This week’s Doctor Who story “Robot of Sherwood” seeks to answer one of the greatest mysteries in popular English history: was there really a Robin Hood? Did he do the things he is reputed to have done and if so, when and where did these things take place?
Naturally, being Doctor Who, the answer will not be the definitive historical answer one may hope for, but actually, historians have done a pretty good job of working out to what extent Robin Hood—the Lincoln green-clad outlaw with the merry men, the boyfriend of Maid Marion, the nemesis of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor—was a living breathing man. And it seems most likely that he was not.
This is not to rob him (pun intended) of any of his potency as a figure of popular fiction and civil unrest, however. The earliest references to Robin Hood go back at least as far as the 1400s, but may have been part of an oral history that went back even farther. Certainly his early appearances in May Day plays (of the kind discussed here) would suggest a more mythical figure along the lines of St. George, than a real man dressed in green and living in a forest.
Certainly his cultural impact outweighs his physical presence. As early as the 13th century Robehod and Rabunhod were used as generic slang terms for criminals, but whether that’s because of the name of an actual person, or the mythical figure was named after this linguistic trick remains unclear. Certainly Robert, and its diminutive Robin, was one of the most popular first names of the age, and there were a lot of hoodmakers who could have the right surname too, so Robin Hood could have been the medieval criminal equivalent of John Doe. One judge even forced one outlaw to carry the surname Robinhood so people would know he was a wrong ‘un.
He was mentioned in passing in William Langland’s epic poem Piers Plowman from 1377, but only as a figure already known in popular song, and by the late 1300s there were a few more epic ballads about a wild fighting man who battled the Sheriff of Nottingham—at the time merry did not mean happy, it meant outside the law—and it’s from these that the legend has grown. It starts with Robin, Little John and Will Scarlet, and adds Maid Marion, Friar Tuck and Alan a Dale later, as the poems became fleshed out into plays.
It should also be noted that he wasn’t always about the redistribution of property from the rich to the poor. Some early tales having him murdering government agents and landowners, because the feudal audience will have wanted stories that fed their deepest fantasies of revenge and civil unrest. The idea that Robin will have himself have been one of the gentry—or even loyal to King Richard and an enemy of bad King John—came along a little later.
So it’s most likely that as a legend, Robin Hood was simply an identity for outlaws to wear like a superhero costume. This may have been because of a genuine person that really existed, but it’s the myth—puffed up by the ballads, poems and folk tales—that provides the real inspiration.
As such, the best answer to the question “was Robin Hood real?” is “why does it matter?” He’s one of those figures whose real life is probably best left unexamined, for fear of disappointment.
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