I wrote this little essay way back in 1988, following a Nottinghamshire County Council decision to censor their official leaflet about Robin Hood, which had been written by locally-based experts, but had less to do with Nottinghamshire than tourism officials had hoped. There have been quite a few new discoveries of documents with potentially relevant references since then, but I think the basic message given here still stands.
Shall come all that you await in here.
Yea, farewell all the snows that fell last year.
Chaucer "Troilus and Criseyde" c1386
The authors of "Piers Plowman" (c1377) and "The Romance of the Rose" (c1280) two more of the greatest medieval poems, also mentioned Robin, a bright, saucy character like the bird which bears his name, referring to "Robin the ribald" and "beau Robin of the dance". They also associate him with the wicked "Friar Faker" as he is called in "Piers Plowman"- and both these rogues seem to have been depicted by minstrels and dancers in the annual spring festivals.
We still have some examples, from France, of minstrels' entertainments, some of which were expanded into major dramas. "The Play of Robin and Marion", by Adam de la Halle (c1278) is based on the many poems which tell how Marion, a shepherdess engaged to the shepherd Robin, is wooed by an unscrupulous knight. Though the Friar is not featured here, it seems likely that Marion was named after the "queen" of the spring games, associated with the Virgin Mary. Indeed, the second half of the play includes some festive games, such as the one where a simple coutryman becomes a King.
Meanwhile, down in the forest... By about 1260, unruly men in England were occasionally being given nicknames like "Robehod" or "Robynhod". This may have been taken from our spring merrymaker (who was also Shakespeare's "Robin Goodfellow") but there was a Hode family in central Yorkshire, and scholars have noted with interest the York court record of 1225 about Robert Hode, who may have been the original of the nicknames, and of our outlaw hero.
Though "Piers Plowman" also refers to "rhymes of Robin Hood", the earliest surviving stories of Hood, the outlaw, seem to have been written down after 1400, for the original tellers would recite their verses from memory. Some of the early stories have the outlaws based in Barnsdale, South Yorkshire, but others have him battling with "the Sheriff of Nottingham". Could the original Hood have used a Yorkshire base for raids on the tax collectors of nearby Nottinghamshire?
The earliest ballads name Hood's companions Little John, Will Scathelock and Much the miller's son, but not Marian, or Friar Tuck. Yet there was a real "Friar Tuck" (the alias of one Richard Stafford) who led a band of robbers in Sussex, in the 1420s. Did he take the name from an unwritten Robin Hood story? There is an early ballad of Hood and an anonymous Friar who, with a pack of dogs, guarded Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, but the Sussex outlaw may have been the original Tuck. If he was, he could be the "missing link" between the outlaws and the characters from the spring merrymaking, jolly Robin and the fake Friar both being associated then with outlaws.
By about 1500, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and Little John were all standard characters of English morris dances and Mayday plays. In the opposite direction, as it were, Friar Tuck got into the stories of Hood the outlaw by 1475, though Marian could not adapt to the rough forest life until about 1600, when two plays claimed that she and Robin were persecuted nobles.
The heart of the legend is found in some of the earliest ballads (and romantic Sherwood was soon favoured over boggy Barnsdale) but the tales of Robin Hood have always changed with the times. Sir walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" has much to answer for, but even the TV versions of the story, from Richard Greene in the '50s to Jason Connery in the '80s, show striking differences- and Rocket Robin Hood has been and gone. Whatever its origins, whatever its future, the legend of Robin Hood is one of the classic adventure tales- and Sherwood is the best place to feel its magic.
This essay was, of course, written before the Kevin Costner movie, and the almost-simultaneous Patrick Bergin movie, and the Cary Elwes movie (Robin Hood with an English accent...) and another TV series and the computer games. Most importantly, it was written before the most historically authentic retelling of the legend, the TV classic "Maid Marian and Her Merry Men". Demand the DVDs.