A mythical character of the English folklore, Robin Hood became the stereotypical figure of the big-hearted outlaw, taking from the rich to give to the poor. A beautiful and inspiring story, sure… But does the fiction have some truth to it?
Lots of characters have left a mark on history without any evidence of them really existing. Much alike King Arthur, whose existence is still strongly debated upon, Robin Hood was born under mysterious circumstances… Originating back to the 14th century, the archer became a medieval hero in only a few decades, numerous tales and ballads making him instantly famous. Were these stories inspired by real events?
Once upon a time…
In short, medieval tales about Robin tell the story of a man from a noble family who turns into an outlaw in his effort to set the English countryside free. Robin thus challenges English tyrants, who benefit from the context of the Crusades – English knights and conscripts being sent to the Holy Land – to have their power uncontested.
Here comes our historical starting point – the Crusades. The one led by Richard the Lionheart was the third: at the end of the 12th century, the King of England left his country for the Holy Land. He had emptied the kingdom’s vaults to raise his army: rumor has it that he would have sold London if he needed to…
At the gates of Jerusalem, Richard and his Muslim counterpart, Saladin, faced each other in devastating battles. Despite his best efforts, the Lionheart could not take over the Holy City. In 1192, an exhausted Richard was forced to return home but the troubles were not over just then. Having suffered severe weather and the sinking of his ship, the king was captured by Leopold of Austria, asking for a 150,000 marks ransom for his release! It would take some three long years before Richard could return to England. In the meantime, his brother John had taken his spot on the throne…
This is the first hole in the ‘historical Robin Hood’ theory: his story takes place in England under the rule of Richard I (late 12th century), while the literary archer first appears in tales and ballads told two hundred years later (14th century). Was it the time it took for the man to become legend? Furthermore, Robin was often pictured with a longbow, a deadly weapon notoriously used at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415).
One thing is for sure: one of the first literary occurrences of Robin Hood appears in Piers Plowman, a major work of English medieval literature written by William Langland between 1360 and 1387. The text supported the peasant class, and Robin was already depicted as a hero protecting poor and helpless people.
Indeed, the 14th century was a sad time for hundreds of serfs flecking rural England. Decimated by the Black Death, forced to pay high taxes (to maintain English armies during the Hundred Years’ War), plagued by poor harvests and rough winters, peasants attempted to revolt in the wake of the Jacquerie, a popular French 1358 uprising. In this context, the tale of a big-hearted outlaw protecting the helpless was more than welcome…
Another string to his bow
In the 19th century, meticulous researches from British historians identified lots of candidates as potential Robin Hoods. English criminal records contain a number of ‘Robin Hood’ or simply ‘Robynhood’ showing up as soon as the 13th century. Plus, ‘Robin’ was used as a diminutive of Robert – a quite common name at the time.
One of them was found in the archives of Wakefield Manor (Yorkshire). The man was a local landlord who associated himself with Thomas of Lancaster — cousin of notorious (and unpopular) English King Edward II — to rise up against royal rule. Once the uprising was crushed, Robin and his fellows may have ended up robbing royal garrisons passing through Barnsdale or Sherwood forests.
Other ‘Robin Hoods’ (sometimes spelled ‘Robyn Hode’) appeared in the kingdom judiciary archives between the 13th and 14th centuries: a Yorkshire fugitive, whose goods were confiscated in 1226; a detainee who trespassed on Rockingham royal grounds in the mid-14th century; a reformed criminal who worked at the service of Edward II… Historians are thus starting to believe ‘Robin Hood’ was not an actual person, but rather an alias that several outlaws of medieval England regularly used! Ingenious, isn’t it?
A social tale?
How to sort fact from fiction, then? It is hard to identify an historical Robin Hood among the hundreds found; harder to find one fitting precisely the depictions of the ballad character. Unsurprisingly, his story was embellished by centuries of retellings and rewritings. However, some elements undoubtedly echo the sociopolitical context of the 14th and, to a lesser extent, 12th centuries in England.
The stereotypical characters introduced by the ballads could well by allegories: Prince John symbolizes royal lack of concern, Friar Tuck calls the Church to order at a time of growing resentment towards religion (paving the way for 16th century English Reformation), while Robin glorifies freedom and nature.
Those assertions make Robin Hood neither a fictional nor a historical character — only an instrument of revenge for the English countryside against an arbitrary and repressive government. The tale did flourish because it generated hope at a hopeless time. From the 15th century onwards, serfdom was abolished, taxes were reduced and medieval cities thrived. Once again, the green archer hit the bull’s eye.
- May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399 (1959), Oxford University Press.
- Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), Cornell University Press.
- Frédérique Lachaud, Jean Sans Terre (2018), Perrin.
- Laurent Vissière, “La véritable histoire de Robin des Bois”, Historia n°125 (mai-juin 2010).
- William E. Simeone, “The Historic Robin Hood”, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 66, no. 262, 1953, pp. 303–308. JSTOR.
- Valentine Harris, “Who Was Robin Hood?”, Folklore, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Jun., 1956), pp. 103-105. JSTOR.
- Joseph Falaky Nagy, “The Paradoxes of Robin Hood”, Folklore, Vol. 91, No. 2 (1980), pp. 198-210. JSTOR.