Who Was Robin Hood?

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 to us. Today, more than seven hundred and fifty years after the first stories about him began to circulate, he still exercises a huge influence over our culture.

As I write this in the summer of 2009, apart from my own book, there are two other novels based on the Robin Hood legends being published, a very popular Saturday evening TV series, and a major new Hollywood film in production. In the newspapers, any criminal claimed to have a heart of gold is always a Robin Hood, any Chancellor tinkering with the tax system is Photo-Shopped into a jaunty, green feathered hat. So who was this man, and why does he continue to exert such a pull on our imaginations?

Robin Hood, the quip-trading, do-gooding gentleman-archer, who robs from the rich only to hand over the loot to the poor, is well-known to all of us, and yet when you try to pin down a real man, doing real deeds, at a real time in history, he proves extraordinarily illusive. In the search for him, one feels as frustrated as the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, ever taunted by his mocking laughter, but never able to lay metaphorical hands on him as he slips away through the trees back into the wilderness.

A classic woodcut image of Robin HoodThe wilderness, of course, is Robin’s natural home. He doesn’t live with us in a civilized, urban setting, he exists as in a much more thrilling alternative to that humdrum norm. He is free from the constraints of society, existing as he does outside the bonds of the law. And perhaps that is the key to his appeal. It was fashionable in the past to see Robin as an archetype, a pagan spirit of the woods, like Puck or Robin Goodfellow, or Loki, the trickster figure from Norse mythology, only partly human, unreliable but fun-loving, always ready to prick pomposity and utterly contemptuous of authority. And I think some of Robin’s character, as it has developed in ballads and tales over the centuries, has been coloured by that archetype. In my book, Robin does have a defiantly pagan attitude, in keeping with his woodland lifestyle, which is at odds with the medieval Christian world of ordinary mortals.

But what of the real, flesh-and-blood man? Broadly speaking, scholars approach the search for Robin Hood in two ways: literary and legal; either by looking at the ballads and poems to discover truths about the man, or by combing the legal records of the years when Robin may have been active. So when exactly was that?

Robin makes his first appearance in English literature in a 1370s poem by William Langland known as the Vision of Piers Plowman. In it, there is a throw-away line about a lazy cleric who knows the popular oral stories of Robin Hood better than he knows his prayers. So we know that the soap-opera-style tales of Robin were a byword in the second half of the 14th century when Langland was writing his poem. The ballads about the man himself, however, are not very helpful when it comes to dating Robin’s exploits: one of the early ballads about him, A Gest of Robyn Hode, printed in the early 16th century, mentions that the king is “Edward”. There were three Edwards on the throne, from 1272 to 1377; could this mean that Robin was active during this hundred-year span? Probably not. Other ballads state that the king on the throne when Robin was an outlaw was Richard I (reigned 1189-1199). The medieval mind had a rather different, and somewhat woollier, view of history to the perspective we have today. The world was believed to be created by God according to a divine plan, and it was unchanging. Medieval man made little if any distinction between events that took place a hundred and a thousand years ago. So many scholars now insist that the medieval ballads cannot be relied upon for historical facts.

Perhaps then, the law can shed light on our 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 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. To further confuse the researcher, as early as 1262, many common outlaws were being referred to by the courts as Robin Hoods. You might think that this narrows the search; that this indicates that there must have been an established legend before the middle of the 13th century if criminals were regularly being referred to in this fashion. Sadly, it’s not so simple. It could be that Robin Hood was the stock name given to any outlaw (see below) and that it was later attached to a real man who became famous for his daring deeds.

Robin Hood may not even be an actual name at all; it could just be a description of a person. It is common in myths worldwide for people’s personal identities to be eroded and characters are often described by their title or by a nickname that describes them. In some medieval English dialects “Hood” and “Wood” are synonyms, and so Robin Hood may be Robert of the Wood, the Robert who lives in the wood. And our hero may not actually have been called Robert. Given the English love of puns and word play that stretches from Saxon times to the headlines of The Times today, Robert of the Woods, if pronounced with a French accent, becomes Robber of the Woods. So perhaps our man in Lincoln green may just have been referred to by his description: the robber who operated in the woods.

I personally think that we will never satisfactorily identify a historical individual as Robin Hood, though I doubt people will stop trying. But, even if we did find him, I don’t think we would recognize the man as our do-gooding, gentleman-archer: a medieval outlaw would have been a pretty 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 poem, 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 the act to stop him giving evidence of the murder. It’s difficult to imagine one of Errol Flynn’s merry men slaughtering an innocent child to stop him squealing to the sheriff.

I think the real Robin, if he ever existed, must have been a cold-hearted killer and thief: a gangster, in short. Which is why in my books I have described him as a sort of Godfather of the Greenwood. But I don’t think that being a gangster necessarily impacts negatively on the man’s popularity – look at the Kray Twins or some of the more lurid American Mafiosi. In fact, for the poorer sections of society, now as then, being a gangster can the epitome of glamour. As with the Krays, the worst crimes committed by Robin Hood would have been gradually whitewashed by future generations, and over the centuries the squeaky-clean Robin we know today would have evolved. I think, ultimately, that the enduring popularity of Robin Hood lies in this very flexibility of his image, which is why I am not too disappointed that nobody has managed to identify the real man. Robin, undiscovered, can change according to the cultural mores of the time. Basically, Robin Hood can be anyone we want him to be. I hope you enjoy my version.

Angus Donald, July 2009