Freedom fighter, cunning rogue, master archer, dispossessed lord. In some versions of the tale, Robin Hood is one or all of the above, while in others, he's nothing more than an unscrupulous bandit. But there is one characteristic common to all versions of the famous folk hero; he is no friend to the law.
You could say that Robin Hood and King Arthur, two icons of English myth, are in fact two sides of the same coin. The coin is chivalry, but while King Arthur is the righteous king and the symbol of just law, Robin Hood is the righteous rebel, who rises up when the powers that be seek to abuse the law for their own ends.
In both cases, the search for a real man behind the myth goes on.
It Starts With a Name
The legend begins in the 1200's, when the name “Robert Hod” (yes, that's Hod, not Hood) first appears in government records.
Confusion arises because none of those records appear to be using the name in reference to a specific person, but rather as a pseudonym or joke name for outlaws in general. It seems that in the 1200's, calling someone a 'Robert Hod' was a way of calling them a rascal.
But was there a real person to whom the nickname can be attributed? Dr David Crook from the University of Nottingham believes there is, in the form of Robert Wetherby; an outlaw from Yorkshire who was captured and executed in 1225, following a full-scale manhunt led by the local sheriff (this suggests he had earned a degree of notoriety).
He lacked the romantic trappings of the mythical Robin Hood, but rumors of a slippery rogue leading the sheriff and his band of hired heavies on a merry chase would have been enough to birth the legend of “Robert Hod” in the context it was being used at the time. It helps that the sheriff in question was formerly the sheriff of Nottingham.
The Name Becomes a Legend
Gradually, the name 'Robert Hod' evolved into the hero we know and love. The first literary mention occurs in William Langland's Piers Plowman in the latter 14th century; followed by the emergence of the first ballads (notable examples include Robin Hood and the Monk, A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Potter)
Many of the legend's characteristic elements are already present in the ballads. Sherwood Forest is the hideout for Robin Hood and his band of outlaws, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is their primary adversary. Little John and Will Scarlet make their first appearance, though Friar Tuck and Maid Marian would only be introduced later, via the May Day celebrations. In fact, the romance subplot featuring Maid Marian may have been borrowed from a French pastoral play entitled “Jeu de Robin et Marion”.
Stealing From the Rich?
In A Gest of Robyn Hode, the titular hero instructs his followers not to harm any man that “tilleth with his ploughe”. This is one of the earliest depictions of Robin Hood as a champion of the downtrodden. His evolution from rambunctious rogue to righteous rebel has begun.
On the other hand, in Robin Hood and the Monk, the merry men murder a hapless page boy to prevent him raising the alarm as they break their leader out of prison. Clearly the righteous rebel is still quite rough around the edges at this point.
Giving to the Poor?
Other notable differences between the early ballads and later versions include Robin Hood being a Yeoman - a member of the feudal middle-classes, rather than a member of the nobility. There's also no mention yet of King Richard the Lionheart, who in later iterations of the tale (most memorably in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where the role provided a Sean Connery cameo) is the courageous and just king whom loyal follower Robin Hood seeks to restore to the throne.
Renaissance-era writers would bring about the next phase in the evolution of the legend, transposing their own romantic notions onto the character so as to create their vision of the perfect patriot.
Rebel With a Cause
Scottish philosopher John Mair was the first to place the legend of Robin Hood in a specific era; the 1190's - time of the third crusade. In Historia Majoris Britanniae he writes that “he would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots”.
The work, published in 1521, was highly influential. Later writers, inspired by the choice of time period, chose to portray Robin Hood as a devoted follower of King Richard the Lionheart, leading the resistance against his tyrannical brother John whilst awaiting the true king's return from the crusades.
Long Live the King!
Renaissance-era sentiments also transformed the rugged yeoman into a member of the gentry; a Saxon noble whose land is confiscated by the Normans. Of course, this Saxon noble remains loyal to Norman king Richard, and is restored to his land and titles upon the true king's triumphant return.
So the legend that originated with 'Robert Hod' - a joke nickname for outlaws, had over the course of centuries been transformed into an English unification myth, representing the reconciliation between Saxons and Normans and the merging of these two peoples into one glorious nation.
But there was still one missing detail, one element of the tale modern audiences take for granted that had yet to be introduced. The name 'Hood' may be fine for a rogue, but it's no name for a noble. In 1820, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe granted England's favorite outlaw his official title, 'Robin of Locksley'.
The Real Robin Hood?
So over the course of the character's evolution from outlaw and evil-doer to freedom fighter and philanthropist, who has the strongest claim to being the real Robin Hood?
Robert of Wetherby has been put forward as a candidate, but he lacks the character's romantic qualities. Another theory is that Richard Rolle, writer of the 15th century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, actually modeled the character on himself. Rolle had been a member of a band of outlaws operating in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in 1322, before receiving a pardon from the king.
Then there's Roger Godberd, who was outlawed in 1265 for joining Simon De Montfort's baronial rebellion against King Henry III. After the rebellion failed...he took refuge in Sherwood Forest, where he continued to lead resistance against the crown and its local enforcer, the sheriff of Nottingham. He was eventually captured and imprisoned.
William of Kensham is an interesting prospect whose name has recently been thrown into the hat. He was a soldier rather than a rebel, who led a band of archers fighting on behalf of King John rather than against him; but it was their skill with Robin Hood's signature weapon, the longbow, that enabled them to employ highly effective hit-and-run tactics against a French invasion force that had landed on British shores in 1216.
Other possible influences include Eustace the Monk, a mercenary pirate who roamed the English channel in the early 1200's; and Fulk FitzWarin, an English lord who rebelled against King John. The candidates need not even be English. William Wallace may be a symbol of Scottish nationalism, but his skill with archery and association with heroic resistance could have played a role in the evolution of England's famous folk hero.
As with King Arthur, the likelihood is that there was never a single “Robin Hood”, but rather a multitude of historical and mythical figures who inspired the legend, each one granting it their own defining quality. Lover and fighter; master archer and cunning rogue; rebel and a patriot; anyone who could be all these things at once would probably not be so hard to find. But it's this combination of qualities that makes Robin Hood larger than life. It may not be certain where his legend was born, but what's certain is that it will never die.
Anne Harrison from Australia on July 14, 2015:
An interesting article and well researched. I agree that, like many mythical figures, Robin Hood was most likely an amalgamation of a few different characters. It is interesting how often the myth of the fatherless outlaw who is a true hero to conquer all appears in literary works (not to mention the guest appearance on the current season of Dr Who!)