Deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest in the early 14th century roamed an outlaw whose escapades have established him as the most enduring folk hero of his time. His name is known today throughout the world ” Robin Hood. Stories of his heroic deeds are legion. But are they true? And did Robin even exist?
Some historians believe that the stories of the sprite-like hero may be connected with a mythological pagan woodland spirit. Robin was a name often given to fairies, and green, which the outlaw was supposed to have worn, is the traditional color of wood spirits. There is also a theory that Robin Hood was simply one or the characters in the ancient May Day ceremonies who over the years became changed in legend into a historical charac¬ter. Maid Marion may also have been Queen of the May in the same celebrations.
However, records do show that in the 13th and 14th centuries a man named Robin Hood lived in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and may have been the outlaw of romantic legend. Robin (christened Robert) Hood was born in about 1290. His father, Adam Hood, was a forester in the service of John, Earl Warenne, lord of the manor of Wakefield. The surname in old court documents is variously spelled Hod, Hode, and Hood.
On 25 January 1316, Robin Hood’s ‘handmaid’ is recorded as having been brought before a court for taking dry wood and vary from the ‘old oak’. (Vert is the old English term for trees which provide shelter and food for deer.) She was fined twopence. Other court records for the year 1316 show that Robin Hood and his wife Matilda paid two shillings Tor leave to take one piece of land of the lord’s waste’ to build a five-roomed house.
In 1322, Robin’s landlord – at this time, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster- called his tenants to arms in rebellion against King Edward II. A tenant had no choice but to obey his lord implicitly, and Robin Hood followed the earl into battle as an archer. The revolt was crushed. Lancaster was captured, tried for treason, and beheaded. His estates were forfeited to the king and his followers were outlawed.
Robin Hood fled into Barnsdale Forest, which at that time covered about 30 square miles of Yorkshire and was linked to Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest, which covered 25 square miles. The forests were traversed by the Roman-built Great North Road, which yielded rich pickings for robbers. Here the legend of Robin Hood was born.
One of Robin’s supposed escapades along the Great North Road concerned the haughty Bishop of Hereford, who was traveling to York when he came across the outlaw leader and some of his companions roasting venison. Taking them for peasants, and infuriated by their flagrant breach of forest laws, the bishop demanded an explanation. The outlaws calmly told him that they were about to dine. The bishop ordered his attendants to seize them.
The outlaws prayed for mercy but the bishop swore that he would show them none. So Robin blew on his horn, and the unhappy bishop found him¬self surrounded by archers in Lincoln green. They took him, prisoner, with all his company, and demanded a ransom. While the bishop was held captive, he was made to dance a jig around a large oak tree. The tree is no longer there, but the ground on which it stood is known as Bishops Tree Root.
Several other oak trees in Barnsdale and Sherwood are associated with Robin Hood and his band. Centre Tree, halfway between Thorcsbv and Welbeck, is said to be the marker from which Robin Hood’s network of secret routes stretched through the forest. But the most famous tree is Major Oak, at Birkland. It is reputedly 1,000 years old – predating the Norman Conquest of Britain – and has a girth of about 29 ft. Alfred, Lord Tennyson visited this oak in the last century and, in his poem ‘The Foresters’, has Little John referring to it as.. that oak where twelve men can stand inside nor touch each other’.
Among the stories passed down the centuries about Robin Hood’s prowess is that of a visit he made with his closest friend, Little John, to Whitby Abbey. The abbot asked them to demonstrate their skill with the bow by shooting from the monastery roof. Both did so, and the arrows fell on either side of a lane at Whitby Lathes – more than a mile away. The abbot had two stone pillars erected on the spots where the arrows fell. The pillars survived until the end of the 18th century. The fields on either side were also named after the event: Robin Hood’s Close and Littlejohn’s Close.
Little John, who was Robin’s second-in-command, got his nickname because of his height. He was said to have died at Hathersage, in Derbyshire, and in 1784 his grave there was reopened. In it were found the bones of an exceptionally tall man. Robin and his men have certainly been credited with far-flung activities Robin Hood’s Bay, many miles away on the Yorkshire coast, was named after the outlaw because it was here that he and his band were reputed to own several boats, for fishing and possible escape from the authorities.
On one of his journeys, Robin Hood visited St Mary’s Church, Nottingham where a monk in the congregation recognized him and alerted the sheriff Robin drew his sword and slew 12 soldiers before being captured. But before he could be brought to trial, Little John led a band of the outlaws into Nottingham and rescued him. They also sought out the monk and murdered him.But it was Robin Hood’s championing of the underdog that made him a folk hero. His robbing of the rich to give to the poor, and his flouting of unpopular authority, became an inspiration to the oppressed peasantry.
One of the most famous stories to emanate from the oaks of Sherwood Forest is the tale of the meeting between Robin Hood and King Edward II. The story goes that the king, hearing that the royal deer in Sherwood were diminishing because of the appetites of Robin Hood and his band, determined to rid the forest of the outlaws. So he and his knights disguised themselves as monks and rode into the forest.
They were met by Robin Hood and some of his band, who demanded money. The king gave them £40, saying that was all he had. Robin took £20 for his men and gave the rest back to the king. Edward then produced the royal seal and told the outlaw leader that the king wished to see him in Nottingham. Robin summoned all his men to kneel before the seal and swear their love for the king. They then invited the ‘monks’ to eat with them – and fed them on the king’s venison. Later Edward revealed his identity and pardoned all the outlaws – on condition that they would come to his court and serve him.
The story is told in A Lytell Geste of Robyn, published in 1459. It may not be all fiction – the king was certainly in Nottingham in November 1323 and the story of his action fits what is known of his character. And a few months later, in 1324, the name of Robin Hood appears in the household accounts of Edward II. There is a record of wages paid to him until November of the same year. After that date, he vanishes into folklore again. Perhaps after enjoying the free life of an outlaw, he was unable to settle in service, even for his king.
Robin Hood’s adventures in the forests continued until about 1346 when he is reputed to have died at Kirklees Priory. The prioress there is said to have hastened his death when he begged her help to relieve his pain during an illness. She is said to have bled him until he was too weak to recover.
Robin Hood, the story ends, managed to blow his famous hunting horn, which summoned his faithful companion Little John to his side. Robin then shot an arrow from the window of his room and asked to be buried wherever it might fall. The spot claimed to be his grave can still be seen to this day.
It is a romantic, ever-popular story which has been told and retold for 600 years. But whether it is myth or history, fiction or fact, remains a mystery.