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Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham: Introduction

Notwithstanding his important role in ballads and prose fiction, Robin Hood would have been best known in communities throughout fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain as the subject of a wide range of theatrical and quasi-theatrical entertainments. Most took the form of ceremonial games, dances, pageants, processions, and other mimetic events of popular culture of which we only get a fleeting glimpse in surviving civic and ecclesiastical records. Revels featuring the legendary outlaw appear to have surged in growth towards the close of the fifteenth century and remained popular from the royal court to the rural village green throughout the following century (Lancashire, p. xxvi). Indeed, it is not exaggerating to say that Robin Hood plays and games were the most popular form of secular dramatic entertainment in provincial England for most of the sixteenth century (for records of performance, see Lancashire, index under "Robin Hood"). This is generally unrecognized by both literary and theatrical historians, many of whom assume that the Tudor Reformation quickly put an end to such popular pastimes -- it did not (White, p. 163). But there are other reasons for overlooking Robin Hood spectacles: few Robin Hood play scripts survive (folk plays were rarely written down and published) and only in the past few years have archivists and provincial historians (many working on the Records of Early English Drama project) begun to document in a systematic way records of theatrical entertainment in early modern England.

Although the first record of a Robin Hood play is from Exeter in 1426-27 (Lancashire, p. 134), the earliest extant play text, a twenty-one line dramatic fragment from East Anglia known as Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, is dated half-a-century later. The text is written on one side of a single sheet of paper, now housed in Trinity College Library, Cambridge; the other side of the page, in a hand thought to be from the same period, contains accounts of money received by one John Sterndalle in 1475-76 (Dobson and Taylor, p. 203). Scholars connect the manuscript to Sir John Paston, who, in a letter of April 1473, complains that his horse-keeper W. Wood has "goon into Bernysdale" (i.e., left his service). Paston further remarks that "I have kepyd hym thys iij. yer to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham" (Gairdner, p. 185). It would appear, therefore, that this script is of a Robin Hood play sponsored by the household of this well-to-do Norwich gentleman and performed by his servants in the early 1470s.

As the transcription of the manuscript version, which lacks speaker rubrics, scene divisions, and stage directions, makes clear, the text is more of "a scenario or mnemonic providing a framework for improvisation" than a finished script (Wiles, p. 37). While there are certainly ambiguities in the text, the settings, speakers, and actions, especially in the first scene, are relatively easy to follow, which suggests that the script may be complete as it stands. The mentions of the lynde in line 3 and the prysone in line 20 indicate that there are two fictional settings: the greenwood and a prison. We say "fictional" because the staging conventions of the time required little more than a spacious outdoor playing area -- perhaps a field near the Paston household, where archery, wrestling, and stone-throwing competitions could take place freely. The dialogue, much of it in direct address, often mentions the addressee's name: Syr Sheryffe (line 1), Robyn Hode (line 5), Syr Knyght (line 15), indicating a cast of three actors for the scene, possibly others if Robin's men appear when summoned (line 17). Likewise, the simple active verbs identify most of the actions and act as stage directions: caste the stone (line 11), blowe myn horne (line 17), and off I smyte (line 22). The second scene, however, is much less clear in speaker identity and action, although it is reasonable to conclude that it requires seven or more actors to play two unnamed outlaws, Friar Tuck, the Sheriff, his deputies, and Robin Hood.

The minimal dialogue and the active verbs underscore the real appeal of the play -- improvisational action. What is important here is robust activity: an archery match, stone throwing, tossing the pole ("caber" in Scotland), wrestling, and vigorous sword fighting. "The dialogue," as David Wiles observes, "serves simply to punctuate the action" (pp. 31, 37). The various sporting competitions are akin to those performed in May games, of which, in many communities, Robin Hood plays formed an important part (see Introduction to Robyn Hood and the Friar and Robyn Hood and the Potter, pp. 281-84), and the climactic hero-combat of the first scene and the melee at the end of the second recall two other types of folk drama popular in the fifteenth century, the St. George play and the Hock Tuesday play. Not surprisingly, Paston's servant/player, Wood, excelled in the St. George play as well (see Mills, pp. 136-37).

As mentioned above, the plot of the first scene is relatively straightforward. An unidentified knight offers to capture Robin Hood, and the sheriff agrees, offering to pay him golde and fee. The sheriff apparently withdraws, while the knight confronts Robin under a tree and challenges him to an archery contest. The shooting match proceeds, and Robin wins when he splits the target. Next the pair compete at stone casting, pole throwing, and wrestling. Robin wins one fall, while the knight wins the other. After being thrown, Robin curses the knight and blows his horn to summon help from his companions. Robin then challenges the knight to a sword fight to the death, and Robin kills the knight and cuts off his head, placing the severed head in his hood. Robin then dons the knight's attire, and the first scene ends. As David Mills remarks, a good part of the play's impact derives "from the comic social inversion of the knight's defeat, and a further part from the recognition and dramatic frustration of the 'death-resurrection-triumph' pattern of hero-combat plays. The knight's death here is final, followed by his functional beheading (to prevent identification?)" (Mills, p. 136).

The second scene begins when two unidentified outlaws greet each other, one telling the other that Robin and some of his men have been captured by the sheriff. (This revelation does not follow logically from what has happened at the end of the first scene, when Robin kills the bounty-hunting knight and dons his clothing. In order for the second scene to make sense, Robin has to have been identified and captured by the sheriff; so something is missing here.) The two outlaws then agree to sette on foote (line 29) in order to find and kill the sheriff. On route to town, they see Friar Tuck drawing his bow; he is single-handedly fighting the sheriff and his men. The three of them are suddenly surrounded and ordered to yield. One of the outlaws (Little John?), addressing Friar Tuck, exclaims that they have been captured and bound. As the three outlaws are taken to the gates of the prison, the sheriff orders the fals outlawe (line 37), presumably Robin Hood who is inside, to come out to face his execution. As the gates are opened for the thevys to go in -- and this is conjectural -- Robin and the men inside jump the sheriff and his men, rescue the three outlaws outside, and escape. This reading resolves the problem, as created by Wiles and others, of having Robin, still in disguise as the knight, show up to rescue his men and throw the sheriff in prison. While Wiles's reading gives the play ironic closure -- the "jailer jailed" -- it ignores the fact that Robin has been taken prisoner in lines 27-28.

Much of the critical commentary has attempted to link the play to the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. While there are similarities -- the sheriff hires a bounty-hunter to kill Robin, Robin and the antagonist engage in a shooting match and a sword fight, Robin decapitates his enemy and blows a horn, and Robin frees Little John from the sheriff -- the major differences suggest instead that the play and the ballad share a common but distant source.

Two other points are worth noting. First, the references to Frere Tuke in lines 31 and 36 of the play are significant because they mark the first appearance of the outlaw ecclesiastic in literature. The early ballads -- Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, and the Gest -- feature Robin, Little John, Much, and Will, but not Friar Tuck. In Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin is forced to go to Nottingham to attend mass because he has no chaplain in Sherwood. Like Maid Marian, Friar Tuck enters the legend relatively late and from a source different from the early ballads. One theory identifies Friar Tuck as the criminal alias of a historical outlaw, Robert Stafford, chaplain of Lindfield, Sussex, who was charged in 1417 with a variety of serious offenses, including poaching, robbery, and murder (Holt, 1989, 58-59). Another theory connects Friar Tuck to the morris dances, in which a friar is paired with a "girlfriend," popularly identified as Maid Marian. The morris dance, however, is a late medieval, if not a Tudor, development, and, hence, too late to have influenced the 1475 play (Knight, 1994, p. 104). A third theory, not mentioned by previous commentators, is that Friar Tuck is somehow related to another historical outlaw, Eustache the Monk (c. 1170-1217), who is the subject of a thirteenth-century French romance, Li Romans de Witasse le Moine. After his father was murdered, Eustache left the abbey of Saint Samer and demanded justice from the count of Boulogne. When Eustache's champion loses the judicial duel, his lands and titles are confiscated by the count. Eustache escapes and disguises himself as a monk, calling himself Witasse le Moine. Using a variety of other disguises and tricks, Eustache exacts his revenge on the count by harrying his men and stealing his property. Eustache was not unknown in England, where for a time he supported the cause of King John against the French. Switching sides, he was killed by the English in a naval battle at Sandwich in 1217. In The Lost Literature of Medieval England (London: Methuen, 1970), R. M. Wilson observes that the stories of Eustache were well-known in England (p. 117). Among other accounts, now lost, two fourteenth-century chroniclers, John of Canterbury and William of Guisborough, recounted his adventures.

Of further significance is that the play, like contemporary ballads and commentary through to the mid-sixteenth century, emphasizes Robin Hood as a "figure of anarchy rather than of justice" (Mills, p. 133) who is openly defiant of constituted authority. Not surprisingly, some government officials perceived the plays as politically subversive. Around 1540, Richard Morrison, an advisor to Henry VIII, condemned "the lewdenes and ribawdry that there is opened to the people, disobedience also to your [i.e., the King's] officers, is tought, whilest these good bloodes go about to take from the shiref of Notyngham one that for offendyng the lawes should have suffered execution" (text in Anglo; see p. 179). Critics in the past have explained the inversion of authority in the plays as a civic-and-church sponsored "safety-valve" to release pent-up frustrations of the common people, and indeed at least one contemporary reported that the mock fighting was a useful form of military exercise for the citizenry preparing for invasion and war (Child, III, 45). Nevertheless some recent scholarship has connected seasonal festivity involving Robin Hood to popular resistance and even peasant rebellions (Billington, p. 1). Certainly there are instances of social disorder, even riots, occasioned by Robin Hood games, but surviving records are either ambiguous about the cause of disorder or indicate that the riots, or threatened riots, arose from prohibitions against the popular revels (Lancashire, p. 91). Moreover, studies undertaken by Peter Greenfield and James Stokes demonstrate that in the majority of cases in provincial towns of England, "Robin Hood games and king-ales function as charitable fund-raisers, authorized by and organized by local officials -- usually the churchwardens -- and usually culminating in a communal feast," and that they are "anything but spontaneous expressions of popular resistance to authority" (Greenfield, p. 2; Stokes).

The text of the dramatic fragment is presented in two versions: an exact transcription of the manuscript, retaining the spellings and punctuation, and a conjectural reconstruction of the fragment in two scenes.

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Selected Bibliography


Trinity College Library, Cambridge, R.2.64 (fragment).


Child, F. J., ed. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1882-98; rpt. New York: Dover, 1965. Vol III, 90-91.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robin Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. London: William Heinemann, 1976. Pp. 203-07.

Greg, W. W., ed. "Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, A Dramatic Fragment." Collections Part II. The Malone Society. Vol. 1. Oxford, 1908. Pp. 120-24.

Manly, J. M., ed. Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama, I. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1897. Pp. 279-81.

Wiles, David. The Early Plays of Robin Hood. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981.

Commentary and Criticism

Anglo, Sydney. "An Early Tudor Programme for Plays and Other Demonstrations against the Pope." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 (1957), 176-79.

Billington, Sandra. Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. P. 1.

Chambers, E. K. The English Folk-Play. Oxford, 1933.

------. The Medieval Stage, I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953. Pp. 160-81.

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

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. London: William Heinemann, 1976.

Gairdner, James, ed. The Paston Letters A.D. 1422-1509. New York: AMS Press, 1965.

Greenfield, Peter. "The Carnivalesque in the King Ales and Robin Hood Games of Southern England." Unpublished paper presented at S. I. T. M., August 3, 1995.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982. Second ed. 1989. [Chap. VI.]

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

Lancashire, Ian. Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

MacLean, Sally-Beth. "King Games and Robin Hood: Play and Profit at Kingston upon Thames." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 29 (1986-87), 85-93.

Mills, David. "Drama and Folk-Ritual." The Revels History of Drama in English, Volume I: Medieval Drama. London: Methuen, 1983. Pp. 122-51.

Stokes, James. "Robin Hood and the Churchwardens in Yeovil." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 3 (1986), 4.

White, Paul Whitfield. Theatre and Reformation: Protestantism, Patronage, and Playing in Tudor England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Wiles, David. The Early Plays of Robin Hood. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981.

Wilson, R. M. The Lost Literature of Medieval England. London: Methuen, 1970.