A GEST OF ROBYN HODE (Robin Hood): Is He Real or Memorex?

Contributed by my friend Toni V Sweeney.  For more on her work please visit: http://www.tonivsweeney.com/Welcome.html

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen,
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men,

Feared by the bad, Loved by the good,

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood…”

—theme from the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene (1955)

Robin Hood…Hobby Hode…The Rogue of Sherwood Forest… Whatever you want to call him, Robin Hood has been with us a long time, and the question is always rising: Was he an actual person or was he fictitious?

Records show there was an outlaw called “Robert Hode” from Nottinghamshire who escaped to the forest after a quarrel with the bishop there. He is also listed as “Robyn or Hobby Hood.”. In a 9-year period in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, there were 9 references on the Yorkshire Pipe Rolls (records of the audits of the sheriffs’ accounts) to a man called “Robin or Hobbehod” who had been outlawed, though his particular criminal specialty isn’t mentioned. In 1260, another outlaw, Robert LeFevre, is also stated as being known as “Hobby Hood.” Since there are many references after this throughout the years, it would lead one to think this might simply have become an alias used by captured thieves. In fact, in later centuries, this name was given to any felon. Guy Fawkes and the men who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605 were termed “Robin Hoods” by the 1st Earl of Salisbury. This epithet still holds true—in our own modern day culture, we speak of “hoods” and “hoodlums” to mean criminals.

The oldest tale of Robin is Robin Hood and the Monk, a manuscript now at Cambridge University. It was written around 1450 and involves a story which could in actuality be based on Robert Hode’s altercation with the bishop preceding his flight. The first printed version A Gest of Robyn Hode is a group of short stories made into a single narrative. Here “gest” means “history.” The first literary mention of Robin Hood comes in the play Piers Plowman, written in the late 14th century, when a character is asked if he knows his prayers. The character states that he doesn’t know his Pater Noster, but he does know the rhymes of Robin Hood!

(I remember reading Piers Plowman in Freshman English in college, but apparently the Robin Hood reference didn’t make a dint in my memory.)

In the earlier versions, Robin is a yeoman/commoner; in the later, he is a nobleman, Robert of Lockley, the Earl of Huntingdon. A commoner isn’t to be confused with a peasant, but is actually someone from what could now be called the middle class, which didn’t exist back then. A yeoman was “neither a knight nor a peasant… but something in between”. Though the county of Yorkshire lays claim to Robin because the area of Loxley exists there, all the tales, agree on where he lived, with the very first recorded rhyme in the 15th century stating: “Robyn hode in scherewode stod.” (Robin Hood in Sherwood stood).

The first semi-historical mention of Robin is in Orygynale Chronicle by Andrew of Wyntoun, written around 1420 and referring to events in 1283. The next is in the Scotichronicon, (1377) in which Robin is named a supporter of Simon de Montford and described thus: “…Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited,” though “murderer” here could mean not a hired killer but merely someone who uses a knife as a weapon.

Though Robin’s cohorts—Little John and Will Scarlet—are there almost from the beginning, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and Alan-A-Dale the minstrel, show up much, much later. Little John appears to be Robin’s second-in-command, a giant of a man called John Little whose name is reversed ironically because of his size. Will Scarlet was originally called Will Scatlock, and possibly he was a burglar, because he could “scat” or break locks. An interesting note is that A Gest of Robin Hood, one of the earliest compilations, named the king Robin is loyal to as “Edward” rather than Richard. There was a Robyn Hode employed by Edward II but this may also be a reference to Roger Godberd who was a supporter of Simon de Montford and whose life parallels Robin’s to some extent. Godberd has been called the “prototypical Robin Hood.”

Finding the real Robin Hood is difficult because “Robert” and its diminutive “Robin” were common names in medieval England as was the surname “Hode” (“of the Hood”) because a hood was a common head-covering; the fact that a number of men with that name ran afoul of the law doesn’t help. Calling a man “Robin Hode” when he was declared an outlaw seems to have been a common practice from the 13th century on.

Robin Hood supposedly died at Kirklees Priory, Mirfield in West Yorkshire. There is a grave with an elaborate headstone there with an inscription.

My Opinion? There really was a Robin Hood, some commoner back in England’s dim and distant past who found himself—for one reason or another—“outside the Law,” taking refuge in that vast tract of land called Sherwood Forest where others likewise disenfranchised, may have joined him. But, like King Arthur, Dracula, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and other real personages who’ve since been romanticized into legend, he was made into a character heroic in song and fiction, given a past and a heritage not his own so he became a man whose exploits would be told around campfires at night…of derring-do, of trickery and bravery, of love and death…to entertain and give hope. It is a story which has lasted almost eight hundred years so far, repeated and embellished with each re-telling.

The real Hobby Hode would probably be astounded and aghast and possibly disbelieving if he knew just what he started.

As the Gest concludes:

…he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god

(This blog was written using material from Wikipedia and information from the International Movie Data Base and the History Channel’s two shows on Robin Hood, one following Kevin Costner’s film, the other Russell Crowe’s upcoming movie.)

By Toni Sweeney

8 responses to “A GEST OF ROBYN HODE (Robin Hood): Is He Real or Memorex?

  1. I tend to agree that he was a real person, but probably quite different from the legend. Isn't it fun how many stories get cooked up and how the legends grow and expand!Regardless, I definitely mean to go to the new Russell Crowe movie!


  2. I'll need to check it out. I loved the early series. I waited for kisses and waited for them. There likely was a person who was the source of the legends. Now with Mighty Mouse and Superman, they were the real thing.


  3. From the laid-back Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, to Russell Crowe's portrayal, I have to admit I love them all.


  4. Fascinating…I think most of folklore like this must have been based on real characters. Thanks for so much info. I've heard different reviews of the Russell Crowe version, but there's a part in all of us, don't you think, that cheers characters like this, regardless of who plays the role.


  5. I think that probably all people that are "Legends", are glorified way beyond the truth. Just Tell, we called the game. One person would say something and a bunch of people would repeat it. By the time it got to the end it was totally different.So the same would be true for a story told around the campfire. Interesting post Toni!


  6. Toni, I enjoyed your post and have to agree that the truth of Robin, as with Arthur, will never be know. Being a romantic, I like the bolder, heroic versions of both stories.I saw Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood" this weekend, but found it somewhat disturbing historically. It is a very good, entertaining movie and I did enjoy it. Just had to come home and google some facts to decide for myself. I think the Robin of legend has become so ingrained in our collective psychic that we have a hard time accepting that those details are not historical facts. Still, definitely a good movie, and not to be missed.Melba


  7. I love the Robin Hood character and plan to see the movie. Robin Hood has almost become a common name for help the poor with the bad rich people's money. I insist on BAD rich people. Thank you for great informations Toni.


  8. I'm a huge Robin Hood fan. 🙂 Thanks for this.


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