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Statue of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest

Why is the Evidence for the Outlaw Robin Hood as Elusive as the Man Himself?

The historic existence of the legendary English hero who ‘stole from the rich and gave to the poor’ is a perennial source of debate. Every few years, new evidence emerges of authenticity and possible identities of Robin and his friends/foes of Nottingham. Ancient Origins has already delved into the theories of the historic personage of Robin (or should we say Robert?). Now, we will broaden the scope to examine artifacts and skeletons that have been described as proof of the folk hero’s existence. Aside from possibly being connected to Robin Hood, the treasures themselves are generally rather ordinary (bows and arrows, crucifixes, some gold doubloons). However, their tendency to vanish makes each find a mini-legend in and of itself.

Friar Tuck’s Last Words

One of the most famous Robin Hood related finds was uncovered in the 1820s near Bolsover in Derbyshire. The local legend claims that two workers sinking a shaft for a new coalmine located Robin Hood’s Hideout. The story goes that as the two men dug, the wall of earth alongside gave way and revealed a cavern that bore signs of habitation. There was a distinctive fireplace area with wood ash as well as cooking pots and utensils lying nearby. In one corner, sacks and barrels seemed to be a store of provisions. Along another wall were lined numerous broadswords and bows, including a quiver still full of arrows. Finally, at the end of the gallery in a small nook was what appeared to be a tiny chapel area (a cross hung on the back wall). There, lying across a stone altar, the two men found a skeleton wrapped in a deteriorating woolen habit. In one hand he held a crucifix, in the other a chisel. On the wall just above his head, “a long list of names was roughly scratched on the cavern wall and painfully scored at the bottom was, ‘I was the last – Michael Tuck’” (White, 2017). Could this be Friar Tuck? Had he managed to evade capture and make it back to the hideout only to collapse and die? We will never know. As the two men left the cavern to return to the world above, the weakened shaft crumpled in a rock slide. The men just barely managed to escape with their lives but tons of stones reburied the shaft and the cavern. The local legend insists that the cave is still there, close to the site where the coalmine was eventually dug.

Friar Tuck by Henry Leverseege, (1802-1832)

Friar Tuck by Henry Leverseege, (1802-1832) ( Public Domain )

The Merry Men Murders

In a similar tale of lost treasure, workers digging in a garden uncovered six corpses that were supposedly victims of the Merry Men. According to an article published in a local Sheffield newspaper on April 23, 1796, the site was located at Fox-lane, not too far from Nottingham. They unearthed six human skeletons, all intact, lying side-by-side in an orderly fashion. According to a popular Robin Hood story, he and the Merry Men once killed 15 men of a rival forest gang because they failed to fulfill a wager after Robin won the archery contest fair and square. The last verse of the ballad proclaims, “They carried these foresters into fair Nottingham, as many there did know; They digged them graves in their church-yard and they buried them all in a row” (Nottingham Post, 2013).

Robin Hood with Sir Guy "Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest", Louis Rhead.

Robin Hood with Sir Guy "Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest", Louis Rhead. ( Public Domain )

The garden was believed to sit atop an ancient church, possibly dedicated to Saint Michael, which had been destroyed during the chaotic years of the Reformation. Unfortunately, “the proprietor of the garden ordered the pit where the bodies were found to be filled up, ‘being unwilling to disturb the relics of humanity and the ashes of the dead!’” (White, 2014). The site of this garden and the ancient St. Michael’s Church have never been rediscovered.

Little John’s Bow

The loss of treasured Robin Hood relics is not merely confined to former centuries ignorant of the importance of preservation. A massive longbow that is believed to have been Little John’s went missing in 2004. A black and white photograph of a man holding up the bow is now all that remains. In 1729, a long bow was discovered in Hathersage in Derbyshire, which according to legend is where Little John was buried. The bow was 6 feet 7 inches (2.04 meters) long and made of spliced yew tipped with horn. 160 pounds (72.6 kilograms) of force were needed to draw back an arrow. The bow hung in Cannon Hall in Barnsley from 1729 until the middle of the 20 th century when the last owner of the hall, Mrs. Elizabeth Frazer, died in the late 1960s. Mrs. Frazer’s intention was to donate Little John’s bow to the Wakefield Museum; however, her son instead took it to his manor house in Scotland. There it supposedly remained until Mr. Frazer’s death in 2004. Today, the whereabouts of the longbow are unknown.

"Robin Hood and Little John", Illustration by Louis Rhead

"Robin Hood and Little John", Illustration by Louis Rhead ( Public Domain )

Elusive Evidence of the Elusive Legend

So the mystery surrounding the legend of Robin Hood persists. The name so frequently spoken over the centuries, perhaps once in whispers and then in song, shows no sign of fading. However, the hard evidence of the existence of such a man is missing. Indeed, any evidence that has emerged seems to be as skilled as the man himself at ducking out of sight and avoiding detection.

Top Image: Statue of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Kerry Sullivan

Resources

Dhwty. "Unraveling the Identity of the Real Robin Hood."  Ancient Origins . Ancient Origins, 24 Dec. 2014 Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/unravelling-identity-real-robin-hood-002506.

Nottingham Post. "Bob White: The Five Unsolved Mysteries of Robin Hood." Nottingham Post . Nottingham Post, 12 Nov. 2013. Available at: http://www.nottinghampost.com/bob-white-unsolved-mysteries-robin-hood/story-20062768-detail/story.html

White, Bob. "The "Lost Treasures" of Robin Hood."  The Many Faces of Robin Hood . The Many Faces of Robin Hood, 2017. Available at: http://www.robinhood.ltd.uk/in-history-and-legend/57-the-lost-treasures-of-robin-hood

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