Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hood, Robin
HOOD, ROBIN, legendary outlaw, has been represented as an historical personage. There can be little doubt, however, that, as in the somewhat similar case of Rory o' the Hills in Ireland, the name originally belonged to a mythical forest-elf, who filled a large space in English, and apparently in Scottish,folk-lore, and that it was afterwards applied by English ballad-writers, chiefly of the northern and midland counties, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, to any robber-leader who made his home in forests or moors, excelled in archery, defied the oppressive forest laws, and thus attracted popular sympathy. Adam Bel, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudisdale, legendary outlaws of the forest of Inglewood, Cumberland, are credited in northern ballads with almost all Robin Hood's lawless characteristics and many of his adventures.
Inconclusive attempts have been made to extract from the ballad-history of Robin Hood a sun-myth, with Robin Hood as the central personage (Academy, 1883, xxiv. 250); to treat him as a popular and degraded manifestation of Woden, or to connect him with Hödr (= warrior), a Scandinavian deity. In its origin the name was probably a variant of 'Hodeken,' the title of a sprite or elf in Teutonic folk-lore (Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, p. 472). The prefix Robin, a diminutive of Robert, implied an affectionate familiarity, as in Robin Goodfellow or in Robin of Redesdale, the assumed name of Sir William Conyers,leader of the Yorkshire rebels in 1469. The word Hood may have been applied to the elf because such creatures, according to popular belief, wore hoods; or it may be acorruption of 'o' th' wood,' because they were assumed to live in forests (cf. Gent. Mag. 1793, pt. i.) A 'Robin du Bois' is said to figure in the folk-lore of French peasants. The wide dissemination of the elf s fame is proved by the appearance of 'Robin Hood' in the names of places and plants in all parts of England. Hód's Oak, the name given in an Anglo-Saxon charter to a place in Worcestershire (cf. the modern Hodsock in Nottinghamshire), may embody a reference to Robin Hood. Cairns on Black Down, Somerset, and barrows near Whitby, Yorkshire, and Ludlow, Shropshire, have long been called Robin Hood's pricks or butts; there are Robin Hood's hills in Gloucestershire and Derbyshire; a rock, Robin Hood's Tor, is near Matlock; his wells are numerous in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire; a rock in Hope Dale, Derbyshire, is his chair; a cave in Nottinghamshire is his stable; a chasm at Chatsworthis his leap; Blackstone Edge, Lancashire, is his bed; and many old oaks are his trees. In western England red campion is invariably called Robin Hood, and Robin Hood's hatband is in many places a synonym for common club-moss. In Lancashire a searching southeast wind is known as a Robin Hood wind. In explanation of this nomenclature, various stories of no historical value have been fabricated. From the little eminence called after Robin Hood near Ludlow the hero is said to have shot an arrow into the roof of Ludlow Church, a distance of a mile and a half; and an arrow which still decorates a gable of the Fletchers' chancel of the church is said to be the one shot by Robin Hood. A similar legend is told in Holinshed's 'Chronicle' of a hillock in Oxmanstown, near Dublin, which was called Little John's Shot, and is said to owe its name to the fact that Robin Hood's lieutenant, Little John, shot an arrow thither while standing on Dublin bridge.
Robin Hood also entered at an early date into the popular celebrations of May-day. He was one of the mythical characters whom the populace were fond of personating in the semi-dramatic devices and morris-dances performed at that season. The May celebration was at times called Robin Hood's Festival. Sir John Paston mentions, in a letter dated Good Friday 1473, that he had kept a servant three years to play 'Robyn Hod' in Maytime (Paston Letters, ed. Gairdner, iii. 89). Printed accounts for the parish of Kingstonon-Thames from 1507 to 1526 show frequent payments to persons playing Robin Hood on May-day. Bishop Latimer, preaching before Edward VI, told the story that, having arranged to preach at a village church, he found the door locked, and the parishioners gone abroad 'under the pretence of gathering for Robin Hood,' i.e. for the May-games. Robin was equally popular in the May-day celebrations of Scotland. In April 1577 and April 1578 the general assembly requested the king to prohibit plays of 'Robin Hood, King of May,' on the sabbath. Similarly, 'Robene Hude' is named as a Scottish dance in Wedderbum's 'Complainte of Scotland,' 1549. In France from the thirteenth century onwards rural celebrations of Whitsuntide include motets and pastourelles with Robin as their hero, and Robin was usually associated with a ladylove, Marion. In England, at the end of the middle ages, a cognate character, Maid Marian, usually appears in the May-games at the side of Robin Hood. No trace of the lady has been recovered in English literature earlier than about 1500, when 'some mery fit of Maide Marian or els of Robin Hood' is mentioned by Alexander Barclay in his fourth eclogue appended to his 'Ship of Fooles.' She probably came to England from France. Friar Tuck and Little John, the legendary companions of Robin Hood, who were also personated in the May-games, doubtless owed their origin to mythological processes, similar to those which produced the hero himself. Robin Hood's other companions, Much, the Miller's son, and William Scathlock or Scarlock, have no pretensions to be reckoned historical. Robin Hood figures in numerous proverbial expressions, such as 'Many men talk of Robin Hood that never shot in his bow,' or 'Tales of Robin Hood are good for fools' (Camden, Remains), but none are capable of historical interpretation.
The arguments in favour of Robin Hood's historical existence, although very voluminous, will not bear scholarly examination. Mediæval historians practically ignore him. But 'Rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf, erle of Chestre,' according to the author of 'Piers Plowman,' were popular with the English peasantry about 1377 (Passus v. 11. 401, 402). Although English chroniclers of the fifteenth century overlook him, several Scottish writers of that date mention him as a popular ballad hero, and describe him as a famous robber. Wyntoun, in his 'Chronicle of Scotland' (dated about 1420), writes that in 1283
Lytill Ihon and Robyne Hude
Waytheinen [i.e. outlaws] ware commendyd gude,
In Vngilwode and Barnysdale
Thai oysyd all this tyme thare trawale.
In 1417, according to Stow, a thief was known in Surrey and Sussex under the counterfeit name of Friar Tuck, who appears in the ballads as one of Robin Hoods chief companions (Annals, 1631, p. 352 b). In 1439 a petition was presented to parliament for the arrest of a robber named Piers Venables, who with other; 'misdoers . . . wente into the wodes' in Derbyshire, 'like as it hadde be Robyn-hode and his meyne' (Rot. Parl. v. 16). Bower, writing about 1445 in continuation of Fordun's 'Scotichronicon,' and Major in his 'Historia Majoris Britanniæ' (written about 1500)—both Scotchmen—refer to the popularity of ballads about Robin Hood. John Bellenden, the Scottish translator of Boece's Latin 'History of Scotland' in 1533, remarks that Robin Hood was the subject of 'many fabillis and mery sportis soung amang the vulgar pepyll.' A connected life, in ballad verse, of the hero, compiled out of older ballads about 1495, was entitled 'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hoode,'and was first printed by Wynkyn de Worde. A similar compilation appeared at Edinburgh in 1508, and was reissued with variations by William Copland in London about 1550. According to the 'Geste,' which first supplies details of his history, Robin Hood's home was in Barnsdale, a woodland region in the West Riding of Yorkshire, south of Pontefract and north of Doncaster. He protects a knight, Sir Richard-at-the-Lee, from the extortions of the abbot of St. Mary's, York; kills his sworn foe the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who attempts to arrest him; is visited by 'King Edward in disguise, who, delighted with his archery and courtesy, takes him into his household; finally returns to the greenwood; and, going to the prioress of Kirklees (between Wakefield and Halifax) to be let blood, is there treacherously bled to death at the suggestion of a knight, Sir Roger of Doncaster. Although many places mentioned in the 'Gest' can be identified in the West Riding and its neighbourhood, the topography is vague throughout. In many later ballads Robin Hood is located in Sherwood Forest, and more rarely in Plumpton Park, Cumberland, and there are signs that the compiler of the 'Gest' had carelessly combined extracts from ballads which are no longer extant connecting the hero with Sherwood and Plumpton. Numerous additions were made to the Robin Hood literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Broadside ballads, a few of which show traces of a late mediæval origin, recklessly amplified the legends and adapted adventures from the biographies of semi-historical personages, such as Fulk-Fitzwarine, Hereward the Wake, and Wallace. Finally, Robin was represented as of noble descent, and was raised to the peerage as Earl of Huntingdon. But scepticism on the subject was prevalent even among sixteenth-century men of letters, and 'a tale of Robin Hood' was often used as a synonym for a fabulous story (cf. Roy, Rede me, 1525; Harington, Orlando, 1590, p. 391; and other references in Ritson, xvii, xcii, sq.) In Shakespeare's 'As You Like It,' on the other hand, the old duke is said to live in the forest of Arden with 'a many merry men,' 'like the old Robin Hood of England (act ii. sc. i.)
The dramatists continued the balladmakers' work. A rude dramatic manuscript fragment, dated in 1475, and belonging to Dr. W. Aldis Wright of Trinity College, Cambridge, deals with Robin Hood's adventures with Guy of Gisborne. At the end of Copland's edition of the 'Geste' is 'The Playe of Robyn Hode,' which recites the story of the hero and the potter. Peele, in his 'Edward I' (1593), introduces a dramatic device based on the same story (Works, ed. Bullen, i. 140 sq.) 'A Pleasant conceited Comedie of George-A-Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield,' printed in 1599, is partly constructed out of the ballad of 'Robin Hood and the Pinder of Wakefield.' 'The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, afterward called Robin Hood of Merrie Sherwood' (1601), by Anthony Munday, and ' The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington, otherwise called Robin Hood of Merrie Sherwood' (1601), by Munday and Chettle, wildly travesty historical legends, and make Robin Hood a rival with King John for the hand of Maid Marian, who is absurdly identified with Matilda, daughter of Robert Fitzwalter [q. v.] (cf. Dodsley, Old Plays, 1874, viii. 210 sq.) Munday, in 1615, again utilised the Robin Hood legends in 'Metropolis Coronata,' a pageant prepared for the lord mayor's induction into office. Nine other similar dramatic pieces, dating between 1600 and 1784, are enumerated by Ritson (lxvlxxii.) About 1632 Martin Parker published 'A True Tale of Robin Hood' in verse, which he professed to have 'carefully collected out of the truest writers of our English chronicles.' In 1670 a new collection of ballads, entitled 'Robin Hood's Garland,' first appeared, and was afterwards frequently reprinted. In 1678 'The Noble Birth and Gallant Achievements of that Remarkable Outlaw Robin Hood,' retold in prose all that had been previously stated in verse, and its information was repeated in numberless chapbooks. One little volume (1752) combined accounts of Robin Hood and James Hind [q.v.] as 'two noted robbers and highwaymen.'
Late historians and antiquaries take Robin Hood's career very seriouslv. A prose life in Sloane MS. 780, ff. 46-8, constructed from the ballads in the seventeenth century, and printed in Thoms's 'English Prose Romances' (ii. 124-37), states that Robin Hood was born about 1160 'at Lockesley in Yorkeshyre, or after others in Notinghamsh.' Loxley has been discovered to be the name of a very small hamlet near Sheffield, and Robin Hood's fame is said to be locally great there; but the biography is clearly unauthentic and uncorroborated. Major, who acknowledged that Robin Hood was only known to him as a ballad-hero ('Rebus huius Roberti gestis tota Britannia in cantibus utitur'), first suggested that he lived in Richard I's time. This suggestion has been adopted by Grafton, Holinshed, Stow, and the author of the Sloane MS., while according to an obiter dictum of Sir Edward Coke (3 Institutes, 197), based on such authorities, 'this Robin Hood lived in the reign of King Richard the first.' Leland was of opinion that Robin Hood was of noble lineage (Collectanea, i. 54), and Grafton adds, on the authority 'of an olde and auncient pamphlet,' that he was created an earl. Fuller includes him in his 'Worthies of Nottinghamshire ' (1662). Dr. Stukeley, credulously accepting the legend, found or fabricated an absurd pedigree making Robin Hood grandson both of Ralph Fitz-othes or Fitzooth, a Norman companion of William the Conqueror and of Geoffrey of Mandeville [q. v.] (Stukeley, Palœographia Britaunica, No. i. 115). Francis Peck (1692-1743), who always spells the surname Whood, prepared a new edition of the 'Garland' about 1735 (cf. Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 28638), and was not more critical than Stukeley. Martin Parker, in his 'True Tale' (1632?), first suggested a date of death (4 Dec. 1198), and concocted an epitaph which (he stated) was formerly to be read at Kirklees. Thoresby,in his 'Ducatus Leodensis' (1715), p. 91, described a tombstone near Kirklees with an illegible inscription as the hero's grave, and supplied in his appendix (p. 576) an obviously spurious epitaph, which gave the date of his death as 18 Nov. 1247; this was stated by Thoresby to have been found among the papers of Thomas Gale, dean of York [q. v.] (cf. Gough, Sepulchral Monuments, p. cviii). Ritson, in his 'Collection of the Ballads' (1795), quoted at length the conclusions of his antiquarian predecessors, and treated Robin Hood as strictly historical.
Thierry in his 'Conquête de l'Angleterre,' 1830, identified Robin Hood with the chief of a troop of Saxon bandits (cf. Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe). Subsequently it was suggested that he was a leader of the exhæredati, or proscribed followers of Simon de Montfort, who were reduced to great straits after the battle of Evesham in 1264 (London and Westminster Review, March 1840, repr. by Gutch, i. 112 sq.) Joseph Hunter, in 1852, tried to show that Robin Hood was contemporary with Edward II, was an adherent of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster [q. v.] in the insurrection of 1322, and afterwards entered the king's household. Edward II certainly made a progress in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Nottinghamshire, where Robin Hood's exploits are chiefly located in the ballads, in the autumn of 1323, and exchequer documents prove that a person named Rooyn Hode subsequently received payment as a 'vadlet' or 'porteur du chambre' in the royal household between 24 March and 22 Nov. 1324. On the last date 'Robyn Hode, jadys un des porteurs, pour cas qil ne poait pluis travailler,' received 5s. But other official documents show that the name Robert Hood was not uncommon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and there is nothing whatever to prove that the 'porteur' Robin Hood had any connection with the reputed outlaw, while the other Robert Hoods of the time held official positions which adequately differentiate them from the ballad hero. The 'Lytell Geste' undoubtedly connects the hero with a King Edward; but another early ballad associates him more definitely with Queen Catherine, apparently queen of Henry V, who flourished a century later, and a third Scottish ballad describes his courtship with Jack Cade's daughter. Hunter's theory, although more ingenious than the other historical and antiquarian theories, rests on no more secure foundation.
[The fullest discussion of the Robin Hood legends is given by Professor F. J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads, pt. v. pp. 39 sq. (Boston, U.S.A., 1888). Professor Child has collected thirty-nine ballads on the subject. The introduction to the Robin Hood ballads in Percy Folio MS. ed. Hales and Furnivall (1867), i. 1 sq., is useful. See also Catalogue of the MS. Romances in the Brit. Mus. ed. C. A. Ward, pp. 516 sq.; Thoms's Early English Prose Romances, vol. ii.; Ritson's Collection of Ballads concerning Robin Hood, 1795 (cf. re-issues of 1832 and 1885), which prints besides the ballads all the legendary and fabricated information about Robin's career, and a mass of interesting literary referances to him; the Lytell Geste or Robyn Hode, edited by J. M. Gutch (1847), which is somewhat more critical than Ritson's book; Hunter's Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood,a tract (1852); Wright's Essays on Mediæval Literature, ii. 164 sq. (the Popular Cycle of the Robin Hood Ballads); Academy, vol. xxiv. (1883); Notes and Queries, passim; authorities noticed in the text.]