Robin, or Robert, is one of the most common medieval names. Hood is not an uncommon last name, especially in Yorkshire, where many Robin Hood stories are set. So, we've found quite a few historical Robin Hoods. This section will review the major choices for a real Robin Hood, mention the dark horse candidates and outlaws who just borrowed the name of the famous wolfshead, and round off with a look at real and legendary outlaws whose adventures were absorbed into the Robin Hood legend.
For centuries chroniclers wrote about when Robin Hood lived. However, their dates conflicted each other, and we don't know the chroniclers' reasoning for picking various dates. As you'll read below, someone fabricated a family tree for Robin Hood. But in 1852, Joseph Hunter, a clergyman and assistant keeper of records, published a book offering proof of a real Robin Hood.
One of the earliest surviving ballads is A Gest of Robyn Hode. In the Gest, a "comely" king named Edward is travelling around the country. He meets Robin Hood, pardons him, and Robin goes to work in his court. Fifteen months later, Robin goes broke, gets bored, and returns to his outlaw life.
Edward II is said to have been handsome and extensively travelled England. Details of the king's progress in the Gest match a journey made by Edward II between April and November of 1323.
And Hunter discovered a Robyn Hood who served as a porter to the king's court between March 24 and November 22, 1324. In the last court entry, this Robyn was paid off because "he can no longer work". This historical Robyn was at the right place, the right time, and in the right sort of job for the Robin Hood of an important early ballad.
Hunter went on to speculate that this Robyn Hood was the same as Robert Hood, a tenant of Wakefield, Yorkshire who is mentioned in 1316-7. Wakefield is only 10 miles from Barnsdale, the medieval home of the legendary Robin Hood. And Robert's wife was named Matilda, Maid Marian's true name in two Elizabethan plays. A later writer discovered that Robert, like the legendary Robin Hood in some tales, may have been the son of a forester named Adam.
Hunter and others after him speculate that Robert Hood of Wakefield got involved in the rebellion against King Edward II that was led by Thomas of Lancaster in 1322, that Robin was outlawed, and later pardoned by the king when Edward visited Nottingham in November, 1323.
But there's no proof that Robert and Robyn were the same person, that either of them was a Lancasterian rebel, or that they were outlaws. And a record turned up showing Robyn was in the king's service on June 27, 1323, before the king's trip to Nottingham. J.C. Holt writes "this one reference destroys the coincidence of detail which made Hunter's argument seem so attractive." (p.50).
But these problems haven't stopped people believing in this Robin Hood. There are ways to explain the awkward dating. So this theory still has some fans. And even those who don't believe in it will acknowledge that a real Robin Hood might have come from Wakefield, where Hoods lived for centuries. Holt concluded "Either the Hoods of Wakefield gave Robin to the world, or they absorbed the tale of the outlaw into their family traditions or their neighbours and descendants came to associate the two. Of these the last is the most likely." (p.51)
The first literary reference to Robin Hood is in 1377. Much of the social background in the early ballads resembles the 14th century (the time of the previous real Robin Hood candidate.) But there are some reasons to believe that the Robin Hood legend was alive and well in the 13th century, too. Hence, some historians like J. C. Holt prefer an earlier real Robin Hood.
The most promising of the early real Robin Hoods was discovered by L.V.D. Owen in 1936. The Yorkshire assize roles for 1225-1226 mention that "Robert Hod, fugitive" had chattels worth 32s. 6d. (s is for shilling, d is for pence -- ah, the joys of pre-decimal British currency.) The same outlaw turns up in entries for later years, once under the nickname Hobbehod.
The money was owed to the Liberty of St. Peter's York, Professor James C. Holt notes this means he was a tenant of the archbishop of York. And while in the ballads Robin Hood fought against an abbot from York, the legendary Robin didn't live very near to the archbishop's lands.
Unfortunately, most of the records were lost. We know very little about this outlaw. But Dr. David Crook believes him to be the outlaw known as Robert of Wetherby. We don't know that much more about Robin of Wetherby either, but we do know what it cost to kill him.
There's a record of a hunt to find Robert of Wetherby "outlaw and evildoer of our land". This initially cost 40s. The next year 28s. were added to the cost of trying to behead him. And finally there's an order of 2s for a chain to hang Wetherby. It seems this outlaw met a bad end at the hands of the sheriff.
Eustace of Lowdham, the sheriff and later deputy sheriff of Yorkshire (the one who would have been responsible for collecting Hobbehod's chattels and hunting down Robert of Wetherby) in 1225-6 had previously been the very influential deputy sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire for several years. Crook postulates that he may have had connections in the Barnsdale area and would possibly have been known there as the sheriff of Nottingham. After his tenure as a Yorkshire sheriff, he later went on to became the full sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
Crook nicely summarizes the problem in making a positive identification of Hobbehod with Wetherby. "All that can be said for sure is that the two men shared the same, very common, forename and fell foul of the law in the same, very large, county at about the same time."
But unlike the Robyn Hode of the 1320s (and other possible Robin Hoods), we know for sure that Hobbehod and Wetherby were outlaws or was an outlaw. And that counts for something -- although not much.
But why not look for Robin Hood in his legendary birthplace Loxley? Well, people have.
An anonymous manuscript (called the Sloane manuscript) from around AD 1600 says Robin Hood was born in Locksley. This was probably meant to be the real village of Loxley in Yorkshire, although many later writers have moved "Locksley" to Nottinghamshire where most modern Robin Hood stories are set.
But in J. R. Planché's 1864 paper, "A Ramble with Robin Hood", the spotlight was turned on another Loxley, a village in Warwickshire (not far from Shakespeare's home of Stratford-upon-Avon).
One of the fictional names for Robin Hood is Robert Fitzooth (see the Huntingdon entry). And in the reign of Henry II and Richard I, a knight named Robert Fitz Odo lived in Loxley, Warwickshire.
The 1196 Register of Arms says Fitz Odo is no longer a knight. It would seem he died. But in 1203, there's a reference to a Robert fitz Odo living nearby.
Oh, and 1665 drawing of Robin's grave resembles a grave in Loxley.
But we have no evidence that Fitz Odo was ever an outlaw. We have no evidence that the Loxley grave is his. And the Robin Hood of the early ballads is not a knight. But Planché and recent writers Phillips and Keatman speculate on how Fitz Odo might have been outlawed, how his life might have inspired or at least influenced the Robin Hood stories. The speculation, in my opinion, went out of control.
In the earliest tellings of the Robin Hood legend, the outlaw hero is a yeoman (roughly speaking, a member of the middle class). But with time the Robin Hood of legend moved up in the world. By the mid-1500s, he was said to be an earl. And in 1599, Anthony Munday wrote two plays that made Robin Hood the outlawed Earl of Huntingdon (or Huntington as Munday spelled it).
No one is quite sure why Munday picked the earldom of Huntingdon for Robin Hood. Perhaps he just thought the "Hunting" part of the name sounded appropriate. Maybe it was propaganda for an earl which had lived earlier in the 16th century.
Or perhaps he was inspired by the real-life earl of Huntingdon during the reigns of King Richard I and John when the plays were set.
Stephen Knight has pointed out that Robin's home in some tales was Barnsdale in Yorkshire. There was also a Barnsdale in Rutland though, and in King Richard's day, it was controlled by the earl of Huntingdon. This fact may have been known by Munday through his archivist friend, John Stow. But in the medieval period, the Rutland Barnsdale was known as Bernardshill. Thus the Rutland connection is less likely than it first seems.
But there are Robin Hood elements to the career of the real earl of Huntingdon.
His name was David, brother to William the Lion, king of Scotland. For nearly thirty years, Earl David was next in line for the Scottish throne. Through both of his daughters, Earl David was the direct ancestor of Scottish kings. He held many lands in both Scotland and England. He was a very important figure in Anglo-Scottish diplomacy. And details of Earl David's life are well chronicled and collected in Earl David of Huntingdon 1152-1219 A Study in Anglo-Scottish History by K.J. Stringer. Edinburgh University Press, 1985. Most of the details that follow are from that book.
Henry II's children often rebelled against him. Henry II gave a lot of power to his eldest son (who died before Henry II) Henry, hence this prince Henry was known as the Young King. Earl David of Huntingdon participated in the Young King's 1174 rebellion against his father, after which David lost the earldom for ten years. (Although it had been granted to him in the first place by William of Scotland and the Young Henry, not Henry II.)
He made up with Henry II, and attended a Christmas Court with him. And participated in Richard's coronation.
Earl David got married to Maud in 1190. She was also called Matilda (a form of Maud). In Munday's play, Maid Marian's real name was Matilda Fitzwater. Maud was the granddaughter of one Rannulf, Earl of Chester and sister to another Rannulf, Earl of Chester. When the later Ranulf died in 1232, Earl David's son John became both the earl of Huntingdon and Chester. This is important because the very first literary reference we can find for Robin Hood ballads refers to the "rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre". As you can see, there are ties of blood between the earldoms of Huntingdon and Chester.
Anyway, shortly after the marriage (which took place two weeks after Richard left for the Crusades), David disappears from the records for three and a half years. Some later chroniclers, like John of Fordun, say he went on the Third Crusade. But there are no contemporary references to support that.
Another unsupported thing Fordun mentions is that David had a son named Robert who died in infancy. So, in a chronicle that Munday may well have read the name Robert and Huntingdon are, however mildly, linked. (Later stories have sometimes made Robin the son of the Earl of Huntingdon. Seeing as the possibly real Robert of Huntingdon died in infancy, any outlaw career would be exceedingly brief.)
Shortly after David reappears in 1194, he participates in a very Robin Hood like event. I'll just quote my source directly here.
"Roger of Howden reports that in March hesupported [Archbishop of Canterbury] Hubert Walter against Count John of Mortain, acting with the earl of Chester to beseige Nottingham as King Richard was preparing toreturn to England from captivity. Upon Richard's arrival the castle fell and Earl David held a place of honour at the council on 30 March following the submission."
Marching on Nottingham, in support of King Richard, against Prince (or Count, to use another of his titles) John? This resembles some versions of Robin's reconciliation with the king. In Munday's plays, Robin supports Richard and opposes John.
But Richard died, and the man whose supporters the earl marched against was vying for the throne. Although Earl David did support King John's claim in 1199, David lost much of his position in the English court.
Early mentions of Robin Hood's earldom say he was outlawed for debts. This is something Munday picked up on. Earl David had his own financial woes, connected with forest offences. He was fined 200 pounds for "encroachment as a result of the forest eyre of 1207-9, contrary to the liberties of the Huntingdon honour."This was later forgiven. But in 1211, he owed 1,100 pounds to the Exchequer, and had to sell off some of his land.
In 1212, Earl David was accused as being part of a plot to assassinate King John. David's role was not proven in this affair. But one of the men behind this conspiracy was Robert FitzWalter, father of the Matilda who was Marian in Munday's plays.
And later still Earl David was part of a rebellion against his king. Forced on by his nephew Alexander, the current king of Scotland, he sided against King John in the barons conflict between 1215-16. In November 1215, the king's men started seizng Earl David's lands.
"By March 1216, the whole Huntingdon honour, saving the fees of those sub-tenants in John's peace, had passed into the custody of the king's mercenary captain, Gerard de Sottenghem; subsequently it was transferred to William Marshall junior."
Earl David did make peace in the reign of Henry III.
But there are still more Robin Hood connections. David's daughter Isabella married Robert Bruce (an ancestor of the famous one). The Bruces had power in Guisborough, Yorkshire. This place (according to John Bellamy and others) was also known as Gisburne in the middle ages and is a candidate for the home of Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood's legendary adversary.
Some of Stringer's sources include the chroniclers who made the earliest historical mentions to Robin Hood -- Fordun, Wyntoun, and Major. As I said, Earl David was a major power in the time. Therefore, I'd gather he would be important to the Scottish chroniclers. And any Elizabethan playwright looking to find an earldom for Robin would be turn to these same chroniclers which mentioned both Robin Hood and Earl David.
Earl David has connections with Rannulf of Chester, Nottingham, rebellion, Matilda, the Fitzwalters, Kings Richard, Henry II and John, and even a place named Gisburne. And he lost his earldom twice. He had problems with debts, including forest offences. Earl David opposed King John on more than one occasion. I am in no way suggesting that Earl David actually was Robin Hood, or inspired the earliest legend. But it seems to me that Munday could have been influenced by some of these things when he selected which earldom to give to Robin Hood.
But after Munday, it wouldn't do to have a real Robin Hood named David. So, in 1746, Dr. William Stukeley combed through old family records, changed a name here, forged a whole family there, and "discovered" the quite fictitious Robert fitz Ooth, Norman lord of Kime and pretended earl of Huntingdon. This fictional Fitzooth background was used by many later writers.
Ever since Ivanhoe in 1819, people think of Robin Hood as a Saxon hero. But Fitz Ooth is a Norman name, as is Robert (and Robin) for that matter. And even the Scottish Earl David was largely Norman. In fact, William the Conqueror was a part of David's family tree. But there was a Saxon earl of Huntingdon who led a rebellion against his Norman masters.
In 1075, Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon rose up against William the Conqueror. This earl was crushed. Of course, William the Conqueror lived one or two hundred years before most Robin Hood stories are set. Most, not all. Parke Godwin set his 1991 novel Sherwood in William and Waltheof's day. But far from being the earl of Huntingdon, Godwin's Saxon Robin actually sided with the king to stop the power hungry earl, a fellow Saxon.
Although Robin's adversary in modern fiction, Waltheof was useful to the writers of the 19th century who felt uncomfortable with Norman heritage of Stukeley's Huntingdon family tree. In 1887, E. Stredder proposed that Robin Hood was a descendant of Waltheof and stressed Robin's Saxon ancestry. Stephanie L. Barczewski, author of Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, dismisses Stredder's obscure claim by noting the lack of evidence and calling it "just as outlandish as Stukeley's had been". (p. 139) Stukeley had also included Waltheof on his much more Norman-influenced pedigree.
Here are a couple of the outside candidates for a real Robin Hood.
Perhaps the earliest outlaw Robin Hood is Robert Hood, servant of the Abbot of Cirencester. Sometime between 1213 and 1216, he murdered a man named Ralph in the abbot's garden. Most Robin Hood legends stories do give the legendary outlaw a grudge against the church. But J.C. Holt dismisses this one as being too far from Robin's usual setting.
And 1354, there was Robin Hood was in a Rockingham jail for forest offences. Holt feels this one wasn't successful enough to inspire a legend. Also, he lived too close to the first literary reference to Robin Hood in 1377 for tall tales to grow.
Local Nottingham historian Jim Lees theorizes that Robin Hood was really a minor 13th century nobleman named Robert de Kyme. In Stukeley's bogus pedigree, Robin Hood is a lord of Kime. However, it seems like Lees' conclusions are not widely accepted.
There are clearly many Roberts or Robin Hoods. But what if Robin Hood's real name wasn't Robin Hood?
There are several records of criminals with other names who are called Robin Hood in reference to the legend.
In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.
In 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang "We are Robynhodesmen -- war, war, war."
In 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale. Clearly Robin was a name associated with rebellion.
And chroniclers compared outlaws to Robin Hood such as the Derbyshire outlaw Piers Venables who in 1439 rescued prisoners. The record of the event states "beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection wente into the woodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meyne."
Into the reign of James I, the criminals behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament were called "Robin Hoods" by Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury and the king's principal secretary. Even today, there are criminals, ecological movements and others assuming the name of Robin Hood.
Comparisons to Robin Hood may have been going on a very long time. There are court roles where criminals are given the last name "robehood." Holt, in particular, believes these are clearly inspired the stories of the famous outlaw. The earliest example of this was discovered by David Crook in 1984. The memoranda roll for 1261 refers to a Berkshire fugitive William, son of Robert le Fevre (Smith). But the roll from 1262 calls the same outlaw "William Robehod". Some historians believe that who ever wrote the second entry was probably thinking William was like a Robin Hood at the time.
It's possible that a real man may have inspired the Robin Hood aliases. But Barrie Dobson thinks that perhaps Robin Hood was merely a nickname for criminals. After a while, a minstrel might have composed a ballad turning the common nickname into an actual person. Perhaps the alias "Robin Hood" came before the man "Robin Hood."
The great 19th century ballad collector, Francis Child, said that Robin was "absolutely a creation of the ballad-muse."
Related to the idea of Robin Hood as a purely fictional character is the idea that he is a mythological one.
Along these lines, Stephen Knight said in an interview,
"I'm skeptical that there was a real Robin Hood. I think it is a mythic name like Santa Claus. You become Santa Claus when you put a beard on and give presents to children at Christmas. And you become Robin Hood when you're an outlaw, and live in the forest shooting the king's deer. That did happen."
Criminals weren't the only to take the name "Robin Hood". The outlaw legend became a celebrated part of the May Games. Robin was seen as a mythic summer king leading a procession. This tied Robin into other forest legends.
The first Robin Hood play is recorded as being performed at Exeter, not long after the first May Games are recorded there. Professor Lorraine Stock notes that Exeter Cathedral is filled with "Green Man" imagery, the human head with foliage growing out of his mouth. The Green Man, like Robin, has ties to the virgin Mary. (The Exeter Cathedral is dedicated to her.) And Stock feels that the traditions of the Green Man, and the Wild Man, influenced the growth of the Robin Hood legend.
In the Middle Ages, Robin was a common name for the devil. And mythic historians have associated him with the Teutonic elf Hodekin, Woden (the Germanic Odin) and the sprite or hobgoblin known as Robin Goodfellow, sometimes called Puck.
Knight points out that the two Robins have certain things in common. It's true that both are trickster figures. Both Robins mislead travellers. Where Puck can magically turn into animals like a horse, Robin Hood often wears disguises including Guy of Gisborne's costume made of horse hide.
On the subject of costume, Robin traditionally dresses in green, the Celtic colour of death, which is in some stories associated with the devil. And green is the most traditional colour of the fairies. The lincoln green tights of Robin don't look that different than the classic Peter Pan costume. In the Gest and other stories, Robin dresses in red. Red is the second most common fairy colour.
Gillian Edwards notes that the Goodfellow in Robin Goodfellow's name could either mean a boon companion or thief. "If you were one of Hood's archers and looked upon him as a boon companion, or the Sheriff of Nottingham and pursued him as a thief, you might consider him equally well-named Robin Goodfellow." But since the Robin Goodfellow ballads appear later than the Robin Hood ones, it's possible that the faerie may have taken his name from the outlaw -- not the other way around. For more information on Robin Goodfellow, check out my Puck page.
Some have claimed Robin Hood comes from Robin of the Wood. But all the early ballads call him "Hood". It's only later stories that refer to the outlaw as "Robin Whood." And there is no overt magic in the early stories. It is in tales like Ben Jonson's unfinished play from the 1630s, The Sad Shepherd where witches and Puck appear in the Robin Hood legend.
Robin Hood as a creature of myth has become very popular in recent years. One of the best examples is 1980s television series Robin of Sherwood where Robin Hood is the servant of the stag-headed Herne the Hunter. And it's tempting to make Robin Hood a leader in the underground "witch cults" that Margaret Murray claimed, with some exaggeration, existed. But some historians who suggest that Robin was the leader of coven point to the 12-13 members in the Merry Men. There are usually far more than 13 Merry Men in the ballads. While clearly the Robin Hood legend does owe something to magical legends, there seems little historical basis for the more extreme mythic claims.
John Matthews expands on the mythological view of Robin Hood in his 1993 book, Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood. But his arguments have little support and he makes some errors of fact. Matthews does, however, have a better understanding of the Robin Hood legend than Murray did. And the mythological approach should not be entirely dismissed.
While Robin has parallels in the Puck legends, his early tales more closely resemble other outlaw tales of the time -- many of which have more myth in them than the Robin Hood legend.
Much of Robin Hood's fictional life may have been borrowed from the legends inspired by several real life outlaws. Holt, and many others, summarized their careers.
Hereward, called Hereward the Wake in the legend that grew around him, lived in the time of William the Conqueror. He rebelled against the Normans in the 1070s and had many followers in his stronghold in the fenlands known as the Isle of Ely. He was defeated, but a Hereward turns up as a landholder in 1086. Perhaps like Robin, he made paece with the king. Legend has exaggerated his career. But here was a real outlaw who fought Normans. Surely the Saxon freedom fighter Robin becomes after Ivanhoe in 1819 is in part based off Hereward.
Eustace the Monk was indeed a monk. But when he left the monastery to avenge his father's murder, he became a soldier of fortune who worked for both the French and English kings in the early 13th century. His pirate navy was the scourge of the channel. But for the early part of his outlaw career, he lived in the forest. The legendary Eustace was said to have power from the devil. He met a grisly end when he was beheaded in 1217.
Fulk fitz Warin was a baron from Shropshire in the Welsh Marchs. In 1200, he was outlawed and may have murdered someone who claimed of a piece of Fulk's land. He lived in the forest for three years and waged war against King John. In 1203, he was pardoned, but later joined the barons who wanted Magna Carta. Many, like Knight, argue that Robin Hood's earldom in later stories was inspired by tales of Fulk. The romance of Fulk's life said 15 knights were sent after him. Fulk killed all but one. Centuries later, a ballad says Robin Hood became an outlaw when he killed 14 foresters.
Also, there's the legend of William Wallace, the Scottish rebel known to moviegoers everywhere as "Braveheart". The very same chroniclers who make early Robin Hood references portray Wallace as a forest outlaw. One account from 1500 calls him a "Scottish Robin Hood". But the William Wallace tales appear at the same time or before the surviving Robin Hood legends. It would be too simple, and mostly wrong, to merely dismiss Robin as an English Wallace. But Stephen Knight notes that Scotland has always had a strong interest in Robin Hood. And so many of the English outlaw's ballads may have been partly inspired by the Scottish outlaw. Scottish chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun places Robin Hood in 1283, about 15 years before Wallace's real life activities.
The stories of all these figures have parallels to Robin Hood. Some adopt the same disguises as Robin, particularly that of a potter. Some apply the same tests of honesty to their victims or treat them in a similar fashion. There are similarities in both plot and language between the romances of these real life outlaws and the early ballads of Robin Hood.
Another real outlaw is Roger Godberd, leader of a band who fought in Nottinghamshire and other places, including a forest -- although this one was Leicestershire's Charnwood, not Sherwood. Godberd was an outlaw in the 1260's, the time where 15th century chronicler Walter Bower set Robin's career.
And then, there are other outlaws of legend whose tales resemble Robin Hood's. These include the story of Adam Bell, Clim the Clough and William of Cloudsley. Later legends depict Robin's father meeting these famous Northern outlaws. And then, there's the story of disinherited Gamelyn and the story of Robin and Gandelyn. Gandelyn avenged his master Robin's murder. Knight feels this may be the earliest surviving Robin Hood tale, although other scholars doubt this Robin was meant to be Robin Hood. Nevertheless, a character named Gamwell shows up in later ballads, sometimes as a name for Will Scarlet.
Robin Hood is probably a combination of these real and legendary outlaws, people who used the alias "Robin Hood", myths, and maybe -- just maybe -- a real outlaw or two named Robin Hood.
As J.C. Holt concludes, "The answer, then to the question 'Who was Robin Hood?', must be 'There were more than one.'"
This page gets more traffic than other pages on my extensive Robin Hood site. You might also be interested in the growth and development of Robin Hood as a literary character. Visit the Wolfshead Through the Ages: The History of Robin Hood section to learn how Robin Hood went from being the brigand of medieval ballads and plays to the near-superhero of modern movies. The Beginner's Guide section provides a composite sketch of Robin Hood as he exists today -- the product of various contradictory tales.
If you want to read a story of the outlaw, the Robin Hood Tales section features ballads and other stories. Spotlight of the Month offers reviews of various novels, films, TV shows and such. Interviews in Sherwood presents original interviews with writers, actors and scholars.
If you are interested in purchasing Robin Hood books or videos, please check out the Recommended Reading and Viewing page.
For information on the books and articles used to write this section, check out Sources.
Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.