We all know the story. Set during the reign of Richard I, Robin Hood is famously outlawed, usually for poaching deer or for opposing the rule of Prince John, while the true king Richard the Lionheart is away fighting in the Crusades. In England Prince John, the king’s younger brother, seeks to capitalise on Richard’s absence and begins to augment his power, resulting in merciless treatment of Richard’s subjects, notably the Saxons. With this, Robin Hood, sometimes described as the Earl of Huntingdon or Sir Robert of Locksley, becomes involved in a hostile feud with the prince and his followers, particularly the tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham. Now a wanted man, Robin is forced to seek refuge in Sherwood Forest where he encounters a group of outlaws, with whom he fights, before subsequently being welcomed into their company. Here the outlaws live merrily on the king’s deer while stealing the wealth of passing Norman noblemen and redistributing the money into the pockets of the poor. United in their hatred for the prince and the sheriff, Robin moulds the group into a band of formidable fighters, referred to as his Merry Men, and leads them in rebellion against the prince. In some versions of the story the outlaws assist King Richard in reclaiming the throne whereas in others they also play an active role in raising the ransom of 150,000 marks for his release while he is being held captive in Austria, before his triumphant return to England. With Prince John defeated, Richard restores the rights and liberties of the common man, and, of course, Robin wins the hand of Maid Marian.
Although the story is well known, the way in which the outlaw is portrayed continues to vary considerably, usually according to the actors who play him. Errol Flynn famously starred as a wronged Saxon nobleman in opposition to Prince John; Richard Todd portrayed a young Robin Hood outlawed following the death of his father; Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood followed the Robin of Locksley legend, only now with an American accent, but began a new trend of Robin having fought in the Crusades, while the television series starring Jonas Armstrong continued the returning crusader theme, only this time as a member of the King’s Guard. Yet some things never change. In every modern version of the story, Robin represents the epitome of courage. He is the finest of archers; he steals from the wealthy but he distributes the money far and wide, while a typical outlaw would keep it for himself; he is violent, but only to those who oppose his values; he is a great leader, a formidable warrior, and an instigator of peasant revolt, but his loyalty to the true king remains cemented throughout.
While the Robin Hood familiar to audiences of the modern day is portrayed through cinema and other media as a gallant Saxon nobleman dressed in Lincoln green, robbing from the rich to aid the poor and being capable of bringing down the Norman authority with little more than a flick of the wrists and a cheeky smile, historians continuously fail to find any reasonable proof that this heroic outlaw ever existed. To the sensible this is hardly surprising. If the antics of Fairbanks, Flynn and company are to be believed Robin Hood was a flamboyant medieval superman, capable of winning archery tournaments by splitting the arrow of an opponent with his final shot, swinging effortlessly through the trees like Tarzan, and winning swordfights against highly skilled Normans while tap dancing down a spiralling staircase.
So what is the truth about the legendary outlaw? Should we believe the words of the acclaimed historians who have studied the evidence for several years, or the optimists? Is it truly feasible that an outlaw named Robin Hood really existed during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, evading the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham while terrorizing wealthy noblemen with his band of Merry Men, giving the proceeds of his thievery to the poor, and choosing, willingly, to endure the cold wet nights of Sherwood Forest. Could this man really have existed?