Original ballads - 13th and 14th centuriesEdit

The earliest surviving text of a Robin Hood ballad is "Robin Hood and the Monk".[1] This is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48, which was written shortly after 1450.[2] It contains many of the elements still associated with the legend, from the Nottingham setting to the bitter enmity between Robin and the local sheriff.

File:Fairbanks Robin Hood standing by wall w sword.jpg

The first printed version is A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1475), a collection of separate stories which attempts to unite the episodes into a single continuous narrative.[3] After this comes "Robin Hood and the Potter",[4] contained in a manuscript of c. 1503. "The Potter" is markedly different in tone from "The Monk": whereas the earlier tale is "a thriller"[5] the latter is more comic, its plot involving trickery and cunning rather than straightforward force. The difference between the two texts recalls Bower's claim that Robin-tales may be both 'comedies and tragedies'.

Other early texts are dramatic pieces such as the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham[6] (c. 1472). These are particularly noteworthy as they show Robin's integration into May Day rituals towards the end of the Middle Ages; Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, among other points of interest, contains the earliest reference to Friar Tuck.

The plots of neither "the Monk" nor "the Potter" are included in the Gest; and neither is the plot of "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne" which is probably at least as old as those two ballads although preserved in a more recent copy. Each of these three ballads survived in a single copy, so it is unclear how much of the medieval legend has survived, and what has survived may not be typical of the medieval legend. It has been argued that the fact that the surviving ballads were preserved in written form in itself makes it unlikely they were typical; in particular stories with an interest for the gentry were by this view more likely to be preserved.[7] The story of Robin's aid to the "poor knight" that takes up much of the Gest may be an example.

The character of Robin in these first texts is rougher edged than in his later incarnations. In "Robin Hood and the Monk", for example, he is shown as quick tempered and violent, assaulting Little John for defeating him in an archery contest; in the same ballad Much the Miller's Son casually kills a "little page" in the course of rescuing Robin Hood from prison.[8] So does the very first recorded Robin Hood rhyme, four lines from the early 15th century, beginning: "Robyn hode in scherewode stod".[9]No extant ballad actually shows Robin Hood "giving to the poor", although in a "A Gest of Robyn Hode" Robin does make a large loan to an unfortunate knight which he does not in the end require to be repaid;[10] and later in the same ballad Robin Hood states his intention of giving money to the next traveller to come down the road if he happens to be poor.

Of my good he shall haue some,
Yf he be a por man.[11]

As it happens the next traveller is not poor, but it seems in context that Robin Hood is stating a general policy. From the beginning Robin Hood is on the side of the poor; the Gest quotes Robin Hood as instructing his men that when they rob:

loke ye do no husbonde harme
That tilleth with his ploughe.
No more ye shall no gode yeman
That walketh by gren-wode shawe;
Ne no knyght ne no squyer
That wol be a gode felawe.[12]

And in its final lines the Gest sums up:

he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god.

Within Robin Hood's band medieval forms of courtesy rather than modern ideals of equality are generally in evidence. In the early ballads Robin's men usually kneel before him in strict obedience: in A Gest of Robyn Hode the king even observes that "His men are more at his byddynge/Then my men be at myn." Their social status, as yeomen, is shown by their weapons; they use swords rather than quarterstaffs. The only character to use a quarterstaff in the early ballads is the potter, and Robin Hood does not take to a staff until the 18th century Robin Hood and Little John.[13]

The political and social assumptions underlying the early Robin Hood ballads have long been controversial. It has been influentially argued by J. C. Holt that the Robin Hood legend was cultivated in the households of the gentry, and that it would be mistaken to see in him a figure of peasant revolt. He is not a peasant but a yeoman, and his tales make no mention of the complaints of the peasants, such as oppressive taxes.[14] He appears not so much as a revolt against societal standards as an embodiment of them, being generous, pious, and courteous, opposed to stingy, worldly, and churlish foes.[15] Other scholars have by contrast stressed the subversive aspects of the legend, and see in the medieval Robin Hood ballads a plebeian literature hostile to the feudal order.[16]

File:Little John and Robin Hood by Frank Godwin.jpg

Although the term "Merry Men" belongs to a later period, the ballads do name several of Robin's companions.[17] These include Will Scarlet (or Scathlock), Much the Miller's Son, and Little John - who was called "little" as a joke, as he was quite the opposite.[18] Even though the band is regularly described as being over a hundred men, usually only three or four are specified. Some appear only once or twice in a ballad: Will Stutely in Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly and Robin Hood and Little John; David of Doncaster in Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow; Gilbert with the White Hand in A Gest of Robyn Hode; and Arthur a Bland in Robin Hood and the Tanner.[18]

15th centuryEdit

By the early 15th century at the latest, Robin Hood had become associated with May Day celebrations, with revellers dressing as Robin or as members of his band for the festivities. This was not common throughout England, but in some regions the custom lasted until Elizabethan times, and during the reign of Henry VIII, was briefly popular at court.[19] Robin was often allocated the role of a May King, presiding over games and processions, but plays were also performed with the characters in the roles,[20] sometimes performed at church ales, a means by which churches raised funds.[21]

A complaint of 1492, brought to the Star Chamber, accuses men of acting riotously by coming to a fair as Robin Hood and his men; the accused defended themselves on the grounds that the practice was a long-standing custom to raise money for churches, and they had not acted riotously but peaceably.[22] [File:Robin Hood and Maid Marian.JPG|left|thumb|Robin Hood and Maid Marian]] It is from the association with the May Games that Robin's romantic attachment to Maid Marian (or Marion) apparently stems. The naming of Marian may have come from the French pastoral play of c. 1280, the Jeu de Robin et Marion, although this play is distinct from the English legends.[19] Both Robin and Marian were certainly associated with May Day festivities in England (as was Friar Tuck), but these may have been originally two distinct types of performance - Alexander Barclay in his Ship of Fools, writing in c. 1500, refers to "some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood" - but the characters were brought together.[17] Marian did not immediately gain the unquestioned role; in Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage, his sweetheart is 'Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses'.[23] Clorinda survives in some later stories as an alias of Marian.[18]

Printed versions of the Robin Hood ballads, generally based on the Gest, appear in the early 16th century, shortly after the introduction of printing in England. Later that century Robin is promoted to the level of nobleman: he is styled Earl of Huntingdon, Robert of Locksley, or Robert Fitz Ooth. In the early ballads, by contrast, he was a member of the yeoman classes, which included common freeholders possessing a small landed estate.[24]

16th centuryEdit

In the 16th century, Robin Hood is given a specific historical setting. Up until this point there was little interest in exactly when Robin's adventures took place. The original ballads refer at various points to "King Edward", without stipulating whether this is Edward I, Edward II, or Edward III.[25] Hood may thus have been active at any point between 1272 and 1377. However, during the 16th century the stories become fixed to the 1190s, the period in which King Richard was absent from his throne, fighting in the crusades.[26] This date is first proposed by John Mair in his Historia Majoris Britanniæ (1521), and gains popular acceptance by the end of the century.

Giving Robin an aristocratic title and female love interest, and placing him in the historical context of the true king's absence, all represent moves to domesticate his legend and reconcile it to ruling powers. In this, his legend is similar to that of King Arthur, which morphed from a dangerous male-centred story to a more comfortable, chivalrous romance under the troubadours serving Eleanor of Aquitaine. From the 16th century on, the legend of Robin Hood is often used to promote the hereditary ruling class, romance, and religious piety. The "criminal" element is retained to provide dramatic colour, rather than as a real challenge to convention.[27]

17th centuryEdit

In 1598, Anthony Munday wrote a pair of plays on the Robin Hood legend, The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington (published 1601).

The continued popularity of the Robin Hood tales was attested by a number of literary references. In Shakespere''s As You Like It, the exiled duke and his men "live like the old Robin Hood of England", while Ben Jonson produced the (incomplete) masque The Sad Shepherd, or a Tale of Robin Hood[28] as a satire on Puritanism.

The 17th century introduced the minstrel Alan-a-Dale. He first appeared in a 17th century broadside ballad, and unlike many of the characters thus associated, managed to adhere to the legend.[23] This is also the era in which the character of Robin became fixed as stealing from the rich to give to the poor.[29]

18th centuryEdit

In the 18th century, the stories began to develop a slightly more farcical vein. From this period there are a number of ballads in which Robin is severely "drubbed" by a succession of professionals including a tanner, a tinker and a ranger.[26] In fact, the only character who does not get the better of Hood is the luckless Sheriff. Yet even in these ballads Robin is more than a mere simpleton: on the contrary, he often acts with great shrewdness. The tinker, setting out to capture Robin, only manages to fight with him after he has been cheated out of his money and the arrest warrant he is carrying. In Robin Hood's Golden Prize, Robin disguises himself as a friar and cheats two priests out of their cash. Even when Robin is defeated, he usually tricks his foe into letting him sound his horn, summoning the Merry Men to his aid. When his enemies do not fall for this ruse, he persuades them to drink with him instead.

19th centuryEdit

Somewhat later, Romantic poet John Keats composed Robin Hood. To A Friend[30] and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a play The Foresters, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian,[31] which was presented with incidental music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1892.

File:The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1 Title page.png

==19th and 20th centuries

The Victorian era[32] generated its own distinct versions of Robin Hood. The traditional tales were often adapted for children, most notably in Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which influenced accounts of Robin Hood through the 20th century.[33] These versions firmly stamp Robin as a staunch philanthropist, a man who takes from the rich to give to the poor. Nevertheless, the adventures are still more local than national in scope: while King Richard's participation in the Crusades is mentioned in passing, Robin takes no stand against Prince John, and plays no part in raising the ransom to free Richard. These developments are part of the 20th century Robin Hood myth.

The idea of Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon fighting Norman lords also originates in the 19th century. The most notable contributions to this idea of Robin are Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry's Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre par les Normands (1825) and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819). In this last work in particular, the modern Robin Hood - "King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows!" as Richard the Lionheart calls him - makes his debut.[34]

20th centuryEdit

The 20th century grafted still further details on to the original legends. [The 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, portrayed Robin as a hero on a national scale, leading the oppressed Saxons in revolt against their Norman overlords while Richard the Lionheart fought in the Crusades; this movie established itself so definitively that many studios resorted to movies about his son (invented for that purpose) rather than compete with the image of this one.[35]

[T.H. White]] featured Robin and his band in The Sword in the Stone - anachronistically, since the novel's chief theme is the childhood of King Arthur.[36]

In the 1973 animated Disney film Robin Hood, the title character is portrayed as an anthropomorphic fox voiced by Brian Bedford. Years before Robin Hood had even entered production, Disney had considered doing a project on Reynard the Fox. However, due to concerns that Reynard was unsuitable as a hero, animator Ken Anderson lifted many elements from Reynard into Robin Hood, thus making the titular character a fox.(Citation needed)

The 1976 British-American film Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery as Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, portrays the figures in later years after Robin has returned from service with Richard the Lion Hearted in a foreign crusade and Marian has gone into seclusion in a nunnery.

Since the 1980s, it has become commonplace to include a Saracen among the Merry Men, a trend which began with the character Nasir in the Robin of Sherwood television series. Later versions of the story have followed suit: the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and 2006 BBC TV series Robin Hood each contain equivalents of Nasir, in the figures of Azeem and Djaq respectively.[35] The latest movie version released in spring of 2010 is simply entitled Robin Hood and is directed by Ridley Scott, with Robin played by Russell Crowe.

The Robin Hood legend has thus been subject to numerous shifts and mutations throughout its history. Robin himself has evolved from a yeoman bandit to a national hero of epic proportions, who not only supports the poor by taking from the rich, but heroically defends the throne of England itself from unworthy and venal claimants.

List of traditional balladsEdit

File:Since Robin Hood by Weelkes.png

Ballads are the oldest existing form of the Robin Hood legends, although none of them are recorded at the time of the first allusions to him, and many are much later. They share many common features, often opening with praise of the greenwood and relying heavily on disguise as a plot device, but include a wide variation in tone and plot.[37] The ballads below are sorted into three groups, very roughly according to date of first known free-standing copy. Ballads whose first recorded version appears (usually incomplete) in the Percy Folio may appear in later versions[38] and may be much older than the mid 17th century when the Folio was compiled. Any ballad may be older than the oldest copy which happens to survive, or descended from a lost older ballad. For example, the plot of Robin Hood's Death, found in the Percy Folio, is summarised in the 15th-century A Gest of Robyn Hode, and it also appears in an 18th-century version.[39]

Early ballads (i.e., surviving in 15th- or early 16th-century copies)Edit

Ballads appearing in 17th-century Percy FolioEdit

NB. The first two ballads listed here (the "Death" and "Gisborne"), although preserved in 17th century copies, are generally agreed to preserve the substance of late medieval ballads. The third (the "Curtal Friar") and the fourth (the "Butcher"), also probably have late medieval origins.[40]

Other balladsEdit

Some ballads, such as Erlinton, feature Robin Hood in some variants, where the folk hero appears to be added to a ballad pre-existing him and in which he does not fit very well.[41] He was added to one variant of Rose Red and the White Lily, apparently on no more connection than that one hero of the other variants is named "Brown Robin."[42] Francis James Child indeed retitled Child ballad 102; though it was titled The Birth of Robin Hood, its clear lack of connection with the Robin Hood cycle (and connection with other, unrelated ballads) led him to title it Willie and Earl Richard's Daughter in his collection.[43]

Popular cultureEdit

Main article: Robin Hood in popular culture

See alsoEdit


  • Baldwin, David (2010). Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. Amberley Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84868-378-5. 
  • Barry, Edward (1832). Sur les vicissitudes et les transformations du cycle populaire de Robin Hood. Rignoux. 
  • Blamires, David (1998). Robin Hood: A Hero for All Times. J. Rylands Univ. Lib. of Manchester. ISBN 0-86373-136-8. 
  • Child, Francis James (1997). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 1–5. Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-43150-5. 
  • Coghlan, Ronan (2003). The Robin Hood Companion. Xiphos Books. ISBN 0-9544936-0-5. 
  • Deitweiler, Laurie, Coleman, Diane (2004). Robin Hood Comprehension Guide. Veritas Pr Inc. ISBN 1-930710-77-1. 
  • Dixon-Kennedy, Mike (2006). The Robin Hood Handbook. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3977-X. 
  • Dobson, R. B.; Taylor, John (1977). The Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-750916613. 
  • Doel, Fran, Doel, Geoff (2000). Robin Hood: Outlaw and Greenwood Myth. Tempus Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7524-1479-8. 
  • Green, Barbara (2001). Secrets of the Grave. Palmyra Press. ISBN 0-9540164-0-8. 
  • Hahn, Thomas (2000). Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression and Justice. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-564-6. 
  • Harris, P. V. (1978). Truth About Robin Hood. Linney. ISBN 0-900525-16-9. 
  • Hilton, R.H., The Origins of Robin Hood, Past and Present, No. 14. (Nov., 1958), pp. 30–44. Available online at JSTOR.
  • Holt, J. C. (1982). Robin Hood. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27541-6. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (1997). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-288045-4. 
  • Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400–1700. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-285327-9. 
  • Knight, Stephen Thomas (1994). Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-19486-X. 
  • Knight, Stephen Thomas (2003). Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-3885-3. 
  • Phillips, Helen (2005). Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-medieval. Four Courts Press. ISBN 1-85182-931-8. 
  • Pollard, A. J. (2004). Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context. Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Books Ltd. ISBN 0-415-22308-3. 
  • Potter, Lewis (1998). Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries. University of Delaware Press. ISBN 0874136636. 
  • Pringle, Patrick (1991). Stand and Deliver: Highway Men from Robin Hood to Dick Turpin. Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-698-4. 
  • Ritson, Joseph (1832). Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant Relative to That Celebrated English Outlaw: To Which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of His Life. William Pickering. ISBN 1-4212-6209-6. 
  • Rutherford-Moore, Richard (1999). The Legend of Robin Hood. Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 1-86163-069-7. 
  • Rutherford-Moore, Richard (2002). Robin Hood: On the Outlaw Trail. Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 1-86163-177-4. 
  • Vahimagi, Tise (1994). British Television: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-818336-4. 
  • Wright, Thomas (1847). Songs and Carols, now first imprinted. Percy Society. 


  1. "Robin Hood and the Monk". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  2. Introduction accompanying Knight and Ohlgren's 1997 ed.
  3. Ohlgren, Thomas, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465–1560, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007), From Script to Print: Robin Hood and the Early Printers, pp. 97–134
  4. "Robin Hood and the Potter". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  5. Holt
  6. "Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  7. Singman, Jeffrey L. Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend Published 1998, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 51 ISBN 0-313-30101-8
  8. Robin Hood and the Monk. Records also show that he lived in Wakefield, Yorkshire in the 13th and 14th centuries. From Child's edition of the ballad, online at Sacred Texts, 119A: Robin Hood and the Monk Stanza 16:
    Then Robyn goes to Notyngham,
    Hym selfe mornyng allone,
    And Litull John to mery Scherwode,
    The pathes he knew ilkone.
  9. Dobson & Taylor, p. 18: "On balance therefore these 15th-century references to the Robin Hood legend seem to suggest that during the later Middle Ages the outlaw hero was more closely related to Barnsdale than Sherwood."
  10. Holt, p. 11
  11. Child Ballads 117A:210, ie A Gest of Robyn Hode stanza 210
  12. 117A: The Gest of Robyn Hode stanzas 13–14 A Gest of Robyn Hode
  13. Holt, p. 36
  14. Holt, pp. 37–38
  15. Holt, p. 10
  16. Singman, Jeffrey L Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend, 1998, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 46, and first chapter as a whole. ISBN 0-313-30101-8
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jeffrey Richards, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, p. 190, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Lond, Henly and Boston, 1988
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Allen W. Wright, "A Beginner's Guide to Robin Hood"
  19. 19.0 19.1 Hutton, 1997, pp. 270–1
  20. Hutton, 1996, p. 32
  21. Hutton, 1996, p. 31
  22. Holt, pp. 148–9
  23. 23.0 23.1 Holt, p. 165
  24. Holt, p. 159
  25. Holt, p. 37
  26. 26.0 26.1 Holt, p. 170
  27. The Times (London), July 11, 1999
  28. "Johnson's "The Sad Shepherd"". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  29. Holt, p. 184
  30. "Keats' "Robin Hood. To a friend"". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  31. "Tennyson's "The Foresters"". Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  32. Egan, Pierce the Younger (1846). Robin Hood and Little John or The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. Pub. George Peirce. London.
  33. "Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero". From The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester. Retrieved 22 November 2008.
  34. Allen W. Wright, "Wolfshead through the Ages Revolutions and Romanticism"
  35. 35.0 35.1 Allen W. Wright, "Wolfshead through the Ages Films and Fantasy"
  36. W.R. Irwin, The Game of the Impossible, p. 151, University of Illinois Press, Urbana Chicago London, 1976
  37. Holt, pp. 34–35
  38. Dobson and Taylor, Appendix 1
  39. Dobson and Taylor, p. 133
  40. Dobson & Taylor, see introduction to each individual ballad.
  41. Child, v. 1, p. 178
  42. Child, v. 2, p. 416
  43. Child, v. 2, p. 412

External linksEdit


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