Did Robin Hood really exist ?

Some of our early pictures were located in an area that used to be known as Barnsdale, or to be more accurate they were taken around the outskirts, as Barnsdale was a massive forested area that was larger than Sherwood, and was so dense that the abbeys and castles were built around it, not in it. Selby Abbey is at the northern end and Roche Abbey, Conisbrough and Tickhill Castles at the south, Pontefract Castle to the west.

The earliest written tales of Robin Hood all place him in Barnsdale, not Sherwood Forest, where he still had encounters with the Sheriff of Nottingham. As this confrontation is a central part to the legend, the tales of Robin have migrated to Nottingham and Sherwood Forest itself, but during the reign of King Edward II, the Sheriff did own Tickhill Castle on the edge of Barnsdale Forest and his jurisdiction extended to this area.

The earliest written account of Robin is ” The Geste of Robyn Hode ” which is essentially a written ballad printed about 1450, which most scholars seem to agree shows signs of having been made up from a number of earlier oral tales or “ballads”. Now the interesting thing about ballads is that they are a form of recording the events of the past before people could read or write, and they are based on fact.

When dealing with very old legends, the facts become a major problem, not so much because of the lack of them, but because of the way they are altered and made up over the centuries. The early ballads tell of Robin being poisoned by the abbess of Kirklees Priory ( between Wakefield and Barnsdale ), and indeed there is a very old grave there in the now ruined monastery that is marked as Robin Hood – but – records show that a Robert Hood ( and others ) of Wakefield was buried there during the Black Death in 1350, and the abbess marked their graves with a “fair stone”. In 1542 along comes a John Leyland, antiquary to Henry VIII, visited Kirklees and says “good heavens, I’ve found the grave of Robin Hood” ! and commissioned a new suitably engraved head stone. It is almost certainly not the grave of the outlaw.

Similarly we have the grave of Little John at Hathersage. This is actually almost certainly the grave a of local nailer called John who was very small, and known as little John. Again along comes someone and claims they have found the grave of Little John the Outlaw. Later the landowner had the grave opened – and found nothing except an enormous humerus bone that would have made the man seven feet tall……except the person who fastened two animal bones together in order to make the fake later admitted to it ! Yet if you search the internet you will still find references to this bone, but no mention of it being a ( rather bad ) fake.

The reason I mention this relates to the fact that just because so many of the later ‘facts” about Robin Hood have proved to be false, does not mean that he did not exist. In more recent times people that we know as having been real have had their whole characters and life stories changed over time. Take Dick Turpin for instance, round 1740, in reality a footpad and murderer with a taste for isolated farmsteads with his gang of associates, yet ends up as the dandy highway man with his faithful steed Black Bess, riding from London to York – all rubbish, but makes a better story. Later we had the mutiny on the Bounty around 1780. On returning home Captain Bligh was hailed a hero and went on the have a very successful naval chareer, yet around eighty years after his death the story began to change, turning him into the tyrant Captain that record show he certainly wasn’t. Then along came Hollywood and the new version of Bligh became the only one, with films made in 1932 and 1962. The film “The Bounty” was made in 1984 which attempted to give the true story. It is actually a very good film, but was not a box office success.

In a similar fashion Ridley Scott tried to give a more accurate picture of Robin Hood with his 2010 film, yet this wasn’t greatly successful either. It seems people prefer the popular legend, and yes, “The adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn is such a great film – but very inaccurate. The original ballads tell of Robin’s adventures in the time of King Edward, not Richard. It doesn’t say which Edward, but outlaws were at their greatest numbers during the reign of Edward II, and there is a record of a Robin Hood being in court at this time. Little John, Wil Scarlett, Much the Millar’s Son and Alan Adale are all mentioned early on, but Friar Tuck and Maid Marion are definitely later additions to the story and so almost certainly did not exist.

Based on the fact that the first ballads are all very specific to the area of Barnsdale, and that ballads were a verbal way of recording the past, I think a Robin Hood probably did exist in this area, but he wasn’t a Saxon fighting against the Normans, and he didn’t ‘steal from the rich and give to the poor”.

There is a very good website who has many interesting facts on the subject if you are interested.

Robin Hoods Roche 300x104 Did Robin Hood really exist ?

Did Robin Hood visit Roche ? Probably