The Mugger who Became a Global People’s Hero

Fans of heroic, swashbuckling adventures, take note: today is Robin Hood Day!  I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  How do I know this?  Well, because of an inscription on his grave – specifically, on Robin Hood’s Grave, in the grounds of Kirklees Hall in Clifton, West Yorkshire.  It states that he died in the year 1247, on “24 dekembris” – which, in the modern calendar, equates to 8 November.  The inscription on the stone, written in the local dialect, offers more than a few clues as to the man’s past:

Hear underneath dis laitl stean

Laz robert earl of Huntingtun

Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud

An pipl kauld im robin heud

Sick utlawz as he an iz men

Vil England nivr si agen

It wouldn’t get through a modern spell-checker, but it’s not hard to see what the couplets mean:

Here underneath this little stone

Lies Robert, earl of Huntington.

Never an archer was as he so good,

And people called him Robin Hood.

Such outlaws as he and his men

Will England never see again.

There are a few problems, though, with this site (!).  For a start, not only have no bodies been detected in the earth beneath that “little stone”, but there is also no evidence that the earth was ever disturbed for burial purposes.  Moreover, at whatever point in the past the stone was placed there, it has in any case been moved on several occasions over the years.  To cap it all, there is also a Robin Hood’s Grave in the churchyard of Loxley in Warwickshire, and also a Robin Hood’s Grave in Crosby in Cumbria (and we can say for certain that cloning didn’t exist in medieval times)!  It hardly seems worth mentioning the still-unresolved question as to whether Robin Hood existed…

Statue of Robin Hood, outside Nottingham Castle

Actually, you can disregard that final point: we can mention it, and resolve the question with a bit of certainty.  In their brilliant 1995 book Robin Hood: The Man Behind the Myth, historical detectives Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman offered convincing evidence for the legendary outlaw’s existence – though as three different men, rather than a single, identifiable figure.  Robins, step forward…

Robin #1: Robert Hood of Wakefield (fl. 1322-3) – a yeoman from the Yorkshire town who was outlawed for his part in the 1322 Lancastrian revolt against Edward II, and who was later pardoned and actually worked for the same king for a time, before disappearing from the records.  This Robert (who may also have been called Robin, being as that is a short form of Robert) even had a wife, called Matilda (not Marian).

Robin #2: Fulk Fitz Warine – a minor noble from Shropshire, who lost his expected inheritance of Whittington Castle to a rival claimant in 1197, after charges of treason were trumped up, and was outlawed in 1200.  He then took the forests and ran a guerrilla campaign (and had a right-hand man called John) against King John’s forces before being pardoned in 1203. 

Robin #3: Robert Fitz Odo – a.k.a. Robin of Loxley, from Warwickshire – another minor noble, and a descendant of Bishop Odo (William the Conqueror’s brother).  He was ejected from his manor in 1193, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, and became an outlaw, before being restored to his lands when Richard returned from the Crusades. 

With the uncovering of the real Robin Hood – or, rather, the three real historical figures whose lives and careers inspired the later legends – the story doesn’t end here, though.  Perhaps more important than the hard evidence for the great outlaw’s existence is the growth and enduring popularity of the legend.  The first ballads, or oral tales of Robin Hood started to appear only around the year 1377.  The first recorded attempt to turn the Robin Hood legend into a bona fide theatrical play was in the late 1420s.  The times are not coincidental: in the 1370s England was feeling the pinch, to say the least, in the wake of the Black Death and the long war with France, and times were tough, especially for people at the bottom of the pile.  Similarly, in the late 1420s the war with France was yet again going badly for England, as the nation’s custodians struggled to cope with having an infant (Henry VI) for a king.  It seems that legends and tales of heroism and derring-do always thrive in moments of general adversity. 

Since those desperate early times, of course, myth-recounting has moved on, and most of us will have had our first taste of the Robin Hood legend via the small or big screens.  The first silent film about the men in Lincoln green appeared in 1908, while the first “talkie” on the legend turned out to be 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in the lead role.  As for the small screen, the first TV series appeared in 1953, with the later Doctor Who incarnation Patrick Troughton as Robin.  When I was a kid, the go-to TV show was the 1984-6 HTV production Robin of Sherwood, starring first Michael Praed and then Sean Connery’s son Jason in the title role – a dark, haunting series made all the more powerful with a soundtrack from Clannad. 

The story of Robin Hood endures, because it’s a worldwide best-seller: it captures heroism, altruism, romance, daring escapes, and the satisfaction of justice at the end, all inside the same narrative. (It’s popular in Northern Ireland, too: I noticed, while Googling the subject, a school theatre production entitled Robin Hood and his Derry Men) It’s worth remembering, though, in our enlightened times, that what Robin and his Merry Men do is, ultimately, outside the law, however noble the intentions – even though it’s hard to imagine any real-life medieval robber stealing from the rich only to distribute to the poor.  As the actor Ray Winstone, who portrayed Will Scarlet in Robin of Sherwood, put it in a DVD extras interview, about Robin and his men:

They’re muggers, basically, you know, medieval muggers, whatever way you look at it, who go out into the forests and find someone who’s going through who had a nice few quid, and mug them, and maybe take some and say, that’s for you and the Merry Men, but I’m going to have this so I can go out and have a drink… 

The legend will doubtless go on being told, with yet more embellishments to suit a changing audience (remember how there was no Saracen in the legend before Robin of Sherwood?) – though you get the feeling, sometimes, that modern TV production crews try too hard: in the most recent TV adaptation, the 2006-9 BBC series Robin Hood, Jonas Armstrong, as Robin, says things like ‘I don’t go looking for trouble – it comes looking for me‘ – a phrase that didn’t exist in the English language before the late 20th Century.  There is, inevitably, another Robin Hood film in the making right now, starring Kingsman actor Taron Egerton in the lead role, and due for release late next year.  As Nickolas Grace’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin of Sherwood ruefully says at the end of that show’s second series: 

And just as I was beginning to believe it was all over – how stupid of me!  It’s not over: it’ll never be over.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.