Known to generations of English-speaking peoples, and beyond, as the forest archer in Lincoln green, Robin Hood is the undisputed model of the outlaw hero. His image has undergone many transformations since his first brief mention in medieval manuscripts and has come to embody all the essential elements of the noble robber. Whether we see Robin Hood as a shadowy guerrilla fighter, a cast-out noble or as a wisecracking and nimble-limbed Errol Flynn, he is the righter of wrongs, friend of the poor and foe of the corruptly powerful. In one version or another he has been, and continues to be, celebrated in literature, art, folklore, film and television, board games, placenames and tourist ventures. His progress from a few passing references to international symbol of resistance and justice has been achieved through more than six centuries of defying authority, eluding capture and escaping death. His most important activity is to rob the rich and to redistribute their wealth to the poor.
This record is especially impressive for a man who never was, or at least, who has never been found. Robin Hood’s appropriately elusive existence has been researched by many over the centuries, with nothing more to show than a few theories, suppositions and intriguing references to someone who might have been the real Robin Hood. The truth, of course, is that the ‘real’ Robin Hood is not in history but in our heads, hearts and hopes. He is a myth. Even if someone can prove that he lived and carried out just a few of the things with which he is credited, it would make no difference to the way we understand Robin Hood today. He is so engraved into the well-worn cultural grooves that sustain his image, and those of others in the same mould, that he seems likely to remain with us for a very long time.
Ever since Robehood’ or ‘Robinhood’ is first mentioned in early thirteenth century legal records the outlaw has existed in a shadow world between history and fantasy. The first passing literary mention of a hero by that name is in Langland’s 1377 poem, Piers Ploughman. Further references appear in various chronicles and Robin Hood gradually emerges as a fully-fledged defier of authority. A 1439 petition to Parliament concerned one Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a fugitive who had gathered a band around him which “beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection went into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee”. In Southacre, Norfolk, during 1441 labourers and yeomen threatened to kill a Sir John Harsyk. They blocked the road and chanted ‘We are Robynhodesmen. War, war, war’.
By the mid-1550s Robin Hood had become a troublesome enough character to require official suppression. The Scots Parliament of 1555 banned the presence of figures representing the outlaw and his gang in public festivities such as May Day games. Those who persisted were threatened with banishment. This was a disproportionately strong punishment for the brawling, drinking and nuisance-making that purported to be the reason for banning the outlaw from a major form of revelry.
Although the notion of robbing the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor is a later refinement, the portrayal of Robin Hood as the friend of the poor is an early element of his image. In the various versions of the fifteenth century romance, A Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin is a heroic figure and ‘a good outlaw’ who ‘dyde pore men moch god’. By the early seventeenth century Robin Hood has become not just a friend of the poor but also a man who deliberately targets the rich on behalf of the poor. In a 1622 poem by Thames waterman John Taylor, the poet writes:
…Robin Hood with little John agreed
To rob the rich men, and the poore to feed.
In ‘The True Tale of Robin Hood’ (1632) Robin is a morally upright friend of the poor – ‘all poore men pray for him,/And wish he well might spede.’ He helps distressed travellers on the road, assists widows and orphans, protects women, generally operates against the established power and corruption of the church and robs the rich, particularly those who ‘did the poore oppresse’. He does not harm the humble workers nor harm any man ‘That him invaded not’. The outlaw is finally betrayed to death by ‘A faithlesse fryer’.
Robin Hood’s status as a commoner, one of ‘us’ is also powerful, despite the seventeenth and eighteenth-century resurrection of the medieval version of the outlaw as a wronged aristocrat. In the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’, the potter bests the outlaw, after which Robin symbolically exchanges clothes with him and in this trickster disguise goes off to Nottingham for further encounters with the Sheriff and, as it turns out, his wife. This is similar in some ways to the later ‘Robin Hood and the Pedlar’ in which a pedlar defeats Robin in a fight and is symbolically incorporated into the ‘band of merry men’, an incident echoed in the ballad of the eighteenth century English outlaw hero, Dick Turpin.
Robin Hood passed from street literature and ballads into the more respectable form of the novel from 1819 when Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was first published. Ever since he has been the subject of countless treatments. He has featured in operas and musicals since the mid- nineteenth century, in film and television since 1908 when a silent film was produced and has a strong presence in the video gaming industry and in comic books.
Robin Hood has continued to be connected with political discontent and action. The Poll Tax rioters of 1990 who invaded Nottingham Council Chambers disguised themselves in hoods of Lincoln green and dissident French electricity workers borrowed the mantle in 2004, specifically identifying with the English outlaw. The Robin Hood mantle has been claimed by many anti-capitalist organisations and initiatives since.
The county of Nottinghamshire vigorously promotes the mythology for tourism and there is even an American charity named the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as a hedge fund named for the outlaw. There is no end to the presence of Robin Hood in modern culture.
The combined effect of this weight of history, myth, romance and commercial and media exploitation has produced a global icon. The man who never was is everywhere. He belongs to everyone and his name is known around the world. But the image of the ‘good robber’ is not his alone. Thousands of brigands, bandits and outlaws in many different times and different places have also been celebrated as friends of the poor and definers of the strong. Some recent examples include ‘the Greek Robin Hood’, Vassilis Palaiokostas, currently on the run, ‘the Barefoot Bandit’, Colton Moore and even the chainsaw charmer drug lord, Pablo Escobar. He was killed in 1993 but lives on in his legend as a friend of the poor in his home country of Colombia.
NOTE: For a more detailed look at the enduring mythology of the green archer, see ‘The Robin Hood Principle’.
KEYWORDS: Robin Hood, outlaw hero