Robin Hood: a Brief History

Denise, today’s guest reviewer, is a librarian and avid reader.  This is post is based on research she conducted for her undergraduate thesis.

At the very beginning of the Robin Hood tradition, we have – well, no one really knows for sure. What we do know is that the stories of Robin Hood were being circulated by word of mouth to a very large audience before they were ever written down. There is an old Robin Hood proverb that states, “Many men speak of Robin Hood, who never drew his bow” – and I think it is just as true now as it probably was back then. Everyone knows something of the legendary hero, regardless of their level of familiarity with the “actual” character, through the stories or through interaction with the real person. Yes, there are some who believe that Robin Hood the man actually existed and have dedicated their lives to trying to figure out who he was. I’m guessing that, since this is a read-along, most of you will be more interested in the literary Robin Hood though, and so that history is the one on which I’ll focus for the rest of this post.

What are recognized as current staples to the narrative of the Robin Hood story is really a collection of attributes that has built up over the years. Today’s Hood is an outlaw known to live in Sherwood Forest, with his band of merry men, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. His archery skills are unsurpassed and, along with them, he uses his wit and cunning to survive and fight against the corruption of local authority, while remaining loyal to the ultimate authority, usually the King. His story is often set during the reign of King Richard the Lion-Heart and the Lady, Marian, has become Hood’s love interest, often forsaking her own noble upbringing to join Hood in the forest. While some of these characteristics can be traced all the way back to the original ballads – like the fact that he is an expert archer and fights corruption while remaining loyal to the King – many of them were added later, most notably the historical setting in the drama of King Richard’s reign and Marian’s very existence in the story, as well as her ever-changing role in it. One of the most shocking characteristics that cannot be traced back to the original ballads, however, is the charity that is the modern trademark of Robin Hood. There is very little in the original ballads to suggest that Robin Hood specifically robbed the rich to give to the poor (Knight 1). In the early ballads, Hood is a thief, to be sure, but much of what he stole went to supporting his small band of followers and himself, helping others solely at his discretion – rich and poor alike.

The narrative of the events of the life of Robin Hood – and the character that he is – has been presented in many different forms over the years. In Medieval times, ballads were the presentation of choice; during the Renaissance, playwrights like Anthony Munday took up his tale. In more recent years, novelists, like Howard Pyle and Stephen Lawhead, and film producers have seen the potential in his story. In fact, the story of Robin Hood has survived largely on creative retellings. Stephen Knight was one of the first scholars who really began to study Robin Hood in an academic context, and when he started in the 1970s, he found the available criticism to be rather lacking (Knight xvi). And, as a side note, if you are interested in the longer story, I highly recommend his book Robin Hood: a Mythic Biography.  Much of my own knowledge of the tradition, outside of specific works, comes from there.

And now, let me leave you with a (very) brief representative survey of the tale over the years.

A Gest of Robyn Hode (Medieval poetry)

First off, let me make it clear that A Gest of Robyn Hode is by no means the first Robin Hood story; it is not even the first that was written down and published. It was, however, published soon after the earliest known ballads and Knight speculates that it was actually constructed from those earlier ballads (24). Scholars have described it as an “encyclopedia of the medieval Robin Hood,” and it has had a major influence on later creative retellings (Knight 22).

In this work, Hood’s enemies are the “bisshoppes” and “archebishoppes,” as well as “The hye sheriff of Notyingham” (ll.58-61). While modern audiences can certainly relate, the villainy of both the church and the sheriff is understood now very differently than it would have been then. In more than one modern retelling of his story, the sheriff is more of a fool than a cruel and corrupt authority; in many, the wrongs of the church are eclipsed by the wrongs of the law or are excluded completely. Likewise, in the Gest, religious values and rituals are much more a part of Hood’s identity than they are in many modern retellings. So too, the other values evident in this story – like loyalty; archery for display, not combat; and reverence of the king (Knight 25) are the kind of values that one would expect a Medieval people to hold.

Thematically, Hood’s moral code complicates the audience’s understanding of right and wrong. Though he is well known as a master of disguise and deception, Hood is, ironically, very concerned about exposing falsehood and finding out truth – that goal, not charity, is the main reason he thieves throughout the Gest. His victims are presented with the same opportunity to reveal what they have, and the same terms are presented regarding their answer: if they are honest, they will keep what they have – and potentially gain more, if they have need of it; if they are dishonest, Hood and his men make them honest by taking from them all except what they claimed to have in the first place.

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon – Anthony Munday (a Renaissance play)

Renaissance society was an incredibly social society – a society that liked to know exactly where each individual stood on the social ladder, simply by looking at what that individual wore. Going to the theater was one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time – and, sure enough, the Robin Hood story found an outlet through this form. Not only was Hood featured indirectly in plays such as Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but playwrights like Anthony Munday also attempted to directly retell his story for the stage. The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, printed around 1601, is the first in a two-play series that tries to tell a comprehensive version of Hood’s story. Some situations in the play can clearly be traced back to the Gest, but Munday also incorporates new characters and changes situations to better suit a Renaissance audience’s understanding and interests.

In his play, Munday creates the character of an earl named Robert who becomes an outlaw and then takes the name Robin Hood as a reflection of his fallen social status. Because Hood has actually been given a high social standing, this play has been called the beginning of a gentrified Robin Hood (Knight 31). At this point in the tradition, the story is clearly open to this change. In the Gest, for example, there is no story of Hood’s life before he became an outlaw – his former social status is left open to interpretation. By recasting Hood as a gentleman, Munday had created a character that higher Renaissance social classes would understand, and might even respect. Another change meant to appeal to Renaissance society was the change in Hood’s historical context. He coexists with King Richard and Prince John, instead of the King Edward who reigns in the Gest. Prince John was of special interest to Renaissance society, especially when his portrayal ignored the cruelty for which he is well known. For Munday’s play, he is a lovesick Prince John whose primary quarrel with Robin is that of a lovers’ rivalry. Through him – as well as Hood’s changed social status – Marian is given an elevated, and even feasible, role within the Robin Hood tradition.

Robin Hood (2010) – Russell Crowe (Modern film)

The story of Robin Hood translates very easily to film — for much of its life, after all, it has primarily been a performance piece. The most recent film retelling is a story very different from most people’s understanding of Hood’s story. Like Munday’s play, it seeks to give Hood a past; but, unlike the play, the movie does not go into Hood’s life as an outlaw, as many people might expect a movie entitled “Robin Hood” to do. It does, however, set itself during the drama of King Richard and King John’s reigns, and involves a pseudo-gentrified Robin as well as Marian, in a love triangle.

Politically, it seems to be a very American film. Robin is not outlawed for the traditional poaching deer: he is outlawed for his attempt to curb the tyranny that is King John. The main political conflict is no longer with the Sheriff of Nottingham and other abusive authorities (like John before he becomes King) but is with the King himself. And the political ideology being advocated in this movie – the idea that people like Robin have the right to fight against, and ultimately change, an unfair government – is one upon which America was founded. Finally, linking Robin directly to the creation and therefore the ultimate signing of the Magna Carta has a direct parallel in American sensibility to the creation of the Constitution and its verification that all men are created equal.

Likewise, Marian’s place in the story has been notably modernized, as she takes on distinctive feminist qualities. In the beginning, she fights unfair authority through means more accurate to those women of her time would have held: through prayer and requests for aid from the village priests. For much of the movie, it is Robin who actually has the most ability to enact changes. Despite this, Marian does more as the movie progresses. She is shown helping out in the fields, staging boycotts, and, by the end of the movie, she is quite literally fighting for the protection of both herself and her country, putting herself in a position clearly outside her time that many modern women would recognize and applaud.

Further research:

  • Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1982.
  • And check out the Library at Rochester’s Robin Hood site:

Robin Hood Button

4 thoughts on “Robin Hood: a Brief History

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I went into a Robin Hood obsession a few years ago where I read everything I could about the history of him, so reading the literary history is a nice addition!


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