Robin Hoodwas the legendary bandit of England who stole from the rich to help the poor. The stories about Robin appealed to common folk because he stood up against—and frequently outwitted—people in power. Furthermore, his life in the forest—hunting and feasting with his fellow outlaws, coming to the assistance of those in need—seemed like a great and noble adventure.
Early Sources.The earliest known mention of Robin Hood is in William Langland’s 1377 work calledPiers Plowman,in which a character mentions that he knows “rimes of Robin Hood.” This and other references from the late 1300s suggest that Robin Hood was well established as a popular legendby that time.
One source of that legend may lie in the old French custom of celebrating May Day. A character called Robin des Bois, or Robin of the Woods, was associated with this spring festival and may have been transplanted to England—with a slight name change. May Day celebrations in England in the 1400s featured a festival “king” called Robin Hood.
balladpopular song, often telling a story
medievalrelating to the Middle Agesin Europe, a period from aboutA.D.500 to 1500
A collection ofballadsabout the outlaw Robin Hood,A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode,was published in England around 1489. From it and othermedievalsources, scholars know that Robin
Robin Hood, the legendary thief of England, stole from the rich and gave the wealth to the poor. Stories about his life and adventures first appeared in the late 1400s.
was originally associated with several locations in England. One was Barnsdale, in the northern district called Yorkshire. The other was Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, where his principal opponent was the vicious and oppressive Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin’s companions included Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Much, and Will Scarlett.The Robin Hood ballads reflect the discontent of ordinary people with political conditions in medieval England. They were especially upset about new laws that kept them from hunting freely in forests that were now claimed as the property of kings and nobles. Social unrest and rebellion swirled through England at the time the Robin Hood ballads first became popular. This unrest erupted in an event called the Peasants’ Revoltof 1381.
Later Versions.By the 1500s, more elaborate versions of the legend had begun to appear. Some of these suggested that Robin was a nobleman who had fallen into disgrace and had taken to the woods to live with other outlaws. Robin also acquired a girlfriend named Maid Marian and a new companion, a monk called Friar Tuck. His adventures were then definitely linked to Sherwood Forest.
Beginning in the 1700s, various scholars attempted to link Robin Hood with a real-life figure—either a nobleman or an outlaw. But none of their theories have stood up to close examination. Robin was most likely an imaginary creation, although some of the tales may have been associated with a real outlaw.
Also at about this time, Robin began to be linked with the reigns of King Richard I, “The Lionhearted,” who died in 1189, and of King John, who died in 1216. The original medieval ballads, however, contain no references to these kings or to a particular time in which Robin was supposed to have lived.
Later versions of the Robin Hood legend placed more emphasis on Robin’s nobility and on his romance with Marian than on the cruelty and social tension that appear in the early ballads. In addition to inspiring many books and poems over the centuries, Robin Hood became the subject of several operas and, in modern times, numerous movies.
Tales of Robin Hood.One of the medieval ballads about Robin Hood involved Sir Guy of Gisborne. Robin and his comrade Little John had an argument and parted. While Little John was on his own, the Sheriff of Nottingham captured him and tied him to a tree. Robin ran into Sir Guy, who had sworn to slay the outlaw leader. When they each discovered the other’s identity, they drew their swords and fought. Robin killed Sir Guy and put on his clothes.
Disguised as Sir Guy, Robin persuaded the sheriff to let him kill Little John, who was still tied to the tree. However, instead of slaying Little John, Robin freed him, and the two outlaws drove off the sheriff’s men.
Another old story, known as Robin Hood and the Monk, also began with a quarrel between Robin and John. Robin went into Nottingham to attend church, but a monk recognized him and raised the alarm. Robin killed 12 people before he was captured.
When word of his capture reached Robin’s comrades in the forest, they planned a rescue. As the monk passed by on his way to tell the king of Robin’s capture, Little John and Much seized and beheaded him. John and Much, in disguise, visited the king in London and then returned to Nottingham bearing documents sealed with the royal seal. The sheriff, not recognizing them, welcomed the two men and treated them to a feast. That night Little John and Much killed Robin’s jailer and set Robin free. By the time the sheriff realized what had happened, the three outlaws were safe in Sherwood Forest.
Robin Hood’s role as the enemy of the people who held power and the protector of the poor was clearly illustrated in lines fromA Lytell Geste of Robin Hode.Robin instructed his followers to do no harm to farmers or countrymen, but to “beat and bind” the bishops and archbishops and never to forget the chief villain, the high sheriff of Nottingham. Some ballads ended with the sheriff’s death; in others, the outlaws merely embarrassed the sheriff and stole his riches. In one ballad, the sheriff was robbed and then forced to dress in outlaw green and dine with Robin and his comrades in the forest.
The Death of Robin Hood
Legend says that Robin Hood was wounded in a fight and fled to a convent. The head of the nuns there was his cousin, and he begged her for help. She made a cut so that blood could flow from his vein, a common medical practice of the time. Unknown to Robin, however, she was his enemy. She left him without tying up the vein, and he lay bleeding in a locked room. Severely weakened, he sounded three faint blasts on his horn. His friends in the forest heard his cry for help and came to the convent, but they were too late to save Robin. He shot one last arrow, and they buried him where it landed.
Over time, the image of Robin as a clever, lighthearted prankster gained strength. The tales in which he appeared as a highway robber and murderer were forgotten or rewritten.
A True Tale of Robin Hood is Child ballad 154, featuring Robin Hood and, indeed, presents a full account of his life, from before his becoming an outlaw, to his death. It describes him as the Earl of Huntington, which is a fairly late development in the ballads. It definitively places him in Richard the Lionhearted’s reign.
This ballad was written by the prominent 17th century broadside balladist Martin Parker, in about 1630, by his own account from reliable historical sources but more probably from the abundant literary and ballad sources then available. This account includes the unusual details that Robin Hood was given to castrating monks and that he operated in Lancashire as well as Yorkshire. Unlike many of the 17th century broadsides it stresses the tradition that Robin Hood actively aided the poor.
Robin Hood lives well as the Earl of Huntington, but is brought to penury by his spending and the enmity of the abbot of St. Mary’s. He is outlawed, and his band lives by robbing, particularly the rich clergy, but they aid the poor. He catches the abbot, who then went to the king. The king offers a reward, but his men are either out-fought, or won over by Robin’s courtesy. King Richard goes to Nottingham. Robin begs a pardon by letter, and the king is agreeable. Before he gets it, however, Robin takes a fever. He trusts a friar to bleed him (a common medical practice of the day), and the friar bleeds him to death. King Richard thinks the friar treacherous, and Robin foolish to have trusted him.
Little John appears in the earliest recorded Robin Hood ballads and stories, and in the earliest references to Robin Hood by Andrew of Wyntoun in 1420 and by Walter Bower in 1440.In the early tales, Little John is shown to be intelligent and highly capable. In “A Gest of Robyn Hode”, he captures the sorrowful knight and, when Robin Hood decides to pay the knight’s mortgage for him, accompanies him as a servant.In “Robin Hood’s Death”, he is the only one of the Merry Men that Robin takes with him. In the 15th-century ballad commonly called “Robin Hood and the Monk”, Little John leaves in anger after a dispute with Robin. When Robin Hood is captured, it is Little John who plans his leader’s rescue. In thanks, Robin offers Little John leadership of the band, but John refuses. Later depictions of Little John portray him as less cunning.
The earliest ballads do not feature an origin story for this character. According to a 17th-century ballad, he was a giant of a man who was at least seven feet tall, and introduced when he tried to prevent Robin from crossing a narrow bridge, whereupon they fought with quarterstaves, and Robin was overcome. Despite having won the duel, John agreed to join his band and fight alongside him. From then on he was called Little John in whimsical reference to his size and in a play that reversed his first and last names (as his proper name was John Little). This scene is almost always re-enacted in film and television versions of the story. In some modern film versions, Little John loses the duel to Robin.
Little John’s grave in St Michael’s Church graveyard, Hathersage
Starting from the ballad tradition, Little John is commonly shown to be the only Merry Man present at Robin Hood’s death.
Despite a lack of historical evidence for his existence, Little John is reputed to be buried in a churchyard in the village of Hathersage, Derbyshire. A modern tombstone marks the supposed location of his grave, which lies under an old yew tree. This grave was owned by the Nailor (Naylor) family, and sometimes some variation of “Nailer” is given as John’s surname. In other versions of the legends, his name is given as John Little, enhancing the irony of his nickname.
According to local legend, Little John built himself a small cottage across the River Derwent from the family home. The site now has a 15th century Grade 2 listed ex-farmhouse and barn built on it, called Nether House at Offerton.
In Dublin, a local legend suggests that Little John visited the city in the 12th century and was hanged there.
Little John was a figure in the Robin Hood plays and games during the 15th to 17th centuries, particularly those held in Scotland.
Many historical figures are named Little John and John Little, but it is debatable which – if any – are the inspiration for the legendary character.
“Little John” can be used as a term of endearment, typically denoting kindness, compassion, empathy, and a certain level of optimism, a bit hard headed at times. It also functions as an ironic name in this case, due to John being physically enormous.
The Sheriff of Nottingham is the main antagonist in the legend of Robin Hood. He is generally depicted as an unjust tyrant, who mistreats the local people of Nottinghamshire, subjecting them to unaffordable taxes. Robin Hood fights against him, stealing from the rich, and the Sheriff, in order to give to the poor; a characteristic for which Robin Hood is best known.
It is not conclusively known exactly who this character is based on, but it would have been one of (or a composite of multiple of) the people who have occupied the post of the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests. If, as in many versions of the Robin Hood legend, the action of the story is placed during the absence of King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade, the character could be identified with the little-known William de Wendenal; however, the Sheriff more usually remains either anonymous or pseudonymous.
Maid Marian (or Marion) is the love interest of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood in English folklore. Maid Marian was in origin a “shepherdess” figure associated with May Day. Her role as the love interest of Robin Hood dates to at least the 16th century.She is typically portrayed as beautiful, confident, and sincere in her love of Robin Hood. Often, she is a noblewoman in the stories, though sometimes she is a commoner. Most modern Robin Hood stories feature her prominently and present her as an admirable woman. Of particular note is Marian’s independence and relative equality to her lover, marking her as one of the earliest strong female characters in English literature.
Tuck is a common character in modern Robin Hood stories, which depict him as a jovial friar and one of Robin’s Merry Men. The figure of Tuck was common in the May Games festivals of England and Scotland during the 15th through 17th centuries. He appears as a character in the fragment of a Robin Hood play from 1475, sometimes called Robin Hood and the Knight or Robin Hood and the Sheriff, and a play for the May games published in 1560 which tells a story similar to Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. (The oldest surviving copy of this ballad is from the 17th century.) The character entered the tradition through these folk plays, and he was orginially partnered with Maid Marian: “She is a trul of trust, to serue a frier at his lust/a prycker a prauncer a terer of shetes/a wagger of ballockes when other men slepes.” His appearance in “Robin Hood and the Sheriff” means that he was already part of the legend around the time when the earliest surviving copies of the Robin Hood ballads were being made.
A friar with Robin’s band in the historical period of Richard the Lion-Hearted would have been impossible because the period predates friars in England (but see Eustace the Monk, a medieval outlaw); however, the association of the Robin Hood with Richard I was not made until the 16th century; the early ballad A Gest of Robin Hood names his king as “Edward”.
What follows is a story which includes different versions of the legend. He was a former monk of Fountains Abbey (or in some cases, St Mary’s Abbey in York, which is also the scene of some other Robin Hood tales) who was expelled by his orderbecause of his lack of respect for authority. Because of this, and in spite of his taste for good food and wine, he became the chaplain of Robin’s band. In Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, he was specifically sought out as part of the tale of Alan-a-Dale: Robin has need of a priest who will marry Allan to his sweetheart in defiance of the Bishop of Hereford.
In many tales, from “Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar” to The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, his first encounter with Robin results in a battle of wits in which first one and then the other gains the upper hand and forces the other to carry him across a river. This ends in the Friar tossing Robin into the river.
In some tales, he is depicted as a physically fit man and a skilled swordsman and archer with a hot-headed temper. However, most commonly, Tuck is depicted as a fat, bald and jovial monk with a great love of food and ale, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, the latter depiction of Tuck is the comic relief of the tale.
Two royal writs in 1417 refer to Robert Stafford, a Sussex chaplain who had assumed the alias of Frere Tuk. This “Friar Tuck” was still at large in 1429. These are the earliest surviving references to a character by that name