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Who Was Robin Hood? by Angus Donald (guest article)

Robin Hood is a wraith in Lincoln green, a shadowy figure who peers out at us through the dense foliage of the forests of time; hooded, anonymous and yet terribly familiar. But was there ever a real man on whom all the ballads, books and films are all based and, if there was, what would he have been like in the flesh?

Robin makes his first appearance in English literature in a 1370s poem by William Langland known as Piers Plowman. In it, there is a line about a lazy cleric who knows the popular oral stories of Robin Hood better than he knows his prayers. So we know the tales of Robin were a byword by the second half of the 14th century.

Around the middle of the 15th century, the oral stories of Robin Hood first began to be preserved as printed ballads, which were passed around the populace and performed by musicians at public events. These early ballads, however, are not very helpful when it comes to investigating Robin’s life and times. For example, A Gest of Robyn Hode, a ballad printed in the early 16th century, mentions that the king in Robin Hood’s time is “Edward”. There were three Edwards on the English throne, from 1272 to 1377; so could this mean that Robin was active during this century? Probably not. Other early ballads state that the king is Richard I (r. 1189-1199). So all we can really deduce from the first written forms of the tales is that Robin Hood may have operated at some time between about 1180 and 1370 – a period of nearly 200 years.

Perhaps, then, the law can shed light on England’s most famous outlaw. The first references to a possible Robin Hood figure occur in legal documents in the first half of the 13th century. From the 1230 onwards there are many legal records listing people who fell foul of the law called “Robehod” or “Robert Hood” or “Robyn Hod” and other variants. But none yet has convincingly been shown to be the legendary outlaw. In fact, as Robert was a very common name, as was its diminutive Robin, and as Hood was also well used, it would be surprising if there were not records of Robert Hoods coming into contact with the authorities. Indeed, Robin Hood may not be a name at all – it may be a job description. In some medieval English dialects “Hood” and “Wood” are synonyms, and some writers have suggested that Robert is a pun on the French pronunciation of the name. If so, Robert Hood is just a robber of the wood.

However, our best guess is that there was once a notorious but popular outlaw called Robert or Robin Hood and that he probably lived some time between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th. And this is the period in which I have set my Outlaw Chronicles, during the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and King John. For me, it is a fascinating period: a time of crusade and Magna Carta; a time of constant brutal warfare but also the flowering of poetry, music and courtly love.

So what would a late 12th-century outlaw have been like as a man? The answer will disappoint those seeking a do-gooding, thigh-slapping, gentlemanly archer. A medieval outlaw would have been a desperate fellow, filthy, ragged, very violent; basically a homeless mugger and murderer. The ballads occasionally hint at the ruthless nature of Robin and his gang. In Robin Hood and The Monk (c1450), the earliest surviving ballad, outlawed Robin is spotted by a monk while praying at a church in Nottingham. The monk reports Robin to the Sheriff, who captures our hero. Later, the monk is brutally executed by Little John for informing on Robin, and Much the miller’s son casually kills a little boy who witnesses this act to stop him giving evidence of the murder. It’s difficult to imagine one of Errol Flynn’s merry men casually slaughtering a child to stop him squealing to the sheriff.

The Robin Hood of my books is a hard man, ruthless, occasionally cruel, and, like all real medieval magnates, primarily concerned with money and power. But he does have a more noble side. He cares nothing for those outside his familia, his relatives, friends and those who faithfully serve him – those outside are merely his prey. But for the lucky few inside his charmed circle, he will willingly give his life.


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