Robin Hood Tales

No. 152

From The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
by Francis James Child, 1888.


[Robin Hood is well known for his archery. There have been tales of Robin shooting for a gold and / or silver arrow since at least the 15th century in the early ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode. In other versions, including the Gest, Robin's identity is either known or discovered at the match and he has to fight his way to safety. Variations on the archery contest story have become a fixture in most Robin Hood books and films. In later tellings, Robin Hood splits his opponent's arrow in the centre, a development that was likely borrowed from Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe or possibly a recently rediscovered version of the Robin Hood and Queen Catherin ballad.]

Ballad 152
Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow

    1  When as the sheriff of Nottingham
      Was come, with mickle grief,
       He talkd no good of Robin Hood,
      That strong and sturdy thief.
        Fal lal dal de
    2  So unto London-road he past,
      His losses to unfold
       To King Richard, who did regard
      The tale that he had told.
    3  'Why,' quoth the king, 'what shall I do?
      Art thou not sheriff for me?
       The law is in force, go take thy course
      Of them that injure thee.
    4  'Go get thee gone, and by thyself
      Devise some tricking game
       For to enthral yon rebels all;
      Go take thy course with them.'
    5  So away the sheriff he returnd,
      And by the way he thought
       Of the words of the king, and how the thing
      To pass might well be brought.
    6  For within his mind he imagined
      That when such matches were,
       Those outlaws stout, without [all] doubt,
      Would be the bowmen there.
    7  So an arrow with a golden head
      And shaft of silver white,
       Who won the day should bear away
      For his own proper right.
    8  Tidings came to brave Robin Hood,
      Under the green-wood tree:
       'Come prepare you then, my merry men,
      We'll go yon sport to see.'
    9  With that stept forth a brave young man,
      David of Doncaster:
       'Master', said he, 'be ruld by me,
      From the green-wood we'll not stir.
    10 'To tell the truth, I'm well informed
      Yon match is a wile;
       The sheriff, I wiss, devises this
      Us archers to beguile.'
    11 'O thou smells of a coward,' said Robin Hood,
      'Thy words does not please me;
       Come on't what will, I'll try my skill
      At yon brave archery.'
    12 O then bespoke brave Little John:
      Come, let us thither gang;
       Come listen to me, how it shall be
      That we need not be kend.
    13 Our mantles, all of Lincoln green,
      Behind us we will leave;
       We'll dress us all so several
      They shall not us perceive.
    14 One shall wear white, another red,
      One yellow, another blue;
       Thus in disguise, to the exercise
      We'll gang, whateer ensue.
    15 Forth from the green-wood they are gone,
      With hearts all firm and stout,
       Resolving [then] with the sheriff's men
      To have a hearty bout.
    16 So themselves they mixed with the rest,
      To prevent all suspicion;
       For if they should together hold
      They thought [it] no discretion.
    17 So the sheriff looking round about,
      Amongst eight hundred men,
       But could not see the sight that he
      Had long expected then.
    18 Some said, If Robin Hood was here,
      And all his men to boot,
       Sure none of them could pass these men,
      So bravely they do shoot.
    19 'Ay,' quoth the sheriff, and scratchd his head,
      'I thought he would have been here;
       I thought he would, but, tho he's bold,
      He durst not now appear.'
    20 O that word grieved Robin Hood to the heart;
      He vexed in his blood;
       Eer long, thought he, thou shalt well see
      That here was Robin Hood.
    21 Some cried, Blue jacket! another cried, Brown!
      And the third cried, Brave Yellow!
       But the fourth man said, Yon man in red
      In this place has no fellow.
    22 For that was Robin Hood himself,
      For he was cloathd in red;
       At every shot the prize he got,
      For he was both sure and dead.
    23 So the arrow with the golden head
      And shaft of silver white
       Brave Robin Hood won, and bore with him
      For his own proper right.
    24 These outlaws there, that very day,
      To shun all kind of doubt,
       By three or four, no less no more,
      As they went in came out.
    25 Until they all assembled were
      Under the green-wood shade,
       Where they report, in pleasant sport,
      What brave pastime they made.
    26 Says Robin Hood, All my care is,
      How that yon sheriff may
       Know certainly that it was I
      That bore his arrow away.
    27 Says Little John, My counsel good
      Did take effect before,
       So therefore now, if you'll allow,
      I will advise once more.
    28 'Speak on, speak on,' said Robin Hood
      'Thy wit's both quick and sound;
       [I know no man amongst us can
      for wit like thee be found.']
    29 'This I advise,' said Little John;
      'That a letter shall pend,
       And when it is done, to Nottingham
      You to the sheriff shall send.'
    30 'That is well advised,' said Robin Hood,
      'But how must it be sent?'
       'Pugh! when you please, it's done with ease,
      Master, be you content.
    31 'I'll stick it on my arrow's head,
      And shoot it into the town;
       The mark shall show where it must go,
      When ever it lights down.'
    32 The project it was full performed;
      The sheriff that letter had;
       Which when he read, he scratchd his head,
      And rav'd like one that's mad.
    33 So we'll leave him chafing in his grease,
      Which will do him no good;
       Now, my friends, attend, and hear the end
      Of honest Robin Hood.
    [Ballad collections often present stories of Robin Hood's death after this ballad.]

Below is the archery tournament seen from the much-earlier ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode. The text is less modern than the other ballads on this site, and so click here if you want to skip to the next ballad where Robin Hood meets the king.

The Archery Tournament from A Gest of Robyn Hode
No. 117

[The archery contest has been part of the Robin Hood legend long before the ballad above.  An archery tournament for an arrow made of silver and gold makes for an exciting middle section of an earlier ballad -- A Gest of Robyn Hode.

19th century ballad collector Francis Child assigned the Gest the number 117 in his collection of English and Scottish ballads. The surviving versions of the Gest were most likely composed around 1460 and printed near 1500 AD. It is one of the earliest ballads and by far the longest and most influential.

The Gest is divided into eight sections called fyttes. The first, second and fourth fyttes involve Robin Hood helping out a nameless knight who owed money to the abbot of St. Mary's. When the knight tries to repay Robin, the outlaw has already retrieved his investment by robbing monks of St. Mary's Abbey. Instead the knight gives the outlaw a hundred bows and promises to help Robin in the future. When the knight reappears in the section below, he's given the name Sir Richard at the Lee. In the third fytte, Little John entered the sheriff's service under the guise of Reynolde Grenelefe (a name also used in the section below for a wholly separate character). Little John lures the Sheriff of Nottingham into a trap. And Robin only lets him go after the sheriff pledges to never harm the outlaws in the future. So, in the section below, Robin does not go the archery tournament in disguise as he did in the later ballad above or in most film versions. He's testing the faithfulness of the sheriff's oath. The sheriff isn't exactly a trustworthy sort, and that makes the Gest version of the story far more exciting than the one above.

For a variety of reasons, I have not put the whole Gest on my site -- even though it's one of the best ballads. But here I offer a sample to compare with the ballad which came later. The language is distinctly less modern than The Golden Arrow ballad -- and Robin's more violent than you may be used to.

As in the Gest, "The Challenge", an episode of the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene, has an archery tournament where the outlaw heroes take refuge at Sir Richard's castle. The TV show has a comic twist as Robin and friends don't seem in any hurry to leave the castle and begin to eat the knight out of house and home.]

The Fifth Fytte

281  Now hath the knyght his leue i-take,
        And wente hym on his way;
     Robyn Hode and his mery men
        Dwelled styll full many a day.

282  Lyth and lysten, gentil men,
        And herken what I shall say,
     How the proud[e] sheryfe of Notyngham
        Dyde crye a full fayre play;

283  That all the best archers of the north
        Sholde come vpon a day,
     And [he] that shoteth allther best
        The game shall bere a way.

284  He that shoteth allther best,
        Furthest fayre and lowe,
     At a payre of fynly buttes,
        Under the grene-wode shawe,

285  A ryght good arowe he shall haue,
        The shaft of syluer whyte,
     The hede and the feders of ryche red golde,
        In Englond is none lyke.

286  This than herde good Robyn,
        Under his trystell-tre:
     ‘Make you redy, ye wyght yonge men;
        That shotynge wyll I se.

287  ‘Buske you, my mery yonge men,
        Ye shall go with me;
     And I wyll wete the shryues fayth,
        Trewe and yf he be.’

288  Whan they had theyr bowes i-bent,
        Theyr takles fedred fre,
     Seuen score of wyght yonge men
        Stode by Robyns kne.

289  Whan they cam to Notyngham,
        The buttes were fayre and longe;
     Many was the bolde archere
        That shoted with bowes stronge.

290  ‘There shall but syx shote with me;
        The other shal kepe my he[ue]de,
     And stande with good bowes bent,
        That I be not desceyued.’

291  The fourth outlawe his bowe gan bende,
        And that was Robyn Hode,
     And that behelde the proud[e] sheryfe,
        All by the but [as] he stode.

292  Thryes Robyn shot about,
        And alway he slist the wand,
     And so dyde good Gylberte
        Wyth the whyte hande.

293  Lytell Johan and good Scatheloke
        Were archers good and fre;
     Lytell Much and good Reynolde,
        The worste wolde they not be.

294  Whan they had shot aboute,
        These archours fayre and good,
     Euermore was the best,
        For soth, Robyn Hode.

295  Hym was delyuered the good arowe,
        For best worthy was he;
     He toke the yeft so curteysly,
        To grene wode wolde he.

296  They cryed out on Robyn Hode,
        And grete hornes gan they blowe:
     ‘Wo worth the, treason!’ sayd Robyn,
        ‘Full euyl thou art to knowe.

297  ‘And wo be thou! thou proude sheryf,
        Thus gladdynge thy gest;
     Other wyse thou behote me
        In yonder wylde forest.

298  ‘But had I the in grene wode,
        Under my trystell-tre,
     Thou sholdest leue me a better wedde
        Than thy trewe lewte.’

299  Full many a bowe there was bent,
        And arowes let they glyde;
     Many a kyrtell there was rent,
        And hurt many a syde.

300  The outlawes shot was so stronge
        That no man myght them dryue,
     And the proud[e] sheryfes men,
        They fled away full blyue.

301  Robyn sawe the busshement to-broke,
        In grene wode he wolde haue be;
     Many an arowe there was shot
        Amonge that company.

302  Lytell Johan was hurte full sore,
        With an arowe in his kne,
     That he myght neyther go nor ryde;
        It was full grete pyte.

303  ‘Mayster,’ then sayd Lytell Johan,
        ‘If euer thou loue[d]st me,
     And for that ylke lordes loue
        That dyed vpon a tre,

304  ‘And for the medes of my seruyce,
        That I haue serued the,
     Lete neuer the proude sheryf
        Alyue now fynde me.

305  ‘But take out thy browne swerde,
        And smyte all of my hede,
     And gyue me woundes depe and wyde;
        No lyfe on me be lefte.’

306  ‘I wolde not that,’ sayd Robyn,
        ‘Johan, that thou were slawe,
     For all the golde in mery Englonde,
        Though it lay now on a rawe.’

307  ‘God forbede,’ sayd Lytell Much,
        ‘That dyed on a tre,
     That thou sholdest, Lytell Johan,
        Parte our company.’

308  Up he toke hym on his backe,
        And bare hym well a myle;
     Many a tyme he layd hym downe,
        And shot another whyle.

309  Then was there a fayre castell,
        A lytell within the wode;
     Double-dyched it was about,
        And walled, by the rode.

310  And there dwelled that gentyll knyght,
        Syr Rychard at the Lee,
     That Robyn had lent his good,
        Under the grene-wode tree.

311  In he toke good Robyn,
        And all his company:
     ‘Welcome be thou, Robyn Hode,
        Welcome arte thou to me;

312  ‘And moche [I] thanke the of thy confort,
        And of thy curteysye,
     And of thy grete kyndenesse,
        Under the grene-wode tre.

  313‘I loue no man in all this worlde
        So much as I do the;
     For all the proud[e] sheryf of Notyngham,
        Ryght here shalt thou be.

314  ‘Shyt the gates, and drawe the brydge,
        And let no man come in,
     And arme you well, and make you redy,
        And to the walles ye wynne.

315  ‘For one thynge, Robyn, I the behote;
        Iswere by Saynt Quyntyne,
     These forty dayes thou wonnest with me,
        To soupe, ete, and dyne.’

316  Bordes were layde, and clothes were spredde,
        Redely and anone;
     Robyn Hode and his mery men
        To mete can they gone.

Click here to go to the next section of the Gest, where Robin Hood has the final confrontation with the Sheriff of Nottingham and the king arrives.

OR NEXT: The King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin Hood

| BACK TO: Robin Hood and Maid Marian | TOP | CONTENTS | FORWARD TO: The King's Disguise |

Introductory text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.

logo - head Robin Hood statue