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Robin Hood

Unravelling the Identity of the Real Robin Hood

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Robin Hood is perhaps one of the most iconic English heroes. His ethos of ‘robbing from the rich and giving to the poor’ has endeared him to many, as he is seen as a figure who fought for the downtrodden. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Robin Hood did actually exist, or whether he was just a fictional character. If he did exist, then who was he? Such questions have never been satisfactorily answered, and various versions of Robin Hood have been produced due to this ambiguity.

Some have argued that Robin Hood was a fictional character, since the earliest records of this character are found in traditional ballads, i.e. narratives set to music. These ballads may not be taken as historical evidence for the existence of Robin Hood, and were probably not written at the time when Robin Hood was first alluded to. The stories of Robin Hood can thus be said to have been initially transmitted orally and could have been told by the ‘common folk’.

Robin Hood with Sir Guy

Robin Hood is the subject of many stories and legends. But how many, if any, are real? Robin Hood with Sir Guy "Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest", Louis Rhead. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Some have even argued that Robin Hood may have been a mythological character, and that the stories about him are filled with symbolic meaning. For instance, some have claimed that the traditional color of Robin Hood’s outfit, Lincoln green, was meant to represent the traditional color of fairies. The color green may also be associated with spring, which is featured prominently in the ballads, hence symbolically connecting Robin Hood with life and growth.

Another argument is that Robin Hood was a medieval trickster character. For instance, Robin Hood has been associated with the Teutonic elf Hodekin, Woden (the Germanic form of Odin) and the hobgoblin known as Robin Goodfellow, known also as Puck. All three figures are supernatural characters, and it has been argued that Robin Hood should also be seen as one of them.

Robin Goodfellow-Puck by Henry Fuseli

Robin Goodfellow-Puck by Henry Fuseli ( Wikimedia Commons )

Despite these theories, others have claimed that Robin Hood was indeed a real historical figure.  Indeed, the early ballads linked Robin Hood with identifiable real places, such as Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.  The biggest problem with this claim, however, is the fact that Robin Hood is a rather common name in medieval England. ‘Robert’ was a very common given name, as was its diminutive, ‘Robin’, especially during the 13 th century. ‘Hood’ was also a relatively frequent surname, as it referred to either a maker of hoods, or a person who wore a hood. Thus, it is entirely possible that there were several Robin Hoods roaming around medieval England, some of whom may even match the description of the legends.

Statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham

Statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

This scenario of multiple Robin Hoods has led to various claims about who the real Robin Hood was. For instance, one writer claimed that Robin Hood was the Earl of Huntington, and was buried in the grounds of Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire. This is supported by an alleged grave with an inscription indicating that that was Robin Hood’s resting place.

Another claim is that Robin Hood was not, as the stories go, from Nottingham, but from York. For instance, instead of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood is said to have his base in Barnsdale Forest, which is on the border between South and West Yorkshire. This claim can be found in one of the earliest written ballads of Robin Hood, the 15 th century A Gest of Robyn Hode . Additionally, the ballad mentions a church, thought to be St. Mary Magdalene, Campsall, in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where Robin Hood married Maid Marian. Moreover, only a few of the early ballads mentions Robin Hood’s arch-nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and only one early ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk , mentions Nottingham.

Sherwood Forest, Nottingham

Sherwood Forest, Nottingham ( Wikimedia Commons )

The earliest known legal records mentioning a person called Robin Hood (Robert Hod), appear in the York Assizes (criminal court documents) in 1226. According to the documentation, Robert Hod had his assets worth 32 shillings and 6 pence, which he owed to St Peter’s in York, confiscated and he became an outlaw. Robert Hod of York is the only early Robin Hood known to have been an outlaw. Many believe that he remains one of the strongest candidates to be the real Robin Hood ever found by historians.

Regardless of whether Robin Hood was a fictional character or indeed a real person, his story will continue to fascinate the masses, and be continuously re-interpreted. After all, in the last 100 years alone, the story of Robin Hood has been retold in various forms, thanks to television and film. Thus, numerous versions of Robin Hood now exist, ranging from the nationalistic hero, i.e. a Saxon who fought against the Norman overlords (a concept originating in the 19 th century) to an anthropomorphic fox in Disney’s Robin Hood . Most recently, Robin Hood makes an appearance (along with robots and a spaceship in the sheriff’s castle) in the sci-fi series, Doctor Who . What next for Robin Hood?

Featured image: Screenshot from ‘Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood’ by Spellbound Studios

References

Ibeji, M., 2011. Robin Hood and his Historical Context. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/robin_01.shtml

Nottinghamshire County Council, 2014. Robin Hood. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/enjoying/countryside/countryparks/sherwood/sherwoodforesthistory/robinhoodhistory/

tardis.wikia.com, 2014. Robot of Sherwood (TV Story). [Online]
Available at: http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Robot_of_Sherwood_%28TV_story%29

Wikipedia, 2014. Robin Hood. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood

Woollaston, V., 2014. Was Robin Hood from YORKSHIRE? Outlaw has more ties to the county than Nottinghamshire, claims expert. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2749136/Was-Robin-Hood-YORKSHIRE-Outlaw-ties-county-Nottinghamshire-claims-expert.html

Wright, A. W., 2013. The Search for a Real Robin Hood. [Online]
Available at: http://www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/index.html

By Ḏḥwty

Comments

Given how fascinating this all is, isn't it amazing how Ridley Scott managed to come up with that really, really bad film?

It very well could. Certainly Hobbe the Robber was a phrase used during the 14th century. (Hob being a short form for Robert, just like Robin was.)

Although Hood -- short for Hoodlum - to mean criminal seems to come from 19th century San Francisco.

I suppose the name Robin Hood could have derived from a general term given to bandits that robbed you. Most bandits were probably local to where their victims lived and as such would have had to conceal their identities, more then likely with a hood.
"what happened to you"? a victim might be asked,
"I got held up by a robbing hood"
Aren't criminals still referred to as "hoods" in some parts?
....Just a thought.

Ah, I see your mistake was in trusting the Daily Mail.

Well, Nottingham appears in The Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1460s, surviving print copy was c. 1500):

From the first fytte of the Gest:

"These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde."

First lines of the fourth fytte:

The sherif dwelled in Notingham
He was fayne he was agone,
And Robyn and his mery men
Went to wode anone.

And the fifth fytte:

Whan they cam to Notyngham,
The buttes were fayre and longe,
Many was the bolde archere
That shot with bowes stronge.

And so on....

And then Robin Hood and the Potter (c. 1468):

Robyn went to Notynggam,
Thes pottys for to sell;
The potter abode with Robens men,
There he fered not eylle.

and:

"Ye, be mey trowthe, Leytyll John,
Loke thow take no care;
Y haffe browt the screffe of Notynggam,
For all howre chaffare."

The third medieval one is Robin Hood and the Monk which you already mentioned as including a Nottingham reference. (Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood's Death are sort of honorary medieval ballads -- the surviving copies are post-medieval, but the tone is consistent with the medieval ballads and similar stories appear elsewhere in the medieval period.)

"only one early ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, mentions Nottingham".

There are scenes set in Nottingham in all three of the genuinely surviving medieval ballads. The Sheriff also appears in all of them, as well as one of the honorary medieval ballads (Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, the surviving copy is later but the tone and style is medieval). Perhaps you were thinking of Sherwood as the location named in Robin Hood and the Monk.

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