The Real Robin Hood


The Hollywood film staring Russell Crowe as Robin Hood largely stuck to the script in its presentation of the legendary outlaw; Crowe playing the part of a noble hero, who resided in Nottingham, protected the poor and needy from the avaricious nobility and of course, fell madly in love with a certain Maid Marian.

However, it may surprise you to know that many of these staple ingredients of the story are not actually present in the medieval ballads on which much of the legend is originally based (the ballads can be found here) and thus the nature of the ‘real’ Robin Hood may have been rather different to what we have come to expect.

A Nottinghamshire Hero?

Think of Robin Hood and you almost immediately think of Nottingham, the city and the legend have become synonymous. However, neighbouring county Yorkshire has also staked a claim to ownership of the legend and naturally some heated discussion has ensued.

Ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode make reference to Robin’s connections with the Yorkshire town of Barnsdale and the forest of the same name. This has lead historians Richard Dobson and John Taylor in their book Rhymes of Robin Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw to suggest that the early ballads link Robin more closely to Yorkshire then Sherwood Forest and Nottingham. It has also been claimed that Robin’s grave is located at Kirklees priory in West Yorkshire.

Naturally, advocates of Robin’s Nottinghamshire connections have rejected such claims and tensions reach boiling point in 2005 when Yorkshire based Doncaster Airport reopened as ‘Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield’. In truth both counties probably have an equal claim to ownership of the legend. There is still plenty of evidence linking Robin with Nottingham and the fact Sherwood Forest is located very close to the border with Yorkshire means any real life outlaw could easily have operated in both counties.

A Romantic Outlaw?

Again one of the first things that spring to mind when thinking of Robin Hood, is the heroic outlaw’s love interest; Maid Marian. Indeed Marian is a key protagonist in almost all modern adaptations of the legend. However it may surprise you to know that Marian is entirely absent from the early ballads and as James Holt wrote in his 1982 work Robin Hood did not become a part of the legend until the late 16th century.

Indeed there are very few female characters in the early ballads, all be it for Robin Hood and the Butcher were it is subtlety suggested that Robin may have enjoyed the company of the Sheriff’s wife! However, apart from this the closest Robin comes to romance is a pious devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Stealing from the rich to give to the poor?

Yes, even this staple element of the Robin Hood legend is not really present in the early ballads. Robin and his men certainly steal, often killing their victims in the process, but there is very little mention of the rewards being redistributed amongst the poor. Indeed Robin occasionally comes into conflict with the lower orders, clashing with a potter in Robin Hood and the Potter and a butcher in Robin Hood and the Butcher.

James Holt argues that it was not until the 17th century that the notion of stealing from the rich to give to the poor became a central feature of the legend and in doing so the legend became concerned with morality as well as entertainment. However, this change in direction certainly proved popular as it still forms the basis of the legend to this day.

The Real Robin

So it would seem that the ‘real’ Robin Hood was actually quite different to the Robin of the present day; the early ballads portraying him as a rough and violent outlaw, with little time for romance and possibly stemming from Yorkshire rather then Nottingham.

However, that is not to say that we should dismiss our modern conceptions of the legend as irrelevant, indeed the way in which the story has evolved and been adapted can tell us a lot about how society and what it expects from its heroes has developed throughout history. Thus while he may have changed countless times over the centuries, one thing about Robin Hood has remained constant; he is as popular as ever.