Image © Greg Czechura 2008
Soundestiny albums focus on medieval adventures. Two of the most well-known heroes from medieval times are King Arthur and Robin Hood. Were these men purely mythical or based on real persons. At present, I (Darryl Potter) am interested in one particular historical 'Arthur' of early medieval times who may have been the seed for the legend of King Arthur (perhaps more on this at a later date?). In the meantime, here's my opinion about who Robin Hood may have been.
Who was Robin Hood?
Was Robin Hood a mythological character or perhaps based on one (or more) real people from history. The first passing literary reference to him was in 1377 – a throw-away line in a poem called Piers Plowman by William Langland. However, a great deal more is found in the earliest ballads about Robin Hood written down in the 1400s. These are A Gest (tale) of Robyn Hode (c.1450), Robin Hood and the Monk (c. post-1450) and Robin Hood and the Potter (c.1500). Two other ballads recorded later (c.1650) but believed to have much earlier origins are Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and The Death of Robin Hood. In all these ballads, Robin's exploits take place chiefly in the forests of Barnsdale in Southern Yorkshire. Only one (Robin Hood and the Monk) refers to Sherwood (Scherwode) but others contain references to Nottingham (some 50 miles south of Barnsdale) and Sherwood lies between Barnsdale and Nottingham. So, in searching for a real Robin, it would seem we need to locate an outlaw that operated in southern Yorkshire / Nottinghamshire in the early 1300s or before that time. (Robin, Hob, Robart are variations of Robert... and Hode, Hod, Hude similarly of Hood.)
So where do we start?
Earliest Hood Candidate?
Numerous men had names similar to Robin Hood but one of the most promising early candidates to fill his shoes is Robert Hod (sometimes Hobbehod) of Yorkshire. This fellow, a thief and fugitive, was also probably known as Robert of Wetherby. Around 1225 he was being pursued by Eustace of Lowdham who was the Sheriff of Yorkshire and previously had been the Deputy Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. The outlaw was eventually caught by the Sheriff's men and hung. It is likely that the exploits of this outlaw later prompted clerics to assign surnames such as Hobbehod, Robehod and Robinhood to many criminals regardless of their real names. Thus, the term 'Robinhood' became synonymous with 'outlaw'. But was Robert Hod the origin of the popular long-standing legend – the names 'Robert' and 'Hood' being common in those times? Or are some writers correct in stating that the person immortalised in the legend had a different name altogether and just adopted a 'Robin Hood' identity?
An Alias or Title
Various authors over the years have postulated that Robin Hood was not the outlaw's real name but an alias or perhaps a nickname. The problem with this approach is where to stop. Contenders advanced have included William of Berkshire (1261), Hereward the Wake (1070s), Eustace the Monk (1217), Fulk fitz Warin (1200), William Wallace (1298), Roger Godberd (1260s), Earl David of Huntingdon (1190s), Robert fitz Odo (1196) and so on. But no convincing reasons can be advanced for their adoption of the name Robin Hood. Additionally, if these characters were already recorded in history, it's unlikely they were also recorded in separate histories under a different name. If Robin Hood existed, it is more likely that he had that name (or a variation) and nothing can be gained by putting forward other contenders that can't be substantiated. So was there a real outlaw called Robin Hood, along with other historical individuals with events and a setting, that bear similarities to the legendary stories and ballads?
Back to the Ballads
The earliest ballads written down in the 1400s refer to Robin Hood and characters such as Little John (John Little), Will Scarlet (Scatheloke, Scarlock, etc), and Much (Midge) the Miller's son. Importantly, they also refer to the king as Edward, not the much earlier King Richard - who didn't enter the stories till 1521. Individuals such as Marian, Friar Tuck, and Allan a Dale are also later introductions to the legend. The Sheriff, while often present in early ballads is never named. Another enemy, Guy of Gisborne, is also named in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. Lastly, an anonymous document that appears to be based on the early A Gest (tale) of Robin Hood called the Sloane Manuscript (c.1600) adds that Robin Hood came from Locksley. Some writers have placed this in Nottinghamshire or in Warwickshire. However, the town of Loxley in Yorkshire is not far south of Wakefield. Interestingly, there is one Robin Hood candidate who came from Wakefield near Loxley that has elements in common with the legend.
Robin of the 1320s
Robert Hood (or Hode) of Wakefield, near Barnsdale, in southern Yorkshire is thought to have been the son of a forester named Adam Hood. In 1316, Robert and his wife Matilda had bought land at Bichill, Wakefield, and in 1322, records show there was a five-roomed house on the site. Also in 1316, Robert was in trouble with the law for not joining the forces of King Edward II in his invasion of Scotland and was fined. Earlier records show that Robert Hood committed various offences such as "resisting the lord of the manor", and on two occasions he "drew blood" from people. Later, a fellow called Thomas the earl of Lancaster decided to make a bid for Edward's throne. He took over Wakefield and raised an army gathering men from Yorkshire and Lancashire. Because Robert Hood is not mentioned among the defaulters, it has been postulated he joined this army that was then defeated in 1323 at Boroughbridge. Thomas and twenty of his leaders were executed and many other followers that were declared outlaws fled, some to forests such as Barnsdale where they feasted on the king's deer. A newly constructed five-roomed house at Bichill is listed as one of the seized properties in 1323, giving strong suggestion that Robert Hood was branded an outlaw and consequently lost his house. As Robert's father was a forester (and men generally followed their fathers' profession), he would have been well equipped for hiding out in the forests of Barnsdale - but perhaps not during the bitterly cold winters. Foresters had good outdoor survival skills honed while patrolling the woods protecting the king's deer from hunters, and they also sourced appropriate trees for the crafting of bows and arrows. This Robert Hood could be a prime candidate for a forest-dwelling outlaw, but what of his ability with the longbow?
The King and the Age of Archery
As previously mentioned, the first passing reference to Robin was in 1377, and the reigning king according to the earliest ballads was called Edward. There were three Edwards (I, II and III) before 1377 and according to historians, only one of them could have possibly journeyed north to Yorkshire (as outlined in the ballads) to confront the rebels! Edward II made this trip in 1323 to confront the Lancastrian rebels that were under the leadership of Thomas. So this Edward fits in with the time of Robert Hood of Wakefield who (according to the theory) became an outlaw after the Boroughbridge battle. Edward II who was keen on hunting, did hunt in Sherwood and also visited Nottingham. Another important point is that prior to the Edwards, the longbow was a minority weapon. Under the three Edwards, archery became compulsory. Any 'Robin Hood' outlaw of earlier times such as in the days of Richard the Lionheart would be very unlikely to be an expert with the longbow! Did this 1320s Robert Hood who lived in the days of skilled archers associate with real people who may be mentioned in the ballads?
'Merry Men' in the 1320's
The unusual feature of the Robert Hood of the 1320s compared to earlier Hood candidates is that historical records reveal some real people of his time who fitted the characters of the legend to some degree. The stories, no doubt, grew in the telling, but were they based on actual individuals? For instance:
Little John – in 1318 a 'John le Litel' of Yorkshire was part of a band of raiding thieves, and likely the same person, a 'Litel John' made off with deer in Yorkshire in 1323. Did this fellow join Robert Hood in the forests of Barnsdale?
Will Scarlet – a William Schakelock of 1316 who was a soldier, and a William Scarlet who two years later received a pardon for offences, may be the same person due to the many spelling inconsistencies of this name (Scathlock, Scarloke, etc). This fellow was from the same time period and region as Robert Hood of Wakefield. Although not listed as an outlaw, this Will Scarlet had already received a pardon for previous convictions. Additionally, the surname Scarlet (and Scathlock, etc) means 'lock-smasher'. Did this fellow hail from a long family line of thieves?
Lady Marian – Robin's lady-friend that he married didn't appear in the legend till the late 16th century. Interestingly, in Anthony Munday's two Elizabethan plays (1597-98), the name Marian is not a real name but an alias for one Matilda Fitzwalter. Although not the same person, it may be more than a mere coincidence that the 1320s Robert Hood also had a wife called Matilda.
And what of some 'not so merry men' at this time?
Enemies in the 1320s
Sheriff of Nottingham – There were many Sheriffs of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire over the years. But from 1318-1319 and later from 1323-1325, this position was held by Henry de Faucemberg. In 1322, he was commander of the king's troops known as the 'Yorkshire Array', and was also the Sheriff of Yorkshire from 1325-1327. Typical of the sheriff of the ballads and later stories, this particular official was quite a shady character. He had charges of extortion against him and was at one time very heavily in debt to the king. Combined with the possibility that he may also have been the same person as a Henry Faucomberg originally from Wakefield, this man would likely have been very familiar with Robert Hood of Wakefield.
Guy of Gisborne – There is no historical record of this person. However, according to historians, Gisborne, as outlined in the early ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne is definitely in the same area as the ballad setting –Yorkshire. The often-quoted Gisburn in Lancashire is far-removed from this setting, but historians have asserted that Guisborough in Yorkshire was called Gisburne in the Middle Ages. Although this 'Guy' cannot be traced to an historical person, it appears that his place of origin is in Yorkshire.
Abbot of St Mary's – In the Gest ballad previously mentioned, the greedy Abbot of St Mary's, York, was owed money by a knight and plans to take his lands. Records show that the Abbot of St Mary's from 1320-1359 was Thomas de Moulton – and history confirms that this character was well known for his exorbitant money lending.
Considering the above historical evidence, what is the likelihood that Robert Hood of Wakefield is the seed of the legend?
The Robin Hood tales we know today can be traced back to that handful of original ballads (see 'Early Records' at top). Over the centuries the number of ballads increased to almost 40 and there were also many plays and poems added to the list. But, in essence, the early ballads form the core of the legend to which numerous additions and modifications have been made. In modern times, novels, films and television series have vastly increased the number of tales about this legendary figure of northern Britain. While later stories have shown him as a returned nobleman/crusader who 'stole from the rich to give to the poor', this is not the Robin portrayed in the early ballads! Rather, he was a yeoman (attendant or lesser official in a noble household), who became an outlaw in southern Yorkshire / Nottinghamshire. He lived in an age of archery under a king called Edward – not Richard the Lionheart as later claimed. The ballads did not depict him as someone engaged in a revolt against the social and economic structure affecting the people and he did not distribute stolen goods to the peasants – again, elements of later authors. Which historical identity most fits this outlaw-archer of the early ballads?
One Hood Among Many
This legendary character could be based on the exploits of a number of forest-thieves from the 1100-1300s. There were undoubtedly many outlaws known by the quite common name of 'Robin Hood'. Historians are divided on the many choices and some have thus concluded he was mythological. A few have considered Robert Hood of Wakefield the most likely source while others have rejected him in favour of earlier contenders. But if the legend was mainly based on one of these outlaws, it need not be the first one with that name! As already stated, the legendary tales owe their origins to the outlaw depicted in these early ballads, not necessarily to the first bandit named Robin Hood. Robert Hood of Wakefield lived at the same time and in the same region as various other historical persons who fit some of the characters in the ballads, including a king called Edward. In addition, he was a yeoman and probably a forester, with woodland hunting and survival skills, who also had a wife called Matilda - the real name for the alias Marian in later Elizabethan plays. There is a likelihood his property was seized forcing him to become an outlaw after he and many other (also un-named) rebels were defeated by the king's forces in 1323. If Robin Hood was based on a real person, there is no absolute proof of his true historical identity. However, in my opinion, no other candidate for this medieval outlaw of northern Britain comes as close to the legend as the fellow recorded around the 1320s as Robert Hood of Wakefield near Loxley in southern Yorkshire!
For those wishing to read more about the legend of Robin Hood, early ballads and later tales, and also the various outlaws that have been proposed (at one time or another) as contributing to the legend, see these sites below: