Robin Hood in Historical Context

The image of Robin Hood, who “took from the rich and gave to the poor,” is legendary, made more so by many re-tellings of his supposed exploits in books, poetry, and film. Robin Hood as the archetypical “good” bandit fighting injustice on behalf of powerless people has had a powerful impact on readers and audiences while challenging populist sentiments, especially during times of social distress. The historical Robin Hood, reinterpreted over the centuries, may have been less glamorous, however, than people are led to believe.

Robin Hood, King John, and the Black Knight

The most recognizable portrait of Robin Hood probably stems from the Romanticist novel Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1819. In the story, Robin and his men assist both Ivanhoe and the Black Knight, who is actually King Richard the Lionhearted, returned from a Crusade. The story focuses on the conflict between Saxons and the Norman conquerors, dating to AD 1066 when William the Conqueror crossed the channel and defeated the Saxons at Hastings.

Scholar Gilbert Sykes Blakely, writing in 1911, comments that criticism of the chronology as set for by Scott may be unfounded and although the protagonists “seem to belong to a former generation,” the antipathy between Saxons and Normans was still evident in the late 12th century. He also refers to Robin Hood as an historical character.

Historian Joseph Dahmus places the “legendary outlaw” in the Late Middle Ages, citing folk ballads treating him as a hero. Dahmus also states that, “his name probably [belonged] originally to a mythical elf of the forest.” This would be Robin Goodfellow, a name traced to the 1530s. E. J. Hobsbawm, in his study of 19th and 20th Century social movements involving rebels, writes that Robin Hoodism “is most likely to become a major phenomenon when their [peasant or poor classes] traditional equilibrium is upset…”.

Robin Hood as a Symbol of Justice

Robin Hood fought against injustice on behalf of the powerless. He is often seen as a “yeoman,” which is a free man, identified with the land, and decidedly non-gentry. Yeomen were commoners. The legendary Robin Hood was known for his prowess as an archer and a swordsman. Friar Tuck notwithstanding, Robin Hood liberally relieved unwary clerics of their purses. This aspect of the Sherwood Forest bandit may highlight popular scorn with the established church.

Heretical movements that achieved following were very popular in pre-Reformation England. The writings and beliefs of John Wycliffe and the Lollards, for example, spread to Bohemia and influenced Jan Huss. Robin Hood’s victims were always enemies of the powerless peasants, and the wealthy church was no exception.

According to the literary legends, however, King John’s nemesis was the outlaw Robin Hood. Blakely writes that John was “handsome, able, and fortunate” but was, “nevertheless tactless vain, and treacherous.” Historians Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, however, give a different picture: “John was an efficient monarch who strove to increase his power and revenue. As this increase was bound to be at the expense of his barons, his policy was deeply resented.”

Incorrect Historical Depictions from Movies and Novels

It is doubtful that the individual who inspired the Robin Hood character ever interacted with King John. But his legend, and the stories of his exploits, made him a “Utopian” figure determined to end oppression. E. J. Hobsbawm, who sees the Robin Hood character in terms of a rural legend, likens him to other bandits in history with similar goals. These men were, “not expected to make a world of equality.”

Hobsbawm sees Robin Hood as “essentially a peasant rebelling against landlords, usurers, and other representatives of what Thomas More called the ‘conspiracy of the rich.’” The classic 1938 Hollywood film, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which starred the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, came at the height of the Great Depression when popular sentiment blamed the rich for the nation’s travails.

Robin Hood will always be an inspiration during times of distress. Mikhail Bakunin, the founder of Anarchism, wrote that, “The bandit is always a hero, the defender, the avenger of the people, the irreconcilable enemy of every state…” The legend and the retelling, however, changes with each adaption to contemporary issues.

Sources:

  • Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, Gilbert Sykes Blakely, editor and writer of the Introduction (NY: Charles E. Merrill Company, 1911)
  • Joseph Dahmus, Dictionary of Medieval Civilization (NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984)
  • E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (W. W. Norton & Company, 1959)
  • Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475, 5th Ed. (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992)