Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry
Robin Hood, so the old story goes, lived in Sherwood Forest as an outlaw, in company with seven score of “merry men” clad in Lincoln green, poached the king’s deer, plundered the rich, and successfully defied all the efforts of the Sheriff of Nottingham to lay him by the heels. To ask what historical truth lies behind this famous tale is a natural question, and Professor John Bellamy, a distinguished medieval historian, attempts in this book to answer it. On the basis of diligent, minutely detailed, and of necessity often laborious searches in the records of the fourteenth century, he proposes a series of identifications of figures prominent in the earliest version of the legend. The subject of the identity of Robin Hood and his fellows is one that has long been controversial, and his conclusions are certain to invigorate the controversy.
I had better start by explaining why the subject is so controversial. Beneath most of the myths of the Middle Ages there lies buried some substratum of historical truth. There almost certainly was an Arthur, even though he had no Round Table and though the stories told of him and his knights are clearly fictitious. The dramatic events recounted in the Song of Roland are based on a genuine incident, when Charlemagne’s rear guard was ambushed in a pass of the Pyrenees and a Count Roland was killed (but by Basques, not as in the Song by Moslems). It is natural therefore to assume that there once was a genuine Robin Hood, but there are very serious difficulties surrounding the quest for him.
We know that his story was already popular in 1377 from the remark of Sloth in Piers Plowman: “I ken not perfectly my Paternoster as the priest it sayeth, but I ken rhymes of Robin Hood and Randle Earl of Chester.” The earliest ballads concerning him that have survived seem however to date from a little later than this, from the fifteenth century. The fullest version of his story, in the long ballad entitled A Gest of Robyn Hode, was printed at the beginning of the sixteenth century, though it was certainly composed earlier, perhaps as early as 1400. Like the earliest ballads, the earliest chronicle references to Robin come from the fifteenth century (and from Scottish, not English, chronicles), and they all agree in placing his career in a much earlier period. Andrew Wyntoun (c. 1420) assigns him to the 1280s; Walter Bower (c. 1450) to the 1260s, the period of Simon de Montford; John Major (c. 1520) to the reign of Richard I (the 1190s). A “biography” written in the late sixteenth century (the Sloane manuscript) also places him in the time of Richard I and of King John, and so do the English chroniclers, when they come round, rather tardily, to mentioning him. But no chronicle of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries says anything about him at all. There is no contemporary narrator of his own time to tell us when he lived, indeed there is no sufficiently near contemporary narrator to give any certainty that he lived at all.
In consequence, historians in quest of a genuine Robin Hood have had to turn, as Professor Bellamy does, from the narrative sources to the records, and especially to the legal records of medieval England, which tell us of the doings of many thousands of obscure people who were too humble to achieve mention in chronicles that were concerned primarily with political events. These records reveal a substantial number of medieval Robin or Robert Hoods, two among whom have attracted attention as plausible candidates to be reckoned the original of the legendary Robin. One is a Robert Hood of Yorkshire, who in 1228 (and again in 1230) is recorded as being a fugitive and outlaw, and who was known by the nickname of “Hobbehod,” which seems to imply a certain notoriety. Nothing more than this is known of him. The other is a Robert Hood of Wakefield, Yorkshire, who lived in the early fourteenth century, and of whom a little more can be said, though not very much more. Professor Bellamy is concerned with the candidature of both these characters, but more particularly with the second.
The nineteenth-century historian and antiquary Joseph Hunter first drew attention to Robert Hood of Wakefield, suggesting on the basis of what seemed to him some quite striking circumstantial evidence that he might be the genuine Robin Hood. He lived in the reign of Edward II and in the Gest we are told of how “comely King Edward” came to Nottingham and ventured into Sherwood in disguise to find Robin Hood. As a consequence of their meeting and after Robin had entertained the king royally to a feast of poached venison, Edward pardoned the outlaw his crimes and took him into his service; but Robin languished at the court and soon took his leave, to return to the forest and to his old outlaw life.
The only King Edward who would fit with this story, Hunter pointed out, was Edward II, who came to Nottingham late in 1323, after making a circuit of the forests of Lancashire and Yorkshire. At this time a number of tenants of Wakefield manor were in trouble for their part in the recent revolt of Earl Thomas of Lancaster; and Hunter noted that a tenement in Bichill (where the court rolls show that Robert Hood had a tenement) was among the lands seized into the king’s hands in consequence of this revolt, the tenant presumably being outlawed. Then, from November 1323, he found the record of a series of payments to one Robert Hood as a porter in the King’s Chamber; these discontinued in 1324 when Hood was laid off “because he could no longer work.”
So Hunter proceeded to his identification; Robert Hood of Wakefield was outlawed for his part in Lancaster’s revolt, met the king late in 1323, was pardoned and taken into his service as a porter, but languished at court and returned on his discharge next year to the north and to his outlaw existence. The principal difficulties with this identification were and are that there is no evidence that the confiscated Bichill tenement was the one that was Robert Hood’s or that Robert of Wakefield was outlawed, or that Robert the porter of the Chamber was the same man as Robert of Wakefield or came from that part. Several more recent authors have since returned to Hunter’s thesis, but these difficulties have always remained, and there, until now, the matter has rested.
During the last twenty years or so a number of medievalists have taken an interest in the Robin Hood story, but because of the proven difficulty of the quest they have concentrated not so much on identifying an original Robin, but on the period and locality in which his story first became popular and on the kind of audience to which it originally appealed. The most important recent work is that of Professor J.C. Holt, whose masterly and fascinating Robin Hood was published in 1983. Holt argued strongly that the story must have originated well before Edward II’s time, pointing in particular to the appearance of the name “Robinhood” as a nickname or surname in the 1290s, an appearance that seems to imply that the outlaw’s name was already well known.
He also argued most convincingly that the milieu where the story first took root and won acclaim was in the halls and households of the nobility and gentry, which drew together in a lord’s following men of very varied social standing, gentlemen and yeomen, to whom ballads that starred the career of a yeoman hero who led the life of a gentleman bandit naturally appealed. He also stressed the northern origin of the ballads, and was able to give it pretty sharp geographical precision. The Gest makes a reference to the “Saylis” close to “Waitling Strete”; this can be identified with Sayles plantation in Yorkshire, overlooking the road known in the fourteenth century as Watling Strete, where it crosses the River Went, and close to Barnsdale Forest (which in the early ballads is more often the scene of Robin’s exploits than Sherwood).
Though Holt argued that the reign of Edward II was too late a date for an original Robin Hood, he saw clearly that his pinpointing of the topography of the Gest gave fresh significance to Wakefield, since it is not above a dozen miles away. Traditional place names in the Wakefield area—Robinhood Strete and Robin Hood’s Hill—attest to local consciousness of association with the outlaw. The Hoods, Holt showed, had held land in Wakefield since at least the beginning of the thirteenth century. Though himself favoring cautiously the “Hobbehod” identification, there had to be a link (Hob could of course have been related to the Wakefield clan), and he concluded as follows: “Either the Hoods of Wakefield gave Robin to the world, or they absorbed the tale into their family traditions.”
It is at this point that Professor Bellamy enters the lists in this complex web of detection, for Wakefield is at the center of his argument. He returns to the Hunterian thesis, discarded by Holt, that Wakefield in Edward II’s reign is the key to the unraveling of the identities of the persons mentioned in the Gest. His argument is basically the same as Hunter’s but brings forward a richer accumulation of coincidences of name and place, and in the end he believes that he can identify not only the figures that the ballad mentions but also the occasion of its composition.
Let us start with the personalities. The sheriff of Nottingham Bellamy identifies as Henry de Faucumberg, who was sheriff there from 1318 to 1319 and again from 1323 to 1325, and who (like many other sheriffs) enjoyed a fairly unsavory reputation. He finds in the Wakefield manor court rolls a series of references to a Henry Fauconberg, who would therefore have been Robert Hood’s neighbor; and if he is the same man as the sheriff this may explain why they originally became enemies. Next Bellamy finds a Yorkshire John le Litel or John Little john who was in trouble for housebreaking in 1318, and in 1323 for poaching in Beverley (they may or may not be the same man), and a John le Litel, a sailor, to whom payments are recorded in the journal of the King’s Chamber (where the payments to Hood the porter are recorded) in 1322, 1323, and 1325. Again, Litel the sailor and Litel the northern troublemaker may or may not be the same man.
But the figure on whom he concentrates most attention is Sir Richard atte Lee, a knight who in the Gest is saved by Robin Hood from the avaricious clutches of the abbott of St. Mary’s, York, to whom his lands have been mortgaged as surety for a loan (by a nice irony, Robin finds the money to repay the debt by holding up the High Cellarer of the Abbey). In a ballad much later than the Gest, composed in Henry VIII’s time, Richard atte Lee is described, Bellamy points out, as being of “Goweres blood.” As he goes on to show, the poet John Gower had some dealings with a Sir John atte Lee of Hertfordshire, who was Steward of the Royal Household in the 1360s. This John atte Lee had an uncle, Richard, who from 1318 to 1321 was parson of Arksey, near Doncaster, not very far from Wakefield, being presented to this living by Bartholomew Badlesmere, Steward of the Royal Household. Later in life and after he had left Yorkshire this Richard showed a predilection for getting into debt; he therefore could have borrowed money and been rescued from repayment by Robert Hood in his Arksey days (though there is no evidence, positive or negative, on this head; and this Richard was of course not a knight, as his namesake in the Gest was).
Sir John atte Lee was dismissed from his office as Steward of the Household in 1368, after charges of mismanagement and corruption had been brought against him. Around this event Professor Bellamy draws his threads together. The Gest was written, he suggests, by a client of Lee’s, to uphold his name among members of the royal household after his dismissal. The author sought to do this by associating Lee’s family with the famous and popular outlaw Robin Hood, drawing for this purpose on memories that were still green in the household of events and persons that were associated with it in Edward II’s reign. One of the persons in question was the outlaw-turned-porter-turned-outlaw, Robert Hood of Wakefield, another John le Litel who had served in the household at much the same time as his leader. The poet turned Richard atte Lee from parson into knight to make the story more attractive to his audience, and also drew some material from traditional tales told about outlaws. These may have included tales told of Hobbehod (Professor Bellamy thus makes room for both candidates for the title of the original Robin Hood, the thirteenth-century fugitive and the fourteenth-century Wakefield tenant).
Immense industry and much painstaking research have gone into the preparation of Professor Bellamy’s case. At the end, like Hunter’s it depends on accepting inferences from coincidences which amount to more than can be proved. It remains unclear whether Robert Hood the porter and Robert Hood of Wakefield were or were not the same man; the same goes for Littlejohn the house-breaker and John le Litel the sailor, and for Henry de Faucumberg the sheriff and Henry Fauconberg the Wakefield tenant. We still have not found proof that Robert Hood of Wakefield was ever outlawed. Richard atte Lee the parson may have been connected with some or all of the above persons, or not. He was not a knight, but why should not a poet transmogrify him into one for a literary purpose—on the other hand, why should he?
For myself, I must confess to finding the chain of open-ended coincidences a little too long for my liking. Besides, there are inherent difficulties about some of them that are never quite surmounted. Perhaps most important among these is the fact that Bellamy never quite gets around the point that Holt, using ultraviolet light to recover the readings of a faded page of the record, was able to prove, conclusively, that Robin or Robert Hood the porter was in Edward II’s employ in that post before the king came to Nottingham in November 1323. Bellamy’s suggestion at this point, that he could already have entered the household before July 1323 (when Holt shows that he was paid as a porter), have then left and taken to the woods, and have then been reconciled and pardoned so as to be back in pay again as a porter in November, stretches my capacity for suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point—but it is of course possible.
I am also disquieted, to say the least, by the need to posit two “original” Robin Hoods. On a different tack, though I agree with Holt that it was almost certainly in the households of the nobility that the Robin Hood story was first popularized, I find it hard to believe that the Gest, with its strong ring of the English north country, was first composed for the royal household (which had no particularly strong northern bias) as propaganda in favor of a dismissed steward. And I believe that a date c. 1370 is too early for the poem as we have it. But in a matter like this where so much depends on coincidences, judgment must be in the end subjective. One may either find the coincidences, as I do, collectively just too inconclusive, or one may find them, as Professor Bellamy does, cumulatively overwhelming. If one man’s meat is another man’s poison, it is inevitable that what is venison to one historian will not agree so well with another.
Having myself once upon a time written things about Robin Hood that I now believe to have been entirely mistaken, I will not press my own gut reactions any further. I will leave Professor Bellamy’s readers to make their own judgment about whether we have now found the origin of a story whose appeal has proved so enduring that it has become part of the general English-speaking literary heritage. Whatever they decide on that score, they will learn from his book a good deal about the world in which Robin Hood’s story first struck a chord. With its unscrupulous sheriffs and hard-faced justices, its political ecclesiastics and scheming stewards, it is not surprising that violent defiance of the law, such as the Robin Hood ballads describe, was common in fourteenth-century England, or that people enjoyed stories of bold and ruthless men who, like Robin, did defy the law and by their wits and strength got the better of it.