No-one knows for sure whether the legend of Robin Hood was based on a real historical character. It is a subject which is still hotly debated amongst scholars.
There have been several candidates. A certain Robert Hod, later called Hobbehod, was a tenant of the Archbishop of York in Henry III’s time. Legal records show him to be an outlaw. He was summoned to appear before York Assizes in 1225 and 1226 but fled, and is described in the records as an outlaw or fugitive.
In 1852, Victorian scholar Joseph Hunter claimed to have located the ‘real’ Robin Hood in the shape of one Robert Hood, recorded in the royal household records as a servant of King Edward II. Later, Hunter discovered the same name (but was he the same man?) in the court rolls for Wakefield, which included Barnsdale in South Yorkshire, one of the outlaw’s legendary homes.
The search is complicated by the fact that Hood, Hod and Hode were all common surnames in medieval England. Robert or Robin were equally popular Christian names. The phrase ‘Robinhood’ became a nickname used in court records for an outlaw, and there is evidence of at least eight people before 1300 who adopted it or were given it as a pseudonym. The word ‘hood’ still means a gangster or outlaw in America.
Probably, the real identity of Robin Hood will remain as elusive as the legendary outlaw. But one thing is sure: His popularity is as great now as it ever was, and forever linked in our imagination to ancient Sherwood Forest.
Tales of Robin Hood have been told for more than 700 years. Our fascination with this world-famous outlaw continues into the 21st century.
The romantic image of Robin Hood is of a medieval hooded figure in Lincoln Green, a master bowman with a quick mind and mischievous sense of humour. Dispossessed by greedy Norman overlords, he is forced to live beyond the law in the leafy depths of Sherwood, a royal hunting forest. From his forest lair he ambushes rich travellers, fights corrupt officials, and shares the spoils of his outlawry with poor, oppressed peasants.
Down the centuries this image has been elaborated and enlarged upon by literature, theatre and – more recently – film and TV shows. Many famous actors have played the people’s hero. Some movies have taken a less serious look at the time-honoured tale, including a Walt Disney cartoon and a gangster style musical.
But does the Robin Hood of the silver screen and written page bear any resemblance to the real outlaw? Did a real outlaw ever actually exist? Was he a made-up figure, answering the people’s need for a hero? Or do his real origins lie further back in the mysteries of our pagan past?
To find out, we need to go back in time to look at the first documents that bear Robin’s name.
Robyn hod in sherewod stod
hodud and hathud and gosu and schod
four and thuynti arrows
he bar in his hondus
Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
hooded and hated and hosed and shod.
Four and twenty arrows he bore in his hands.
This is one of the earliest surviving written references to Robin Hood. It is a poem dating from around 1400 and the original document is preserved in the library of Lincoln Cathedral. It clearly associates the outlaw with Sherwood Forest.
Another early reference to Robin Hood is in a poem by William Langland called ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’. In it, a character called Sloth admits that whilst he can’t always remember his prayers, he can recite all the ballads of popular heroes:
I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it singeth
but I kan rhymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Earl of Chestre
I do not know my Paternoster perfectly, but I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester.
At this time, popular stories were usually recited or sung as ballads, often by travelling minstrels. In an age when there was no TV, no electric lights to brighten long winter evenings indoors, and only the most educated people in society could read, listening to stories must have been one of the few forms of entertainment accessible to all.
As the quotation above shows, Robin Hood was not the only hero popular in those tales. Figures such as Randolf of Chester, Guy of Gisbourne and Havelock the Dane were equally well known legends in their day. No doubt elements from one story tended to get carried across to the others, and storytellers varied the location and details of their tales according to where they were entertaining at the time.
The early ballads of Robin Hood were carried around in people’s heads, recited, embroidered and elaborated as they passed from storyteller to storyteller.
Later, some of these ballads were written down. One of the earliest was ‘A Lytell Gest (poem) of Robyn Hode’, which is thought to have been hand written during the 14th century. In it, the characters of Robin Hood, little John and Will Scarlock (Scarlet) are all introduced, along with Robin’s arch enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham.
The now well known story of the silver arrow archery contest and the death of Robin are also included. The ballad runs to 456 four-line verses.
Later on, printed versions were circulated:
- Robin Hood and the Monk
- Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne
- Robin Hood and the Curtal (short) Friar
- Little John and The Sheriff of Nottingham
- The King and Robin Hood.
So most of what we know about the medieval legend of Robin Hood is derived from a handful of surviving manuscripts.
May Day was one of the most popular folk festivals in medieval and Tudor England. In these days of central heating, well-stocked supermarkets and indoor working, it is hard for us to imagine how much the return of spring meant to our ancestors.
May Day was celebrated with dances, plays and ‘may games’. A tree was sometimes felled and dragged from the forest to be decorated as the focus of the festivities. Victorian maypole dancing was a genteel version of what had earlier been ribald celebrations of fertility and fun, often frowned on by the local clergy.
The two key characters in the May games were Robin Hood and Maid Marian. These folk figures still appear in centuries-old folk dance traditions today. For example, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers include a dancer carrying a bow and arrow, and another called Maid Marian.
Other names given to the central male figure in old May Day celebrations are Jack-in-the-Green and Robin Goodfellow. Some folklorists have seen in this a suggestion that the legend of Robin Hood contains echoes of pre-Christian belief in a forest god or nature spirit.
Robin has always been a popular subject with Hollywood. Here are some of the films that helped make him a hero of the silver screen:
- Robin Hood Outlawed, Starring A. Brian Plant. 1912
- Robin Hood, Starring Douglas Fairbanks and Enid Bennett. 1922
- The Adventures of Robin Hood, Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. 1938
- The Story of Robin Hood, Starring Richard Todd and Joan Price. 1952
- Robin Hood, Starring Richard Greene (TV series). 1955-1958
- Sword of Sherwood, Starring Richard Greene. 1961
- Robin Hood, Full length cartoon film by Walt Disney. 1973
- Robin and Marian, Starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. 1975
- Robin of Sherwood (English TV series), Starring Michael Praed and Jason Connery. 1984-86
- Robin Hood, Starring Patrick Bergen. 1991
- Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Starring Kevin Costner. 1991.
- Robin Hood, BBC TV series starring Jonas Armstrong as Robin, 2006.
- Robin Hood, Starring Russell Crowe, 2010
Download a short information sheet from Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre, with information about Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest [PDF].
Robin Hood y el Bosque de Sherwood
Informacion para nuestros visitantes espagñoles [PDF]
Robin des Bois et Fort de Sherwood
Information pour nos visiteurs français [PDF]
Benvenuti alla Foresta di Sherwood
Informazioni per i nostri ospiti italiani [PDF]
Statues of Robin Hood can be found outside Nottingham Castle, and in the High Street at Edwinstowe.
Edwinstowe Parish Church is the place where Robin and Marian were married. Maid Marian is said to have been born in the village of Blidworth, where a stone in the churchyard is known as "Will Scarlett's Grave".