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The Unknown Templar
By John Paul Davis
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2009 John Paul Davis
All rights reserved.
A Proud Outlaw
Attend and listen, gentlemen,
Who are of freeborn blood;
I shall tell you about a good yeoman,
Whose name was Robin Hood.
Robin was a proud outlaw,
While he walked on ground:
So courteous an outlaw as he was
Otherwise was never found.
So begins the famous ballad regarding that beloved outlaw commonly known as Robin Hood. Titled A Gest of Robyn Hode, this 456-stanza poem is the longest and one of the earliest surviving ballads known to provide insight into the life of the elusive outlaw. What existed during the fifteenth century as one of several orally recited rhymes, all similar in content and format, telling of a 'proud outlaw who walked on ground' and providing a source of cheap and exciting entertainment for audiences during the Middle Ages, now stands as a rare tangible reminder of Robin Hood's medieval legend and a prelude to several later ballads, countless plays, novels, Hollywood films and television series, some of which are still being produced. What little is known of the early legend can largely be credited to these early ballads. The origin of the legend itself cannot be accurately determined. As a result, the information that exists, dating back over five hundred years, has become all the more important, often acting as a starting point for any serious investigation into the subject of Robin Hood.
In total, five of these early ballads have survived in their original form. Written in Middle English by an anonymous prose writer, or writers, and without a definitive historical setting, the ballads of Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood's Death and A Gest of Robyn Hode are a limited and damaged collection of the medieval legend based on the style of the early rhymes. Generally dated between 1450 and 1520, their stories appear strange and unfamiliar when viewed against the perception of Robin Hood in the twenty-first century but provide the reader with a realistic view of an outlaw at the time. Despite only surviving in fragmentary form, the material successfully introduces the lives of the outlaws and has become the basis for the later legend.
Surviving in poor condition in the library of Cambridge University, the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk is generally agreed to be the oldest of the known ballads, dated to some time after 1450, although its survival in printed form is attributed to a collection belonging to Robert Jamieson from 1806. Initially entitled Talkyng of the Munke and Robyn Hode, the ballad was later retitled by Jamieson and included in the work of Francis Child, who compiled a significant collection of ballads in the nineteenth century. The ballad begins with a description of an appealing setting in Sherwood Forest where Little John speaks happily of the May morning but the devoutly pious Robin Hood bemoans that he has been unable to attend mass or matins for over a fortnight. Frustrated, Robin decides to risk going to St Mary's in Nottingham, inspired by his devotion to the Virgin Mary, despite the possibility that he may be caught by the Sheriff of Nottingham. With concern for his safety, Much the Miller's son suggests he takes with him at least twelve men, but Robin refuses, taking only Little John.
The outlaws depart for Nottingham and during the journey wager their archery skills by shooting arrows at a tree. Little John wins, but Robin Hood fails to honour the bet and a fight ensues. Robin Hood strikes Little John, who then leaves Robin to travel on unprotected. Undeterred, Robin continues to Nottingham, where he prays in the church, unaware that he has been recognized as an outlaw by a monk whom he had once robbed of £100 and has been reported to the sheriff. Robin is captured, and the Merry Men are shocked to learn of their master's fate. Little John is the only man alert to the significance of the danger and leads the Merry Men as they set out to rescue Robin. On the way they find and capture the monk, who is carrying letters from the sheriff to the king about Robin Hood's capture, and his page. Little John murders the monk for treachery, and Much the Miller's son kills the page to keep it a secret, following which he and Little John go to the king. They present the king with the letters the monk had been bringing and tell him that the monk had died on the journey. The king in return appoints them Yeomen of the Crown and commands them to bring Robin before him. The Merry Men then appear before the sheriff with the king's orders, informing him that the monk has not come himself as he has been made the Abbot of Westminster. Much and Little John are granted permission by the sheriff to enter the prison, where they kill the gaoler and escape with Robin. The sheriff is furious that he has been tricked by the outlaws and fears the wrath of the king should he find out. When the king learns what has happened he curses their being fooled but praises Little John's loyalty and lets the incident go unpunished. Robin Hood admits Little John has done him a good turn, and they are reconciled.
Violence is a recurring theme in the ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. Surviving only in a manuscript owned by Bishop Thomas Percy dated to the seventeenth century, commonly referred to as the Percy Folio, the ballad is generally accepted as being older in origin than the seventeenth century, largely because its plot and style are similar to that of a play, Robin Hood and the Knight, from 1475 which is also consistent with the Middle English used in the other early ballads. Set in Barnsdale in Yorkshire rather than Sherwood, this ballad begins when Robin Hood awakens from a dream in which two unknown strangers capture him. Determined to track the men down, he dismisses the advice of Little John that the dream was meaningless, and the pair set off into the forest. They soon encounter a stranger, and Little John and Robin quarrel when Little John suggests that Robin remain out of sight while he investigates the stranger. Robin refuses, and Little John returns to the Merry Men to find them engaged in a fierce fight with the sheriff and his men. Little John kills one but is subsequently captured.
In the meantime, Robin exchanges greetings with the stranger and offers to be his guide through the forest. As they travel he learns that the stranger is a bounty hunter named Guy of Gisborne who has been instructed by the Sheriff of Nottingham to come to Barnsdale to capture an outlaw known as Robin Hood. Gisborne is unaware of Robin Hood's identity, and they engage in a friendly archery competition. After Robin Hood wins he reveals his identity, and a sword fight commences. Robin kills Gisborne and then returns, disguised in Gisborne's cloak, to rescue his men, and Little John kills the sheriff.
The ballad of Robin Hood and the Potter differs slightly in style to the other four as it emphasizes Robin Hood's art of trickery and cunning when embarrassing the Sheriff of Nottingham. Described by Child as 'an unheard of old piece', the ballad survives in a single manuscript dated around 1503 and refers to a chance meeting between the Merry Men and a potter. After attempting to charge the potter a levy for venturing into the forest, Robin spars with the stranger and loses. Despite the defeat, Robin shows good nature towards the potter and offers to go into Nottingham and sell his pots for him. Robin changes into the potter's clothes and carries out his promise but sells his goods at rock-bottom prices. Among his customers is the wife of the sheriff, who takes to Robin and invites him to dinner. While at dinner, Robin informs the sheriff he knows Robin Hood and tricks the sheriff into the greenwood the next day. Although surrounded by his Merry Men, Robin shows courtesy towards him because of the kindness of his wife.
Surviving in at least five similar editions, the Gest is perhaps the most famous of the ballads, dated some time between 1450 and 1520. In style and structure this ballad is an epic poem, of which some text appears to be missing. It comprises several Robin Hood stories, some of which follow on directly from one another, collected together in eight fyttes. According to the ballad, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are outlaws in Barnsdale. It begins at evening time in the forest when Robin declares that he will not dine unless he has a guest with whom to share his food. He instructs the Merry Men to find him a guest, and they waylay a knight named Sir Richard at the Lee who is travelling towards Doncaster. Robin invites the knight to dine with him, although insisting he pay for his own meal. When dinner is over Robin learns that Sir Richard has fallen on hard times, owing £400 to the monastery of St Mary's in York for mortgaging his land to pay bail for his son who had killed two men. Recognizing that the knight is true to his word, Robin, inspired by his own generosity and their mutual devotion to the Virgin Mary, agrees to lend him £400. Before they part, Robin also provides the knight with horses and clothing befitting his station and arranges for Little John to guide him on his journey.
The following day sees the knight travel to St Mary's Abbey in York where the abbot and a monk, the villains of the story, are more interested in repayment of the loan than in the possibility that the knight may lose his lands and son. Despite having the money available to pay off the debt, the knight pleads for further time but is refused. Bemoaning the greed of the holy men, Sir Richard reluctantly repays the money, and with his debt paid he sets about raising money to repay his debt to Robin Hood. The ballad continues with Little John shooting in an archery competition in Nottingham where he impresses the Sheriff of Nottingham. The sheriff declares he has never seen such fine shooting and decides to employ Little John as his servant. Little John later steals £303 and many silver vessels from the sheriff and then returns to Robin Hood accompanied by the sheriff's cook, who later joins the Merry Men. The sheriff himself is also tempted out into the greenwood by Little John, where he is captured by Robin Hood and forced to spend the night in Robin's custody. The sheriff swears an oath of friendship to Robin and is released but soon sets about plotting revenge.
The ballad continues with Robin Hood again refusing to eat dinner unless he has a guest. His men set out once more to find one and waylay a monk from St Mary's Abbey passing through the forest. They dine, and Robin insists the monk pay for his meal. The monk claims he is poor, but Robin discovers £800 among his possessions, including the money repaid by Sir Richard, which Robin steals. As a result, when Sir Richard at the Lee returns to repay the loan Robin refuses to accept it, stating that the Virgin Mary has been good to him.
Later on, the Sheriff of Nottingham arranges an archery contest in an attempt to capture Robin Hood. Although they recognize that the contest is a trap, Robin and a number of the Merry Men decide to take part. They all shoot to a very high standard, with Robin eventually winning. Thereupon the sheriff ambushes the Merry Men, but they manage to escape and accept refuge at the knight's castle, which is later attacked by the sheriff and a countryside militia. Battle commences, and the Merry Men successfully repel the attack. Soon after, the sheriff goes to London to inform the king about what has happened. The king angrily insists that the outlaws and the knight must be caught. The sheriff arrests Sir Richard for his part in assisting the outlaws, but Robin later rescues him. The king is outraged at the knight's escape and comes to Nottingham himself to capture him and Robin Hood. The king journeys across Lancashire and is outraged by the loss of deer in the royal forests. He resorts to dressing up as an abbot to enter the greenwood and find the elusive outlaws. He encounters Robin in the forest, where they engage in discussion, and the king takes kindly to him. After the king has dined with Robin Hood and watched the Merry Men shoot arrows, they all walk on together to Nottingham, with Robin having no idea of the abbot's true identity. Robin's loyalty to the king, now identified as one of the King Edwards, is never in doubt and the king pardons the Merry Men, taking Robin Hood into his service. After fifteen months Robin returns to live in the greenwood until his death at Kirklees Priory – also described in the ballad of Robin Hood's Death.
The events recorded in each of the ballads are generally consistent. While they portray a Robin Hood who is different from the hero of the modern-day legend, they nevertheless provide the reader with several similarities that seemingly stem from early tradition. They are set in the forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood in the month of May, and life as an outlaw is described in an appealing way, with descriptions of the foliage on the trees and the singing of the birds providing an early insight into the forest life which many associate with Robin Hood. Conditions in the forest were undoubtedly hard, but poetic licence provides a romantic and somewhat idealistic picture of Robin Hood roaming the forests of England with his band of Merry Men enjoying a life free from responsibility and oppression. The Merry Men are present at the beginning of each ballad, and Robin has already established a reputation as being the greatest of archers. His tendency to rob from the rich is demonstrated in the Gest and Monk ballads, but with only limited explanation of what he does with the proceeds. His generosity to the knight in not forcing him to pay back the loan goes some way to demonstrate his charitable nature, which is also acknowledged at the end of the Gest:
Cryst have mercy on his soule.
That dyded on the Rode!
For he was a good outlawe
And dyde pore men moch god.
Exactly how much of the early tradition has been lost over the centuries is difficult to assess. Equally, much of twenty-first-century tradition differs considerably from the medieval ballads. Modern tradition firmly establishes Robin Hood as being of noble status, but this is inconsistent with early ballads, which open with a clear description of Robin Hood and his Merry Men as yeomen. Also absent at this stage is a definitive historical setting. Popular legend refers to Robin Hood's allegiance to Richard I, yet the ballads refer to the king as an Edward. Historically this also poses a problem, particularly as none of the contemporary chroniclers recorded the existence of Robin Hood during the reign of Richard I. Yet the search for a historical Robin Hood is not completely without foundation. In the year 1377 the poet William Langland made reference to the popularity of the legend in his epic poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. In this there is a passage criticizing negligent priests in which the priest Sloth claims: 'I can noughte perfitly fit my pater-noster, as the priest singeth, but I can rymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester.' In modern English this translates as: 'Nor am I perfect in my paternoster – not as a priest should sing it – though I do know rymes of Robin Hood and Randolph Earl of Chester.' The rhymes Langland talks about could include some of the early ballads as they appeared in oral form. The Monk, Gest, Gisborne, Death and Potter ballads may have been widely recited by this time despite not being recorded in text before 1450. While it cannot be clearly identified when the rhymes of Robin Hood were first recited, evidence of the tradition is in place before the time of Langland.
Another early reference to Robin comes around 1400. Captured in a poem located in the library of Lincoln Cathedral are the lines
Robyn hod in sherewod stod
hodud and hathud and gosu and schod
four and thuynti arrows
he bar in his hondus
which may be translated as
Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
hooded and hatted and hosed and shod.
Four and twenty arrows
he bore in his hands.
This poem does not provide any significant insight into the activities of a possible historical figure, but it does at least confirm that a connection between Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest existed by the fifteenth century. The poem provides a further reference to archery, and describes the outlaw as wearing a hat, hood, stockings and shoes. Unfortunately still missing is a time period.
Excerpted from Robin Hood by John Paul Davis. Copyright © 2009 John Paul Davis. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1 A Proud Outlaw,
2 A Major History of Britain,
4 Waichmen Were Commendit Gude,
5 A Fellowship of Outlaws or an Outlawed Fellowship?,
6 The Templars Versus the Bull,
7 Into the Greenwood,
8 To Rob from the Rich to Give to the Poor,
9 A Hidden Divinity,
10 Sir Robin of Locksley's Birth, Breeding, Valour and Marriage,
11 Here Lies Bold Robin Hood?,
12 True Tales of Robin Hood,
Notes and References,