Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry
by John Bellamy
Indiana University Press, 150 pp., $19.50
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 …