Did anyone else had a crush on Robin Hood when they were little? I did. And my first introduction of Robin Hood was the Disney version, where Robin was the fox. The fox was awesome. And even then Maid Marian irritated the heck out of me. It’s not her. I’m sure she’s a perfectly lovely person and subsequent versions have portrayed her as a bit more useful, it’s just that I’ve been boycotting the traditional “I shall bat my lashes and sing to rats until the prince comes to rescue me from this slightly unpleasant stepmother/witch/queen who lets me live in her big house and pay for my expenses” type of cartoons since I was three years old.
Anyway, I’m a sucker for myth busting works, or myth confirming, whatever the case may be. It’s always interesting to see stories I’ve known like the back of my hand being looked at from a fresh angle. In relation to Robin Hood, there’s this book by David Baldwin called “Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked” which gives you quite a few interesting details. So, based on that, let’s pooh-pooh some myths.
- Robin married Maid Marian
In the earliest stories of Robin Hood, Robin and his men never had wives or girlfriends. But somehow, Maid Marian had managed to sneak herself in there and she is now almost as much a part of the Robin Hood story as Will Scarlet. But, she was originally the subject of a separate series of ballads. Maid Marian was originally a character in May Games festivities and is sometimes associated with the Queen or Lady of May. the Marian of the May Games is likely derived from the French tradition of a shepherdess named Marion and her shepherd lover Robin, recorded in Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, c. 1283. There is no association between Robin Hood and Robin the Shepherd. The only devotion Robin ever showed to a woman before Marian was the Virgin Mary, but during the years after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century this was considered inappropriate, and Marian was incorporated into the stories as an alternate female focus. After that, marriage was of course inevitable, as one can’t expect a young, unmarried lady to prance around in the woods with strange men.
- Some of Robin’s friends are actual people known to history
Little John, Will Scarlett and Much the Miller’s son are associated with Robin in the earliest ballads, but other members of his band – Friar Tuck, Alan a Dale, etc – were added later. Little John is arguably the most famous out of the merry men. And there’s a grave in Hathersage churchyard in Derbyshire which is alleged to be his. A part of an earlier memorial, bearing the weathered initials ‘L’ and ‘I’ (which looks like a ‘J’) can still be seen.
James Shuttleworth, who owned the manor, excavated the site in 1784, and found a large bone of 28½ inches long that is said to have been responsible for a lot of ill luck until it was finally reburied. Two cottages, one in Little Haggas Croft at Loxley (Yorkshire) and the other in Hathersage (a village in the Peak District in Derbyshire), were said to be the houses in which Robin was born and in which Little John spent his final years respectively; but Robin’s was ruined by 1637, and John’s was demolished.
- Robin was a nobleman turned outlaw
The Robin of the early ballads is always a yeoman, and his attitudes are those of his class. The idea that he was in any way an earl or a duke started in the 1530s when John Leland refers to him as a nobilis exlex – a noble outlaw. In 1569, a historian, Richard Grafton, said that he has found evidence in an “old and ancient pamphlet” that Robin had been “advanced to the dignity of an earl” on account of his “manhood and chivalry”. This idea then was made popular by Anthony Munday in his plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington, both written in 1598.
Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood, published in 1632, says that the “renowned outlaw, Robert Earl of Huntington, vulgarly called Robin Hood, lived and died in AD 1198”. But historically, the Earl of Huntingdon at this date was David of Scotland, who died in 1219. After the death of the last Earl of Huntingdon named John, in 1237, there were no more earls of Huntingdon until the title was granted to William de Clinton a hundred years later.
- Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor
Scottish historian John Major wrote in 1521 that “Robin permitted no harm to women, nor seized the goods of the poor, but helped them generously with what he took from abbots”, which is rather sweet. The oldest ballad about Robin Hood, written c. 1400, called The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode, says that Robin “did poor men much good” but didn’t mention any money being given to the poor. There are stories, however, of a bunch of “robin hood” mutilating enemies and killing children. The context of Robin doing “poor men much good” is probably morale-related as the people were frustrated with the government at the time.
- Robin lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart
As ‘Robin Hood’ is a nickname for any ol’ criminal in the 13 century, placing him in the reign of Richard the Lionheart wouldn’t make sense, as Richard I lived 200 years before him. So Robin Hood (if he was real) would have lived during the reign of Edward II (1307–27), and the closest he would ever be of supporting any elite would be Simon de Montfort, who was slain at Evesham in 1265.
Robin Hood, as one person, had entered popular mythology by the time William Langland wrote The Vision of Piers Plowman in 1377. In it, Sloth the chaplain says: “I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth, But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf, Erl of Chestre.”
So how did Robin Hood end up in the era of Richard I and Prince John? Tudor writers of the 16th century are the ones credited by bringing the three men together in this context.
- Robin Hood was real
As heartbreaking as this is, Robin Hood is not real. He was a hero invented by the popular frustrations of his era. The name was real, though. The name “Robin Hood” was a generic nickname given to petty criminals from the middle of the 13th century. Robin’s MO of living in the woods were popular among fugitives at the time, and these fugitives were admired by the peasants.