Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales: General Introduction

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Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales: General Introduction


Six hundred years is a long time for a hero to endure. When in the 1370s William Langland mentioned the popularity of "rymes of Robyn Hode" (Piers Plowman, B V.395), he associated them with Sloth, but the energy of the hero and the stories have continued to the present; all the modern media constantly recreate the outlaw myth with all its direct, amusing, natural, romantic, and subliminally political vigor.

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. But the differences between the outlaw tradition and that of Arthur are not only a matter of content. Where the noble adventures of the Round Table have often been enshrined in monumental prose and verse in many a prestigious genre, the stories of Robin Hood have always been more ephemeral — songs, short plays, proverbs, and place names; in our time, TV serials and films (some unmemorable) have been the media that have transmitted a tradition which is, like the outlaw himself, both fugitive and flexible, hard to pin down, whether in a sheriff's jail or under the ponderousness of canonical texts.

The hero and his myth are remarkably elusive: Chaucer once mentions "joly Robin" (Troilus and Criseyde, V.1174), probably a glimpse of the outlaw at a distance, but the author has weightier business in that poem; Shakespeare's As You Like It mentions in its first scene the forest myth, but clearly intends to separate itself from and also to outclass the popularity of Robin Hood on the Elizabethan stage. In Ivanhoe the hero has a limited part; Keats and Tennyson both wrote powerfully about the outlaw, but in minor parts of their work. Even today, when so much is edited, printed and reprinted, there is no anthology of the major Robin Hood texts readily available on the bookshop shelves. But against all that canonical marginality, almost every day a newspaper refers to the hero in a headline, and films, plays, pantomimes, and television productions continue to recreate this most volatile of heroes.


In terms of the literary and educational industry, as well as in thematic essence, Robin Hood remains an outlaw. Eric Hobsbawm, in his classic study Bandits (1985), takes him as the archetype of the social bandit, the man, and sometimes woman, thrown up by circumstances who becomes a focus of resistance to an imposed and oppressive authority. All around the world they occur, whether in reality or fiction: Brazil's Lampãio and Sicily's Salvatore Guiliano as well as the better-known Jesse James, Ned Kelly, and William Tell. But Robin Hood is not the only outlaw to emerge from medieval Britain, and several of the earlier versions may well have played a part in the development of his own tradition.

The late eleventh-century historical hero Hereward left a story well-known in Latin (Gesta Herewardi) and also in widespread references in English (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance). Composed in the mid-twelfth century (the sole surviving manuscript dates from the thirteenth century), three hundred years before the earliest datable Robin Hood text, Hereward the Wake prefigures a number of character types, settings, plot elements, and themes found in the later Robin Hood tradition. There is the hero himself, banished and outlawed at age eighteen, by King William I. After adventures in Cornwall, Ireland, and Flanders, he returns to England to avenge the murder of his brother and to reclaim his confiscated ancestral home. Like Robin Hood, he lives in the forest (chapters xix and xxvii); he forms a band of "fugitives, the condemned and disinherited" (chapter xvi); he wields a deadly bow (chapters xx and xxvii); he dons disguises to reconnoitre the enemy camp as a potter (chapter xxiv) and as a fisherman (chapter xxv); he engages in trickery, shoeing his horses backwards (chapter xxvii); he is captured and imprisoned but is rescued by his faithful companions (chapter xxxv); and, in the end, he receives the king's pardon and reclaims his estate (chapter xxxvi). Here then are the basic ingredients of the later Robin Hood tradition. There are differences — his noble status, his inheritance problems, and his blatant nationalism — and although these are lacking in the early ballads and plays they do crop up later in the Tudor period and beyond.

Another early outlaw tale is Eustache the Monk, which survives in a unique manuscript, dated 1284. Based on the life of a historical figure, Eustache the Monk (c. 1170–1217), the 2307-line story in Old French rhymed couplets recounts the adventures of the French nobleman who was unjustly outlawed and dispossessed of his lands by the Count of Boulogne. After his father is killed by a rival, Eustache leaves his religious order to seek justice from Count Rainald of Dammartin. When his champion loses a judicial trial by combat, Eustache's inheritance is seized by the count, forcing him to flee into the forest as an outlaw. To exact his revenge, Eustache, often in disguise, sallies out of the forest and harasses the count or his men by robbing them of money or horses. A number of these activities closely resemble episodes in the Robin Hood ballads, strongly suggesting that they are sources rather than analogues. In addition to the capture and release of the Count of Boulogne, which closely parallels Robin's capture of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Gest, we have another pair of episodes in which those who tell the truth are allowed to keep their money, while those who lie are robbed. This game of "truth or consequences" underlies two major scenes in the Gest involving Sir Richard at the Lee and the monk of St. Mary's Abbey in York. Other similarities include the stratagems of the trickster, the frequent use of disguise, and anti-clerical satire.

Another early outlaw who in some way influenced the Robin Hood tradition was Fouke le Fitz Waryn, grandson of Warin de Metz who settled on the Welsh borders after the Norman Conquest. The story in Anglo-Norman survives in a miscellany of some sixty works in Latin, French, and English, dated c. 1325–40. The prose romance is based on a thirteenth-century poetic version, now lost, and another version in Middle English is similarly lost. The first third of the ancestral romance (omitted in this edition) traces the history of the Fitz Waryn family from the Norman Conquest to the late twelfth century, and recounts the opportunistic marriages of Fouke's grandfather, Warin de Metz, and his father, Fouke le Brun, to two propertied heiresses, resulting in their lordship over Whittington and Ludlow. As the first part ends, the family loses control of both properties. The last two-thirds of the romance, which is included in English translation in this edition, covers the career of Fouke III, who after a four-year period (1200–03) of rebellion and outlawry, finally wins back his lands and titles. Of interest here is the outlaw narrative, consisting of the now familiar elements. After an argument with King John, who refuses to return his lands and titles, Fouke renounces his homage and leaves the court. When fifteen of the king's knights pursue Fouke and order him to return, he responds by killing fourteen, leaving one alive to report the incident (not unlike Robin's Progess to Nottingham). Fleeing to Brittany, Fouke is outlawed and stripped of his remaining lands. Returning to England, he hides in the forests, assembles a group of loyal knights, and plays a deadly game of hide and seek with the king's agents. Like Hereward and Eustache, Fouke and his second-in-command, John de Rampaigne, don various disguises — monk, merchant, collier — to avoid detection and to gather information. Three scenes in particular remind us of Robin Hood: like Little John in the Gest, Fouke's brother John waylays a caravan of merchants travelling through the forest and delivers them into Fouke's hands, and, as in Eustache and the Gest, there is a test of "truth or consequences"; in another episode, King John, like the sheriff in the Gest, is tricked into the forest, where he is captured and later released after swearing an oath; and finally, Fouke's brother William, after being severely wounded, begs his brother, as Little John begs Robin in the Gest, to kill him. To be sure there are significant differences between Fouke le Fitz Waryn and Robin Hood, but the core of the outlaw narrative is substantially the same.

Although the careers of Eustache and Fouke, particularly the resistance to King John, sound familiar to film-goers, in fact these features were added to the original Robin Hood story. The hero of the early ballads, and indeed many of the later texts, was never dated in the time of King John. That was first suggested by John Major in a history of Britain published in 1521, and it seems to have been part of a general movement towards making Robin more respectable. If, like Fouke, he opposed a bad king as a dispossessed lord, then his resistance was in a real sense in support of the existing structures of authority — very different from the guerrilla tactics against forest laws and sheriff's rule which are found elsewhere in the medieval texts.


All these analogous heroes, though, were historical figures, however much their stories became mythologized in the retelling. It remains an item of faith, or perhaps obsession, among many modern commentators that Robin Hood too was a real person, and they believe that enough careful attention to the records will produce a real Robin Hood who might, like the equally obscure King Arthur, be the real figure behind the myths — or legends, as such historians would want to call them. It is true (and usually ignored by the modern historians) that the earliest references to the hero all assume he was a real person amplified in story, an English Wallace, it might seem, especially because the earliest chroniclers who mention Robin are all Scottish. Part I of this edition shows how Wyntoun in the 1420s spoke of "waythemen," forest outlaws, who were "commendit gud" by the populace; and Bower a little later also understood them to be real outlaws who were also popular heroes; Major, even though he gentrified the hero, never displaced him into the realms of myth. Such an attitude was continued through the English commentators Grafton in the 1560s and Stow in the late sixteenth century, and the antiquarians joined in this process. Just as Camden found the cross that allegedly marked Arthur's grave at Glastonbury, so he wrote about the epitaph for Robin found at Kirklees and soon enough there was a stone-cut version to be seen and even a drawing of the grave (Holt, 1989, pp. 41–43). By 1600 there existed, preserved in a Sloane manuscript in the British Library, a prose Life of Robin Hood (discussed in Dobson and Taylor, 1976, pp. 286–87), and the first major edition of the ballads, by Joseph Ritson in 1795, was prefaced with a long "Life," with footnotes, references, and all the equipment of biography in the age of Boswell.

Far from being history, these accounts are a tissue of non-historical materials straight from folklore or fiction. The Sloane Life is largely a reworking of some of the ballads, especially the lengthy fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hode. The epitaphs and illustrations of the grave show a distinctly literary inheritance, and the high point of Ritson's "Life" is his reprint of William Stukeley's genealogy of the hero which makes him descend from the nephew of William the Conqueror, and at the same time considers him a Saxon patriot. By contrast to this florid nonsense, the early chronicle references, though they know of the popular story, have a spare reference to the hero that, like the Welsh Annals in the case of Arthur, might be thought to imply authenticity. Though nothing in the texts can be traced to the thirteenth century, where the "real Robin Hood" historians would place him, there is some support for such an original date in that Wyntoun located his "waythemen" in 1283 and Bower put them back to the 1260s. Although there might well have been other reasons for that (to associate him in Wyntoun with Wallace and in Bower with Simon de Montfort) it does indicate their sense of the distant nature of the tradition.

That idea of antiquity and the prolific appearance of the name do not, however, suggest that there was one "original" Robin Hood, but that by then the name refers generally to someone who was in some way outside or against the law as it was being imposed. That interpretation is strongly suggested by evidence from another area, not considered by historians because it is neither individual nor criminal in orientation, but in fact providing by far the largest number of early references to the hero.


If the existing references before 1600 are gathered (Knight, 1994, Appendix) one is struck by the remarkable number of plays and games of Robin Hood, up and down the country. From Exeter (1426–27) to Aberdeen (1438), from Norfolk (1441) to Wiltshire (1432), the length and breadth of Britain appears to have been populated with annual ritual activities focused on the hero. No scripts have certainly survived, though there are a few short plays (see below) that may derive from this widespread play and game tradition, focused on ritual-like activities that were non-literary like the many pageants and parades that still engage people's attention and emotions. There would be, in early summer, a procession, led by Robin, with people dressed in green and bearing forest symbols such as branches or garlands of leaves. They would go from one village to another, or one part of the town to another, and collect money, usually in return for some entertainment, for example, a short play featuring a fight and a rescue. The money would be used for the community, for mending the roads in one case, and although the church was involved in the events, it was effectively a civil activity involving the churchwardens rather than the priest. There seems to have been real prestige involved in playing the hero, as people waited years for their turn and even handed down that right from father to son, hence the surname "Robinhood" found on some occasions.

None of this involves resistance to authority; the whole process is firmly within the law. Robin is the figurehead of a celebration of the combination of the natural and the communal. But if we are to believe the evidence of the very early texts, the pageants would present Robin's triumph against the hostile forces of law and order which came from a distance: the sheriff, the visiting forester like Guy of Gisborne, the oppressive abbot, but not the friendly grass-roots friar. With this fictional capacity for resistance, it is not surprising that on occasions Robin Hood became the actual as well as symbolic leader in carnivals that sometimes turned to riot at places as far apart as Wednesbury in the West Midlands (1497) and Scottish Edinburgh (1561). Even though gentrification was in full flow, in the seventeenth century this social-bandit capacity was well-remembered and gave rise to the remarkable 1661 play Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers, in which the radical Robin Hood concedes defeat to the newly restored royalist authorities.

Two important conclusions arise from a study of the early plays and games. One is that they are so widely spread. As a hero of natural communality, Robin can emerge anywhere and even displace the existing carnival hero. In Aberdeen in 1508 he is described as replacing the previous ritual figure, the Abbot of Bon Accord. The early references and tales have a much wider spread than modern Nottingham and its tourist industry would care to admit. For Wyntoun the outlaws are in Inglewood, near Carlisle, and also in Barnsdale. The Gest understands Barnsdale to be in Yorkshire, and that has been a common view through the ages, but there is also a Barnsdale in Rutland (between Nottingham and Rockingham), with many local references to the outlaw. 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.

The other feature of interest arising from the plays and games is the clear sense that of all the genres in which the tradition appears, the original and in many ways the authentic genre is theater, here best called performance because of its deep informality. However long Robin Hood stories may become (and there are some three-decker novels) their essence is dramatic: an opening in the forest; a departure or meeting; an encounter in which Robin or one of the outlaws is in danger (often brought about by trickery or disguise as well as courage and skill); a harmonious ending, with either a feast or an agreement.

This structure is ideally suited to the stage. With exciting action and little dialogue, the combination of physical danger and spontaneous heroism in the Robin Hood stories has always been popular with actors and audiences. There is a remarkable consistency between the dynamic early playlets or ballads and the modern episode on TV; and there are many structural parallels between the composite ballads like the Gest or A True Tale of Robin Hood and the full-length epic film.

It may well be that the early ballads have the plays as their sources, rather than the other way around as literary scholars have usually thought. But the ballads soon asserted themselves as a natural genre for the myth, with their quick dramatic action and their effective use of poetic suggestion, whether violent or naturally beautiful in its form. Our good fortune is that these ballads flourished in a period when at least some were recorded, and so were preserved powerful versions of the early outlaw in his pre-gentrified form as the English social bandit.


From before 1600 a small number of important ballads survive and some later texts can be confidently traced to that early period (for details see the separate introductions to each ballad in Early Ballads and Tales). The first ballads to survive are Robin Hood and the Monk, c. 1450, and Robin Hood and the Potter, c. 1500. 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.

These ballads, and the early plays associated with them, outline a medieval social bandit in full vigor; that is also the basis of the Gest, which is a composite of a number of ballad stories and might well be termed a ballad epic. Its date is now thought to be somewhat later than the optimistic c. 1400 of earlier commentaries, and it represents, not unlike Malory's Morte Darthur in Caxton's hands, the intersection of popular manuscript materials and the new technology of printing. The Gest not only collects comic and violent ballad stories about the heroic forest band, it also adds a narrative about how they help a distressed knight and it does, accordingly, move Robin a little towards gentrification. He holds court in the forest consciously like King Arthur, and if he does not dole out money to the poor, at least he "dyde pore men moch god." That comment follows the tragic end of the story, unique until the later survival of the ballad about Robin's death and itself indicating the scope and weight of the story in the Gest.

Set as they are in forests close to towns, and resisting consistently what are felt to be the incursive forces represented by sheriff, abbot, and the urban market, these ballads clearly value the natural, the communal, and what is felt to be the organic against aspects of the new centralizing and legislating world. Ideals for these texts lie in the forest, always glimpsed at the beginning and end, in the community that the outlaws form and negotiate as free parties, and in physical strength, skill, and a cheerful cunning that resembles the folkloric art of the trickster. The context is not irreligious — Robin especially has a devotion to Mary, rather than the established church. Nor is it absolutely revolutionary: the king himself is honored and obeyed, if sometimes eluded. But the outlaws do represent clear aspects of resistance and dissidence, and many notes are struck in common with Langland's direct satire and the ironic critiques of Chaucer.

The audience has been a matter of speculation. Some have thought it was close to the discontented peasantry who were central to the 1381 revolt (Hilton, 1976); another view saw the ballads as a set of general complaints from the lower gentry (Holt, 1989). Neither party has accounted for the lack of agrarian and tenurial issues, apart from the unusual episode of the knight in the Gest. Another commentator has seen the dynamic of the ballads in the struggle for power in towns themselves and the forest as a fantasy land of freedom (Tardif, 1983). As a result of these debates there now seems general agreement that the audience was not single, that it represented the social mobility of the late Middle Ages, and the myth was diffused across a wide variety of social groupings who were alive to the dangers of increasingly central authority, whether over town, village, or forest (Coss, 1985). Dobson and Taylor have accepted Holt's concept of a "lower gentry" audience, but add: "It seems likely, therefore, that the earliest 'rhymes' of Robin Hood were disseminated not simply through the great households, but also through the medium of fairs where minstrels played to popular audiences" (1995, p. 40).

Robin Hood poems were not the only medieval texts to deal with outlaws in the forest, and Early Ballads and Tales also provides several analogues. Robyn and Gandelyn is a mysterious short ballad, or perhaps lyric, which may be close to both the mythic and the tragic heart of the tradition. Adam Bell is a northern parallel telling of three heroes from the Carlisle region in a long and strong story, somewhat simpler in its resolution than the Gest; though it was very popular in the broadside period, it is a poem without the flexibility and openness to interpretation that has kept alive the Robin Hood tradition. Equally monologic is the heroic romance of Gamelyn, depicting a rough-hewn distressed gentleman from the late fourteenth century, who becomes an outlaw chief as a means of regaining his patrimony. The story is both colloquial and concerned with property and is notable partly for being broadly parallel to the knightly section of the Gest and also for generating a hero who in later stories actually joins Robin Hood (see Robin Hood and Will Scarlet).

These analogues also share with the early Robin Hood texts the same sense that, although they are written down, they are close to oral performance. Rhyme is rarely perfect throughout, and half rhyme is very common. The absence of rhyme in three stanzas in Robin Hood and the Potter, lines 93–96, 191–94, and 249–52, is probably due to imperfect copying, though the rhyme elsewhere in this ballad is quite erratic. Occasionally the stanza form changes, and not because the scribe or printer has misplaced a line or two: there are numerous six-line stanzas and at least one apparently genuine stanza of five lines (Adam Bell, lines 293–97) and one of seven (Robin Hood and the Potter, lines 219–25).

With these parallels and on this strong base of a few precious early texts, the tradition of Robin Hood narratives develops. The two manuscript ballads were not printed in the seventeenth century, though Robin Hood and the Butcher, a reworking of the Potter, reprinted in Ritson (1795, II, 27–32), is a popular broadside and garland text. The few surviving early ballads must represent only a part, probably a small part, of the widespread material referred to by the chroniclers. In a number of cases it is possible to see that ballads surviving later must have had forms at least as early as the sixteenth century, often because they were mentioned or pillaged in the process of gentrification, which, historically speaking, varies the social bandit structure of the early ballads before that tradition continues and develops in printed form in broadside and garland.


The sixteenth-century chroniclers are the first to give Robin Hood a raised social position and a historical setting which permits his resistance to authority to seem a form of noble behavior in both moral and social terms. This may be in part because Robin was in actuality being dignified: Hall's Chronicle tells of two occasions when Henry VIII entered the tradition, once in 1510 when he and his friends played outlaws to excite the ladies, and then in 1515 when a formal Robin Hood pageant entertained the court as it was, very appropriately, passing up Shooters Hill (Knight, 1994, pp. 109–10).

The literary gentrification process took off in the 1590s when the booming London theater, hungry for new subjects, adapted the popular dramatic materials long associated with the hero. At first Robin was just used marginally as a filler in Peele's Edward I, where one scene is a Robin Hood play game, or as a defining alterity as in Greene's George a Greene, where Robin Hood, the possible rebel, plays second fiddle to George, loyal to both king and town (Nelson, 1973). It was Anthony Munday, friend of Stow the historian, who conceived of the dramatic value of gentrification and told a tragedy of Robin which established the main features of the newly ennobled outlaw. His land is taken, just like that of King Richard and (as in the Gest), his reinstallation at court is only the prologue to his betrayal and death.

Full-blown tragedy of a sometimes ponderous kind suits Munday's somber theme, although the comic and tricksterish spirit survives through the presence of John Skelton, presented as waggish poet to Henry VIII and playing both the interlocutor and Friar Tuck. There are two striking features: the presence of Marian, the forest name for Matilda Fitzwater, Robin's consort; now that he is ennobled he needs a lady to provide heirs, while the social bandit is almost always partnerless. If she is in the cast we almost always have a gentrified story, at least until modern times. More surprising is the fact that Prince John is not consistently the villain: Robin's enemies, and the king's, are the corrupt medieval Catholic clergy. Prince John is more like an amiable nuisance, a low-life Laertes to Robin's Hamlet, lecherous but inept, at least until he destroys Marian in the Death.

Munday's reconstruction of the myth had many effects. It was dissipated through Martin Parker's A True Tale of Robin Hood; it influenced Ben Jonson's ambitious but sadly uncompleted masque The Sad Shepherd; and it even, by emulation, drove Shakespeare, writer for a rival company, to produce his own forest outlaw story in As You Like It. Most importantly, Munday inspired, directly or indirectly, the metamorphosis by which the story has been reduced in political tension and become an all-purpose myth, in that Robin in many later stories, other than the ballads, is more or less a gentleman, never really one of the common people and never at all opposing true hierarchy. That diminution — or perhaps emasculation — of the social-bandit story no doubt has made it seem more acceptable in the context of commercial productions such as the pantomimes and musicals of the nineteenth century and the major films of this century. But before deploring such mercantile conservatism it should be remembered that the village Robin Hood of the plays and games was always capable of being fully involved with the orderly processes of conservative society and only in certain conflicted contexts developed his radical potential.

If gentrification brought the Robin Hood story out of the forests of popular dissent into the halls of settled and conservative society, this did not do much for the story in artistic terms: Munday's play is the best of them (apart from Jonson's splendid fragment), and the dire ballad operas of the eighteenth century, just like Tennyson's The Foresters and the feeble Georgian playlets of the early twentieth century, are testimonies to what happens when an art form lacks an inner thematic and political tension. Gentrification was a powerful current, but until the nineteenth century it was not found in the mass forms of the tradition. Indeed, one of the main weaknesses of early gentrification texts was that they hardly used any of the traditional and vigorous stories, and so their plots are without the demotic energy and the mythic dimension that derived from the popular forest hero. But that lack of interaction worked both ways: without any major contamination from the distressed gentleman, the popular forms of the ballad in print remained generally true to the medieval image of the hero and his saga.


Of the thirty-eight ballads collected in the 1882–98 edition of Child's great English and Scottish Popular Ballads, thirty-six appear in the printed tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. This early collection of ballads provided a great source for Robin Hood material. His tradition is the most popular of all the broadside themes: there were plenty of miraculous births, horrid murders, and sea monsters, but they all describe different events and people. The name and fame of Robin Hood are the strongest single focus in the whole wealth of popular singing and reading matter that was sold through the streets of London and sent up and down the country by cart, coach, and hawkers on foot.

The partially autonomous nature of the printed ballads is indicated by the fact that there is relatively little continuity between the late medieval Robin Hood ballads and the staple diet of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the early ballads in this anthology, none appeared in broadside or garland form. This is partly a matter of length: the Gest and Adam Bell are printed texts, but far too long to make into a one-page broadside, or to fit into a garland. Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter would also, at more than two hundred lines, have been too long. It may be that their medieval themes did not suit the newly urbanized audience; the only one that does appear in print is the town-oriented Robin Hood and the Potter in a shortened and adapted form as Robin Hood and the Butcher.

Though the form and topics of the broadside and garland ballads differ from the earliest group of Robin Hood texts, the themes of the later ballads show many connections with the medieval period. The largest thematic grouping of Robin Hood's ballads is basically very simple in plot, telling of an encounter between one or more of the outlaws and some stranger. Quite often it is just a fight, which they all enjoy — as in the revealingly entitled Robin Hood's Delight (Ritson, 1795, II, 120–25). Sometimes after the fight the opponent joins the band. Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, and even Maid Marian become forest outlaws in this way. And Robin never does conspicuously well in the fight: he is sometimes beaten, occasionally humiliated, but usually manages to scrape a draw. His physical quality is not his main power (though he is almost always the best at the skill of archery); his most valued quality is that of a natural leader. The conflicts over leadership and the arguments of the early ballads have been forgotten: Robin's fame is enough for anyone to join his band, and the "Robin Hood meets his match" conflict turns into communality.

Another notable category is the "prequel," ballads which seem to have been constructed to explain some feature of the tradition. Examples appear to be Robin Hood and Little John, which explains how the powerful outlaw joined the existing band: this cannot be ancient because it contradicts the fact that he and Robin alone are mentioned from the very start by the chroniclers. Similarly, ballads tell how Allin a Dale, Will Scarlet, and Marian herself joined the band. Robin's own prequel is given in the early Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham, which tells how he was provoked into becoming an outlaw.

A few ballads rework the anti-clerical feeling of the old days, and Protestant England obviously enjoys robbing a bishop. But the previous skepticism about kings and the definite hatred of sheriffs is almost completely absent in those days of centralized power. Parker's A True Tale ends with a very interesting and sometimes uneasy set of reflections of the need to contain outlawry these days. A small number of ballads seem to preserve quite ancient themes: The Death of Robin Hood has some aura of magic and mystery to it, especially in the fragmentary version preserved in Bishop Percy's manuscript, dated at 1650 or just before. Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham has a ferocity only found in the very early manuscript ballads, as the young Robin shoots down the foresters who mistreat him, and Robin Hood's Fishing has economic and social concerns that seem like a maritime update of Robin Hood and the Potter. But if those texts look backwards, some ballads are definitely in a newer mode: Robin Hood and Maid Marian is for the most part gentrified in theme and tone (with some popular elements), and there is a somewhat inactive and literary mood visible in Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow.

Somewhere between old plain style and courtly degeneration lies the style and approach of the professional balladeers. The texts that have clearly been through their hands have the internal rhyme in the third line, giving a pattern-like effect quite foreign to the earlier ballads, often supported by a repeated refrain which implies that singing was the expected medium of delivery. This seems to have been a development: the early texts often lack refrains, and Bronson reports that there were remarkably few tunes attached to Robin Hood ballads (1959-72, III, 13–14). The language of the broadsides also in some cases moves away from the direct and lucid language of the early ballads towards the cant and catchphrases of the contemporary stage and journalism, as in Robin Hood and Little John or, briefly, Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

Many of the ballads appeared in single-sheet broadside, with strong, even crude, woodcuts at the top of the page. Convenience often superseded art: one woodcut might do for more than one ballad from the same workshop, and sometimes the text was trimmed to fit the sheets. These sold for a halfpenny or a penny, and fortunately for us both Samuel Pepys and Antony Wood were compulsive collectors. Others came later into the safe hands of Francis Douce. Alongside this wealth in the ancient libraries can also be found a physically smaller, yet in its time a more up-market Robin Hood source, which is the garland. Named because it was felt to be an intertwined series of poems honoring the hero, the garlands were a printer's marketing strategy, a kind of Robin Hood omnibus of its day. The early ones just collect twelve or sixteen ballads, and sometimes the same printer will add more in a second edition. But in the eighteenth century they are more likely to have full-page wood engravings and even a lengthy introduction purporting to link these together into a "Life," so suggesting an audience more intellectually ambitious than those who just wanted a broadside text to sing to a well-known tune.

Some of the ballads have many versions, such as Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men; others, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian, survive in single priceless copies. This was not a gentrified market. In garland form, the ballads went on appearing well into the nineteenth century, especially in the provinces. They overlap the sophisticated novels and liberal romanticism of the reshaped Robin Hood, just as they go back to crabbed manuscripts of the Middle Ages. If it is one of the enigmas of the Robin Hood tradition that we know so little about the language and action of the play game, a compensating richness lies in the wealth of our knowledge about the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century popular ballad tradition, firing as it does its broadsides of pithy outlaw poetry and wearing its garlands of heroic vitality.

In 1993 a new source appeared, and the British Library acquired a manuscript containing nothing but twenty-two Robin Hood ballads. In a pamphlet published by Bernard Quaritch, the bookseller that acquired the manuscript, Arthur Freeman suggested that the date of the handwriting is 1640–70 (1993, p. 5); the British Library experts propose 1650–74, with a preference for the later part of the period. Freeman argued that all the texts preceded those of Child and so should have editorial priority. His dating would make this speculative: the later date makes it fairly unlikely. In any case, collation suggests that a number of the texts are less than authoritative: full details can be found in Robin Hood: The Forresters Manuscript (Knight, 1998), but a summary of the main textual issues is appropriate to justify the present volume's treatment of the manuscript.

Some ballads are pastiches of existing texts: Robin Hood and the Bride is a weak version of Robin Hood and Allin a Dale, and Robin Hood and the Old Wife is a variant of Robin Hood and the Bishop, with the sheriff playing the hostile role. It is conceivable that this was the original, linking to the sheriff's role in the short plays, and that the Bishop version is a post-reformation redirection of hostility. But the frequency of pastiche among the early texts in this manuscript makes this an insecure hypothesis. Robin Hood and the Sherriffe is a skillful combination of the Little John and sheriff episode in the Gest with Robin Hood's Golden Prize, a compilation that cannot have been ancient, since the ballad is clearly fairly late. In a similar maneuver Robin Hood and the King links the king-in-disguise scene in the Gest to the end of Parker's A True Tale. If these ballads are suspect because of innovation, others are too faithful to have prime status. The last four ballads in the manuscript appear to be copied from a version of the 1670 garland, and several other ballads appear to be lightly edited versions of existing broadsides.

But in two cases the manuscript has valuable texts, and accordingly they are used in this edition. Robin Hood and Queen Catherin is in Child's best text a jerky and sometimes incoherent story (the outlaws' aliases are thoroughly obscure) and his version of Robin Hood's Fishing is unclear in the final naval action. Both of these ballads seem to have been clumsily cut to fit a broadside sheet, and the Forresters manuscript has better texts. It also has a version of Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham (called Robin Hood and the Forresters, the first in the source, which provides it its name) that has some better readings than Child's best, but in a manuscript with so much editing and such skilled pastiching it seems bad practice to use a text at best marginally superior. In the case of the other two, the existing texts are so deficient that the Forresters text is worth publishing even if it is edited; this does not in fact appear to be the case as in every instance its good readings and passages appear to be behind the awkwardness of the existing broadsides and it may well be that the manuscript compiler had access to the sources used by the printers of the broadsides themselves. Other interesting Forresters texts are not used here because they seem derived from the texts found in Child. Though the Forresters manuscript has a full and lucid version of Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men, this seems to be an editorialized expansion of the existing texts, and is not employed as copy text in this edition. Similarly, the lengthy version of Robin Hood and the Pinder of Wakefield, which Freeman (1993, p. 7) feels to be an important and "entirely new text," seems to be a literary composition showing knowledge of the play George a Greene (c. 1592), with some influence from the prose history of the Pinner which was in print by 1632, though the only existing copy is from 1706. As this ballad seems "entirely new" in the sense of having a rather late and literary character, it seems preferable to continue to use the text printed by Child from a Wood broadside, which appears to derive from a version that pre-exists Greene's play: a very similar text to this is also in the Forresters manuscript (only the Pinder has two ballads, the longer one being numbered in the text as 10b).

It remains unclear what were the compiler's intentions. The manuscript looks in some ways like a hand-written garland, and the relation of the final texts to the 1670 garland suggests the link. Yet the first part of the manuscript seems to avoid deliberately the well-known versions, which professional garlandeers used, and has rather a set of unique and in some cases, it would seem, nonce-created texts. That suggests someone who is both a connoisseur and a practitioner of the ballads, more in the mold of Sir Walter Scott than the compiler of the Percy manuscript, but whatever speculations are possible about the production of the Forresters manuscript, in this context its importance is that it has some valuable texts for printing or at least collation, and also offers important evidence for the renewed interest in the English outlaw in the early part of the Restoration period, as also seen in the 1661 play, the contemporary Life, the 1663 garland, and the number of broadsides that come from this period and so parallel the activity of the Forresters manuscript.


By the end of the eighteenth century the Robin Hood tradition was in many ways a museum piece. Gentrification had run into the sands of ballad opera, a sub-genre notable for puerile humor and, despite its bourgeois context, servile aristocratism. The early ballads themselves had been excavated first by Thomas Percy (though he only reprinted Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne of the six in his manuscript) and then in 1795 by Joseph Ritson. But much as Ritson admired Robin, it was for reasons without a future: he admired what he saw as a radical spirit, but that view would not survive the widespread revulsion from the French Revolution, and his feeling that here lay the English version of noble savagery would soon be swamped by the more genteel rusticity of the lake poets. And yet, despite those ill-fated positions, from the combination of the gentrified idea (which even Ritson accepted as a principle) and from the newly disseminated ancient stories there arose a conception of the hero and his story, which, by including some crucially new ideas and structures, was able to reinvigorate for the modern world those patterns of critique and dissidence with which the early tradition was thoroughly imbued (Hanawalt, 1992, pp. 168–71).

It is true that in 1818 Scott marginalized Robin Hood in his Ivanhoe. But Scott's illiterate yeoman Locksley is a formidable figure, firmly involved with the concept of nationalism: he is, more convincingly than Ivanhoe, in essence an English hero. This idea was both developed and more fully focused on Robin Hood by Thomas Love Peacock in his Maid Marian, and although this was the least read of Peacock's novellas, in its stage musical version it was the most widely known element of his work through the nineteenth century. The combination of Scott's imagination and Peacock's lucidity made very powerful and widely accepted the idea of Robin Hood as a national and anti-French hero, representing an Englishness that was both ancient and strongly independent, a powerful mythic figure on which to found the developing edifice of national identity.

While Scott's nationalism has a decidedly conservative edge, Peacock brought a liberal politics that appealed to many throughout the nineteenth 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 modernized structure to make a potent new combination through what may be the single most crucial intervention in the renovation of the myth.

In one quickly written poem, Robin Hood (1818), John Keats shaped, in response to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds' sonnets, Robin the romantic forest dweller, an image of an England less urban, more attractive to the feelings than what was increasingly being felt to be a degraded present (Knight, 1994, pp. 159–66). When Keats wrote "Honour to bold Robin Hood / Sleeping in the underwood," he shaped for many to imitate in poetry, fiction, drama, even pantomime, the essence of greenwood nostalgia. That anti-urban displaced patriotism was enormously attractive to people, and it newly empowered Robin Hood, especially when around the turn of the twentieth century a new syllabus for English was being constructed, heavily coded with nationalism. Robin Hood flourished anew in editions, plays, and reprints firmly in the junior school curriculum — not only in England, but also in America, largely through Howard Pyle's brilliant renovation and illustration of the stories (1883) and through the powerful impact of Augustin Daly's production in America in 1892, with Arthur Sullivan's music, of Tennyson's The Foresters.

National, nostalgic, at once both liberal and conservative through the combination of radical action and distressed gentleman status, this new Robin Hood had world-wide appeal: he was the exciting but acceptable outlaw compensating for early forms of urban anomie. The lack of sexual intrigue in the story made it, unlike the Arthur or Tristan myth, highly suitable for schools and early screens, while at the same time the heavy coding of sexuality in the story, from splitting the arrow to the forest world of a hunter, not to mention the form-fitting green tights and the conspicuous handsomeness of actors from Errol Flynn (1938) to Patrick Bergin (1991), meant that the whole myth took on new life in the dynamic world of visual fiction. Five Robin Hood films were made before 1914, and when in 1922 Douglas Fairbanks was persuaded that he would not seem like a plodding Englishman in the part, Allan Dwan's sub-D. W. Griffith Robin Hood stormed the world of cinema, made Fairbanks a very rich man, and stimulated many later versions — more than sixty in all to the present (Harty, 2000, p. 88), ranging from the classic Hollywood polish of the 1938 Warner's version through many a plodding pastiche, with cowboy ponies or damp woodlands, depending which side of the Atlantic they were made, to the modern exotica of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), reminiscent of the sixteenth-century friar play in its banal gagging, and the social subversion, if not quite social banditry, of the BBC's late 1980s TV series Maid Marian, in the new genre of feminist farce.


The vigor of a cultural tradition can be identified by the way it can be parodied, ironized, clumsily repeated, and journalistically dissipated, yet never somehow lose its inner core of credibility and evaluative significance. Like George Washington or Florence Nightingale, like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, Robin Hood stands for something that is still widely recognized and valued, in spite of the lame and stagey children's anthologies that still appear, and in spite of the stiff rehashings of the myth that recurrently plod across the cinema screen.

To some it is a matter of myth in its most mysterious kind. The editor of the Dictionary of National Biography no doubt surprised his readers when, in that age of biographical historicism, he wrote a long entry on Robin Hood proclaiming him to be a mythic figure; when Michael Curtiz made Errol Flynn's cheerful outlaws hide in a tree and make it come to green and surging life, he was touching the same recurrent supernatural element in the hero which seems to persist in spite of all that historicists and dull rewriters of the story can do to extinguish it.

There may be more technically accountable ways to describe that unquenchability of the hero: his story is so simple, so concentrated — just an idea of freedom, and fighting, and the quest for natural and egalitarian harmony — that it can take forms suitable to any period and any audience. Like the much disguised and always elusive hero, the tradition itself glides through the forests of our culture, always ready to appear when there are injustices to discuss, always armed with deadly arrows of humor, vitality, directness, perhaps still tipped with a little magic.

During six hundred years to our knowledge, and no doubt many more that remain out of sight, the tradition of Robin Hood has spoken without the complications of high culture — the self-gratifying sonorities of novel and opera remain inherently foreign to the tradition — but has spoken with a light, trenchant, suggestive, and persuasive voice. The existence of an outlaw always implies there is something wrong with the law. The idea of legal inadequacy has changed enormously over time, from the constraints imposed by abbots, foresters, sheriffs, and even kings to the modern bogeymen of international oppression, inadequate families, patriarchy, and business irresponsibility. Whatever the perceived inadequacies of authority through the ages, the figure of Robin Hood has always been available to make them his target. No doubt the polymorphic outlaw will take more shapes in time to come: Rocket Robin Hood on American television and the ecological hero of a recent London production may point the way ahead. There remains something compelling about the image of the calm, witty, well-armed man standing in the forest and about to move suddenly into decisive action in support of true law. It seems possible to predict with confidence that, as his earliest chronicler said, the archetype of the outlaw will continue, in whatever forms he may materialize, to be "commendit gud."

Go To The Chronicler's Robin Hood, Introduction
Select Bibliography

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Coss, Peter. "Aspects of Cultural Diffusion in Medieval England: The Early Romances, Local Society and Robin Hood." Past and Present 108 (1985), 35–79.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1976.

———. "`Rymes of Robin Hood': The Early Ballads and the Gest." In Carpenter, pp. 35–44.

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