
On 25th July 1225, the royal justices held an assize at York. When the penalties were recorded in the Michaelmas roll of the Exchequer, they included 32s. 6d. for the chattels of one Robert Hod, fugitive. The account was carried forward into the following year, when he had acquired the nickname of 'Hobbehod', and indicates that he had been a tenant of the archbishopric of York.
This is the only possible original bearing the name of Robin Hood who is know to have been an outlaw (there are other Hoods in Wakefield, but none of them seem to have been fugitives). An epitaph recorded by Thomas Gale in 1702 recorded that a grave purporting to be that of Robin Hood lay at Kirklees (where the legend claims he was killed), dated to 1247.
On this flimsy evidence, it is possible to construct a chronology: Robin active in the 1190s, an outlaw by 1225, dead by 1247 and a legend by 1261. Quite frankly, I wouldn't stake my reputation on it. John Major's dating is purely arbitrary, and two of his contemporaries give Robin's dates as 1283-5 or 1266; while the full date on the Kirklees gravestone, 25 Kalends Decembris 1247, is impossible as there is no 25 Kalends in the Roman calendar.
The only thing to be said in favour of Major's dating is that it fits well with the only two firm pieces of evidence we have, the court rolls of 1225 and 1261. On this basis, I think we would be fully justified in saying that Robin Hood was active during the reign of King John, but that his fame and popularity were such that within a generation his true identity had been obscured by legend.
Another historical outlaw of John's time suffered similar identity problems even during his lifetime, but he dealt with them in no uncertain fashion. Fulk fitzWarin was furious when he discovered that a northern robber, Piers de Bruville, was using Fulk's name to cover his banditry.
He ambushed Piers and his men in a house they were raiding and forced Piers to tie his men to their seats and behead every one of them with his own hands. When the ugly task was finished, Fulk struck off Piers' head himself, saying: 'None shall ever charge me falsely with theft.'
Fulk is in fact a far more interesting character than Robin Hood, with a personal link to King John. He was a childhood friend of John's, but their relationship was a stormy one. One day, whilst playing chess, John broke the chessboard over Fulk's head.
In retaliation, Fulk kicked John in the stomach, and when John went crying to his father, it was John who was beaten for complaining. On the death of his father in 1197, Fulk took over his ancestral holding at Whittington; but when John came to power, he gave the honour to Fulk's old enemy, Morys fitzRoger. Fulk reacted by murdering Morys and fleeing into outlawry, where he levied war against John and his agents for 3 years.
Pardoned in November 1203, he recovered Whittington and remained in the king's peace until joining the baronial rebellion in support of Magna Carta in 1215. He was not reconciled to the king until 1217, and died c.1256-7.
The Romance of Robin
Around these bare facts a wonderfully fanciful romance has been woven in an Anglo-French chronicle which dates to the C13th. The same is true of another historical outlaw, Eustace the Monk, who seized control of the island of Sark in 1205 and terrorised the Channel with piracy until killed at Sandwich in 1217.
Both of these interweave magical incidents and anecdotes reminiscent of the tales of Hereward the Wake; but they also contain stories which can be directly compared to some of the tales of Robin Hood. Eustace, like Robin, disguises himself as a potter in order to confound his enemies: Fulk disguises himself as a charcoal-burner. Fulk robs the king's merchants, at the king's expense, and forces them to dine with him.
Eustace pulls exactly the same trick as Robin when he asks those he waylays how much they are carrying, and lets them off if they tell the truth; and like Robin with the Sheriff of Nottingham, Fulk lures the king into the forest, where he kidnaps him, invites him to dinner and eventually lets him go. These parallels are not mere coincidences, they are exact analogies, and they share much of the same mythological basis as the earlier tales of Hereward the Wake (who himself uses disguises and trickery). If our dating of Robin Hood is correct, then the tales are contemporaneous, and what we can see here is the development of a popular mythology which eulogises those men who stood out against the excesses of John's rule.
In the reign of Henry II, the outlaw was a villain. Warin de Wolcote was a parasite on society, and Henry did everyone a favour when he marched into Sherwood Forest, dragged him to Northampton and stuck his head on the city gates. By the time of John, all this has changed.
Now the likes of Fulk fitzWarin (no relation), Eustace the Monk and Robin Hood are the gadflies of authority, who turn injustice on its head. They may not rob the rich to feed the poor, but they do beat the strong to help the weak. This explains the enduring popularity of the Robin Hood legends; they are the little man's way of striking back.
by Roderick Hunt (OUP, 2000)
by JC Holt (Thames & Hudson, 1989)
About the author
Dr Mike Ibeji is a Roman military historian who was an associate producer on Simon Schama's A History of Britain