Like many other great legends, traveling minstrels singing tales of our hero spread his fame throughout the countryside. They sang songs that celebrated his exploits, thereby providing entertainment to people who otherwise experienced rather dull lives. The people who heard these songs immediately fell in love with the legendary hero.
35. The First Printed Robin Hood Story Was Called The Gest of Robyn Hode
“Jest” meant “story,” so it was known as The Story of Robin Hood. By the time stories about him began to be printed, legends of the beloved outlaw had become so popular that The Story of Robin Hood was published almost as much as the Bible. In fact, some people bragged that even though they didn’t know anything that the Bible said, they knew the stories of Robin Hood.
34. The Earliest Robin Hood Chroniclers Were Scottish, Not English
There are some inconsistencies in the legends, particularly in the earlier ones. For example, Robin Hood is said to live in Barnhill and frequently travel between there and Nottingham. However, Barnhill and Nottingham are 30 miles away from each other, quite a distance for a Medieval horseman. These discrepancies can be explained by the fact that the earliest chroniclers of Robin Hood were not English, who would have been familiar with the area, but rather Scottish.
33. The Legends Grew and Evolved Into the Stories We Know Today
Myths may come out of nowhere, but legends do not. They take on layer after layer after layer, until the kernel of truth inside them appears to be lost. As the Robin Hood legends grew in popularity and spread all over England, they took on new layers that caused them to morph into the stories we recognize today.
32. The First Robin Hood Stories Are Set in the Twelfth Century
The 1100s were the time of King Richard the Lionheart, the king to whom Robin Hood made obeisance, though he actively rebelled against the authority of the sheriff and other representatives of the king. If there was a real Robin Hood, he might have lived during this time.
During the twelfth century, a yeoman probably would have been somebody who was a servant, usually to a knight or clergyman. The Scottish author Sir Walter Scott must have understood this part of the early legend because, in Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and his Merry Men were all yeomen.
30. In the Early Stories, He Was Not the People’s Hero
The early legends about Robin Hood are not about a valiant outlaw who takes from the rich and gives to the poor but rather a marauding bandit who is hot-tempered and picks fights with anyone who crosses his path. One line towards the end of The Gest of Robyn Hode suggests that he was kind to the poor, though the reference is to his giving a small amount of money to a poor knight.
29. In the Twelfth Century, England Was A Feudalistic Society
A feudalistic society was one that was highly centralized along hierarchical lines. All of the lands belonged to the king, who loaned it out to noblemen. In turn, the noblemen were committed to raising up an army when needed. Sheriffs, their deputies, and even clergymen were representatives of the king, though they could rob from anyone without punishment. At the bottom of the ladder were the peasants.
28. Robin Hood Lived in Sherwood Forest With His Merry Men
Sherwood Forest is just outside of Nottingham in the county of Nottinghamshire in England. Many of the legends about him cite that location correctly, and inhabitants of Nottingham today are quite proud of their essential connection with the famous outlaw.
27. In Feudalistic England, Royal Forests Were Prohibited to All But the King
Robin Hood’s famous haunt is Sherwood Forest, where he would kill the king’s deer and taunt the Sheriff of Nottingham. Sherwood Forest was actually a royal forest, meaning that the only person permitted near it was the king and those in his company. The fact that Robin Hood dwelled there was an act of rebellion against feudalism.
26. Living in Sherwood Forest Was an Act of Rebellion
Stiff penalties were imposed upon anybody who should trespass in a royal forest. One could lose a thumb and forefinger merely for shooting an arrow. A royal deer was worth as much as a person, and the penalty for killing one was usually execution. People even had to have a special permit to collect wood for the cold winters. Robin Hood defied all of these laws by making the place his home.
25. Robin Hood’s Arch-Nemesis Was the Sheriff of Nottingham
The Sheriff of Nottingham was a corrupt tyrant who oppressed the people of Nottinghamshire with taxes so high that they could not pay them. He was answerable to no one for his actions, not even the king. That is until Robin Hood came along and began a heroic struggle against him.
24. Robin Hood Represented an Ideal to Oppressed Peasants
The legends of Robin Hood made him an outlaw who did as he pleased, no matter what the law stipulated, in the beautiful, green Sherwood Forest. His lifestyle contrasted sharply with that of the peasants, who were worked harshly and taxed to the bone. His legends became very popular among them.
23. Robin Hood’s Sidekick Was Known As Little John
Little John appeared in the earliest of the legends and figured prominently in The Gest of Robyn Hode. He was cunning, shrewd, and exceptionally loyal to Robin Hood. In one story, he left Robin after a dispute with him, but after Robin was captured, he went back and paid his ransom.
22. In One Story, Robin Hood Was Arrested After Attending Mass
As a loveable outlaw, Robin Hood was depicted as someone who was devoted to the Christian religion, especially the Virgin Mary. One day, he insisted on attending mass at St Michael’s, even though he was an outlaw and would probably be arrested. He was captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham when leaving the church.
Relying on his wits and cunning, Little John outsmarted the Sheriff of Nottingham and enabled Robin Hood to escape from prison before facing trial or any punishment for his crimes. While Robin Hood was painted as a thief and bandit, there wasn’t much fault to be found with his trusty sidekick, Little John.
20. In Later Robin Hood Legends, Maid Marian Appeared
Maid Marian was not present in the earliest of the Robin Hood legends. She did not begin to appear until about the fifteenth century, several hundred years after minstrels began entertaining crowds with stories of the people’s outlaw. She became his love interest and was even said to have married him at a church in Nottingham. There is probably little historical truth to the stories about Maid Marian.
19. Later Robin Hood Legends Showed Him as an Earl, Not a Yeoman
An earl was a nobleman who was entitled to an estate, making him much higher up the hierarchical ladder of the feudal system. The actual social standing of any real Robin Hood, if he existed at all, may have been that of a yeoman who had a rightful claim to an earldom. With the denial of that claim, he became an outlaw.
18. Any “Historical” Robin Hood is Probably Closer to the Earlier Legends
We will probably never know if Robin Hood was a particular historical figure. However, if he was, he probably looked more like the character seen in the earlier legends. He was perhaps a hot-tempered outlaw who liked to pick fights with people rather than the noble villain who fought for social justice by taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
17. Any Historical Robin Hood May Have Been From Yorkshire
Yorkshire borders Nottinghamshire, the site of Sherwood Forest and the domain of the Sheriff of Nottingham. There are some obscure references to locations – possibly because the early writers of the legends were not local to Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire – such as the city of Barnsdale, which is in Yorkshire. Later legends claim that he was born in Loxley, which is in Yorkshire.
16. Barnsdale, in Yorkshire, Was Known to be Full of Outlaws
Thirteenth-century documents, which coincide with the second “Robin Hood” era, indicate that the leaders of Barnsdale frequently sought protection because of the number of outlaws in the area. The presence of so many outlaws certainly makes the presence of Robin Hood and his Merry Men a possibility.
15. Robin Hood May Have Also Had a Base in Nottingham
Nottingham is about 30 miles from Barnsdale, a distance that would have been quite arduous for someone in the Middle Ages. Rather than frequently traveling back and forth between Barnsdale and Nottingham, the real Robin Hood may have had bases in both places. That would enable him to be able to spend significant amounts of time in each location and give cause to both places being mentioned so frequently in the legends.
14. Historians Have Identified Several Medieval Outlaws Named Robin Hood
Hood was a common surname in Medieval England, and Robin, a variation of the name Robert or Rupert, was also very popular. As such, historians who have searched for any authenticity to the Robin Hood legends have identified several people who, based on the little that can be found about them, may fit the description of Robin Hood. The Robin Hoods in question range from yeomen to disgraced earls, but making an exact fit, for the time being, seems impossible.
With both “Robin” and “Hood” being such famous names, an outlaw may have taken the moniker as his nom de plume to avoid revealing his true identity, give him an air of anonymity, and therefore avoid being caught (or risking harm to his family). The idea is akin to a modern criminal going by the name John Smith to elude detection.
12. Being an Outlaw With a Nickname Would Have Made Him More Infamous
Consider people like Billy the Kid or Blackbeard. The names alone were enough to trigger fear in the hearts of anyone who lived during the times when they were at large. The fact that they had such compelling nicknames made them all the more terrifying. The real Robin Hood may have capitalized on this idea to make himself seem more frightening to those who might want to capture him.
11. “Robin Hood” May Have Become a Nickname for “Good” Outlaws
Among local people, stories about an outlaw who lived life on his own terms and was unafraid to face down the Sheriff of Nottingham would have turned the persona into a hero, whether or not there actually was such a person. As such, they may have applied the term “Robin Hood” as a catch-all for any outlaw who had good intentions but was on the wrong side of the law.
With dozens or more figures identified as potential Robin Hoods, coupled with the possibilities that it was just a nickname or a general term for a particular breed of a bandit, there is no way to know where the stories originated. There may have been multiple Robin Hoods, whose stories merged to form the legends that we recognize today. An earlier one may have represented the former legends, while later ones became the stuff of the following stories.
9. The Sheriff of Nottingham Was Probably Based on a Real Person
Even if there was no noble outlaw named Robin Hood, there were sheriffs and other officials who were given authority by the king to exact taxes and oppress the people without any fear of punishment. The legends do not provide the name of the Sheriff of Nottingham that Robin Hood fought against, but there was almost certainly a sheriff of Nottingham who was cruel and overbearing.
8. Robin Hood Was Probably an Exceptional Marksman
In the legends, Robin Hood is undefeatable with a bow and arrow. In movies about him, he is depicted as being able to hit any target, sometimes even squarely pegging an arrow that he just shot onto the bullseye. Any real Robin Hood was probably an excellent marksman. Life on the other side of the law required skill with a bow and arrow as a means of survival, and if he did live in Sherwood Forest, he would have needed his bow and arrow to hunt.
7. Robin Hood Probably Waylaid Travelers and Stole From Them
Any historical Robin Hood was probably more of a bandit than a celebrated hero (at least until legends repainted him as a man of the people who took from the rich and gave to the poor). Bandits were notorious for attacking unsuspecting travelers, sometimes engaging them in a swordfight, which could easily prove deadly, and almost always stealing whatever they had.
A historical Robin Hood probably didn’t take the booty he stole and gave it to the poor. He probably kept it for himself, making him feared and dreaded among the local people while simultaneously becoming a subject of fascination. In fact, the people may have become so terrified of this bandit that they resorted to calling him Robin Hood, even if it wasn’t really his name.
5. His Heroism Was in His Resistance to the Sheriff of Nottingham
So if Robin Hood probably didn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor, why did he become so popular, especially among the peasants and lower strata of Medieval society? Probably because of his resistance to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone hated him, and anyone who was willing to face him would have indeed become a hero to anyone living under his oppression.
4. Robin Hood Actively Courted Danger and Intrigue
If there were a real Robin Hood, he probably would not have been an even-tempered knightly figure. Instead, he probably would have been someone who went around looking for trouble and always trying to start a fight. He probably fought as many innocent people as “bad guys.” Their level of personal virtue wouldn’t have mattered if they were crossing his turf. In other words, he was like a Medieval gang member.
3. The Quest for the Historical Robin Hood is About a Larger-Than-Life Hero
For some, trying to find the historical Robin Hood is about identifying a particular person about whom the earliest legends tell stories. However, the bigger picture of looking for the real Robin Hood is about understanding the drudgery of Medieval life at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder, for people who were poor and oppressed by heavy taxation, and who needed a hero.
2. Robin Hood Remains One of England’s Favorite Legendary Figures
Along with the likes of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin, Robin Hood continues to be celebrated in England today. His celebrity is particularly prominent in Nottingham, which has a festival in his honor every year. In Sherwood Forest, the oak where he is believed to have called his Merry Men is protected as a historical site. There are even markers for his and Little John’s supposed graves.
1. The Legends Will Probably Remain Popular For Centuries to Come
Hollywood has taken the legends of Robin Hood and outfitted them for a contemporary audience. In all likelihood, the stories will continue to entertain children and adults for the foreseeable future. They may keep growing and evolving, so much so that 200 years from now, the stories scarcely recognize those that we know today.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources: