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Robin the rich to give to the poor?

Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Sherwood Forest, Maid Marion and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham are the stars of a whole load of tales about stealing from the rich to give to the poor. There have been movies, plays, books, video games and comics all with Robin Hood at their centre. He even made a cameo appearance in Shrek! But is what we know about Robin true?

A man in a green medieval hood with a long bow and arrows

Man or myth? Who do you think Robin Hood might have been? Was he even real?

Where did the story come from?

The earliest written mention of Robin Hood is in a poem from the year 1377, where a priest says he found the tales of Robin Hood easier to remember than the Lord’s Prayer. Not good for a priest, really. But this does mean the stories of the outlaw were probably well known by then, with them being passed from person to person. It was not until the 1400s that the adventures of Robin started to be written down in the form of ballads, and they are very different from the stories that we know and love today.

Black and white drawing of Robin Hood, with archers bow, on horseback

An early image of Robin Hood (c. 1500). Does he look like how you imagine he would look like?

But was Robin Hood a real person?

Yes… and no. There are a few people who have been considered to be the ‘real’ Robin Hood. Some of these share his name, some have suspiciously similar stories (but do not have the same name). What is clear though, is that the name ‘Robin Hood’ in the 13th and 14th centuries was a symbol of being an outlaw.

Where was Robin Hood from?

I am afraid we do not know this either! It depends on who you think the original Robin Hood was, although he most likely was not from Nottingham or Sherwood Forest. In the original stories,  Robin was actually from Yorkshire, not far from the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds!

A photograph of a very large oak tree that is 1000 years old

The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. This oak tree is the largest in Britain, and is about 1000 years old. It is often said to be where Robin Hood and his Merry Men slept.

Was Robin a good guy in all the stories?

Well the short answer is not really, he was actually quite violent! In the original stories, Robin and his men even killed people travelling through the forest. And we are sorry to break your heart, but he did not steal from the rich and give to the poor either. He definitely stole, but most of it went into his own pocket! A few more things, there was no Maid Marion or Friar Tuck in these earlier versions. Nor was Robin a Lord. He only had three of the Merry Men we know today; Little John, Will Scarlet and Much the Miller’s Son.

So why has the story changed so much?

Like many legends, the story of Robin changed with the times and what the audience wanted. For example, in 1597-98 Anthony Munday wrote plays about Robin. According to Munday Robin is Lord Robert, Earl of Huntington, and he also has a love interest  – Maid Marion. This was probably because  in Munday’s time Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and lords and ladies had a lot of power. In Disney’s animated Robin Hood movie from 1973, the characters had been turned into animals, to appeal to a younger audience. And in a more modern adaptation of the stories, the BBC television series in 2006, Marion takes a more active part in helping Robin and even saves him. This reflects the growing understanding of women being just as fearless and able as men!

Even more curious is the way that the idea of Robin has been borrowed without changing him much at all. In the Marvel Comic Universe, Hawkeye is a misunderstood criminal turned crime-fighter who happens to be an exceptional archer. DC comics’ Green Arrow is wealthy playboy turned crime-fighter who happens to be, wait for it, an exceptional archer.

 

Engraved print of Robin Hood and two men holding weapons

A 17th-century illustration of Robin Hood, Little John, and Will Scarlet. Can you see how the fashion of their clothes has changed from the drawing from the 1500’s? This is to appeal to the audience that would have seen this print.

We can no more pin Robin down than could the hapless Sheriff of Nottingham. But real or not, 600 years on there is little sign that we have lost interest.  And maybe it is precisely that mysterious quality, the hooded archer stalking the shadowed forest armed only with his wits and his bow, that keeps him alive.  May the outlaw remain on the loose for 600 years more.

Activity Pack

Download the Robin Hood Fun Activity Pack (pdf, 2MB) to dive even further in to the mayhem of Robin’s world. Watch the story telling of Robing Hood and the Hunter to hear how Robin and Little John came up against two of their most fearsome foes. Also read our article about the different types of bows that Robin and his men may have used.

 


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