The Chronicler's Robin Hood: Introduction

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The Chronicler's Robin Hood: Introduction

Best known for his stirring adventures, Robin Hood is also an object of study by archivists and historians, seeking traces of a real Robin Hood who might, like the equally elusive King Arthur, be the real figure behind the myths -- or legends, as such historians would want to call them. In 1852 Joseph Hunter found a man called Robin Hood who was actually a valet to King Edward II in the north of England and assumed that he lay behind some of the story of the Gest. But there was no sign that the king's valet was ever thought of as an outlaw. More recently archivists have found other traces of criminals known to the medieval legal authorities as Hood, R.

The earliest contender is one Robert Hod, described as a fugitive, who is mentioned in the York assizes record of 1226: his goods were being confiscated because he owed money to St. Peter's of York (Owen, 1936). The debt is not unlike that of Sir Richard in the Gest and certainly consistent with the fierce hostility toward abbeys and rich churchmen through the whole myth. A slightly later reference speaks of William Le Fevre, son of a smith, who was indicted at Reading for larceny in 1261 (Crook, 1984). Nothing very surprising about that, except that in the following year there is another reference to him, and now he is called William Robehod, as if that surname has become appropriate to his condition as a fugitive from justice.

The fact that Robin Hood's name was interpreted in that way in legal circles is clear from a record from Tutbury, Staffordshire for 1439, which says that a certain Piers Venables, of nearby Aston,
gadered and assembled unto hym many misdoers beynge of his clothinge and, in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that contre, like as it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meyne. (Child, 1965, III, 41)
Historians have liked to trace through these references a personalized and historicized process; they feel there must have been a certain Robin Hood who started the legend and others were identified with him: their arguments have been recently summarized by Bellamy (1985, chs. 1 and 2). The question is which was in fact the first reference: which was this notionally real Robin Hood? Only a few years before the miscreant of York comes a legal record of a man called Robert Hood, servant to the Abbot of Cirencester, who killed a man called Ralph between 1213 and 1216 (Holt, 1982, p. 54). And in 1354 in the forest of Rockingham, Northamptonshire, a man gave his name as Robin Hood when he was arrested for a forest offence.

The obvious interpretation, unpleasing as it may be to literal-minded historians, is that "Robin Hood" means fugitive from (probably unfair) justice, that like "Santa Claus" it is a name for a role, a mask to be worn in appropriate circumstances (Knight, 1994, pp. 14-15). What the legal references tell us most is not who was the real Robin Hood but how many versions there were and what the circumstances might have been to cause the intriguing changes that the tradition underwent in its quasihistorical forms as well as in its frankly fictional ballads and plays.

This is message that comes through the fuller quasi-historical references found in a series of chronicles in the late Middle Ages which have something to say about the outlaw. The relevant excerpts will each be printed here with a note about the author and his context, and what he might have understood as the meaning of the outlaw and his activities.

Go To Selection From Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chroincle (c. 1420)
Go To Selection From Walter Bower's Continuation of John of Fordun's Scotichronicon (c. 1440)
Go To Selection From John Major's Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521)
Go To Selection from Richard Grafton's Chronicle at Large (1569)
Selected Bibliography


Andrew of Wyntoun. The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland. Ed. David Laing. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Edmonton and Douglas, 1872-79.

------. The Original Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun printed on parallel pages from the Cottonian and Wemyss MSS, with the variants of the other texts. Ed. F. J. Amours. 6 vols. Edinburgh: Printed for the Scottish Text Society by W. Blackwood and Sons, 1903-14.

Bower, Walter. Continuation of Fordun's Scotichronicon. Ed. T. Hearne. Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1722.

Grafton, Richard. A Chronicle At Large and meere History of the affayres of England; and Kings of the Same. London: Tottle and Toye, 1568-69. Rpt. London: J. Johnson, 1809.

Major, John. A History of Greater Britain As Well England and Scotland. Trans. and ed. Archibald Constable. Scottish History Society. Vol. 10. Edinburgh: University Press, 1892.

Commentary and Criticism

Bellamy, John C. Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Child, F. J. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1882-98. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1965.

Crook, David. "Some Further Evidence Concerning the Dating of the Origins of Robin Hood." English Historical Review 99 (1984), 530-34.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Hunter, Joseph. "The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrely of English: Robin Hood, his period, real character etc. investigated." Critical and Historical Tracts IV. London: Smith, 1852. Pp. 28-38.

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Owen, L. V. D. "Robin Hood in the Light of Research." The Times, Trade and Engineering Supplement 38, no. 864 (1936), xxix.

Spence, Lewis. "Robin Hood in Scotland." Chambers Journal 18 (1928), 94-96.