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The Death of Robin Hood: Introduction

This ballad is not recorded until the Percy folio, a badly damaged copy, in the mid-seventeenth century; the first full text is from the late eighteenth-century garland The English Archer of 1786, though, as Child notes, it itself "is in the fine old strain" (III, 103). Child prints the ballad early in his collection, as no. 120. This early placement can be justified: the author of the Gest knew the tradition of Robin's death. It is presumably one of the "tragedies" which Bower mentions in the 1440s; Grafton in 1569 refers in some detail to the story, and the Sloane Life concludes with it. The details of these stories vary, though there is general agreement that a Prioress of Kirkley or Kirklees in Yorkshire, who may be related to Robin, is the main agent of his death, though Martin Parker also blames a hostile friar, and both the Gest and Percy's version involve an enemy called Roger in the hero's death. In Munday's account, Robin is poisoned by his male clerical enemies, with no Prioress involved.

The text printed here combines the two earliest texts, using the structure of the garland to fill out the Percy version where the pages have been torn (see note to line 1 for details). The story opens with a variant of Robin going off alone against his comrades' advice. He wishes to be bled at Churchlees: in Robin Hood and the Monk he wanted to visit church and in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne he merely wanted to encounter Guy alone. Here it is Will who advises Robin to take men with him. He does take John, but in one version they appear to fall out.

A new motif is the old woman they meet who was banning Robin Hood (line 40). This has been taken to mean "curse" and the sequence has seemed mysterious, but it means "lament," and this woman is, like the washer at the ford, predicting the hero's death -- a moment of some mythic force and antiquity. The Prioress overdoes the process of bleeding, and Robin has a somewhat obscure fight with Red Roger, in which the hero kills his opponent. In Percy's version John has been with Robin at Churchlees all the time, and Robin forbids him to take vengeance; in the garland version John arrives in response to his master's last call on his horn, but the effect is the same.

The motif in which Robin fires an arrow to locate his grave is not in the Percy version and is not mentioned in the earliest references, but it has become so potent it seems a proper part of the final frame, taken from the garland version. Both texts stress the natural burial place and the philosophical ending of the hero.

The Death of Robin Hood appears to be a fairly old ballad which develops the hero's end out of the familiar materials of the tradition and with some distinctly ancient and potent elements. There would seem to have been a ballad in existence by the mid-fifteenth century, and the Percy version may well have been in its present form before Grafton wrote. The text assumes a Catholic context, and the language and style are very much like that of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, though the narrator's emotive interjections at lines 69-70 and 72 seem unlike the tone of the earliest texts.

It is curious that so important and well-remembered a part of the tradition should not have been preserved in earlier form, and especially surprising that no broadside or early garland version apparently appeared, even though the garlands are constructed partly on a biographical basis. Dobson and Taylor feel that the garland version was only produced in the mid-eighteenth century (1976, p. 134), but as it is substantially the same as the earlier text this seems improbable. It may be that, unlike the more somber patterns of high art, the busy commerce of the ballad market place did not place so high a value on tragedy as on tricksterish triumphs.

This ballad combines many of the central value-laden elements of the early tradition: the protective power of the band, the special bond with John, the treachery of the regular church, a rogue knight as a fearsome enemy, the closeness of Robin to the natural world, his determined retention of high values even in -- or especially in -- a crisis. To these it adds a special sense of the mysterious potential of the hero, and the appropriate nature of his final moments as he merges into both the forest and myth.

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