I’ve been on a deep dive into the Robin Hood myth recently. Why? Well, you may find out in the next couple of years, if all goes well. But way before I took any professional interest, I’ve always been drawn to the story, and the character. If your childhood is in the midlands, while Robin of Sherwood is on television, and you have a surname that comes from archery….there’s a good chance you’re going to be invested in the myth of Robin Hood.
I realised recently that much of my own writing could be seen as one spin on the character or another. I have an unsold novel sitting in a drawer that my agent pitched to publishers as ‘Robin Hood meets Elmore Leonard, set in the modern day.’ And many of my frustrations with the current British crime fiction market could be summed up with the question, ‘why are our stories all about the Sheriff?’
Did Robin Hood really exist? And does it matter? Historian Stephen Knight argues that our obsession with the real identity of Robin Hood is a symptom of modern tabloid thinking, and that there’s much more to be learned from studying the evolution of the legend, and how it reflects the time it’s being told in, than to analyse one specific time in history for any written record of one person. As a writer, I can see the strength in his argument. Ultimately storyis how we observe the evolution of our culture. The legends we tell, and the way that we tell them, define who we are.
It could well be that there was no realRobin Hood. He could be a social invention. A figure we needed to create, to tell ourselves who weare, and borrowing aspects from other legends along the way, developing into….ummm….(checks notes)….Kevin Costner.
But I think another reason story exists is to solve mysteries. To fill the black holes in our knowledge. In times gone by, we filled it by creating gods and monsters, and using them to carry morality tales. In more recent times, we write and read fiction. I think the central drive in staring at a mystery is because we need to stop it being a mystery. And so, even though as a writer I understand completely where Dr Knight is coming from, it’s also as a writer that I can’t help but be drawn into the mystery of finding the real Robin Hood.
We all know the story. Or think we do. Film and television shows of the past century have focused in on one particular version, and that’s become our go-to. Set somewhere in the 1190’s, during the third crusade, we meet Robin (or Robert) of Loxley. A Lord who returns home from the crusades to find Prince John is usurping the throne of the beloved Richard the Lionheart. And the scheming Sheriff of Nottingham is enforcing harsh taxes on the people of England. Robin rebels against this tyranny, and becomes outlawed, finding refuge in Sherwood forest. Everything ends in a swordfight on a staircase, and Robin wins the heart of Maid Marion, who may or may not have been his childhood sweetheart.
On the face of it, however, this version of the story is the easiest one to do away with. King Richard wasn’t Sean Connery. He wasn’t a beloved king. In fairness, he wasn’t a tyrant either. In looking at Richard, it’s best to remember the trap that waits for historians: hindsight. We look back and use the way things turned out to frame people’s motivations. Was Richard good or evil? Neither. He was a man. He was likely vein, and certainly impulsive. He made rash decisions and seemed mostly interested in war and acquiring land. He spoke French and Latin, and barely stepped foot on English soil. He grew up in his father’s territories of what we would now call northern France and spent the vast majority of his ten year reign fighting wars in Europe and the Middle East. He didn’t sneak back into the country, as per most modern retellings. That was first added into the Hood story by Walter Scott, in the novel Ivanhoe. It’s much easier to give in to the hindsight trap and paint Prince -later King- John as a tyrant. He shared the ego of his elder brother, but seems to have lacked the charisma, or the talent for war. He was given more to political scheming and greed, raising regular taxes at an unprecedented rate, and importing foreign mercenaries to appoint as Sheriffs when the Barons started to resent his authority. One particularly grizzly event that shows his nature is when he captured a political enemy, Matilda de Braose, and starved her to death in a dungeon, along with her young son William. He was such a bad king that English Barons invited the Kings of both France and Scotland to invade and take over the throne.
It’s easy to see how Robin Hood could have risen up during John’s reign to fight back. But the main reason I dismiss this era so readily isn’t because of a lackof a Robin Hood figure, but rather, because of the existence of one. Wait, what? Yes.
There was a powerful Lord, by the name of Fulk FitzWarin, who became embroiled in a land dispute with King John and found himself outlawed. He fought a guerrilla campaign against the crown for three years, and was eventually pardoned and reinstated. However, rather than fighting a Sheriff in Nottingham, or cutting about in Sherwood, FitzWarin was a Marcher (the Welsh border) and his fightback against the king was a largely national one, taking place across many locations. And, though his story bears many parallels to the version of Robin Hood we now know, he had his own mythology spring up around his actions, one that co-existed with that of the Sherwood bandit. And there’s nothing to suggest he ever went by the name Robin. In addition, none of the surviving early stories of Robin Hood mention either John or Richard. If John was such a vital part of the tale, as he so clearly is with Fulk, surely he would be named in the earliest surviving ballads? So it’s possible, if not probable, that many of the elements we now know as ‘Robin Hood’ have been borrowed from Fulk FitzWarin, but it appears just as probable that we’re looking somewhere else for the genesis of our hero.
But am I correct to use the locations of Nottingham and Sherwood as qualifying features? Not necessarily.
The earliest surviving ballads to mention Robin Hood place him in Barnsdale. And, though there are other places in England to share that name, the details in the ballad seem to suggest the Barnsdale of Yorkshire. The geographical references are entirely consistent with that setting and its surroundings. There are problems with the idea. As I’ve said, there is at least one other Barnsdale in England. And the ballad, by definition, is simply the only surviving written version of something that was passed around orally. The version we have was printed sometime after 1492 and is estimated to have been written around 1450. Since most searches for a realRobin Hood focus on candidates between the 1190’s and 1320’s, we can see there’s a period of at least130 years between the ‘real’ story and the ballad. And stories told in oral tradition will be localised in the telling. Whichever tavern you’re sat in, as the balladeer relates their tale, is going to be not far from where all of this took place. Just as a stand-up comedian will both localise and universalise their stories. Robin hood will have taken place in the village next to you, and in every village you can imagine. So really all that we know for sure about this ballad, the Little Geste of Robin Hood, is that it was written down by someone who knew the Barnsdale of Yorkshire quite well. And although this is the earliest surviving ballad, we have other poems and texts that survive from around the same time, if not slightly earlier. There is much evidence that Robin Hood was related as much in village plays and poems as he was in song, and there are as many early references to Sherwood as there are to Barnsdale. And although the Barnsdale of Yorkshire was a large wood, it wasn’t a Royal Forest, which has always seemed like an important part of the story.
But this Nottingham/Yorkshire divide matters very much to the people of those two regions. There is local pride, and tourism at stake. And hell, if you have a chance to claim Robin Hood as your hometown hero, you’re going to take it, aren’t you?
The Yorkshire connection has led to one of the more favoured candidates for the job. Historian Joseph Hunter found records in court scrolls of a Robert Hode of Wakefield. A number of other writers, including Graham Phillips, have dug into the records of the time to piece together a trail of clues that this man could in fact have been outlawed, and that his later life could possibly mirror Robin Hood’s later years as told in the Geste. Furthermore, the King of the Ballad is named as Edward (with no number), and historical records show that Edward II travelled north, to Nottingham, during Hode’s lifetime circa 1323. This would appear to match with the part of the ballad that shows the King travelling to Robin’s forest and offering him a pardon. And sure, the King didn’t visit Barnsdale, but it’s not hard to allow that Robert may have travelled south into Sherwood, or that some messages may have been passed, or that there’s some other grain of truth to that aspect of the story. Such an event would also go some way to explain the Yorkshire/Nottingham crossover, and perhaps Hode was active as an outlaw in both areas. This all ties up nicely, and on the face of it matches up to the ballad. An important element of all the earliest stories is that Robin isn’t a lord or knight. He’s a yeoman. The full meaning of the term has led to much debate, but it could be simplified to say a skilled worker. And Robert of Wakefield would appear to fit this bill. He was also married to a woman whose name starts with an ‘M’ asin Matilda rather than Marian. (My research showed that Marian is often an afterthought in the search for Robin.)
Case closed? Well, not quite. It would take a whole separate blog post (or indeed a book, and there are several I’ll recommend later) to weigh up all the pro’s and con’s of this candidate. Some of the most compelling evidence used to support his claims can fall apart under close scrutiny. And it takes a leap of faith to look at a few scattered court records from 700 years ago and link up all the separate names into one person. And, as I will discuss a little later, it appears the name ‘Robin Hood’ was already known as criminal alias by the middle of the previous century. Having said that, it can’t be ignored that Robert Hode of Wakefield’s life does seem to fit closely into the ballad. As I said earlier, balladeers would localise their tales. Even if you’re as sceptical as me that Robert Hode was the originof the myth, it’s still quite possible he’s part of the development of it. And also possible that the surviving ballad is including elements of this local hero.
Okay. So, I mentioned that ‘Robin Hood’ was already known as a criminal in the previous century. Records have been found from 1262 showing that someone named William had his name amended on a court scroll to ‘William Robehood’. A previous entry shows him as ‘William, son of Robert Le Fevre.’ (Le Fevre being a French term for Smith.) This is generally taken to mean that his name was adjusted to reflect the fact he was a criminal, and therefore that ‘RobeHood’ was already used as a form of shorthand for a bandit or outlaw by 1262. (I have a slightly different question about this, but I’ll return to that later.) If this reading of the records is correct, then we can narrow down our search.
Do the same kind of records give us any other clues? Yes. There is a Robert Hood/Robertus Hood, from Sheffield (that Yorkshire connection again) who shows up on records as at outlaw circa 1225. Almost nothing else is known about this figure, but we do know that two of the people who are likely to have crossed paths with him -or at the very least to have known about him- were Eustace of Lowdham and Brian de Lisle, both of whom have been identified by different writers as candidates for the Sheriff figure. Eustace was serving as Deputy Sheriff of Yorkshire around the same Robertus Hood found himself on the wrong side of the law, and was later briefly appointed as Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. De Lisle was a chief justice of the Royal Forrest, and himself later served in post in Nottingham. It’s extremely tempting to think this Robertus is our man. In knowing so little about him, we have room to fill that blank space with our own narrative. But in truth, that would be taking the same leap of faith that I used to weaken the case of Robert of Wakefield.
All of this is based around finding someone with a name that matches the legend. Is that necessary? I’ve already shown that some of the key elements of the legend, Nottingham, Sherwood, the King, even the time, are all up for debate. So do we have candidates who don’t even have the right name? The answer is yes. And they make for possibly the strongest current contenders.
First, let’s jump to 1265. The Barons of England rose up in their second rebellion of the century, led by Simon de Montfort (of incredible anti-Semitism fame) and attempted to depose King Henry III (John’s son, but a figure long overdue some attention and reappraisal.) When this rebellion failed, many of the people involved were outlawed. One of these outlaws, Roger Godberd, fled to Sherwood (though this is sometimes disputed, with counterclaims he used a forest in Leicestershire) and led a campaign of violence against the local Sheriff. Indeed, he was captured, taken to Nottingham Castle, and escaped. At one point, Godberd and his gang members were protected by a Knight, Richard Foliot, who sheltered them in his castle. This is a key detail. Looking back to the Little Geste of Robin Hood, one of the most important elements of the story -and one that doesn’t appear to have been borrowed from other outlaw cycles- is when Robin and Little John are sheltered by Sir Richard of the Lee. This is such a strong parallel, that it becomes hard to overlook. And also, in some speculation I’ll add myself, Henry’s son, Prince Edward (later of Braveheart fame) was an active combatant during the rebellion. He led troops into many of the final battles. So is it possible that a Prince Edward, playing a role in the real events, was later adapted by balladeers into King Edward, as they both localised and universalised the tale? Roger feels like a strong candidate to me almost exactly becausehe has a different name. The Robert of Wakefield theory revolves around stringing together a lot of vague records to make a man with the right name fit. But the story of Roger Godberd is making no attempt to bend to fit the myth. There’s not even any records that he was ever referred to by the name Robin Hood. It’s almost as if he’s sat there, in history, daring us to write him off. He doesn’t care what we think. He just has the simple fact that the recorded events of his life very closely match the legends of someone known by a different name. But there is one other main drawback to his claim. The date. Godberd, and his actions, all took place afterthat court scroll of 1262. Which still makes me look earlier.
As I mentioned, de Montfort’s rebellion was the second one to take place that century. If we look earlier in the 1200’s, we find another candidate. A man who served as a Royal Bailif during the time of King John, before being outlawed. He led a rebellion against the King, which included a small army of archers who operated in the forest, cutting off supplies from people who were trying to send goods and money to their monarch. And furthermore, none of this is left to legend. We know this man existed, and that he did these things. And in fact we know he was later rewarded by the crown and accepted back into society. So, sounds pretty slam dunk, right? Well I agree. Except for a few details. He has a different name, operated in a different place, and rebelled against a different King.
After King John signed, and then withdrew, the Magna Carta (this is misleading, as it wasn’t called the Magna Carta until a later reissue, but that’s the term people know it as now) the Barons of England rebelled. It’s worth pointing out, for all that it’s easy to paint John as a tyrant, very little is known about what ‘normal’ people thought of him, all we know is that the Barons hated him. And, as much as it serves people on the political right in the current climate to hark back to Magna Carta as the moment ‘we’ all became free, it’s important to remember the document was about a tug of war between a King and his Barons. Very few of us reading now would have been considered ‘free men’ at the time, and so few of the privileges and protections in the document would have applied to us. Magna Carta is an important step on the road to rule of law and of citizens rights, but it is onlythe first step, of many. Anyway, political rant aside. After John went back on his word, the Barons led a revolt. As part of the civil war, the French invaded and occupied much of the south of England. William of Kensham, a Royal Bailif loyal to John, wasn’t having this. He was outlawed by a crown he didn’t owe loyalty to, for defending one that he did, and led group of as many as one hundred archers in a guerrilla war in the forest of the Weald, on the south coast. The Weald at the time was still a vast ancient forest, far larger than Sherwood, and William was able to regularly prevent the French troops from passing supplies inland to the castles they occupied. This small army played a vital part in the war, and John himself wrote to William to thank him for his efforts.
William was active at pretty much the exact time we would need the original Robin Hood to have existed. His exploits fit very easily into the profile of our mythical hero. A yeoman, leading a band of archers, using a vast ancient forest to ambush soldiers and run away, directly impacting the ability of one King to usurp the throne of the other. We also know his activities were celebrated nationally, he became a very famous figure, and his actions spawned a whole host of ballads and poems. He’d become largely forgotten until recently, when historian Sean McGlynn identified him as a contender.
Between William of Kensham and Roger Godberd, we could possibly see the composite form of the legend come together. William provides the overall heroic profile, Roger brings some of the key specific criminal actions. Over time, could these two men become merged into one, mythic hero? Perhaps along the way stealing some romance from Fulk FitzWarrin?
Based on all the available information, I would argue this is the most likely scenario. That Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest is a blend of William of Kensham and Roger Godberd. The story told and retold, always shaped to fit whatever we need a hero to be. Maybe even, along the way, Robert Hode of Wakefield was added into the mix, with two outlaws of a previous century filtered through a local hero, and told as Robin Hood of Barnsdale. For now, my theory rests there.
There are still questions. Still some thorny objections. That figure from 1225, Robertus Hood, still calls to us. He would be in the right place, at the right time, with the right name. Maybe his story will always be lost to us. Or maybe, in the coming years, a new document will turn up, a previously lost court scroll, or a different poem, some extra detail that fills in his life and gives us the answers.
There’s also one lingering doubt I can’t shake to this ‘composite hero’ idea. If we have two (or more) different people, with completely different names, how did we settle on ‘Robin Hood’? And why would it have become a known criminal alias by 1262? True enough, Robert was a very common name. And historians have found enough people with variations on Hode/Hood to suggest that, if not common, it wasn’t uncommon. Is it possible that ‘Robin Hood’ is simply a ‘Joe Public’ type of name, something applied to say that this hero could be any of us? Maybe. But, though Robin was an increasingly common nickname for Robert, it’s also a name of French origin. And, in a century when war with -and invasion by- France was a persistent danger, would English folklore have adopted a French name for their everyman figure? That doesn’t ring true to me. But that’s purely a gut feeling.
And I didn’t play fair right at the start. In dismissing the 1190’s, I skated by on one other possible candidate. Long before pop culture solidified around Robin of Loxley, Robin’s surname was sometimes given as variations on Fitzodo or Fitzooth. And, although Loxley is often assumed to be town of the same name in Yorkshire -largely because of the Ballad’s link to Barnsdale- there is also a Loxley in Warwickshire, only a few miles away from Shakespeare’s Stratford. There’s a record of Robert Fitzodo, a Knight who lived in Loxley, who appears to have been stripped of his knighthood during Richard’s reign. And there’s a grave in a nearby churchyard that matches a drawing of Robin Hood’s grave dated from 1670. And that would bring the story right back to where we started. A Knight who was disinherited during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. He wasn’t from either Barnsdale or Nottingham, but Fulk FitzWarrin proves outlaws during that time could operate over large areas.
Is this the real Robin? For my money, and again, based on current information, I still feel like the William/Roger composite is most likely. And the fact that John and Richard are absent from the all the earliest ballads and poems still leads me to rule out the 1190’s. Could Robert of Loxley be a historical coincidence? Someone we only notice now because of later additions to the story? But Robert of Loxley clearly can’t be completely ignored when looking for a real….Robert of Loxley.
And that really brings us to the end. As frustrating at it is, we may never know more than this. Historians have been scouring records for hundreds of years, and all it’s done is raise more questions. And I have an additional theory. One that I think is new and hasn’t been researched. I’m not ready to share it yet, because it may well frame my own take on the story, but I do want to add something else to the conversation. Let’s go back to 1262, and that court scroll of William Robehood. As we’ve seen, this has been compared to a previous entry that shows William to be the son of Robert le Fevre. The conversation here seems to have focused solely on the question of whether the change to Robehood shows that Robin Hood was established as a shorthand for ‘criminal’ by the 1260’s. But what if the clerk was being more literal than that? William son of Robert becomes William RobHood. Is it worth trying to find more information of Robert le Fevre? Could William literally be the son of someone known to the court clerk as Robin Hood?
The standard bearer for Robin Hood research is still, for my money, JC Holt’s book.
If you want to deep dive into the Robert of Wakefield theory, with references to Robert of the Warwickshire Loxley, try and track down a copy of the out of print work by Graham Phillips.