[In the 1440s Bower, like Andrew of Wyntoun, a canon of St. Andrew's Priory and eventually Abbot of Incholm (a religious house on an island in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh) was reworking the chronicle written in Latin some twenty years before by John of Fordun. As well as bringing it up to date he inserted passages, including a lengthy comment on Robin Hood and Little John.
Under the year 1266 he described Robin as a famosus siccarius
(a well-known cut-throat), a more severe account than Wyntoun's waythmen
who were commendit gud
. He also seems critical when he says that "the foolish people are so inordinately fond of celebrating [him] in tragedy and comedy" (trans. Dobson and Taylor, 1976, p. 5). It is interesting to speculate what he meant. The terms do not necessarily refer to drama at this time. Presumably "comedy" refers to the ballads where Robin triumphs, like Robin Hood and the Monk
, recorded very soon after this. But what does he mean by "tragedies"? The only tragic event in the Robin Hood tradition is the hero's death, and this must imply that by Bower's time the death story is well known. The Gest
, probably in its present shape by about the mid-fifteenth century, clearly knows of this tradition, which is itself recorded in a mid seventeenth-century ballad, as well as Munday's plays of 1598-99.
Bower places the outlaw in the context of Simon de Montfort's rebellion against Henry III, and refers to Robin as fighting among the "disinherited," the term given to the dissidents led by Simon. This change of date from Wyntoun -- which Bower must have known -- has the effect of removing the resemblance to Wallace, and Bower is in general much less pro-Scottish than Wyntoun. It also linked Robin Hood with what was eventually to be one of the central fables of English liberalism: in the nineteenth century Simon de Montfort was thought of as the founder of parliament, through forcing a consultative process on the king in the "Provisions of Oxford" in 1258. Popular political culture revived the link that Bower had imagined: G. P. R. James's Forest Days
(1843) is a rather effective historical novel about Robin the proto-parliamentarian.
Like Langland, Bower testifies to the widespread popularity of the outlaw myth in the mouths of the "foolish people," but he then gives, in Latin prose, a priceless typical version of a Robin Hood story, and it turns out to be one where the church is itself supported by the outlaw. Bower's Latin is quite difficult, not meant for public consumption; it is a message to the learned and perhaps something of a covert sharing of officially disapproved stories. Robin, deep in the forest, celebrates Mass and refuses to be disturbed by the marauding "viscount" or sheriff; he finishes his Mass and then routs the enemy -- the motif of a hero mixing devotion and casualness survives in the myth of Drake playing bowls as the Armada approached.
Robin's devotion to the Mass is found in Robin Hood and the Monk
; the nervousness of some of his followers is found again in Martin Parker's A True Tale of Robin Hood
, and the sheriff's failed excursion to the woods is a frequent feature of the tradition, early and late. But Bower's story is focussed to make Robin a hero of the church, and the fact that he transfers plunder to the church and always supports Mass-attendance conveys a polemical tone suited to Bower's own religious context.]
Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads. About whom also certain praiseworthy things are told, as appears in this -- that when once in Barnsdale, avoiding the anger of the king and the threats of the prince, he was according to his custom most devoutly hearing Mass and had no wish on any account to interrupt the service -- on a certain day, when he was hearing Mass, having been discovered in that very secluded place in the woods when the Mass was taking place by a certain sheriff (viscount
) and servant of the king, who had very often lain in wait for him previously, there came to him those who had found this out from their men to suggest that he should make every effort to flee. This, on account of his reverence for the sacrament in which he was then devoutly involved, he completely refused to do. But, the rest of his men trembling through fear of death, Robert, trusting in the one so great whom he worshipped, with the few who then bravely remained with him, confronted his enemies and easily overcame them, and enriched by the spoils he took from them and their ransom, ever afterward singled out the servants of the church and the Masses to be held in greater respect, bearing in mind what is commonly said: "God harkens to him who hears Mass frequently."
(Latin text, Child, III, 41; trans. A. I. Jones.)
Go To Selection From John Major's Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521)