Robin Hood: myth or legend?
With a new Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Robin Hood film in cinemas worldwide, it’s time to ask where this legend springs from?
Hollywood’s tendency to cast Robin as a dashing swashbuckler, in the handsome forms of actors ranging from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, perhaps better reflects the expectations of the silver screen than reality. The first known literary reference to our hooded figure hails from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman in the late 14th century. He was soon popping up in various tales, ballads and stories, and, by the 1500s, his legend was cemented in British mythology; by that time, Christian revellers celebrated May Day with plays centred on a Robin Hood figure with near-religious significance.
The Scottish historian John Major, writing in 1521, placed Robin Hood’s life as concurrent with Richard the Lionheart’s reign from 1189 to 1199: “About this time, as I conceive, there flourished those most famous robbers, Robin Hood and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods but spoiled of their goods those only who were wealthy. They took the life of no man unless he either attacked them or offered resistance in defence of their property.
“The feats of this Robin are told in song all over Britain,” Major added. “He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbots. The robberies of this man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the humanest [sic] and the chief.” Thus, we see the birth of the revolutionary defender of social equality that has endured through the centuries.
The elusive figure was, then, the subject of ballads long before he was a protagonist in films, and in those early representations he was cast both as hero and, occasionally, as prankster – opposing ideas that perhaps have fed into the various dramatic and comic interpretations that came later. That he captivated audiences who passed on his tale through the oral traditions is, surely, thanks to the historical context of his morally motivated crimes. As Richard the Lionheart pursued the Crusades, a series of religious wars aimed at recovering the Holy Land and lasted almost 200 years, his malevolent brother John – himself later king – ruled at home. It was a time when the Rule of Law was taken as an incontrovertible truth, never to be contested. As such, the rare challengers to that rule were seen as heroes, and their appearance gave rise to an emergent new tradition of the outlaw as legend.
Was Robin Hood a real person?
That the idea of the forest loomed large in these stories was no coincidence. In the Middle Ages, woodland was the private preserve of the King and his officers, used for their own leisure and for private hunting. Contravention of these laws was treated in the harshest of terms, without possibility of appeal. Yet the rugged and vast landscape made an ideal place for an outlaw to hide, as long as he was not caught. Whether Sherwood was the hideout of a literal man named Robin Hood is debatable; that the forest was a symbol of oppression, and inhabited by fugitives, thieves and brigands, remains indisputable.
As with all timeless narratives, the Robin Hood story has proved malleable, often manipulated to chime with contemporary concerns. In the 14th century, revolt against the feudal system (the idea that peasants could hold land in return for labour and loyalty) saw the bandit cast as a handy anti-establishment figure; later versions depict him as a cast-out aristocrat with a love interest in the form of the fair Maid Marian. However, historical records have described the Robin Hood of 14th- and 15th-century ballads as a violent commoner, along with Little John and Will Scarlett; Friar Tuck and Maid Marian appear to have crept into the story later.
Numerous attempts have been made to prove Robin Hood’s existence, but to little avail. Criminals named ‘Robehod’, ‘Rabunhod’ or similar appear in early legal records, and it is possible that a figure of his name hailed either from Nottinghamshire, or, more likely, Yorkshire. It is less likely, however, that he was a heroic rebel who antagonised the Sheriff of Nottingham by robbing authority figures and donating the spoils to the poor while treating women and humble folk with courtesy. Those poetic expressions of the ballads articulated, in all probability, the objectives of northerners whose social dissatisfaction led to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Where was Robin Hood from?
Happily however, more tangible are the places that have come to be associated with the tale – both courtesy of handed-down traditions, and film locations. No seeker of the hooded hero could be considered serious in their attempt to unearth the man behind the myth without venturing to Sherwood Forest, a 450-acre royal forest in Nottinghamshire. As well as enduring as the place most synonymous with Robin in popular culture, the link is founded in historic records. A Lincoln Cathedral manuscript dating from around 1420 describes how the outlaw “Robyn hode in scherewode stod” (or “Robin Hood in Sherwood stood”).
Yorkshire folk, meanwhile, will not concede Robin Hood’s heritage to Nottinghamshire without a battle, and indeed most historians today believe that stories of our hero originated further north than the latterly accepted Nottingham connection. For while Sherwood Forest is name-checked in the 15th-century ballad Robin Hood and the Monk, the dialect of this, and A Gest of Robyn Hode, hails from Yorkshire. Those on the trail of Robin Hood should, then, make for Barnsdale, a forest near Loxley in South Yorkshire where the original ballads locate much of the action.
In the northernmost edge of the forest of Barnsdale lies the village of Wentbridge, mentioned in the early ballad, Robin Hood and the Potter, which suggests that this was the place that Robin and Little John first met and fought, before joining forces. Look out for a commemorative blue plaque on the bridge that crosses the River Went. The nearby village of Campsall houses the Grade I-listed church of St Mary Magdalene; locals believe this to be the spot where Robin and Maid Marian married. Meanwhile, those wishing to pay their respects might do so, at least symbolically, at All Saints’ Church in Pontefract. If 16th-century historian Richard Grafton is to be believed, this is the spot that a prioress murdered the outlaw and buried him by the road. She apparently chose that location so “that common strangers and travailers, knowyng and seeyng him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their jorneys that way [sic]”. Today, a functioning modern church exists within the ruins of the original church, which was ravaged during the English Civil War and yet still boasts its original double-helix staircase, one of only two in Britain. The church is also just a few miles from Brockadale in Wentbridge, a wooded area once known as ‘Saylis’ and referred to in A Gest of Robyn Hode.
For many years, it was believed Robin Hood was buried at Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire and while a monument still exists on private ground it has since been disputed. Less contested are the locations used in the filming for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, arguably the most popular modern retelling of the legend. The film opens with Robin of Locksley returning from the Crusades and being deposited on the beach with a backdrop of the iconic Seven Sisters white cliffs in East Sussex. The film’s Sherwood Forest stand-in is Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, a 540-acre, City of London- owned woodland that is a popular filming location thanks to its proximity to Shepperton Studios – it also featured in Walt Disney’s 1952 film The Story of Robin Hood.
The outlaws’ encampment, where Little John and Robin Hood clash, took place at Yorkshire’s Aysgarth Falls, a triple-flight waterfall on the River Ure which has, over the centuries, inspired the likes of poet William Wordsworth and artist JMW Turner. The ruined Locksley Castle, where Robin Hood is greeted with the mortal remains of his father, is in fact Old Wardour Castle near Tisbury in Wiltshire, a 14th-century fort badly damaged in the Civil War, and now managed by English Heritage, while Maid Marian’s abode was Northumberland’s Hulne Abbey. This ruined 13th-century priory is open to the public as part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle estate.
Sadly the 2018 movie has largely been filmed in France and Croatia, though that won’t detract from Robin Hood’s iconic status in English folklore. If anything, the broadening of his appeal only makes the quest for his origins in Britain even more fascinating – whether he is, indeed, real or the fictional stuff of archetype.