Robin Hood - the Prince of Thieves?

By Wilcox, Debbie | Contemporary Review, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Robin Hood - the Prince of Thieves?


Wilcox, Debbie, Contemporary Review


SIX hundred years after his death, a footnote was written in history about a small-time crook who roamed the woodlands of central England. But for some unfathomable reason, the legend of this crook has been large in history. His name, all these centuries after his death is better known today than when he was alive: Robin Hood. When examining the history of Robin Hood, it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Many people have researched this fascinating story and still the ghost of Robin Hood has not been laid to rest.

What is the magic and myth of the lad in Lincoln green whose daring exploits still thrill to this day, in books, in films and on television? One can accept what researchers have unearthed, that Robin stole from travellers riding the Great North Road near Barnsdale in Yorkshire, and that he raided with his outlaw band thirty miles away in Sherwood Forest. One can, on the other hand, accept the romantic version that this handsome hero really robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Robin's minor rule of the English 'badlands' reputedly occurred around 1261. But he was not mentioned until a century later when he was briefly referred to by the Scottish historian, Fordin, who died in 1386. Further written word of his exploits came in the sixteenth century. Let us take the most charitable view of his history. The tale begins with records which show that a Robin Hood did exist, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The character is reported as being born in 1290 and christened Robert Hood. The family surname is spelt three different ways in the old court records: Hod, Hode and Hood. It is clearly stated that Robin's father was a retainer of Earl Warenne, Lord of the Manor of Wakefield. So how did Robin launch himself on his rewarding road to robbery?

Robin got a new landlord in 1322, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. When the Earl led a revolt against the weak and ill-advised King Edward II, Robin and his fellow tenants had to obey his lord's call to arms. But the revolt was crushed and Lancaster was captured and beheaded for treason. His estates were confiscated by the King and the Earl's rebellious servants were outlawed. Robin found refuge in Barnsdale Forest, an ideal hiding place covering thirty square miles of Yorkshire. It is here that we have the beginning of the famous Sherwood Forest link.

Sherwood was a neighbouring Nottinghamshire area of around twenty-five square miles. Both forests were served by the Roman-built, Great North Road, used by travellers who were targets for outlaw robbers. The legend of Robin Hood dressed in Lincoln green for camouflage in the forest was born. Stories of Robin's death-defying, heroic antics became widespread. There was the escapade involving the dull Bishop of Hereford, who was making his way to York when he came upon Robin and his men roasting venison taken from the King's hunting forests. Thinking they were peasants the Bishop ordered them to be seized immediately. The outlaws were not bothered, saying they were too busy to be arrested and that food was important in their minds. The Bishop's aides rounded them up, ignoring pleas for mercy. But with a blast on Robin's horn the rest of the gang emerged from the forest, the Bishop was taken prisoner and a ransom demanded. Robin was determined to get as much fun as possible from his hostage and made the Bishop dance a jig around a large oak tree. Today, that very spot is known as Bishop's Tree Root.

One of the best loved stories about Robin, passed down through the years, concerned his meeting with Edward II. The King was dismayed that his royal deer disappeared from under his eyes into the stomach's of the outlaws, and made up his mind to clean up the forest, once and for all. He and his knight dressed up as monks and rode into Sherwood, knowing that Robin and his merry men would wait for unfortunate travellers such as them. They were right. …

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