Robin Hood is first mentioned in print in the late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, which is commonly attributed to William Langland, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was a timely moment for the outlaw to enter literature: English literature as we know it was starting to emerge, and the Peasants’ Revolt – one leader of which, the priest John Ball, even quoted from Langland’s poem – occurred in 1381, shortly after Robin Hood first appeared on the literary scene. It was a time when the social order of England was being challenged and feudalism was rapidly declining.
Why is Doncaster and Sheffield’s airport named after Robin Hood? There are several reasons. First, the earliest stories which mention Robin Hood are set in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire. Yes, Robin Hood’s original home was Barnsdale Forest, not Sherwood. What’s more, the majority of the remaining woodland of Sherwood Forest is actually in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire. The fifteenth-century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode has Robin living in Barnsdale rather than Sherwood Forest. (An MP for Nottingham has recently championed an initiative to attract more tourism to the city by using the iconic Robin Hood to promote Nottingham Castle, but really, perhaps Barnsdale Forest should be using Robin to boost tourism!)
The Gest is our source of many of the familiar features of the Robin Hood story, and many of the characters – Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son – first appeared in this anonymous poem. The BBC/Talkback television series QI has even revealed that Robin Hood’s cloak was scarlet in some of the Robin Hood tales: one nineteenth-century poem, for instance, has Robin in scarlet while his men don the famous Lincoln green.
Nottingham, while we’re at it, derives its name from Snotingaham, the original name for the Saxon settlement that stood on the site of the present city: Snot was the Saxon chieftain who settled there, and somewhere along the way the initial ‘S’ was dropped.
Friar Tuck, the famous man of the cloth among Robin’s merry men, was a real person in fifteenth-century England, whose original name was Robert Stafford. He was a Sussex chaplain who assumed the name ‘Frere Tuk’ around 1417, though whether in honour of the man from the Robin Hood tales we cannot be sure. One thing we can say of Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories, though, is that Tuck wasn’t his name: the ‘tuck’ was the belt which Franciscan monks wore round their robes. (This chimes with Robin, whose second name refers to his hood, and Will Scarlet, whose ‘surname’ seems to indicate the colour of the clothing he wore.)
Robin’s king wasn’t the absent crusading Richard the Lionheart (reigned 1189-99) in the original Gest story – the Gest of Robyn Hode refers to ‘King Edward’, not Richard or John, and this puts Robin Hood later in English history, some time after 1272 when Edward I ascended the throne.
The idea of Robin being an outlawed nobleman, Robin of Locksley, derives from Sir Walter Scott’s celebrated medieval romance, Ivanhoe (1820). This novel has also been credited with helping to popularise medieval history for a generation of later writers and artists, among them Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. More recently, Scott’s novel provided the blockbuster 1991 movie starring Kevin Costner, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its source-material for the character of Robin Hood (who is known throughout as ‘Robin of Locksley’; Locksley, by the way, provides us with another Yorkshire connection, since Loxley is the name of a village and suburb of the city of Sheffield in South Yorkshire). Many people criticised Costner for playing Robin with an unashamedly American accent, but Alan Rickman himself appears to have remarked that the American accent was closer to twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon than modern British English is (whether this is in fact true, we leave in the hands of the linguists to settle in the comments section below).
Ivanhoe – since we’re mentioning Scott’s novel – was a misspelling of Ivinghoe, a place in Buckinghamshire made famous in a traditional rhyme beginning ‘Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe’. The novel also gave us the name Cedric (Scott supposedly misread a genuine Anglo-Saxon name, Cerdic, and transposed the ‘r’ and ‘d’). Footballer Emile Heskey’s middle name is Ivanhoe – the novel is reputedly his dad’s favourite.