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.

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  • aquifer

    Robbed the rich, gave to the poor to secure his area of operations.

    Cheap fags or Spice anyone?

  • John

    How things have changed, now the rich rob the poor to secure their operations ie Banks, telecoms, car manufacturers, utility suppliers and top of the heap governments (RHI our most recent effort)

  • aquifer

    Yep King John was a desperate taxer, and banks and corporations still love their unearned interest and rentals. Rent not buy, borrow but don’t earn enough to repay, lease and never own, keep glugging the expensive coffee. Best of all if the rich pay no tax and the rest of us pay to keep the country civilised for their relaxed and visibly tanned visits. Do you get tax relief on your borrowings?, no, mortgage tax relief ended in 1988 or so, but companies including housing rental companies and Starbucks still do.

  • John

    Democracy and progress are wonderful things under our great leaders are they not?

  • Salmondnet

    At the time, and for a good few centuries afterwards, the entire governing class was made up of the most successful thugs ,mugging being one of their least objectionable activities. RH (allegedly) just shifted the enterprise downmarket a little.

  • nagantino

    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 se agen

    Ulster Scots or whaa?

  • Mike the First

    24 December equates to 8 November? Are you sure you’ve got that right?

  • Dan Payne

    “24 kal: dekembris” (which is what it says on the grave), I’m reliably informed, means the 23rd day before the beginning of December. This corresponds to 8 November.

  • Mike the First

    Ah right, I was misreading what you’d written! Apologies – that’s very interesting, didn’t know dates were expressed like that.

  • WindowLean

    The text in the piece does say “24 dekembris” not “24 kal dekembris”. From my old Latin “kal” is probably “kalends” or 1st day of month as you say Dan, from where we get “calendar”. A bit like the “ides of March”

  • Dan Payne

    You’re right, WindowLean. I know I should have made it clearer in the text! 🙂

  • SeaanUiNeill

    When did exploitation of others by an elite end, Salmondnet? I must have been on holiday when that happened……

  • Skibo

    I must say my most favourite Robin Hood film was the one with the Saracen (Prince of thieves) in it and it wasn’t for the acting by Kevin Kostner but was for the part played by Alan Rickman. A fantastic actor.
    Morgan Freeman was good too even though the fact of a Muslim in England in those days was so idiotic, I guess they had to write him in and that was the only way.

  • Annie Breensson

    Have you adjusted for the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar?

    The modern, Gregorian, calendar was not adopted by the brits until 1782, so the Julian system would have been in operation during the lifetime of all three possible robbin’ hoods. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether this ‘celebration’ is 13 days too soon or too late.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Skibo, did you see Alan Rickman’s Louis XIV in “A Little Chaos”? He also directed the film, which was very much a personal project! I wish I’d worked on it, people I met who worked with him were very positive about it , especially about Alan himself.

  • Skibo

    Never seen it. Must say I think he is a fantastic actor. Think he saved the Robin Hood Prince of thieves from being a flop.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    When I was in the London film world, although I never met Alan, I had friends who knew him. I too think he was a brilliant actor, and even more a great lost talent as a director. The film is well worth watching, even if I’ve seen it for 20p in a local Charity Shop. But that’s Larne for you!

  • The Saint

    That was one of those terrible but hugely enjoyable movies.

  • The Saint

    He was one of the best villains in cinema ever between RH prime of… and the greatest Christmas movie of all time Did Hard he was brilliant.

    It’s strange when the bond franchise was having difficulty coming up with convincing villains in the Brosnan era he never came up in dispatches.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    There are endless reasons why actors are not cast in particular films. The process is that agents get character breakdowns prepared by casting experts from the script. If the agent is happy this will help his clients career then they go to the audition process. But as with everything else, some agents have far more pull than others, lots of friends in casting and can ask much higher fees for their client. The Bond franchise is notorious for being a situation where they, not the agent, holds all the cards and can set their own terms, although even they have problems when you have a really successful Bond like Daniel Craig.

    It may just have been that Alan’s agent did not want to play on that particular uneven playing field!

  • The Saint

    That’s an interesting post..I now have Prince of thieves in mind. I think it may get a ‘re watch soon.

  • Hugh Davison

    Well, some of the shape of this modern hero originates in the character of Robin of Locksley in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

  • tmitch57

    I personally preferred the one with Sean Connery as a middle-aged Robin returned from the Crusades and Adrian Hepburn as Maid Marian. The film took some liberties from the traditional story but was the better for it.