The Robin Hood legend says that Robin Hood was an outlaw who lived in Sherwood Forest. Robin and his ‘merry men’ robbed the rich and gave to the poor. But, one may doubt that the heroic outlaw and his gang really existed.
From the first time he was mentioned, Robin Hood was believed to be a real person. Throughout centuries, there has been much speculation about who the real identity of the legendary outlaw hero. Yet, Robin’s identity still remains unknown, and there are no authentic records of his activities and his background. We have only ballads that allow us to learn a lot Robin Hood and his adventures.
The first records about Robin Hood and the merry men were made in 1377. The Sloane manuscripts kept in the British Museum gives us the first incarnation of the Robin Hood legend. Robin was born around 1160 in Locksley. Yet, another account suggests that Robin was a different man, and there are also several more theories as to his real identity.
1. Robin Hood as the Earl of Huntingdon
In 1632, Martin Parker published a ballad about Robin Hood in an attempt to make him a real historical figure. He claimed that Robin Hood was ‘Robert Earle of Huntington vulgarly called Robin Hood who lived and died in 1198’.Parker stated that Robin had been buried in Kirklees Priory near Kirklees Hall.
It is written on the supposed gravestone of Robin Hood:
Robert Earle of Huntington, Lies under this little stone;
No archer was like him so good: His wildnesse named him Robin Hood.
Ful thirteen years, and something more, These northerne parts he vexed sore.
Such out-laws as he and his men, May England never know again.
2. Robin Hood as Robin of Loxley
In the 16th century, the antiquarian Roger Dodsworth claimed that Robin Hood had been Robert Loxley who was born in Bradfield parish in Hallamshire, South Yorkshire. He believed that Robin had been outlawed for killing his stepfather when poaching.
There are no official records about that. Maybe Dodsworth was just trying to invent a new interpretation of the Robin Hood legend. The fact that there is a record of the appearance of “Robert of Loxley” at court in 1245 testifies in favor of the presumption that, perhaps, there is no grain of truth in his conclusions about Robin’s origins. Maybe several men named Robert of Loxley lived in different centuries, which is quite possible because it was common to use the name of a hometown for a person born there.
3. Robin Hood of Wakefield
In the 18th century, the antiquarian Joseph Hunter thought that Robin Hood had lived not in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham but in the forests of Yorkshire in the early 14th century. In his opinion, there were two men who could be Robin Hoods: Robert Hood who supposedly lived in Wakefield at the beginning of the 14th century, and ‘Robyn Hode’ who was recorded to have been employed by King Edward II of England in 1323.
There is a long theory about Robin Hood actually being a follower of the rebellious Earl of Lancaster, who was defeated by Edward II at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. Hunter reckoned that Robin had been pardoned by the king and then served in the king’s personal guard, so we have a record of ‘Robyn Hode’ appearing at court in 1323. However, this theory lacks the support of direct and unequivocal evidence, and it is not clear when and why Robin was outlawed.
4. Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon yeoman
In the 19th century, new interpretations of the Robin Hood legend emerged. It was widely believed that Robin Hood was an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter who was fiercely opposing Norman invaders at the time of the Norman Conquest of England.
The most notable contributions to this incarnation of the Robin Hood legend are made by Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Augustin Thierry’s Histoire de la Conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands (A History of the Conquest of England by the Normans. Robin Hood is very likely to have had Anglo-Saxon origins.
Robin Hood is presented as a follower of King Richard the Lionheart who helps the king and Wilfred Ivanhoe to fight against the monarch’s enemies. As a result of his displayed loyalty and honor, Robin is granted a royal pardon. Locksley is Robin Hood’s place of birth in Scott’s famous novel, and many other writers have their Robin grow up in this village. It appears that Scott took the name from an anonymous manuscript written in circa 1600.
5. Another incarnation of the Robin Hood legend: an alias
In the 20th century, John Maddicott suggested that “Robin Hood” was a nickname that was usually used by thieves. He claimed that a thief first used this alias in 1262, where the surname “Robehod” was given any man who was outlawed.
In the 16th century, it was believed that Robin Hood, the outlawed Earl of Huntingdon, had lived in Sherwood Forest in the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, when Richard was on Crusade. This interpretation of Robin’s life was first proposed by John Mair in his Historia Majoris Britanniæ of 1521, and it has been widely accepted since then. Almost all of the modern fictional and movie incarnations of the Robin Hood legend take this version of Robin Hood’s story as the truth.
There are many theories about Robin Hood, but the end of Robin’s life is always the same. The aging and sick Robin goes, together with Little John, to Kirklees Priory near Huddersfield, in hope that his aunt, the prioress would tend to his wounds. Unfortunately, Robin and John are not aware that Sir Roger de Doncaster persuaded her to murder her nephew. The prioress slowly bled a wounded Robin to the death. The dying outlaw then asks Little John to bury him in the place where his last arrow would land, which his friend would then dutifully do.
There are many incarnations of the Robin Hood legend, and we will probably never know which of them is true. It seems that Robin Hood really existed and is not a product of fiction. Nevertheless, we don’t know who Robin was and when he lived. Everything is left to our imagination.