History of Europe

The story behind the legend of Robin Hood

Entry taken from the book The Plantagenets

Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood, the English archer who, with a group of faithful, took refuge in the forests of Sherwood to fight against the tyranny of the Norman prince Juan sin Tierra and the evil sheriff of Nottingham, who take advantage of the absence of King Richard the Lionheart to try to usurp the throne. This image of Robin Hood as the thief who robs the rich to help the poor and the fighter for the rights of oppressed Saxon subjects against Norman tyranny has come to us especially through Walter Scott's famous novel Ivanhoe , written in the 19th century.

But Robin Hood's popularity in England long predates that date, and the idealized image of Sherwood's archer and his merry companions was already being sung in English taverns in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But did Robin Hood really exist? And if he did, was he really the protagonist of all the events that were later attributed to him? The answer is that while there was no real person named Robin Hood who set out from Sherwood Woods to attack Landless John and the sheriff of Nottingham, there were some characters from different eras, with different names and protagonists of different events who gradually created in the English imaginary the figure of the good thief who opposed the injustices suffered by English serfs and who was put by name Robin Hood.

We said that some of the exploits traditionally associated with Robin Hood come from real people. An example is related to the struggle of the Saxons against the Norman domination. This part of the legend seems to come directly from a Saxon named Hereward The Outcast. In 1066, following the defeat of the Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror , the Norman conquest of England took place. The Saxon inhabitants of the country tried to oppose it and were brutally subdued by the Norman army, but some of them continued to resist. Hereward led one of these groups who (like Robin Hood and his companions) opposed the Norman occupiers, and who (also like Robin and company) took refuge in a wooded and marshy place near Ely, from which they dedicated themselves to attack the Norman patrols and were known as "men of the woods". One of his main exploits was the assault on the monastery of Peterborough to seize its wealth, but not to sell it or get rich with it, but to protect it from the ravages of the Norman invaders.

A 15th century chronicler identifies Robin Hood with a royal character who joined the rebellion led in 1263 by Simon de Montfort against King Henry III (son of John the Landless ), which we have talked about in a blog post. This outlaw, named Roger Godberg, sought refuge in Sherwood Forest from where he launched attacks on royal patrols. The truth is that when the rebellion failed and de Montfort was executed in 1265, many of his followers were dispossessed of their land and property and had to flee to the forests from which they attacked road travelers in order to survive. . They were known by the name of Disinherited.

Regarding the name of Robin Hood, there are various records in which this name or something similar appears, although this does not mean that they were all part of the legend that gave rise to the character. Thus, in 1216 a man of that name, a servant of the abbot of Cirencester, was arrested on charges of murder. In 1225 a certain Robert Hood was dispossessed of all his property by the sheriff of Yorkshire in payment of the heavy debts he had contracted. Years later, that same sheriff, who had previously held the same position in Nottingham, was commissioned to pursue a notorious outlaw named Robert de Wetherby whom he ended up arresting and hanging, although there is no record that he was the same as Robert Hood. From the end of the 13th century, the name Robehod or Robinhod began to appear in various judicial records as a generic name for outlaws persecuted by justice.

At the end of the fourteenth century, the priest Sloth, in the work of his Piers Plowman he points out that while he doesn't know the Lord's Prayer, he can recite Robyn Hood rhymes. And an annotation in the hand of a monk, made in the margin of a work called Polychoricon , tells of an outlaw named Robin Hood who in 1460 lived in Sherwood Forest, from which he committed numerous robberies. Andrew de Wynton wrote about the same character one year before, although he placed him in the Inglewood forest.

Be that as it may, little by little the tales about Robin Hood became general, as the symbol of the brave ordinary Englishman who fights with his means against the oppression of the royal authorities . Without going into many details, during the 12th, 14th and 15th centuries, there were numerous frictions between the English kings of the Plantagenet dynasty that referred, among other issues, to some recurring in the legend of Robin Hood:the abusive collection of taxes that the officials carried out in the English counties to finance their wars in France and Scotland and the prohibition of hunting, fishing or cutting firewood in the royal forests, regulated in a regulation called Forest Charter, whose extension and limitations of use caused more than one rebellion against the king and the officials of the day. One of them, known as Peasants' Revolt, It took place in 1381 (just as ballads about Robin Hood were becoming widespread) and was addressed to royal officials collecting taxes for the young King Richard II (also a descendant of John the Landless).

And so, starting in the fifteenth century, the characters of Robin Hood, Little John, Lady Marian and Fray Tuck began to be represented in the so-called May Day Games, a spring celebration of pagan origin that, like many others, was adopted by the Christians. In all the taverns of the country the ballads of Robin Hood were sung as a man of the people whose enemies were the great nobles, sheriffs , bishops and archbishops and who fought against oppression without attacking the little knights or the priests of the towns and counties.

In short, the origin of the legend of Robin Hood seems to come from the sum of different characters who identify with some of the exploits that we know of him, with his name or with the places where their adventures took place. A place especially identified with Robin Hood is Nottingham Castle, where there is even a statue representing him with his inseparable bow, which is the image that serves as the heading for this entry.

Image| Nottingham Castle (photo:author's archive).


Peter Ackroyd:A History of England

Simon Schama:A History of Britain

Dan Jones:The Plantagenets