So much for a catchy title! Before we begin I need to admit that Robin Hood is my all time hero. My father used to read me the tale of Robin Hood, at my request, again and again. I visited Nottingham when I was seven and was disappointed with the castle in the way that only a seven-year-old can be. I was expecting Hollywood turrets, battlements and assorted drawbridges. Even worse, so far as fair Nottingham was concerned, what the bombing raids of Luftwaffe didn’t destroy, the city planners had mangled. I can still remember my Dad going round the one way system getting progressively more irritated. Things only really got better when we arrived in Sherwood Forest and we went in search of the Major Oak. But enough of my personal history – just be aware that I have a not altogether unbiased viewpoint as to whether Robin existed or not.
Legend, film versions at any rate, places Robin Hood and his merry band firmly in the reign of Good King Richard and Bad King John. Other versions place him in the reign of Henry III, possibly dying with Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.
In some respects it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that The Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood was set in print by William Caxton. This is a version of an oral tradition that must have been handed down over the generations. And here its worth a moment’s digression. If we look at the ballads of the border reivers such as the tale of Kinmont Willie it is possible to see where history has become embroidered by the needs of a good story and the formula of the ballad. There’s also a little bit of a hint that Sir Walter Scott may have tidied the whole thing up somewhat. It is possible to see a sixteenth century historical event turning into a story. The same, perhaps, can be said for Robin Hood excepting the fact that there isn’t anywhere near as much paper based evidence for Robin Hood as there is for William Armstrong of Kinmont who took for himself rather than anyone else irrelevant of the wealth of his victims but still seems to have managed to stay one step ahead of the law. And yes, Sir Walter Scott did embroider the Robin Hood story – who could forget Ivanhoe?
There is, however, a faint trace of a historical paper trail for the man in green. The Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield; the Contrarient Rolls of King Edward II and the Household Expenses Account of Edward II reveal an archer by the name of Robin Hood. The key thing is though, not whether he existed or was fabricated by disgruntled over-taxed peasants, but that he became a national hero – and was sung about in English. Robin reflects the fact that during the Plantagenet period the English were beginning to get a sense of themselves as a nation. In part, this was because King John lost his continental empire and was forced to concentrate on England – not that the barons were terribly grateful for the favour. The accession of Henry III, the first child monarch in English history, saw a time of some weakness for the monarchy and the reissue of Magna Carta; the concept of shared power (well shared if you were a baron); a rising group of free men and a somewhat fairer legal system. It is perhaps not surprising then that Robin’s story should be associated with a period in history when the English were beginning to evolve as a nation.
Of course, the Black Death killing one-third of the British population between 1349-50 helped matters along rather nicely as the English-speaking hoi-poloi suddenly found that they had more economic clout than previously but the fact that English was reinstated in schools that same year, although the universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to use Latin, reflects the growing importance of the English language and the changing perspectives of the ruling classes. They were beginning to see themselves as English rather than Norman. In 1362 English replaced French as the language of law by the Statutes of Pleading but records continued to be kept in Latin and English was used in Parliament for the first time.
Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to re-watch Errol Flynn being heroic in the green wood. If you want to find out more about the history of Edwinstowe where Robin Hood is supposed to have married Maid Marian, click on the image at the beginning. It will take you to an article I wrote and had published a couple of years ago. You might be surprised to discover that even Henry II gets in on the act as well.