The Real Robin Hood

The earliest surviving ballads make no mention of a wife, family(1) or land, and the reason for his outlawry is never explained.  There is no mention of war, disturbances, or the noble families of England; in fact anything that may reveal a particular time period is conveniently left out. Barnsdale and Sherwood are stamped into the legend, yet there is no historic record of a Robin Hood ever having been there.

England’s greatest outlaw hero has been given the attributes of earlier real-life outlaws, the most notable of these being Fulk fitz Warin, Herewerd the Wake and Eustace the Monk. The tales of these men existed long before the earliest mentions of Robin, and they have played a part in the the evolution of the English outlaw tale. The song on Richard of Cornwall was already in English by 1264,(2) as was the celebration of the execution of Simon Fraser in 1306.(3) At this stage, the French language still prevailed in England, especially amongst the aristocracy and gentry, however from the middle of the fourteenth century, English was blossoming as a literary language. In 1362 a Parliamentary statute decreed that English, not French, was to be used in court pleadings, this renaissance was conducive to the genius of Chaucer. The literary change is well described in a passage by John of Travisa:

Gentlemen’s children are taught to speak French from the time they are rocked in their cradle and can speak and play with a child’s brooch; and countryfolk wish to liken themselves to gentlemen and try with great diligence to speak French, in order to be more thought of.

This method was much used before the first plague (1348-49), and is since somewhat changed. For John Cornwall, a master of grammar, changed the teaching in grammar school and the construing of French, into English; and Richard Pencrych learned that method of teaching from him, and other men from Pencrych; so that now, the year of our Lord, a thousand three hundred fourscore and five, of the second of King Richard after the conquest ninth (1385), in all the grammar schools of England children leave French and construe and learn in English, and have thereby advantage on the one side and disadvantage on another. The advantage is that they learn their grammar in less time than children were wont to do; the disadvantage is that now children of the grammar school know no more French than their left heel knows; and that is harm for them if they cross the sea and travel in foreign lands, and in many other circumstances. Also gentlemen have now largely ceased teaching their children French.(4)

The earliest Robin Hood tales were only in English, and they do not contain the mystical elements that are prominent in Fulk, Eustace and Hereward, no dragons, princesses, or magic, instead there is the realistic social world of the Yeoman, Husbandman, and Bondman. These elements can also be found in such 14th century works as The Tale of Gamelyn(5) and King Edward and the Shepherd.(6)

1.  Robin’s only relative in the early ballads was the prioress of Kirklees, and she is mentioned in the closing verses of The Gest of Robyn Hode: ‘The pryoresse of Kyrkely, that nye was of hys kynne’.

2.  Song Against the King of Almaigne. The Political Songs of England, 1839, pp. 69-71, ed. and trans. by Thomas Wright.

3.  Song on the Execution of Sir Simon Fraser. The Political Songs of England, 1839, pp. 212-223, ed. and trans. by Thomas Wright.

4.  Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, ed. C. Babington (Rolls series 1869), ii, 159-61. The first paragraph is the translation of Higden’s chronicle by Trevisa, the second is Trevisa’s comment.

5. The Tale of Gamelyn. Clarendon Press Series, 1884, ed. Rev. Walter W. Skeat. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997, eds.  Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren. Middle English Metrical Romances, eds. Walter Hoyt French and Charles B. Hale (Russell & Russell 1964), pp. 209-235.

6  King Edward and the Shepherd. Ancient Metrical Tales, ed, Charles H. Hartshorne (London: William Pickering, 1829), pp. 35-80, 293-315. Middle English Metrical Romances, eds. Walter Hoyt French and Charles B. Hale (Russell and Russell 1964), pp. 949-85.