People in History: Robin Hood

Yes, I know. I’m including Robin Hood as biography when we have no idea if he actually existed or not. In my defence, I offer Jesus ūüėõ

Actually, the legends surrounding Robin Hood almost certainly have their origins in the life of a real figure. A number of men have been suggested to have been the source of the legend. Robert, the Earl of Huntingdon is a favourite, for this inscription on his grave at Kirklees Priory:

Hear underneath dis laitl stean

Laz robert earl of Huntingtun

Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud

An pipl kauld im robin heud

Sick utlawz as he an iz men

Vil england nivr si agen

Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247

**************************************

(Here underneath this little stone

Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon

Never archer were as he as good

And people called him Robin Hood

Such outlaws as he and his men

Will England never see again.)

Fifteenth-century legend has it Robin was recuperating from an illness at the Priory as a relative of the Prioress. She betrayed him, he grew sicker, and begged Little John to carry him to the window of his room. From there, he shot one final arrow into the surrounding forest, and was buried where it fell.

Robin_Hood_and_Little_John%2C_by_Louis_Rhead_1912 People in History: Robin Hood

Robin Hood and Little John, by Louis Rhead, 1912

The most well-known¬†theory today is that Robin Hood was a pseudonym for Robert Loxley, a South Yorkshire man outlawed for killing his stepfather (not because the Sheriff of Nottingham murdered his father and burnt down his castle — Hollywood lied!). Antiquarian Roger Dodsworth, writing in the 1600s, believed Huntingdon was really Little John. The only evidence to support his identification is a court record of an appearance by¬†“Robert de Lockesly” from 1245.

Other Roberts in history have been claimed as Robin Hood, including a man from Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the fourteenth century; a Robert Hod recorded in the York assizes (court register) in 1226 — the earliest¬†suggested source whom we know for a fact was an outlaw; and Robert Godberd, who served under Simon de Montford and was outlawed after fighting against King Henry III in the Battle of Evesham. Godberd’s story is certainly closest to the legend: in October 1267 he took refuge in¬†Sherwood Forest and lived there for four years with up to a hundred men.¬†The Sheriff of Nottingham tried on multiple occasions to capture him, and was even successful once or twice, but Godberd escaped. He was caught for the last time in 1272 and held for three years before being¬†taken to the Tower of London for trial, where he was sensationally pardoned by Edward I, who had just returned from the Eighth Crusade.

Whatever the truth behind the legend, the Robin Hood legend¬†has proven itself one of the most durable stories in history. England has always liked an underdog, and the idea of a man unjustly outlawed turning the tables against the corruption of the upper classes and literally robbing the rich to feed the poor, is very appealing. “Robin Hood and his merry men” first appear in Sir Walter Scott’s¬†Ivanhoe, a characterisation of a jocular group of good men and close friends which informs our modern image of Robin and his band.

The truth is somewhere in the midst of all these stories. Throughout history there were notable outlaws, and as the centuries passed it isn’t outlandish to suppose the most notable exploits of each got tangled together in a single narrative. Certainly the scattered geography of place names which reference Robin Hood — including Robin Hood’s Stone in Barnsdale, South Yorkshire; Robin Hood’s Bay near Whitby; Robin Hood’s Butts in Cumbria; and Robin Hood’s Walk in Richmond, Surrey — would suggest he spent more time travelling than he spent in Sherwood Forest, were they all named for¬†the same person. Interestingly, the one place such names didn’t appear was around Sherwood, which didn’t get its first Robin Hood moniker until the eighteenth century.

Here_begynneth_a_gest_of_Robyn_Hode People in History: Robin Hood

A Gest of Robyn Hode, ~1450

What is certain is that for almost as long as the Robin Hood legend has been circulating, it’s had a distinct hint of queerness about it. Robin’s close friendship with Little John, the flamboyant figure of Will Scarlet, the society of upwards of a hundred men living in a forest commune — even with their own friar¬†to perform ceremonies — and all that imagery of green virility, robust health, arrows, quivers, and swords, simply begs for a less literal interpretation. And while authors writing in the thirteenth or fifteenth or seventeenth centuries couldn’t make any direct reference to overt queerness, they were very good with innuendo.

The first Buggery Act wasn’t introduced until 1533; prior to that date, same-sex activity¬†was a matter dealt with by ecclesiastical courts. Barry Dobson, Cambridge Professor of Medieval History, argued that an earlier societal shift occurred in the thirteenth century, before which same-sex acts were largely accepted, leading to persecution of queer men, many of whom fled their homes and lived as outlaws, even if they hadn’t been tried as such.

The earliest ballads make no mention of women in the greenwoods, but instead focus on the friendship of Robin and Little John: in most of them, the narrative commences with a conflict between the pair, usually domestic, which is ultimately happily resolved. Maid Marian is a much later invention, having her origins in the¬†fifteenth century, when she was a figure associated with May Games celebrations. The pairing of Robin and Marian didn’t occur until the seventeen century.

Indeed, it’s easy to see how Marian could have been introduced as a deliberate attempt to make Robin and his men seem less queer at a time when people were¬†quick¬†to address the indication of same-sex attraction in fiction (Shakespeare, for one, wouldn’t have raised half as many laughs if his audience weren’t able to read between his lines).

The addition of Marian turned the Robin Hood narratives on their head. Although often lauded as being a prototype “strong woman” (she certainly has agency: rebelling against her family and entering the greenwood, where she proves herself more than capable of wielding a blade or bow and handing a hundred rough outlaws) nonetheless many of the stories¬†from the seventeenth century on place her as the archetypal “damsel in distress,” whom Robin is frequently called upon to rescue. Even when the tables are turned and she has to facilitate his escape from some pickle or other, it’s by calling upon her kinship with more powerful men and using her feminine whiles to bend them to her will, rather than bursting in and freeing Robin herself.

In the original ballads, however, Robin is most often placed as the one needing rescuing, and Little John is his rescuer. Even in later tales, Marian dies before Robin and it is in John’s arms he dies.

In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Robin Hood legend became entangled with the queering of the pastoral romance and social class. The outlaws combined all that was attractive about the capable, hardworking rural fellow who was so admired among literary and philosophical circles, with the added bonus that they were unjustly criminalised and penalised their own country in the same way queer men felt they had been socially marginalised and outcast.

It strikes me there may have been more in that Robin Hood business than meets the eye. One knows about the Greeks — Theban band — and the rest of it. Well, this wasn’t unlike. I don’t see how they could have kept it together otherwise — especially when they came from such different classes.

— EM Forster, Maurice

The merry men of Sherwood Forest became an enduring image of cross-class cooperation and cohabitation among men, living outside the law and striking back against an archaic and unfair establishment which sought to punish them for their transgressions. As a metaphor, it was deeply appealing, and that Robin Hood was admired for being an outlaw only made his legend more attractive.

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2 replies on “People in History: Robin Hood”

  1. Well, Marion, spelled thusly, is a man’s name, so maybe Marian was really male and they changed her into a female for the reasons you suggest. ūüėČ Robin Hood is a wonderful legend, and it persists to this day and in the US most obviously as it applies to the so-called Robin Hood tax some people want to stick on stock transactions. How cool is that?

    • Kate Aaron says:

      Heh, it’s a cute theory, but there was no Marion or Marian in the earliest ballads. Just Robin and Little John <3 It is kinda cool how durable the legend is that someone can say "Robin Hood tax" and everyone knows exactly what it means.

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