Who was Robin Hood?

by Bruce E. R. Thompson.

When I was a puppeteer, I performed at Renaissance festivals and medieval fairs, so my repertoire naturally included tales of Robin Hood. My favorite story was Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, in which Robin Hood slays Guy of Gisborne, a cruel robber and assassin from another forest, and then collects the bounty for his own assassination by disguising himself in Guy of Gisborne’s horsehide cowl.

I believe Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and leader of the good old boys (or “merry men”) who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, would like to see himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. He may not be wrong.

Scholars do not agree on whether there was a real Robin Hood. Certainly many of the elements that we now think of as essential to the legend were in fact late additions, having nothing to do with a putative historical Robin Hood. For example, Robin’s meeting with Little John at a log bridge, where they fight with quarterstaffs, was the invention of an 18th Century balladeer. Medieval yeomen never fought with staffs; the cudgel was a peasant’s weapon! Prince John became a central villain in 1601 in two plays by the Elizabethan playwright Anthony Munday. Munday also inserted “the Earl of Huntingdon” into the story. Maid Marion was added to the story in the 16th Century, by which time Robin Hood had become a popular hero in plays performed to celebrate May Day. These plays (which featured Morris dancing) were descended from spring fertility rituals, so it was necessary for the hero to have a May Queen.

The earliest surviving written sources concerning Robin Hood date from approximately the 15th Century. The tale of Guy of Gisborne is in a poem from this period. A longer poem, published under the title A Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood, is the source of several other stories, including the famous story in which Robin competes in an archery competition hosted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the one in which the king visits Sherwood Forest in the guise of a monk in order to pardon Robin Hood. References within that poem place the action about a century earlier: the king is referred to as “Edward our comely king.” This probably refers to Edward II, who actually did visit Nottingham in 1323.

Some scholars argue that this date is too late. The central story of the Lyttell Geste is of a knight who owes money to an abbey. The abbot plans to seize the knight’s estate by foreclosing on the defaulted loan. Robin Hood saves the day by giving the indigent knight enough money to repay his loan. Usury by the church was rampant in the 13th Century, and was the cause of much outrage; but, by the 14th Century the practice had been reined in. Abbeys often owed so much money themselves that they were hardly in a position to dabble in real estate mortgages. So the action of the story must actually date about a century before the text suggests.

But even this date may be late. Howard Pyle, author of an 1883 book, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, sets Robin Hood’s career even earlier, in the late 12th Century, during the time of Henry II. Pyle only claims to be writing a book for children, but I believe he did more research than he admits to. His date makes considerable sense. It was Henry II who established a system of English law administered by “sheriffs” who answered solely to the King, thus taking power away from local barons and church officials. Naturally such sheriffs were hated by those who resented the loss of local authority. Henry II also declared all of Huntingdonshire to be a “royal forest.” In medieval English the word ‘forest’ did not mean a woodland, it referred to a game preserve, usually one set aside for sport hunting. Since game preserves for deer were usually covered by woodlands, the word slowly evolved into its present meaning.

In the 12th Century the Norman invasion was not yet a dim memory. The Saxon yeomanry of England considered themselves to be a people oppressed by foreign invaders, and for centuries they had been accustomed to hunt the woodlands of England without interference. The laws establishing royal forests were seen as Exhibit A of Norman oppression. This resentment was at its height during the reign of Henry II, so it is reasonable to suppose that tales of a heroic Saxon yeoman, outlawed by the Normans but faithful to his own moral code, might emerge from those times.

Like the word ‘forest’, the word ‘yeoman’ has also evolved. The word originally identified a social class, higher than peasants, but lower than the gentry. Yeomen served as personal bodyguards or attendants to a nobleman—the modern British valet is a descendant of the yeoman class—but, when not directly serving a nobleman, the yeomen often managed small farms of their own. Perhaps a close modern analogue to the medieval yeomen would be the farmers and ranchers of the American West. They may be employed by large corporate concerns, but they may also work their own smaller spreads. Like their modern counterparts, medieval yeomen were always armed. They typically carried longbows. This explains our association of the word ‘yeoman’ with archery.

Early surviving sources, such as the Lyttell Geste, make no mention of Richard I or his brother, John; but, unlike other modern intrusions, these additions are not unreasonable. Before going on crusade, Richard did grant some land to his previously landless brother. That land included Nottinghamshire. In Richard’s absence, John did set up what amounted to an alternative royal court, with a bureaucracy of officials who answered directly to him rather than to the lords that Richard had tried to put in place. Upon returning, Richard punished John by revoking his lands in England. Richard I was the son of Henry II; so, if Robin Hood was active during King Henry’s time, he might well have lived to see Richard return from the crusades. While Richard was not a particularly good king, he was popular with the yeoman class. They admired his forthrightness and courage, which they saw as mirroring their own. They may even have imagined that good King Richard would pardon a loveable rogue like Robin Hood.

So, who was the historical Robin Hood? Probably he was a composite. There were undoubtedly many outlawed Saxon yeomen who illegally hunted in the king’s wildlife preserves. They were fiercely protective of their right to carry weapons. They saw themselves as “true” Englishmen in a country that was no longer their own. I suspect the medieval yeomen were also opposed to “taxes” of any kind; and, they hated sheriffs. At the same time, they admired Richard Lionheart for his strength, and for making war upon Muslims, overlooking that he was actually a French nobleman who enriched himself at their expense.

In medieval England there was no such thing as a federal government, so there was no such thing as federally owned land. The central government was just the king. Indeed, the legal precedent giving our federal government the power to set aside lands has its roots in the powers of the king, under English common law, to do the same. Hence Ammon Bundy has some grounds for thinking of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the moral equivalent of Sherwood Forest. But nowadays lands set aside by the federal government belong to the public, and they benefit the public (collectively) in various ways; medieval game preserves belonged to the king and were set aside for the exclusive benefit of the king and his friends. Bundy and his crowd seem to imagine that public lands belong to a tyrannical overlord named Federal Government, which might just as well be the king. Bundy sees the world much as the Saxon yeomen did, but the difference is their tyrannical overlord was not a delusion. The Saxons really were a conquered people oppressed by foreign invaders. I don’t see how anyone could, with a straight face, make the same claim about modern Western ranchers.

Those considerations aside, if Bundy wants to see himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, the parallels are certainly there. And I suppose Bundy has as much right to the legends as I do—possibly more, since he is a member of the yeoman class, while I am nowadays just an over-educated cleric who teaches syllogisms for a living.

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