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.
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I love the way people back then just dropped letters or changed their name and nobody cared.
Thanks for writing this!
Thank you for the blog, which rings true with Robin Hood’s pardon recently found by David Pilling and Rob Lyndly, who discovered Robin was involved in the rioting at York in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. More can be seen here:
Thanks for this – will check out these links!
Well, it could have been worse, bettielee. When Humphrey Littleton was compering I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, he introduced a progamme from Nottingham by explaining that the monarch of the day had decreed that all places wth a name starting with S should drop the leading S — “a suggestion understandably resisted by the good people of Scunthorpe”.
Probably a good thing the S was dropped…don’t you think?
Wonderful post, Ivanhoe is actually next on my To-be-read list so it’s fortuitous that I read this :)
It’s a good thing its no longer called Snotingham, LOL, imagine the teasing the locals would have to endure! :D
Thanks for following-I’ve read a few of your blogs, Very interesting to say the least. Last month, I finished a book by Sharon Penman titled, Falls the Shadow. It was a loose historical fiction based around the time of Henry the III. The hero was french noble born named Simon de Montford who is purported to be the predecessor, the mold, for the later stories of Robin Hood. http://www.sharonkaypenman.com/book_page.asp?ISBN=0805003002 here’s a synopsis-its a fantastic read.
Fascinating blog, with intriguing facts. @joss1524
Another valuable post and perspective. I appreciate these sallies into history and the human perspective they bring. Thank you.
Great article, and such a fascinating subject! It also makes a lot more sense that it would be King Edward and not Richard the Lionheart, who despite being a great warrior was a terrible king, and actually forced heavy taxes on his people to finance his wars and crusades… Which would have made Robin Hood a hypocrite, if he was happy Richard was back.
Yes, good point! Richard didn’t even bother to get to know his subjects, but as you point out he taxed them heavily so he could go off and play at crusading again. Was it something like six months out of his ten-year reign that he actually spent in England? Odd that he should become the king associated with the English folk hero Robin Hood…
Yep, he barely spoke English and hated England… Way to go for the king of Britain :)
I do love your posts, IL … they are fascinating. And one totally gets why Nottingham changed its name … *snigger* although RH wearing red in the forest seems a bit dim. Perhaps he was jealous of Will Scarlet’s flamboyance … we will never know.
I absolutely adore Brit history … we have been so weird it behooves us all to keep up the tradition.
Another interesting fact: the original Robin Hood, under King Edward, might well have used a yew longbow; but when you move him back in time to the reign of King Richard, it creates a military anachronism, for the famous longbow was not it common use at that time.
Oh yes, that’s a good point – I’d forgotten that. Yes, the longbow was largely a fourteenth-century thing, wasn’t it? Enabling England to win Crecy decisively against the French.
I read somewhere that Snotingham became Nottingham because the Normans couldn’t pronounce the ‘sn’ sound. Shame. Anyway, nice post.
More than likely! Bless them…
Oh IL. You’ve brought back such wonderful memories. Robin was my boyhood hero and Maid Marian my first love. Grateful thanks. “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men. Feared by the bad, loved by the good. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood…”
My uncle was named Ivan after Ivanhoe and an aunt was known as Renie, an adaptation of Lady Rowena’s name in Scott’s novel.
It’s some time since I read up about Robin, but I first came across the Barnsdale connection in Maurice Keene’s ‘The Outlaws of Medieval Legend’ in the 70s, and I got through most of Stephen Knight’s ‘Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw’ more recently, but can’t remember much of his argument. Except that the whole story is complicated. Which, of course, it is.
This habit of dropping first letters is most annoying Knutsford named after one of England’s most famous kings gets called Nutsford
As in Cnut/Knut/Canute? Wow, never knew that. Superb, thanks! IL
You are an amazing source of knowledge!!
Why thank you!
Ah, the stuff of legends! It’s fascinating to see how the stories develop over the centuries. I imagine word of mouth spread the tales and accounts for the evolution of location and characters and all the glorious embellishments. Classic!
I know, would be fascinating to know whether the Robin Hood legends is one of these myths that started out as fact and was then embellished and elaborated down the generations… Guess we’ll never know. But I think you’re right about the evolution of the tales re their location etc…!
This is fascinating! But, whatever the truth of the matter may be, for me, Robin Hood will always be Richard Greene. And he didn’t wear Lincoln green because he was in black and white.
Haha, too true! Richard Greene was superb. I think he is more than entitled to take his place alongside (above?) Errol Flynn and Kevin Coster (and I won’t mention Russell Crowe – too late…)
That is interesting stuff! Thank you!
I think one of the more important misconceptions about Robin Hood, is that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. He actually robbed from the government which was unjustly taxing its citizens.
In the original stories, that’s true…
He robbed from the takers to give to the taken from. (:
Very likely by the time ‘Piers Ploughman’ wrote about him, Robin Hood was already a legend from the past. His goal would have been celebrated in tales for many years after him — in fact the appeal of robbing the rich to give to the poor is still with us today.