Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
Robin Hood is without doubt the most famous outlaw of all time. He is not just a local hero--he is an international superstar. Books about him are printed in Chinese, postcards celebrating him are produced in Russia and the island of Grenada has a postage stamp which carries his picture on it. Not only is Robin Hood famous around the world, he has been famous for hundreds of years.
Every age has celebrated Robin through ballads, storytelling and plays. In past centuries anyone who was boasting was said to be 'outshooting Robin'.
Behind all the hype, there are many different interpretations of Robin's legend. There is the vision of Robin as the archetypal clean cut noble hero. There is Robin the symbol of an idyllic British past, representing something essentially English. Or there is Robin the outlaw, the radical, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
To reclaim Robin as an outlaw and a rebel, we have to peel away all the different layers that have grown up around his story. Take Robin Hood the noble hero, the Errol Flynn variety of Robin. This is a Robin who is aristocratic, loyal to the king and all rightful authority, forced into being an outlaw by treacherous baddies. He is not just a creation of Hollywood--he has been around for centuries. In the last century our rulers needed heroes to make us proud to be British, while they plundered half the world. What could be better than enlisting Robin to the side of the heroic British nobility? In the novels of Walter Scott and the poems of Tennyson, Robin is a symbol of a heroic British past. Of course this is fiction, but many historians invented ways to make Robin noble, a hero for the aristocracy, not the common people. In 1795 William Stukeley, a respected member of the royal society, made up an aristocratic pedigree for Robin, which has been cited as proof of Robin's noble birth, but is complete fiction.
The further back we delve into the legend of Robin Hood, the more common Robin becomes. In the 1440s a historian, William Bower, wrote that in 1266 'arose the famous murderers Robin Hood and Little John, together with their accomplices from among the dispossessed, whom the stupid multitude are so inordinately fond of celebrating.' Also a crucial foundation of the whole Robin Hood legend are some ballads, including the Lyttle Geste of Robin Hood, written around 1400. These ballads contain all the ingredients of the legend--archery contests, cunning disguises, the rescue of prisoners, the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. But Robin is always a yeoman, which could be a small land owner or a servant of a lord but is definitely not a noble of any kind.
So the Errol Flynn variety of Robin is a product of the bias of past historians. What about Robin the folk hero? The Robin who is popular because we are all nostalgic for a sanitised rural past?
This version of Robin has a long tradition behind it. Through ballads in the 18th century when Robin, Marion, Friar Tuck and Little John live good lives in the Greenwood, right back to the 15th century when Robin and his Merry Men were the main players in the traditional May Day celebrations.
But if we look further back we discover that the May games were very different from the folksy village fetes people believe them to be. In 1551 a historian, John Major, wrote how the May celebrations were 'kept in a tavern, not a church, in such intemperence of eating and drinking as is the enemy of Chastity, in dances and lewd songs that are equally her foe'. The establishment got so worried that the Scottish Church banned any celebration involving Robin Hood, Maid Marion or the Lord of Misrule. Anyone caught acting the part of Robin Hood could be exiled! In 1439 Piers Venables and his gang gathered in Tutbury for the May games 'in manere of werre, riot, route and insurrection arraid' and 'in manere of insurrection went to the woods of the contre like as it hadde be Robin Hood and his Meyne'. So before the 15th century Robin was known as an outlaw, leader of riot and insurrection, hated by the officials of the feudal state.
The idea of Robin the radical goes back a long way. Ritson, in the 18th century, wrote that Robin had 'displayed the spirit of freedom and independence where has endeared him to the common people whose cause he maintained.'
We have earlier evidence Robin was associated with rebels. In 1603 Walter Raleigh was on trial for treason. Pleading in his defence he said, 'For me to make of myself Robin Hood, a Watt Tyler, a Kett or a Cade...I was not so mad'. The others are all real people. The association is so strong because of the central element of the whole Robin Hood legend, that Robin was an outlaw who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Martin Parker, in his True Tale, describes how poor men could safely pass Robin by:
'But where he knew a miser rich
That the poor did oppresse
To feel his coyne his hand did itch
He'd have it more or less'.
All the historians refer to this. John Major, in the 16th century, describes a politically correct Robin who 'took from the rich, killed only in self-defence, never allowed harm to women, but helped them with what he took from abbotts'.
Robbing the rich to give to the poor is not an act of charity, it is an act of class revenge. In the Lyttle Geste of Robin Hood, Little John comes to ask Robin for instructions. Robin replies:
'Make sure you do
no Husbandman harm
who tilleth with his plough But,
'These Bishoppes and these Archbishoppes
You shall them beat and bind The High Sherriff of Nottingham
You keep him on your mind'.
So in the Geste Robin is clearly interested in punishing tyranny and the abusers of power. He is acting on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.
The reason Robin has been so enduringly celebrated by the 'stupid multitude' was not because he was 'quintessentially English' or an aristocrat, but because he was, and still is, a symbol of the oppressed fighting back.
Now the million dollar question--did Robin exist or not? If Robin did exist it was probably in the 13th century, when society was wracked from top to bottom by violence and repression. The vast majority of people were peasants who spent their lives toiling on the land, but were not free people.
In a world where starvation was always round the corner, hunting was a life or death business. The penalties for poaching the king's game ranged from losing an eye or a hand to being hung. There was massive unrest. Many poachers ran away to become outlaws, many peasants ran away to become free.
The best attempt to find the real Robin Hood was one which used the Lyttle Geste for clues. The Lyttle Geste mentions a visit by 'comely King Edward' to Nottingham. The real King Edward did visit Nottingham in 1323. The ballad also talks about Sherwood and Barnsdale, and there is a Barnsdale near Wakefield which fits the description. Investigations showed there was a Robert Hood and his wife Matilda living near Wakefield.
Recent examinations have brought to light the use of Robin Hood nicknames from as early as the 1260s. For example, legal records show a William Le Fevere in trouble for forming an armed gang with two women in 1261. When he again appears in documents, his name has been changed to William Robehod. This is very significant. It means that as early as 1261 Robin was so famous that other outlaws were named after him. The first possible candidate we have comes from the York Assizes of 1225, where the sheriff is made responsible for the chattels of an outlaw, one Robert Hod, whose name is changed to Hobbehod.
It seems likely that Robin was an outlaw, whose story spread like wildfire because it struck a spark of smouldering resentment among the peasants who told and retold his tale. With the retelling, Robin's story developed into an expression of peasants' desire for freedom.
Whether Robin Hood was a real man, or simply the embodiment of the aspirations of thousands of peasants is in one way irrelevant.
Robin Hood was a symbol of freedom when the majority were in chains, who could enforce justice for the poor when most were powerless in the face of tyranny, an outlaw who revenged the inequality suffered by the peasants by robbing the rich to give to the poor.