The legend of Robin Hood is one of an iconic symbol rather than the story of a man. The legend began at a time when the people of England were deprived of many basic rights, even for the time, at a time when the feudal system was at its height. For the inhabitants of England at the time, the social conditions would have been notoriously hard. At no time were they allowed to chose a varied way of life, nor were they free to work when and for whom they chose. It is strange in many ways to think that such a way of life should have inspired many writers in the 19th century to glorify the time as an age of prosperity when the people of England farmed the land, enjoying success and clean living, plentiful food and an idyllic backdrop of rolling countryside. The time of the Robin Hood legend was a time when hunger and deprivation stalked the land. The crimes and failings of the feudal system were long and aggravating. Should one attempt to remove themselves from a life of toil and suffering, the promise of extended hardship was the only reality – in many cases time in the stocks and even death.
While it is probably true that those who lived at the time of the legend longed for freedom, exactly what their concept of freedom was cannot be answered by a freeman enjoying the privileges of the 21st century. Outside the towns and villages that scattered the landscape, the country was covered in forest spanning into the hundreds of thousands of acres. While the silence and lush greenery of the forests has come to represent an idyllic symbol of the life at the time of the legend, for those of the lower class the forests held great mystery. Stories abounded that evil spirits, survived from an ancient time, inhabited the forests plaguing on travellers with magic. But it was not just spirits who inhabited the greenery. Within the dense thickets and glades thieves and murderers preyed on passersby, seeking out ill gotten gains, surviving on deer, wild boar and rich venison, creatures whose killing was strictly illegal to all but a select few. Traditionally, it was due to a hatred of the feudal system and a necessity to poach deer that the tales of the noble outlaw originated: never was Robin Hood an outlawed nobleman, or a disinherited Saxon as depicted throughout the last century, but simply: an outlaw.
For those who escaped the feudal system, or those outlawed for fleeing trial, the forest was their refuge. But if it was a refuge, it was a refuge of last resort. The iconic representation of the legend encapsulating the idyllic setting of Middle Ages England is powerful, but its message is probably more powerful than it is accurate. In reality, the romanticism of the outlaw owes a lot to the later writers, and incorporates more about the age in which it was told than the age he lived. As the centuries have passed such romanticised impressions of Middle England has become inseparable from the legend, forever entrenching its image on our national identity.
While it is true that the forest and the outlaw encompasses much of the Robin Hood legend, in truth, the legend of Robin Hood encompasses many things. In the early days he was a good fellow of the downtrodden, a leader of integrity, a fine archer and a man of sincere, and often extreme, piety. Though the evolution of the legend has altered the landscape, one way or another, the symbolism of the legend has adapted with it. In such ways the legend has grown to mean more than the identity of the man. No longer are they historical stories of a man and his loyal supporters: instead they are tales of morality, focusing on our desire for a time when the corrupt and the disgraced are replaced by the noble and the good, setting up an age of prosperity where the idyllic forest takes on a form of genuine utopia.
But if indeed there was such a man, his existence was one of suffering. The ballad, A Geste of Robyn Hode, refers to the conditions being more arduous than any hermitage. But in operating in such a way, and living at such a time, the legend of the man brought with it its own positives. For the audiences of the early legend the tales of the man were not only those of hope, but they gained in Robin the image of a powerful ally.
The legend has continued to adapt and endure, but in doing so the identity of the man has, at least in the mainstream, become almost irrelevant. For me, that has always been a great disappointment. While the story of Robin Hood is indeed one of symbolism, that is no reason to dismiss the importance of the historical man. The emphasis of the early legend was that Robin was an outlaw ‘who walked on ground’ and that tales of his tragedy and comedy did occur sometime before the legend became celebrated. Whether the early legend of the man described in the ballads as a ‘yeoman’, a man of meagre of means, not necessarily dissimilar to the typical commoner of the English feudal system, was truly inseparable from the historical inspiration is a question that can never be answered. For audiences of the modern legend, the answer is more clear cut. But even the man portrayed as a Saxon freedom fighter is not completely removed from the hero of the early days. One way or another the hero is always an outlaw and his assistance to the downtrodden is noteworthy.
To begin the quest for a historical Robin Hood, I start by accepting that there is a true relationship between the man of the early legend and the historical man. In academic circles this premise is almost universally ignored, and replaced with a tendency to focus on the core symbolism and social implications of the ballads, and in doing so overlook the historical importance of the man himself. For those who see the image of the heroic outlaw as being the more important issue than the identity of the man you are probably amongst the majority. In no way should the endurance of the legend be seen as a bad thing. Yet in the minds of the historical investigator, the search for a historical Robin Hood means so much more. Just like the grail quest, the lure of the discovery of greater understanding is one of infinite benefit to the soul. If there was a Robin Hood, he was a man and he was an outlaw. Yet even in the early legends he was a man of rare fine qualities, all of which have since evolved as the outlaw’s situation has adapted. It is for that reason the legend has evoked the affection of children and adults of every generation.
This section of the website is concerned with the man Robin Hood, the endurance of the legend in history and to provide a window into my own research that led to the writing of my first book, Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar. The reason for the book was history, its aim to enlighten. My own interest in Robin Hood began as long ago as I can remember and it will undoubtedly continue for as long as memory will serve. My quest has been lifelong and I firmly believe its contributions to the history have been useful, and hopefully close to definitive. Whether you agree with my conclusions or not the purpose remains the same.
To my mind the problem with the search for a real life Robin Hood is the confusion over the time that he lived, a matter made all the more difficult by his curious promotion from yeoman to earl by chroniclers of the 16th century. Without question there is no Robert Earl of Huntingdon lying underneath that little stone that once lay in the grounds of what was formerly Kirklees Priory, but the remains of at least one member of another group of outlaws who lived over one hundred years later may still rest in peace on the celebrated site.
When investigating legend, the search is often one of truth as much as it is about fact. And the truth that legend can teach us is that there is still much of history that needs to be investigated. As the last century has demonstrated, myth and legend are often nothing more than history that was either forgotten or misunderstood. Thanks to Schliemann and his contemporaries, Troy is a city of history, and thanks to Carter et al Tutankhamen is renowned as perhaps the most famous of the Egyptian pharaohs. Amazing how the jigsaw of history fits together – provided you place the pieces in the correct places.