An Outlaw Hero for Every Age: The Enduring Legend of Robin Hood

By Romany Reagan

Robin Hood was first the subject of epic legends under different names before becoming a character of country festivals and the Tudor stage. Georgian literature then elevated him to the status of national hero. From bawdy street performance to ecological festivals today, Robin Hood is an outlaw hero for every age. 

From the beginning, Robin Hood has been a person of drama. He acted out the people’s desires for communal political unrest through festivals, bawdy street performance, and the broadsheet before he was elevated to the literary realm of the romantic hero. The adaptability and durability of the legends of both King Arthur and Robin Hood come from their ability to be shaped through the ages. Unlike most historical research, where the oldest surviving source is ‘truest’ and most prized, the oldest sources actually seem to be the least interesting in the case of Robin Hood. What’s most fascinating about his journey isn’t his origin story at all—but rather what each subsequent era in society has made of him.

William Lnagland, Piers Plowman, citing the popularity of ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, 1370s

650 years is a long time for a folk hero to endure. The first recorded mention of our hero was in the 1370s when William Lnagland cited the popularity of ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ in Piers Plowman. Only the legend of King Arthur joins him in medieval fame, they are two heroes showing two faces of elevated heroism, but for starkly contrasting reasons. “Only King Arthur of the medieval heroes has had such longevity, but there are striking differences. One is that where Arthur represents authority under some serious and ultimately tragic form of pressure, the Robin Hood tradition always presents, in many varied forms, resistance to authority—the two heroes in a real sense are the reflex of each other.” (Knight, Ohlgren 1)

Robin Hood: Origins

Robin Hood the outlaw hero didn’t emerge fully formed from the medieval British imagination. Several other earlier versions might well have been the inspiration for the legends and storyline that eventually coalesced under the name of ‘Robin Hood’. Historians tracing when a ‘real’ Robin Hood might have lived place him in the 13th century. In about 1420, the Scots chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun spoke of ‘waythemen’—’forest outlaws’—and located them in 1283. The urge to place an ‘original’ Robin Hood in a particular time and place is seductive, but Robin Hood’s power doesn’t come from the possibility that he might have been a real person; rather the name conjures the image of a person who is outside or against the law. And that Robin Hood can change and evolve for the current purpose. 

Robin Hood and the Monk, c.1450

The oldest ballads that survive today are Robin Hood and the Monk, c.1450, and Robin Hood and the Potter, c1500. Both quite full (longer than the later broadsides), they present a forest hero who outwits the forces of the town and the abbey, gaining money and property from the sheriff. Another version of the same structure is in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. The Robin of these texts inhabits the forest with his band; when alone, an outlaw is at risk and needs cunning or heroics to survive, but both are available in plenty. These ballads are fiercer than the friendly Robin of later days—Guy of Gisborne, a monk, and the sheriff all die at the outlaw’s hands, though the Potter story is less aggressive and the sheriff survives. Also, there is no charity as such: they rob the rich but give to themselves. Donations to the poor only emerge when Robin is a gentleman, able to afford such charity. (Knight, Ohlgren 5)

Previous to the ballads, there were other heroes who didn’t go under the name of ‘Robin Hood’ just yet, but are still in keeping with his theme. The tale of Hereward the Wake—composed in the mid-12th century 300 years before the earliest datable Robin Hood text—presents many character types, settings, plot elements, and themes found in the Robin Hood tradition: the hero is banished, has adventures abroad, and returns to England to avenge the murder of his brother and to reclaim his ancestral home. Like Robin Hood, Hereward lives in a forest, gathers a band of outlaws around him, and his weapon of choice is a bow. 

Hereward guards Alftruda to a place of safety, illustration from Hereward the Great by Charles Kingsley, pub. 1870, engraved by C.G. Lewis by Henry Courtney Selous

Interesting to note about the early Robin Hood-esque character is that Hereford’s noble status and inheritance problems don’t feature in the country pageant version of Robin Hood—however, they do turn up again in the Tudor period and have stuck with us ever since.

Did the Tudor era reinvent a Robin Hood for their purposes, or were they actually harkening back to the original conception of the rogue? Evidence for the interpretation of Robin Hood as an archetype, rather than a person, is found when looking at where the vast majority of Robin Hood pre-1600 source material comes from: plays and festivals.

Robin Hood the Pageant Hero

‘Dance around the May Pole’, Pieter Bruegel The Younger, 1634

In the 15th century, Robin Hood came to be associated with the English folk festival known as the May Games. Robin Hood featured in pageants and parades all across Britain, in a remarkable show of popularity, from Scotland to the south coast. In summertime, there would be a procession led by Robin Hood, with people dressed in green and carrying branches and garlands of leaves representing the forest. They would collect money in exchange for entertainments, and the money would be used for the community. (Sound familiar?)

One thing a study of these plays and pageants tells us is that Robin Hood was a hero of the people, and so could be located anywhere. The early references and tales crop up in a variety of locations—much to the chagrin of the Nottingham tourist industry, I’m sure! “Ballads and some prose stories make Robin active throughout the Midlands and the North of England, while place names and place associations locate Robin across most of Britain, with an apparent preponderance in the Southwest, the North Central Midlands, Yorkshire, and Lowland Scotland.” (Knight, Ohlgren 4) One common motif throughout the early Robin Hood ballads is that he never wins the fight by beating his opponent completely. He is not one to squash an adversary with sheer might—in fact, he is sometimes himself beaten during the competition, but usually manages to bring the contest to a draw at the end.

‘Robin Hood and His Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest’, by
Daniel Maclise, (1806–1870)

Although he is prized for his skill in archery, his physical strength or fighting ability is not his main power, his most valued quality is that of a natural leader. And this makes him an identifiable hero; he isn’t a dominating fearful personality. He isn’t a Hercules either, he is a seemingly ‘average’ man doing great things.

There was great prestige in playing the outlaw hero and people waited years for their turn. The honour could even be handed down from father to son, hence the name ‘Robinhood’ found on some occasions. A prominent feature of these revels was the crowning of a mock-king, but in some places that king was replaced by Robin Hood. And where you have Robin Hood, you have people ripe for a riot:

In 1498, Robert Marshall of Wednesbury, Staffordshire, had to defend himself before the Star Chamber against the allegation that, under the name of ‘Robyn Hood’ at the town fair to celebrate Trinity Sunday, he had led more than a hundred men who ‘riotously assembled themselves’ and that anybody at that fair ‘should have been in jeopardy of their lives’. Equally notorious were the exploits in Nottinghamshire of ‘a felowe, whych had renued many of Robin Hodes pagentes’, who was arrested for treason in 1502. Robin Hood was thus central to the symbolic repertoire of political subversion in early Modern England. (Barczewski 20)

Authorities began cracking down on the Robin Hood plays. In 1536, Sir Richard Morison protested to Henry VIII: ‘In summer commonly upon the holy days in most places of your realm there be plays of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck: wherein, besides the lewdness and ribaldry that there is opened to the people, disobedience also to your officers is taught whilst these good bloods go about to take from the Sheriff of Nottingham one that for offending the laws should have suffered execution’.

In 1509, the city of Exeter banned Robin Hood plays, and the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports of Kent and Sussex followed suit in 1528. In 1555, the Scottish Parliament made it illegal to impersonate Robin Hood and imposed the penalty of banishment on anyone who disobeyed. “By the end of the 16th century, however, Robin Hood plays were in decline. All over England in this period popular festivities were coming under attack from evangelical Protestants who associated them with traditional Roman Catholic practices. These sentiments were reinforced by a more general fear of social disorder at a time of growing popular pressure and poverty.” (Barczewski 21)

Tudor Times: Robin Hood on Stage

The campaign to suppress Robin Hood’s subversive role in the May Games was only one part of a broader attempt in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture to render him less threatening to the social and political order. This effort also manifested itself on the contemporary stage, where playwrights set out to create a new, less dangerous Robin Hood. “There were two strategies which playwrights pursued in order to carry out their patrons’ desires. One was to acknowledge Robin Hood’s rebelliousness and then show it being emphatically crushed, thus indicating that such revolts were doomed to failure. […] The second strategy which Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights used to render Robin Hood less subversive was not to defeat him, but to transform him.” (Barczewski 22-23) 

The ballads and pageants show Robin Hood as a bit of a rough and tumble character, but when he made his debut on the London Stage he had the air of the fallen aristocrat about him. As mentioned previously, the early forest outlaw conception has placed him as a man fighting for his birthright, and this trope came back in force in the 1590s.

It was Anthony Munday, not Shakespeare, who first conceived of the dramatic value of gentrifying Robin Hood with The Downfall and Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (1598). Munday’s greatest addition to the Robin Hood myth is the introduction of Maid Marian. The forest bandit was always single. A lone wolf. Now that he is a gentleman, he needs a lady. Some historians would say to provide him heirs, but I would say to provide London theatregoers with a love interest. 

Munday’s play might have been the inspiration for rival writer Shakespeare to write his own forest outlaw story into As You Like It (1599). On the surface, Shakespeare’s forest is a place where people are free from the constraints of conventional society. In the forest, worldly assets and social rank matter little, and judgements are made in terms of merit. Ultimately, however, these rebels prove to be no revolutionaries. They look back on the past with nostalgia, not towards the future with any revolutionary spirit. 

Woodcut of Robin Hood, from a 17th-century broadside

Munday has been credited with ushering in a new phase of the Robin Hood myth, where his story has reduced the specifics of political tensions apparent in the early ballads to become a gentleman rogue and all-purpose outlaw hero. By framing Robin Hood as a gentleman, who had simply fallen on hard times, he is never really one of the common people, even though he does plead their case. Since he is of the establishment, his eventual success is not an overthrow of hierarchies, but a re-establishment of the social order that would have pleased the patrons who commissioned theatre in Tudor times. As You Like It further demonstrates that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre preferred a less subversive version of Robin Hood.  

Georgian & Victorian Robin Hood

Robin Hood’s radical spirit did not survive the French and American Revolutionary Wars. There was a distaste for outlaw heroes that stripped the trope of its romance after too much real-life violence. A literary change took place that elevated Robin Hood into a hero of ‘Englishness’. In 1818, Sir Walter Scott marginalised Robin Hood in his Ivanhoe, but even more than Ivanhoe himself, he is in essence an English Hero. This ideal was developed further by Thomas Love Peacock in his 1822 novella, and popular stage musical, Maid Marion. The combination of Scott and Peacock’s new Robin Hood presented him as a national anti-French hero. 

‘Maid Marion;, Thomas Love Peacock, 1822

While Scott’s nationalism has a decidedly conservative edge, Peacock brought a liberal politics that appealed to many throughout the 19th century, and that was given value by Peacock’s characteristically cool enlightenment tone. This model of the hero could be accepted by the reform movement in English politics. But the hero was to have wider appeal, both to those who were conservative and those who were more interested in the personal than the political. A generically new, but fully compatible, emotive range of themes was combined with the Scott-Peacock modernised structure to make a potent new combination through what may be the single most crucial intervention in the renovation of the myth. (Knight, Ohlgren 8) 

This ushered in an era of new greenwood nostalgia, in poetry, fiction, drama, and pantomime. And King Arthur and Robin Hood both played a part, almost as bookends to the Victorian British ideal. “This polarisation of these characters that together make up the whole began in the previous century with the Romantic movement. The Arthurian legend was used as a means of inspiring loyalty and unity by emphasising military glory; its purpose was thus inherently conservative. Eighteenth-century British authors employed Robin Hood, on the other hand, to represent freedom, as the legend continued to possess radical connotations. This dichotomy was to become even more prominent during the period of the French Revolution and Revolutionary Wars.” (Barczewski 32) 

Britain in the 19th century was focused on Empire—and self-congratulation of the continuity and pedigree of British history was manifested in literature that celebrated a long history of gallant heroes. In contrast with the tumultuousness of France and Germany, Britain could hold up its medieval past as a direct forefather to present times; a grand lineage manifesting in natural worldwide dominance and superiority. “There was a close relationship between the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood with British nationalism in the 19th century, a period in which Britons found many heroes worthy of patriotic celebration. Such figures not only provided exemplars of British superiority, but also helped to explain it by displaying its source in the heroic efforts of the great individuals the nation had produced.“ (Barczewski 12)

‘The Accolade’, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901

Just as the Victorians surged rapidly into the future through the Industrial Revolution, this created a backlash longing for what was being lost. And no other long-lost time captured the Victorian imagination like the medieval past. Imagined histories of this pastoral, chivalric, ‘better’ time were everywhere: as inspiration for Romantic painting, thrills of the Gothic novel, or neo-Gothic architecture that graced every building from private homes to Parliament.

There was also a desire to get back to these (perceived) simpler times to find beauty and established order in a rapidly changing world. As fast-paced urban life rocketed towards the 20th century, this particular of idea of English nationalism was well encoded in concepts of English heritage. The anti-urban pastoral patriotism of Robin Hood was enormously attractive to people. And Robin Hood was as popular as ever. 

Robin Hood Today

Robin Hood who famously ‘stole from the rich, to give to the poor’ remains an attractive character in English folklore, and he is believed to be the only ancient folklore hero to survive uninterrupted into present day.

Five Robin Hood films were made before 1914. There have been seven more in the past 30 years alone. The impressive staying power of his legend is the way in which he can be parodied, ironised, and remade endlessly without losing his core validity and significance. Robin Hood’s main themes of freedom, supporting the disenfranchised, fighting for justice, and the romance of a simpler life away from corrupt politics and urban noise to live by the laws of truth and love in the forest—yes, that all still works today. 

Family at Nottingham Robin Hood Festival 2019

In Nottingham, they hold a 5-day Robin Hood Festival every year. People come from all over to celebrate these themes and live in the Robin Hood world. Whether they come for cosplay, for the kids, personal meaning-making within the myth, or celebrating ethical ecological practices, there is something in the Robin Hood story for everyone. 

Robin Hood is 650 years old. His myth has undergone twists and changes to serve the era that celebrates him but, underneath it all, Robin Hood is ultimately the triumph of good over evil, truth over corruption, the poor over the 1%, living off the land over urban destruction—and of love.

We need Robin Hood today now more than ever. 

‘Robin Hood’, Frank Vincent DuMond, 1903

Sources and further reading…

Barczewski, Stephanie, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2000. Book.  

Everett, Sally; Parakoottathil, Denny John, (2016): ‘Transformation, meaning-making and identity creation through folklore tourism: the case of the Robin Hood Festival’, Journal of Heritage Tourism, Volume 20, p1-16., 2016. Journal. 

Knight, Stephen; Ohlgren, Thomas H. (Editors), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales: General Introduction. 1997. (Book)

Lundgren, Tim, ‘The Robin Hood Ballads and the English Outlaw Tradition’, Southern Folklore, 53:3, p225. 1996. Journal. 

Nagy, Joseph Falaky, ‘The Paradoxes of Robin Hood’, Folklore, 91:2, p198-210, 1980. Journal. 

Simeone, William E. ‘The Historic Robin Hood’, The Journal of American Folklore, 66:262, p303–308. 1953. Journal

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