Robin Hood: Myth, History & Culture

Robin Hood: Myth, History & Culture

by Nick Rennison


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An informative, lively guide through the rich mythology of Robin Hood, across all mediums

Everyone knows the story of England's greatest folk hero, the outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. This highly entertaining book begins with the search for the historical Robin, looking at the candidates for the "real Robin Hood" who have been proposed over the years, from petty thieves to Knights Templar, before moving on to examine the many ways in which he has been portrayed in literature and onscreen. He began as the hero of dozens of late medieval ballads, appeared in plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare, and in the Romantic era was reinvented by Walter Scott as a Saxon champion in the struggle against the Normans. During the 19th century, Robin Hood emerged as a hero in children's literature, while more recently he has been portrayed as everything from proto-socialist man of the people to anarchist thug. In the cinema he put in an appearance as early as 1908 and Douglas Fairbanks and then Errol Flynn turned him into the typical hero of Hollywood swashbucklers. In the last 20 years, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe have provided their own very different interpretations of the character. On the small screen, Robin has been the hero of half a dozen TV shows from the 1950s series starring Richard Greene, which used many writers blacklisted by Hollywood, via the well-remembered Robin of Sherwood in the 1980s, to the recent BBC series. Robin Hood is still very much with us, as the subject of graphic novels and computer games. Robin is an archetypal hero who, it seems, can never die. This engaging book charts his life so far.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842432471
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 10/10/2012
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Nick Rennison is a bookseller, author, and editor whose titles include 100 Must-Read Classic Novels and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.

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Robin Hood

Myth, History and Culture

By Nick Rennison

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2012 Nick Rennison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-638-7


Robin in the Ballads

The very first mention of rhymes of Robin Hood occurs in William Langland's long poem The Vision of Piers Plowman which is usually dated to 1377. It is also the very first record of the outlaw hero in literature. In the poem, the character Sloth, who is presented as a drunken and incompetent priest, remarks:

'I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre.'

In other words, the negligent Sloth doesn't know the Lord's Prayer, as he should do, but he is familiar with rhymes about Robin Hood and those about a well-known crusading aristocrat from the early thirteenth century. (Clearly stories of Robin were very popular, although the criticism of them continued. Alexander Barclay, in his translation of the German author Sebastian Brant's The Ship of Fools, writing more than a century after Langland, sounds a very similar note when he describes those 'so blinded with their foly/That no scriptur think they so true nor gode/As is a foolish jest of Robin Hode'.) What exactly these rhymes were, we cannot be certain. The very first piece of Robin Hood verse to survive is a fragment in a manuscript dating from the early fifteenth century that is now in Lincoln Cathedral. This reads:

'Robin Hood in scherewod stod
Hodud and hathud, hosut and schod
Ffour and thurti arrows he bar in his hondus'

'Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
Hooded and hatted, hosed and shod
Four and thirty arrows he bore in his hands'

Idly scribbled by some anonymous scribe, this may well be the formulaic opening to a Robin Hood poem but nothing more of it exists.

The first ballads that survive in full date from later in the same century. Of these, the longest by far is A Gest of Robyn Hode which is first recorded in a printed form in the early 1500s but was certainly written some decades before that. Most scholars today would place its composition in the 1450s or 1460s, although it probably incorporates themes and motifs from earlier, lost works. Consisting of just over 1,800 lines, divided into eight sections known as 'fittes', the poem recounts a series of Robin's adventures which begin when his men bring a melancholy knight to dine with him in the woods. The knight owes money to St. Mary's Abbey in York which he cannot pay and, as a consequence, he is in danger of forfeiting his land and estates to the abbey. Robin takes pity on him and agrees to lend him the money he needs. The knight is able to pay off his debt and thwart the land-grabbing attempts of the greedy clerics. Now all he has to do is save up to pay back Robin. Meanwhile Little John, under the alias of 'Reynolde Grenelef', has joined the service of the 'proude sherif of Notingham' and one day he gets into a fight with the sheriff's cook. After swapping mighty blows, the two men become friends and both decamp from the castle with large amounts of the sheriff's goods and cash. John returns only to tempt the sheriff into the forest where he is ambushed and forced to agree to terms with the outlaws.

Robin is now beginning to wonder about the knight who owes him money. The scheduled day for payment has arrived. Robin sends out his men to look for his debtor but they find only two monks from St. Mary's Abbey. When they lie about the amount of money they are carrying, the outlaws take possession of it and, when the knight does turn up, Robin decides that he has had enough return on his outlay from the monks. He frees the knight of his debt. The enraged sheriff, intent on revenge, later learns of the knight's involvement with the outlaws and takes him prisoner. Robin Hood and his men, outraged by what they see as a breach of the agreement made earlier, go to Nottingham, kill the sheriff and free the knight, now named as Sir Richard at the Lee. The king, who has been told of Robin's exploits, decides to enter the forest disguised as an abbot in an attempt to meet him. As he expects, Robin takes him prisoner and suggests that he should both dine with the outlaws and join with them in their forest sports. When the 'abbot' tells the truth about the amount of money he is carrying with him, Robin takes only half of it. When he bests Robin in one of the games, the outlaw leader recognises the king and agrees to enter his service. He spends a year with the king but the call of the greenwood is too strong and he returns to the forest.

In the last twenty lines of the poem, the author fast-forwards through the years and briefly describes his hero's death, treacherously slain by his kinswoman the Prioress of Kirklee. (A much fuller version of the story of how Robin died is preserved in a ballad entitled 'Robin Hood's Death' which can be found in the seventeenth-century manuscript known as the Percy Folio. The manuscript clearly records a tale that is much older and may indeed be one of the oldest of all the Robin Hood stories. The famous episode of Robin shooting an arrow from the window of Kirklees Priory and asking to be buried where it falls is first found in an eighteenth-century broadside version of the ballad. It is probably a later embellishment of the original story, although it may well date back much further than the period in which it is first recorded.)

What then does the Gest, the most substantial of all the early Robin Hood texts, tell us about the outlaw hero? He is a yeoman not a nobleman, a fact revealed in the poem's very first stanza. Although some of the action in the Gest takes place in Nottingham, Robin comes from Yorkshire not Nottinghamshire. There is no Sherwood in this text. 'Robyn stode in Bernesdale', the poet unequivocally states in the third stanza. The poem opens in Barnsdale in south Yorkshire and this is made abundantly clear by references to other very specific place-names later in the poem. Indeed, the references are so specific and so localised as to suggest that the poet must have had personal knowledge of the area. His chief companions in outlawry are Little John, Much the Miller's Son and 'gode Scarlock' but he has up to 'seven score' of other followers. Robin is a religious man with a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary but he has little or no time for bishops and other members of the higher clergy. The monarch at the time of the action in the Gest is not Richard or John but 'Edward, our comly kynge'.

Further information can be gleaned from the handful of shorter ballads which date from much the same period as the Gest. 'Robin Hood and the Potter', which survives in a manuscript from about 1500, shows Robin as trickster, disguising himself as a potter to travel into Nottingham and sell his wares. One of his customers is the Sheriff's wife who is so delighted by the bargain she gets on the pots she buys that she invites Robin to dine with her husband. The supposed potter wins an archery contest against the Sheriff's men and, telling his host that he knows the outlaw Robin Hood, he persuades him to travel from the safety of the town into the wilds of the greenwood. There he and his men dispossess the Sheriff of his goods and send him back to Nottingham with his tail between his legs where he faces the scorn and mockery of his wife. 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' is first found in a seventeenth-century collection but elements in it closely echo a play from 1475 and it must date back to the late fifteenth century. It introduces the character who has, over the centuries, been Robin's most regular opponent other than the Sheriff of Nottingham. This lively and unashamedly violent ballad has Robin and Little John encountering Sir Guy of Gisborne in the 'merry greenwood'. The two outlaws have an argument. John departs to Barnsdale and leaves Robin with Guy who has been hired to kill the outlaw by the Sheriff but does not immediately recognise his prey. He and Robin compete at archery and, when the outlaw wins and identifies himself, they fight to the death. Robin kills his opponent and, cutting off Guy's head, he sticks it 'on his bowes end'. He then takes his 'Irish kniffe' and mutilates the face. Meanwhile Little John has been captured by the Sheriff and faces execution until Robin, now disguised as Guy, approaches and frees his comrade. The Sheriff tries to flee but 'Little John, with an arrow broade/Did cleave his heart in twinn'.

'Robin Hood and the Monk', which can be found in a manuscript at Cambridge University that dates from about 1450, may well be the oldest of all surviving tales of the outlaw. In it, Robin, anxious to attend mass, travels to Nottingham where a 'gret-hedid munke' (a large-headed monk) recognises him and tells the Sheriff of his presence in the town. The outlaw is captured. Little John and Much the Miller's Son, when they learn what has happened, determine to rescue their master. They encounter the monk and his page. John kills the monk (he 'smote of the munkis hed') and Much does the same to the page for fear the boy would be a witness against them. They take letters from the monk and deliver them to the king who accepts their story that the monk died a natural death. The king now charges John and Much with the task of travelling to Nottingham to bring Robin to him. With the king's blessing they have little trouble in getting into the prison where their leader is being held. They kill the jailer and free Robin.

Even the briefest summaries of 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' and 'Robin Hood and the Monk' reveal an important fact about these early ballads. One of the most striking elements in them is their casual violence. Although Robin and his followers are capable of courtesy and generosity, and they have, in their own way, a rather strict code of justice and morality, they are also men with no qualms about killing their enemies and mutilating their bodies after doing so. As the historian Maurice Keen has written, 'In the ballads, we are up against a full-blooded medieval brigand.' Nor were the men who created the ballads particularly troubled by this. The violence is described in very much the same casual, off-handed way in which it is committed.

Other old ballads about Robin exist – close to thirty of them – but none has the same age and provenance as the Gest and the handful of other, shorter works just described. Many of them undoubtedly incorporate early material but it is impossible to trace it back to its original sources. The ballads which survive from the seventeenth century do so in a variety of forms. Some are found in manuscripts. The so-called Percy Folio, a huge compilation of old ballads and poetry of all kinds, is written in a seventeenth-century hand but has material in it that dates back centuries before that. It contains first surviving texts of some of the best-known Robin ballads including 'Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar', an introduction to the character later known as Friar Tuck, and 'Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly'. Some appeared as broadsides, printed on a single sheet of paper and sold in the city streets and at markets and fairs. Some were produced as chapbooks, pocket-sized booklets designed to be sold by the travelling pedlars known as chapmen. Over the years they were accumulated by collectors intrigued by these examples of popular culture (the diarist Samuel Pepys was one avid enthusiast) or they were gathered together in what were known as 'garlands', short anthologies of ballads from different sources. The first major, scholarly attempt to bring all the known ballads together in one book was made by a man named Joseph Ritson in 1795.

Some of these later ballads probably date back in their entirety far further than their first appearance in print or preserved manuscript. Others re-work or make use of themes and motifs from the earlier ballads. As on an archaeological site, a little digging can soon unearth elements of older structures. Look beneath the surface of 'Robin Hood and the Butcher', a ballad which first survives in the seventeenth-century Percy Folio, and it is clear that it is derived from 'Robin Hood and the Potter', a ballad which may well date back to the 1460s. In both works, Robin is the trickster figure, who takes possession of a tradesman's wares (the potter's pots, the butcher's meat) and sells them at ridiculously low prices. In both, he first feasts with the Sheriff and then fools him into accompanying him back to Sherwood. There the representative of the law is captured when Robin summons his men. He is only released because of the hospitality his wife had extended to the outlaw when he was disguised as a tradesman.

The stories told in the other ballads are various and wide-ranging. Some, such as the tale of 'Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar', have become part of the tradition and have appeared under assorted guises in dozens of books and films; others have failed to catch readers' imaginations and have never been repeated in later works. A few stray (usually unsuccessfully) from the standard territory of Barnsdale and Sherwood. In 'Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon', for example, the outlaw leader, together with Little John and Will Scadlock, travels to London where the eponymous prince is besieging the city with the help of two giants. There Robin and his men take on the three villains of the piece and slay them in combat. Elements of more fantastical romances are uneasily welded to the down-to-earth tradition of the Robin Hood myth. In 'Robin Hood's Fishing', the setting is once again an unusual one but this ballad retains some of the feel of those which take place on more familiar ground. Self-confessedly 'weary of the woods' and the 'chasing of the fallow deer', Robin decides to leave them and set up as a fisherman in Scarborough. He proves useless at his new trade but, when the fishing vessels are raided by French pirates, he comes into his own. Bound to the main mast so he can aim properly amidst the rolling of the sea, Robin despatches Frenchman after Frenchman with his bow and eventually the fishermen board the pirate ship and take possession of 'twelve hundred pounds in gold so bright'.

There are recurring themes and motifs in these ballads. Robin regularly comes across some traveller in the forest and, almost invariably, he offers to fight with him. This happens in 'Robin Hood and the Ranger', 'Robin Hood and the Shepherd', 'Robin Hood and the Tinker' and several more. Almost invariably, Robin is beaten. The outlaw hero then invites the man who has bested him to join the band of merry men. Nearly anyone who has seen a Robin Hood film in the past seventy years has seen a version of this 'Robin Meets His Match' encounter but all the versions ultimately derive from the ballads. However, it is not just strangers who end up quarrelling in the greenwood. In the ballads, the outlaws themselves are always falling out with one another. Robin and Little John are forever setting off on journeys through the woods, having words and going their separate ways to meet with separate adventures.

Disguise and the adoption of another's identity also have significant roles to play in many of the ballads. Robin frequently appears as a trickster figure who disguises himself to fool or undermine authority, usually in the shape of the Sheriff of Nottingham. As we have seen, this occurs in the earliest of the stories such as 'Robin Hood and the Potter' but it is also an element in many of the later ones as well. In 'Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men', for example, the outlaw pretends to be the hangman in order to thwart the Sheriff's plan to hang 'three squires in Nottingham town' who have committed no crime other than the killing of the king's deer. Finally, the forest itself is of huge importance to the Robin Hood ballads. As a place where the normal rules of society do not apply and where the social hierarchy can so easily be overturned, Sherwood (or Barnsdale) is a realm of new possibilities for those who, like Robin, choose to live in it.

For anyone familiar with Robin Hood largely through movies and TV, or even through any one of the dozens of children's books based on the character that have appeared in the last hundred years, the outlaw of the ballads can come as a bit of a surprise. He isn't a gentleman fallen on hard times, forced into the greenwood by his loyalty to Richard the Lionheart, nor has he ever fought with the king in the Crusades. He doesn't even live in the time of Richard the Lionheart. The king in the ballads, if he is mentioned at all, is called Edward. Robin is happy enough to rob the rich but he doesn't appear to have any particular desire to hand over his spoils to the poor. (Although the Gest shows his generosity to the poor knight Sir Richard at the Lee and ends with lines assuring readers that he 'dyde pore men moch god [good]'.) He's actually a violent and aggressive man who has no qualms about mutilating a dead man's face with his knife. The goodies in the stories aren't stalwart Saxons and the baddies nasty Normans. There is no hint whatsoever of any ethnic struggle between Saxons and Normans. Except in one later ballad that may have been deliberately written to add an element to the tradition that wasn't previously there, Robin doesn't have a Sherwood romance with a lovely lady known as Maid Marian. In fact, he rarely has any lovely lady friend at all.


Excerpted from Robin Hood by Nick Rennison. Copyright © 2012 Nick Rennison. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: Robin in the Ballads,
Chapter Two: Robin in the May Games,
Chapter Three: Historical Robin,
Chapter Four: Robin in Literature,
Chapter Five: Robin on the Screen,
Chapter Six: Illustrated Robin,
Chapter Seven: Musical Robin,
Chapter Eight: Computer Robin and the Future of a Legend,
Chapter Nine: Merry Men (and Others),
Further Reading,

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