This ballad first appears in the Percy Folio Manuscript (a collection of stories written in the 17th century, later acquired by Thomas Percy and published in 1765). However, the action of the ballad is very similar to a Robin Hood play (or dramatic fragment) from 1475, and the general tone of the ballad makes it seem much older than other ballads from the 17th century. It is usually accorded an honorary place in the medieval Robin Hood tradition.
Praised by many scholars for what R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor call its "concisely dramatic qualities", the Gisborne ballad moves with the pace of an action film. Although this is the only ballad in which Guy of Gisborne appears, it's not surprising that he's become a popular character in the later legend. The ballad describes both Robin and Guy as yeomen. The term yeoman/yeomen can mean a variety of things, but essentially it's a social class lower than a knight but higher than a peasant (think middle class). However, Gisborne is also described as "Sir Guye" in the ballad, and in the 1475 dramatic fragment, Robin's unnamed opponent is a knight. That confusion would lead to Guy becoming a knight or baron in many modern versions of the legend.
The ballad is set in Barnsdale, Yorkshire rather than Sherwood Forest -- a common setting in the earlier legend, although it's never explained why the Sheriff of Nottingham would be causing trouble in Yorkshire. He's outside his jurisdiction.
The ballad starts by describing the summertime with bright woods, long leaves and singing birds (the woodwall). The ballad then suddenly shifts to Robin describing a strange dream to Little John about how he was beaten and bound, and promising revenge. (Stanzas 1 - 3) Little John dismisses the dream (stanza 4), but Robin tells his men to get ready and look for the yeomen from the dream. (stanza 5). The Merry Men don green clothing and go shooting through the greenwood until they notice a yeoman leaning against a tree. The stranger is armed with deadly sword and dagger, and is dressed in a horsehide costume - (stanzas 6 - 7).
Little John tells Robin to stand back, and he'll go ahead to the yeoman. Robin is furious at the suggestion that he'd send men on ahead while he stays behind. After the angry words, Robin and Little John part company with Little John returning to Barnsdale (stanzas 8 - 11).
When he returns to Barnsdale, Little John finds two of the Merry Men have been killed, and Will Scarlet is being chased by 140 of the sheriff's men (stanzas 12 - 13). Little John says he'll help but when he shoots his bow, it breaks and falls to the ground, making his shot less accurate. Little John curses his bow. John's arrow only kills one of the sheriff's men, William a Trent, who should have been hanged instead (stanza 14 - 18). Little John is taken and tied to a tree. The sheriff threatens to drawn him behind a horse and then hang him. Little John suggests the sheriff might fail. (stanzas 19 - 20.)
The action then shifts back to Robin and the stranger. They exchange pleasantries and the stranger says he seeks the outlaw called Robin Hood. Robin does not reveal who he really is, and says that if the stranger met Robin Hood, he might wish to be away. Instead Robin suggests they test their skills while walking in the wood. Who knows, they might even come across Robin Hood. (stanzas 21 - 27).
1 When shawes beene sheene, and shradds full fayre,
And leeves both large and longe,
Itt is merrry, walking in the fayre forrest,
To heare the small birds songe.
2 The woodweele sang, and wold not cease,
Amongst the leaves a lyne:
[***Some scholars believe the text is missing lines here.***]
'And it is by two wight yeomen,
By deare God, that I meane.
3 Me thought they did mee beate and binde,
And tooke my bow mee froe;
If I bee Robin a-liue in this lande,
le be wrocken on both them towe.'
4 ‘Sweauens are swift, master,’ quoth Iohn,
‘As the wind that blowes ore a hill;
Ffor if itt be neuer soe lowde this night,
To-morrow it may be still.’
5 ‘Buske yee, bowne yee, my merry men all,
Ffor Iohn shall goe with mee;
For I’le goe seeke yond wight yeomen
In greenwood where the bee.’
6 The cast on their gowne of greene,
A shooting gone are they,
Vntill they came to the merry greenwood,
Where they had gladdest bee;
There were the ware of [a] wight yeoman,
His body leaned to a tree
7 A sword and a dagger he wore by his side,
Had beene many a mans bane,
And he was cladd in his capull-hyde,
Topp, and tayle, and mayne.
8 ‘Stand you still, master,’ quoth Litle Iohn,
‘Vnder this trusty tree,
And I will goe to yond wight yeoman,
To know his meaning trulye.’
9 ‘A, Iohn, by me thou setts noe store,
And that’s a farley thinge;
How offt send I my men beffore,
And tarry my-selfe behinde?
10 ‘It is noe cunning a knaue to ken,
And a man but heare him speake;
And itt were not for bursting of my bowe,
Iohn, I wolde thy head breake.’
11 But often words they breeden bale,
That parted Robin and Iohn;
Iohn is gone to Barn[e]sdale,
The gates he knowes eche one.
12 And when hee came to Barnesdale,
Great heauinesse there hee hadd;
He found two of his fellowes
Were slaine both in a slade,
13 And Scarlett a foote flyinge was,
Ouer stockes and stone,
For the sheriffe with seuen score men,
Fast after him is gone.
14 ‘Yett one shoote I’le shoote,’ sayes Litle Iohn,
T‘With Crist his might and mayne;
I’le make yond fellow that flyes so fast
To be both glad and faine.
15 Iohn bent vp a good veiwe bow,
And fetteled him to shoote;
The bow was made of a tender boughe,
And fell downe to his foote.
16 ‘Woe worth thee, wicked wood,’ sayd Litle Iohn,
‘That ere thou grew on a tree!
Ffor this day thou art my bale,
My boote when thou shold bee!’,
17 This shoote it was but loosely shott,
The arrowe flew in vaine,
And it mett one of tne sheriffes men;
Good William a Trent was slaine.
18 It had beene better for William a Trent
To hange vpon a gallowe
Then for to lye in the greenwoode,
There slaine with an arrowe.
19 And it is sayd, when men be mett,
Six can doe more then three:
And they haue tane Litle Iohn,
And bound him fast to a tree.
20 ‘Thou shalt be drawen by dale and downe,’ quoth the sheriffe,
‘And hanged hye on a hill:’
‘But thou may fayle,’ quoth Litle Iohn,
‘If itt be Christs owne will.’
21 Let vs leaue talking of Litle Iohn,
For hee is bound fast to a tree,
And talke of Guy and Robin Hood,
In the green woode where they bee.
22 How these two yeomen together they mett,
Vnder the leaues of lyne,
To see what marchandise they made
Euen at that same time.
23 ‘Good morrow, good fellow,’ quoth Sir Guy;
‘Good morrow, good fellow,’ quoth hee;
‘Methinkes by this bow thou beares in thy hand,
A good archer thou seems to bee.’
24 ‘I am wilfull of my way,’ quoth Sir Guye,
‘And of my morning tyde:’
‘I’le lead thee through the wood,’ quoth Robin,
‘Good fellow, I’le be thy guide.’
25 ‘I seeke an outlaw,’ quoth Sir Guye,
‘Men call him Robin Hood;
I had rather meet with him vpon a day
Then forty pound of golde.’
26 ‘If you tow mett, itt wold be seene whether were better
Afore yee did part awaye;
Let vs some other pastime find,
Good fellow, I thee pray.
27 ‘Let vs some other masteryes make,
And wee will walke in the woods euen;
Wee may chance mee[t] with Robin Hoode
Att some vnsett steven.’
28 They cutt them downe the summer shroggs
Which grew both vnder a bryar,
And sett them three score rood on twinn,
To shoote the prickes full neare.
29 ‘Leade on, good fellow,’ sayd Sir Guye,
‘Lead on, I doe bidd thee:
‘Nay, by my faith,’ quoth Robin Hood,
‘The leader thou shalt bee.’
30 The first good shoot that Robin ledd
Did not shoote an inch the pricke froe;
Guy was an archer good enoughe,
‘But he cold neere shoote soe.
31 The second shoote Sir Guy shott,
He shott within the garlande;
But Robin Hoode shott it better then hee,
For he cloue the good pricke-wande.
32 ‘Gods blessing on thy heart!’ sayes Guye,
‘Goode fellow, thy shooting is goode;
For an thy hart be as good as thy hands,
Thou were better then Robin Hood.
33 ‘Tell me thy name, good fellow,’ quoth Guy,
Under the leaues of lyne:’
‘Nay, by my faith,’ quoth good Robin,
‘Till thou haue told me thine.’
34 ‘I dwell by dale and downe,’ quoth Guye,
‘And I haue done many a curst turne;
And he that calles me by my right name
Calles me Guye of good Gysborne.’
35 ‘My dwelling is in the wood,’ sayes Robin;
‘By thee I set right nought;
My name is Robin Hood of Barnesdale,
A fellow thou has long sought.’
36 He that had neither beene a kithe nor kin
Might haue seene a full fayre sight,
To see how together these yeomen went,
With blades both browne and bright.
37 To haue seene how these yeomen together foug[ht],
Two howers of a summers day;
Itt was neither Guy nor Robin Hood
That fettled them to flye away.
38 Robin was reacheles on a roote,
And stumbled at that tyde,
And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,
And hitt him ore the left side.
39 ‘Ah, deere Lady!’ sayd Robin Hoode,
‘Thou art both mother and may!
I thinke it was neuer mans destinye
To dye before his day.’
40 Robin thought on Our Lady deere,
‘And soone leapt vp againe,
And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;
Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.
41 He tooke Sir Guys head by the hayre,
And sticked itt on his bowes end;
‘Thou hast beene traytor all thy liffe,
Which thing must haue an ende.’
42 Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was neuer on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guy was.
43 Saies, Lye there, lye there, good Sir Guye,
And with me be not wrothe;
If thou haue had the worse stroakes at my hand,
Thou shalt haue the better cloathe.
44 Robin did off his gowne of greene,
Sir Guye hee did it throwe;
And hee put on that capull-hyde,
That cladd him topp to toe.
45 ‘The bowe, the arrowes, and litle horne,
And with me now I’le beare;
Ffor now I will goe to Barn[e]sdale,
To see how my men doe fare.’
46 Robin sett Guyes horne to his mouth,
A lowd blast in it he did blow;
That beheard the sheriffe of Nottingham,
As he leaned vnder a lowe.
47 ‘Hearken! hearken!’ sayd the sheriffe,
‘I heard noe tydings but good;
For yonder I heare Sir Guyes horne blowe,
For he hath slaine Robin Hoode.
48 ‘For yonder I heare Sir Guyes horne blow,
Itt blowes soe well in tyde,
For yonder comes that wighty yeoman,
Cladd in his capull-hyde.
49 ‘Come hither, thou good Sir Guy,
Aske of mee what thou wilt haue:’
‘I’le none of thy gold,’ sayes Robin Hood,
‘Nor I’le none of itt haue.
50 ‘But now I haue slaine the master,’ he sayd,
‘Let me goe strike the knaue;
This is all the reward I aske,
Nor noe other will I haue.’
51 ‘Thou art a madman,’ said the shiriffe,
‘Thou sholdest haue had a knights fee;
Seeing thy asking [hath] beene soe badd,
Well granted it shall be.’
52 But Litle Iohn heard his master speake,
Well he knew that was his steuen;
‘Now shall I be loset,’ quoth Litle Iohn,
‘With Christs might in heauen.’
53 Robin hee hyed him towards Litle Iohn,
Hee thought hee wold loose him beliue;
The sheriffe and all his companye
Fast after him did driue.
54 ‘Stand abacke! stand abacke!’ sayd Robin;
‘Why draw you mee soe neere?
Itt was neuer the vse in our countrye
One’s shrift another shold heere.’
55 But Robin pulled forth an Irysh kniffe,
And losed Iohn hand and foote,
And gaue him Sir Guyes bow in his hand,
And bade it be his boote.
56 But Iohn tooke Guyes bow in his hand,
His arrowes were rawstye by the roote;
The sherriffe saw Litle Iohn draw a bow
And fettle him to shoote.
57 Towards his house in Nottingam
He fled full fast away,
And soe did all his companye,
Not one behind did stay.
58 But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Nor away soe fast runn,
But Litle Iohn, with an arrow broade,
Did cleaue his heart in twinn.