It is a tale that never ceases to capture the public’s imagination. The subject of multiple books, TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters, Robin Hood has become one of the most popular heroes in Medieval folklore; up there with other legendary figures such as King Arthur.
As with any popular mythical legend, the tale of the man from Nottingham who “stole from the rich and gave to the poor” has its roots and origins extended deep into English history.
While no one can ever be completely certain that Robin Hood was anything other than a made-up character, there is enough evidence to suggest such a man did exist sometime in the Middle Ages.
The origins of Robin Hood date back to the late 14th and early 15th century, when he became a titular character of various songs, poems and ballads. The first known reference in English verse to Robin Hood is found in The Vision of Piers Plowman, a Middle English allegorical poem written by William Langland in the latter half of the 14th century.
“I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth,
But Ikan rymes of Robyn Hood…”
When translated to modern English, this excerpt from Langland’s poem reads “Although I can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer, I do know the rhymes of Robin Hood.”
This suggestion that even uneducated men and women would have known about Robin Hood demonstrates that the legend must have been well known amongst all members of society, regardless of their ability to read and write.
The earliest surviving text that refers to Robin Hood is a 15th century ballad entitled “Robyn Hood and the Monk“, now preserved at Cambridge University. It is the first and only medieval ballad to be set in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, and features famous members of the ‘Merry Men’, Hood’s outlaw band.
Other medieval texts are dramatic pieces, the earliest being the fragmentary “Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Nottingham”, dating back to 1475.
The Man behind the Myth
The earliest versions of the folklore character would be almost unrecognisable when compared to the green-clad, bow-wielding Robin Hood of today.
In the early ballads of the 15th century, the character of Robin Hood was certainly rougher-edged than in his later incarnations. In “Robin Hood and the Monk” he was portrayed as quick tempered and violent character, assaulting Little John for defeating him in an archery contest.
Moreover, no early ballad or poem actually suggested that the outlaw from Nottingham gave money he stole from wealthy gentry to the poor commonfolk, although there are a few references to him doing poor men “much good”.
It was not until John Major’s “History of Greater Britain”, published in 1521, that Robin Hood was depicted as a follower of King Richard, which has become one of his defining characteristics in modern times.
It was in the 16th century Robin Hood, when the legend really began to take off within England and was absorbed into celebrations of May Day, that Robin Hood lost some of his dangerous edge.
Every spring, the English would herald in the new season with a festival that often featured athletic contests as well as electing the kings and queens of May. As part of the fun, participants would dress up in costume as Robin Hood and his men to attend the revels and the games.
In this period, Robin Hood even became fashionable among the royalty and associated with nobility. It was said that Henry VIII of England, at the age of 18, dressed up like Robin Hood when bursting into the bedchamber of his new wife, Catherine of Aragon. William Shakespeare even made references to the legend in his late-16th century play The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The Robin Hood depicted in these plays and festivities bore no resemblance to the violent common outlaw portrayed in the early medieval writings. It is in this era that the philanthropic, enlightened image of Robin Hood and his Merry Men was likely to have emerged.
As the centuries passed, the tale of Robin Hood evolved as England progressed. Sir Walter Scott repackaged Robin Hood for Ivanhoe in the 19th century, while Howard Pyle most famously re-created the legend for a children’s book, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, in 1883.
With each new iteration, the Robin Hood legend would absorb new characters, settings, and traits – evolving into the familiar legend of today.
So was Robin Hood a real-life person or was his existence merely the a figment of popular imagination?
Well, the historicity of Robin Hood has never been proven and has been debated by historians for centuries. However, there is equally no evidence or scholarly support for the view that tales of Robin Hood simply stemmed from mythology or folklore, from fairies or other mythological origins.
It is likely, due to the range of sources available (albeit ambiguous and inconclusive), and will all of the numerous historical figures his name had been associated with throughout the ages, that such a man and group of outlaws did exist at some point throughout the Medieval Period.
Whether he wore green, was a prolific archer or made large donations of stolen money to the poor commonfolk in Nottingham, we cannot be sure.
What is true, nonetheless, is the fact that the Robin Hood Story will always be appealing to a global audience. It is a story about equality, justice, and the downfall of tyranny – and who doesn’t like that?