Robin Hood was the most popular English folk hero of the 14th and 15th centuries. His legends were restricted to England, and, although they may have been sung in courts, they belonged to the common people in a way King Arthur did not. Like the Arthurian cycle, stories of Robin Hood were invented by different people in different times and were only united into a single strand during the 15th century. The Gest of Robyn Hode connected five existing stories, patching them together as a complete story that ended with the hero’s death. There are at least three other contemporary 15thcentury stories, as well as later stories composed in the 16th century. But Robin Hood seems well established as a folk hero of ballads long before. The 14th-century poem “Piers Plowman” criticized priests who knew the stories of Robin Hood better than their prayers, and there are scattered references to May plays about Robin.
Historians have tried to identify an original Robin Hood, but it is most likely that his name was something like the modern generic name John Doe and that his literary character has a reality similar to Batman’s. Earliest references to Robin place him in the 13th century, a time when hoods were a universal hat fashion. There were other outlaws in stories, chiefly Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, William of Cloudesly, and Gamelyn. Their stories are very similar to Robin’s. All take refuge in the forest, all are guilty of poaching deer, all get drawn out of hiding by treachery and must use their wits and their weapons to regain safety, and all find ultimate justice with the king, not with his officers. That Robin Hood’s stories gained dominance may be an accident of his name working best in rhyme and song.
The context for Robin and the other outlaws is the restrictive forest laws laid down by King William I and his descendants. These laws were at the peak during the reign of Henry II in the 12th century. Henry II’s sons appropriated more forest lands. King John, the villain of the modern Robin Hood legends, was only following the precedents of his father and older brother Richard I in adding to his forest preserves. His son, Henry III, was required to promise to uphold the Magna Carta provisions that King John had signed unwillingly; from then on, the royal forests began to shrink, and poaching was a less serious offense. Other aristocrats began to keep forests and parks, though, and they hired foresters and parkers to police them.
The Robin Hood ballads show familiarity with hunting practices and terminology. The stories accurately differentiate between the types of deer in medieval English forests and use clever references to hunting customs. Robin often met his men under a designated tree-the trystel, or trysting, tree. In bow hunting, when the deer were driven toward the hidden royal hunters, the place where they hid was the tryst. Robin and his men were not aristocratic hunters with dogs. They used the bow, the weapon of the common folk. By the 15th century, landowners were more concerned with woodcutting and unauthorized grazing than with poaching. Poaching still occurred, but it was infrequently prosecuted, and the punishments were not worse than fines. Some records show a fair number of respectable citizens venturing into the forest to bring home a hart or buck, probably with bows as Robin and his men did.
The Robin Hood of later stories, depicted in modern fi lm versions, is a dispossessed nobleman living in the time of King Richard I and Prince John. The medieval Robin is a yeoman of the 15th century with stories that include King Edward, not King Richard. King Edward I was a popular king known for relatively good governance, and his reign was in the late 13th century. The forest laws did not press on people as much then, and travel and trade were expanding. The Robin Hood stories are more comfortably set in the reigns of the kings Edward I, II, or III than in the time of King Richard I.
Although the Robin Hood stories about the 13th century were written down only 200 years later, there is already some anachronism. The term yeoman was not common in the 13th century, but it was widely in use by the 15th. It was in such wide use that it is not clear what a yeoman really was. Yeomen were small but independent farmers, and they were also middle-ranked servants of the king. In the context of the forest laws, a yeoman could be any sort of royal official guarding the deer and trees. The word may have had such wide use because the old terms didn’t fit as societal structure shifted. Yeoman may have indicated a general middle-class position. The medieval Robin Hood was not a nobleman; he was a middle-class Everyman.
The sheriff, Robin’s main adversary, was a more important figure in the 13th century than in the 15th. Sheriffs were appointed officials who administered justice in the king’s name for a term of one year. Local landowners, the small nobility and knights, took turns as sheriff. They collected some taxes, held inquests, and presided over courts, while also being responsible for making arrests and holding men for trial. In the 12th century, sheriffs had been appointed directly by kings and had power unchecked by the people; their appointment from among the local landowners kept them responsive to the community. Even with decreased power, they oversaw enough facets of local government to tempt them to use their term for corrupt gain. They could sell jobs like “under sheriff” for high fees, and many took bribes. Sheriffs were not popular among the common people, and a legendary Sheriff of Nottingham made a good target for comic stories.
Robin Hood also frequently found himself up against wealthy monks. The stories make it clear that Robin himself was very devout, probably more than the greedy monks. By the 15th century, half of England’s land was owned by the Catholic Church, often by monasteries. While some monks were still devoted to the care of the poor and to prayer, many had become businessmen who managed farms and mines and collected rent from tenants. They were not responsible to civil law, and the people resented their greed in the name of religion. When Robin Hood robbed a rich abbot, his audience could only cheer.
Robin’s band grew as the stories expanded. Friar Tuck was a late addition, but Little John was already his lieutenant in 14th-century references. Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlet are two other early names in the band, which mostly remain anonymous. Robin’s lady, Marian, was the last addition. In the Gest of Robyn Hode, there is no Marian. Robin’s devotion is for the Virgin Mary, and he is as single and chaste as a monk. Marian seems to have been added in folk dramas about Robin Hood that were acted in villages and towns for May Day. Robin and forest freedom were celebrated on this spring day, but so were pretty girls with garlands. May Day plays were very often about Robin, and they needed a pretty girl, Marian. After the Reformation brought an end to the public cult of the Virgin Mary, Robin’s stories may have been edited to place a real woman, Marian, in the spotlight instead.
The medieval Robin Hood did not rob the rich and give to the poor. He robbed rich travelers, especially if they were corrupt. He always invited them to dine, first, in his role as king of Sherwood Forest. Travelers were asked to pay for their dinners, which was the robbery. In the legends, an honorable man who could not pay was not further harassed. Robin helped a poor knight with a loan, but he wanted it repaid. The charitable Robin who gave to poor peasants was a later invention.
Further Reading Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989. Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pollard, A. J. Imagining Robin Hood. New York: Routledge, 2007.