Robin Hood

By: Wanda Campbell

One of my favorite legends is the story of Robin Hood. In 1973, I took my kids to see the Disney cartoon version of Robin Hood. My kids were never satisfied with watching something about a “person” without knowing more about them. So the questions started. Was Robin Hood real? Was Richard the Lion-hearted real? What about Maid Marion? Was there a Little John? When did the story happen? What was happening in real life then?

Here is what I found out. Thanks to David Baldwin, author of Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked” (Amberley Publishing, 2010; reprinted in 2011), I learned there were lots of researchers who searched for Robin Hood after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1820. Ivanhoe is the story of an Anglo-Saxon noble family at a time when the nobility in England was Norman. It follows Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who is disapproved of by his father for his loyalty to Richard the Lionheart. Sound familiar?

We know, or think we know, a lot about Robin Hood – the heroic archer in English folklore who robbed the rich and gave to the poor – but hard facts about him are thin.

Robin Hood was a real person

Robin Hood is an invented, model hero, whose career summarizes many of the common frustrations and ambitions of his era. Robin (or Robert) Hood (aka Hod or Hude) was a nickname given to petty criminals from at least the middle of the 13th century – it may be no coincidence that Robin sounds like ‘robbing’ – but no contemporary writers refer to Robin Hood the famous outlaw we recognize today. The individual(s) whose deeds inspired the legend of Robin Hood may not have been called Robin Hood from birth, or even during in his own lifetime.

Robin lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart

Robin Hood is often portrayed as the enemy of Prince John and the ally of his brother, the Richard I (1189–99), but it was Tudor writers of the 16th century who first brought the three men together.

Robin Hood was a philanthropist who robbed the rich to give to the poor

It was the Scottish historian John Major (1521) who wrote that “Robin permitted no harm to women, nor seized the goods of the poor, but helped them generously with what he took from abbots.” Earlier ballads are more restrained; the longest, and possibly the oldest ballad about Robin Hood is The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode, believed to have been written down c1492–1510 but probably composed c1400. It concludes with the comment that Robin “did poor men much good.”

Robin was a dispossessed nobleman, the Earl of Huntington or the Earl of Loxley

Again, there is no basis for this theory – the Robin of the early ballads is always a yeoman (a farmer or a servant to a royal), and his attitudes are those of his class.

Robin married Maid Marian at St. Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe

Maid Marian is as much a part of the Robin Hood story as Robin himself, yet she was originally the subject of a separate series of ballads. Robin and the outlaws of the earliest stories do not appear to have had wives or families – the only slight feminine interest was Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary. Storytellers may have thought this inappropriate after the Protestant Reformation, and Marian may have been incorporated into the tales to provide an alternative female focus.
By: Wanda Campbell
Center for Lifelong Learning – 121 South Marion Street, Athens, AL 35611 – 256-233-8262