Executive Summary

Robin Hood is a legendary medieval English outlaw and forester, the hero of a mostly or wholly fictional cycle of stories composed and circulated continuously from medieval to modern times. In the earliest (and best) material, Robin was originally imagined as a common outlaw in a relatively realistic setting. Following the end of the medieval period, the story-cycle degenerated into fantasy, and Robin Hood is now commonly imagined as a dispossessed aristocrat of the reign of Richard I, the lover of Marian, a social revolutionary, a Saxon rebel, and/or an icon of paganism. However, none of these elements derive from early or medieval forms of the legend; some could not possibly do so; and, most importantly, the stories are better off without them. However, while varying widely in content, tone and character, all tales of Robin Hood have always tended to agree in showing Robin as a subversive figure leading a band of fellow-outlaws, and the forest which he often haunts as a naturally beautiful haven of escape from normal social constraints. A charismatic character, usually pictured in a highly evocative setting, Robin Hood, alone among traditional English legendary heroes, enjoys continuing currency and a global profile in the modern world.

Robin Hood in the Middle Ages

The historical roots of the legend lie in the context of two specific features of medieval English law: the outlaw and the forest. An outlaw was a designated fugitive from justice, and courts passed sentence of outlawry – effectively, a death sentence – on those who failed to turn up for a hearing on any one of a range of charges. A forest was a legally protected hunting reserve, kept out of cultivation and settlement by a special and savagely punitive body of law, and forests were large tracts of managed semi-wilderness (many were indeed heavily wooded, which is how forest came to mean woodland in modern English). Forest law tied up vast tracts of fertile land into wasteful playgrounds for the wealthy, and medieval people, being mostly rent-crippled peasant farmers at permanent risk of starvation, hated it; and, since a well-wooded forest was also the least worst available hiding-place for outlaws who had nothing further to lose by trespassing there, it is not surprising to see outlaw foresters tolerated or celebrated in late medieval English vernacular culture. Robin Hood was one of several such figures.

Scholars have failed to identify the real Robin Hood, if ever there was one. There are several reasons for the uncertainty, as we will shortly see. One expert, J.C. Holt, has suggested a Robert Hod who was outlawed at York in 1225 and about whom little else is known. But between around 1250 and 1500, a figure called Robin Hood joined the ranks of the outlaws and heroes of regional and vernacular legend, such as Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, Foulke Fitzwarin, and Ranulf Earl of Chester, and came to feature in rhymes (long verse narratives), plays, historical chronicles, proverbs, and even place-names, from Kent and Somerset to Northumberland, Cumberland and Scotland.

Unfortunately, the surviving record for this period is patchy, and does not include any actual Robin Hood stories. But early references are widespread and suggest that the stories were widely known, and they eventually came to inform the writing of more sober history. Many of the earliest references seem to imply that the stories were viewed simply as trivial rubbish, at least by the literate. The priest-poet William Langland, writing around Chaucer’s time in the later 1300s, makes one disapproving reference in passing to rhymes of Robin Hood as examples of the sort of thing a slothful sinner would recite instead of his prayers. The phrase Robin Hood in Sherwood stood appears in a tantalising doodle in the margin of a random document, and, oddly, the same phrase was also used in courtroom debates: if you were a fifteenth-century lawyer, and you wanted to take the mickey out of an opponent for starting to stray off-topic, you could give a contemptuous snort of “Robin Hood in Sherwood stood!” – the point being that the line, apparently a stereotypical opening for a Robin Hood story, invariably presaged a torrent of irrelevant drivel. The proverb Many speak of Robin Hood that never shot his bow existed as a rather similar retort to excessively big talk by the ill-informed. So, for some at least, the first legendary Robin Hood was essentially a dismissive by-word for claptrap: a medieval near-equivalent to the contemporary bullshit-sneeze.

However, Robin’s early reputation involved rather more than this. Holt has pointed out that, on at least one occasion, in the early 1260s, an official recorded the name of a real criminal, William son of Robert le Fevre, as William RobehodRobinhood (with similar forms in a variety of spellings) was certainly emerging as a normal surname around this period throughout the South of England, and, as such, might often have meant simply redheaded. The family surname system was still forming at this period and many surnames were still essentially personal nicknames. In this instance, Robehod appears to be a nickname specifically for an outlaw. More examples of this usage followed. As criminal and outlaw gangs became widespread in the later Middle Ages, their leaders assumed, or were allotted, numerous aliases; and many real criminals did, in fact, go around calling themselves (or being called) Robin Hood, Little John and Friar Tuck. The situation was complicated by the practice, widespread in local communities, of dressing up as these legendary characters, for plays, pageants, and church-related fundraising events known as “church ales.” These events themselves had a tendency to get quite rowdy, and at times even degenerate into riots – medieval communities were like that – so, in practice, community events sometimes segued fairly seamlessly into actual criminality and social disorder.

Finally, around the same time, serious chroniclers were including brief references to Robin Hood in factual accounts of history. Andrew of Wyntoun in the 1420s and Walter Bower in the 1440s both date Robin’s career to the later 1200s, and locate him not in Sherwood but in northern England and the Scottish border. Like the widespread Robin Hood place-names, including the West Country burial mounds named Robin Hood’s Butts, the chronicles suggest that there was not one single Robin Hood legend so much as a number of regional variants set in differing localities. If so, most of these local Robin Hoods were eventually superseded by the Sherwood-based Robin of the English Midlands, who forms the central figure of the legend we know today.

The earliest surviving Robin Hood stories date from about 1450. They are recorded, sometimes in manuscript but usually in print, as long ballad-like poems – that is, apparently, as rhymes of the kind which offended Langland. The longest, laughably titled A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode, is no less than 456 verses long, and tells a long, many-stranded tale in which Robin’s band rob several travellers on the highway; strike up a working partnership with a poverty-stricken knight, Sir Richard of the Lee; outwit and outfight the Sheriff of Nottingham several times; and eventually surrender amicably, to a secretly rather impressed king Edward. Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne tell shorter but rather similar tales. The outlaws include Robin, Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlock. Officialdom is represented by king Edward, the Sheriff of Nottingham, various abbots and wealthy churchmen and officials, and their paid hit-man, the commoner Guy of Gisborne. And Robin, like Guy, is a commoner: specifically, both are “yeomen,” a slightly ambiguous term which could mean either a reasonably well-to-do farmer or a member of a class of junior servants destined for employment on a noble estate, and in this case probably means the latter, since in these ballads Robin and John infiltrate noble households with ease and even take occasional bouts of respectable employment in them.

In these early ballads, we never find out why Robin is outlawed. He leads a band, lives in Sherwood on the proceeds of poaching and highway robbery, and spends his time goading and outwitting the Sheriff. His favourite targets, besides the Sheriff himself, are wealthy churchmen. However, he is personally devout: he risks capture to hear Mass in Nottingham; and, in an interesting example of freedom of religion, he prays to the Virgin Mary to guarantee a loan, and when he later successfully robs the monks of St Mary’s Abbey, he concludes that his prayers have been answered. This is typical of the subversive brand of rough justice which he visits on knights and kings, testing their personal mettle without seriously challenging their status. Although clearly the undisputed leader of the outlaw band, Robin is tricksterish, heedless and impulsive, and often has to rely on Little John to play Jeeves to his Wooster, talk sense into him, and save the situation. Robin is eventually deceived and killed by a rare female character, the abbess of Kirklees, in revenge for his previous murder of her lover.

We can only guess how these stories were performed or read, and who formed their typical audience. They seem to be connected to the repertoires of the professional wandering minstrels who frequented noble and other households within feudal society. Robin may appear as an idealised yeoman precisely because he would appeal as such to the yeomen who would have formed a large proportion of the typical audience in such a setting. It has also been suggested that the stories were pitched at urban audiences in the emerging towns, in which case they may have functioned as a fantasy of the wildwood, rather as Robin Hood does today. It used to be argued that the ballads express the rebellious spirit of the rural peasantry of later medieval England, but this idea has fallen out of favour. Whatever the audience, the setting of the stories is relatively realistic and specific: it is Sherwood, the large forest which occupied much of modern Nottinghamshire, and the places mentioned are all around the environs of Sherwood: either Nottingham, around the forest’s southern end, or Barnsdale (the area around Wentbridge in south Yorkshire) at its northern end.

As the rhymes of Robin Hood found their way into writing print, apparently for the first time, Robin continued to feature, and, indeed, thrive, as a character in pageants and plays, including those which tended to lead to unrest. Mayday pageants continued to be organised in villages and towns by local churchwardens or civic authorities, and often featured plays preserved orally within communities and acted out by local people on special occasions in the manner of the modern mummers’ and guisers’ folk-plays often associated with Plough Monday. The sixteenth century, especially the earlier part, was the high-point of the Robin Hood games at church ales. These displays were often centred about a local legendary hero or character, but, throughout the later middle ages, more and more of them dispensed with their local heroes, and adopted Robin Hood as their theme. The aristocracy caught the fad, and the nobility, including the young Henry VIII, went through a stage of organising their own Mayday pageants and plays featuring Robin Hood. Robin continued as a popular figure in Scotland, remaining a popular character in May games in Edinburgh. Indeed, these were banned by the Scottish parliament in 1555 as disreputable and turbulent – which led, perhaps predictably, to a series of Robin Hood Riots in Edinburgh in 1561.

I Don’t Like Munday’s: The Elizabethans Foul It Up As Usual

Robin’s dominance of games and pageants went in a slow decline from about 1600. By this point, however, he had already started to make his appearance on the Elizabethan stage, and here he began, and largely completed, his transformation into the figure we know best today.

Ben Jonson died before he could finish his Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd (1637). More important to the legend’s development are two plays by Shakespeare’s rival, Anthony Munday: The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and its sequel, The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington (both 1601). Munday more or less invented the modern Robin Hood. He was the first to date Robin’s life to the reign of Richard I, the time of the Crusades; his Robin was the first to be a dispossessed nobleman, the first to rob from the rich to give to the poor, and the first to have Maid Marian as a love interest – indeed, the first to have any love interest at all, assuming the earlier Robin’s platonic fixation with the Virgin Mary fails to qualify. Munday’s plays were a success, and it was largely to compete with them that Shakespeare wrote his own exiled-nobles-in-the-forest play, As You Like It.

In these Elizabethan plays, Robin begins to disconnect from the earthy, fairly realistic world he originally inhabited, and to become a rather polite and genteel fantasy figure. Or, to put it more plainly, compared with the Geste and Robin Hood and the Monk, Munday’s plays are appallingly twee and affected. Their enduring influence has served to ensure that, ever since the late sixteenth century to this day and for the foreseeable future, Robin Hood has been in permanent danger of appearing as high camp. And not in a good way.

A Pyle of Derring-Do: Modernity Takes Its Cue from the Elizabethans, Again As Usual

Through the 1600s and 1700s, Robin Hood continued to feature in plays and operas, and, as print culture permeated society, the print-ballad tradition of Robin Hood became massive in volume and scope. Indeed, most surviving ballads of Robin Hood date from this time. One anthology, Robin Hood’s Garland, was in print continuously from its first issue in 1663 well into the 1820s, after which the old ballad tradition at last began to decline. The medieval setting of the stories had long since ceased to be anything other than a fantasy, and the Robin Hood of this period was generally the kitschy post-Munday version.

In the revolutionary period of the years around 1800, political radicals and political conservatives both adopted Robin and put their own spin on him. The first writer to collect all the known materials on Robin Hood and publish them in a single anthology was a radical of this period, Joseph Ritson (Robin Hood, 1832). Ritson was also the first to argue that Robin was not merely an anarchic figure but a systematically revolutionary one. Romantic writers including Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, 1819) were the first to float the more conservatively rebellious idea that Robin was a Saxon patriot fighting a post-Conquest Norman occupation. This he could never have been: there were no Saxons in late thirteenth-century England.

Following this lead, later Romantic writers through the 1800s made Robin figure of high-brow literary poetry, culminating at the century’s end in the work of two Alfreds: Tennyson (The Foresters, 1892) and Noyes (Sherwood, 1913). This late nineteenth-century, high-art Robin Hood remained an exiled earl, accompanied by Marian the young noblewoman, but Munday’s tidy forest-park of nymphs and swains was finally and mercifully replaced by a darker and more haunted wildwood, partly hidden beneath Edwardian decorum. This was the English homeland romanticised for the highwatermark of empire, and in the late romantic wildwood the legend regained a hint of its medieval power to haunt.

However, from the later 1800s, as mass communication began to extend their influence, the main current of development of the legend lay in lower-brow popular literature, including, for the first time, children’s literature. This impetus was transmitted quickly and naturally to the entirely new media of cinema and television. At the same time, the US began to compete with England, and eventually effectively supplant it, as the main source of contemporary treatments of Robin Hood’s story, establishing Robin Hood for the first time as a character of international prominence. In the more adult popular novels, Robin was now firmly labelled as a resistance leader against Norman oppression. In the cheap Victorian boys’ magazines and novels, or “penny dreadfuls,” he remained a somewhat controversial figure: one children’s novel by George Emmett had its title changed from Robin Hood and the Outlaws of Sherwood Forest to the more wholesome Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1868 – 9), to avoid encouraging young readers towards a life of crime.

But the canonical US version of Robin Hood was presented to the children of the English-speaking world in Howard Pyle’s massively influential The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Pyle knew little of the Middle Ages, but he set stories from original texts in an unrealistic pseudo-medieval world of perpetual sunshine, ye olde Englishe talkynge, merry horseplay, and male bonding, in which Maid Marian and other female figures took something of a back seat and, once again, Robin’s primary ties were to his male companions. The medieval forest, always to some extent a fantasy of escape, was thus further divorced from reality. Pyle was the single most significant children’s author in the later development of the Robin Hood legend, and his work was widely translated and reintroduced the New World Robin Hood to Europe.

He is also the direct progenitor of most Hollywood Robin Hoods, who began to follow in fairly short order. The first Robin Hood film, a short by Percy Stow, dates from 1908. Three later films define the Hollywood Robin Hood: Allan Dwan’s silent Robin Hood (1922), Michael Curtiz’ and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Walt Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952 – not to be confused with Disney’s animated Robin Hood of 1973). In all three, the protagonist is the exiled aristocratic hero, the lover of Maid Marian, and the loyal servant of Richard the Lionheart and enemy of Prince John. The most successful movies therefore cemented what might be called the Munday-Pyle Robin Hood as the default version of the outlaw hero – as witness Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

There have, however, been attempts to imagine Robin differently on the screen. Between 1955 and 1960 Robin appeared on British television as a stiff-upper-lipped English hero of the officer class (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1955 – 58). In Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976), Robin appears as a disillusioned middle-aged crusader. In the 1980s Robin returned to TV in Richard Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood (1984 – 6), which introduced viewers to the twentieth century’s main contribution to the way Robin Hood is imagined: neopaganism. Carpenter’s Robin Hood, steeped in reconstituted new-age Celtic and Germanic myth, is chosen as an almost priestly champion by the pagan god Herne the Hunter, and given Albion, one of the seven swords of Wayland.

Although it’s frequently a lot of fun, most post-medieval Robin Hood material creates the distinct impression that the franchise had well and truly jumped the shark by the end of the sixteenth century, and few post-medieval versions of the legend have ever really got much beyond high camp. However, virtually all the earlier Robin Hood tales, and some of the more vernacular and/or romantic post-medieval material, remain extraordinarily haunting and powerful. It’s no surprise that modern attempts to rekindle the enchantment have generally met with failure, but neither is it any surprise that the attempts were made.

Further Reading

Carpenter, Kevin (ed.). Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw. BIS, Oldenburg University, 1995.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor. Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. Heinemann, 1976.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Thames and Hudson, 1982 (1989).

Knight, Stephen, and Thomas Ohlgren (ed.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, University of Michigan, 1997.

Knight, Stephen (ed.) Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism. D.S. Brewer, 1999.