Was there really a Robin Hood?

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Dear Cecil: Some years back I recall reading a magazine article to the effect that Robin Hood was not a fictitious character, but a real person. Can this be? The article mentioned him to illustrate the point that recorded history is often modified in popular tales in order to shield the listener from unpleasant truths — i.e., that Robin Hood did not live “happily ever after,” but instead was foully murdered. I have forgotten the exact date of death given, except that it was at the end of the 11th century. Please give us the Straight Dope on this. Also, how about the other characters connected with the story — Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, et al.? What about Robin Hood’s girl friend, Maid Marian? Did he? Tom G., Chicago

Cecil replies:

You’re the victim either of journalistic fraud or a typo, Tom — as far as I can tell, nobody contends that Robin Hood punted the pail in the 1090s. Nobody is sure who the real Robin Hood was, or even if there was a real Robin Hood; and it’s certainly not known when or how he died (although the fictional Robin, in one account, was killed by an evil abbess). The earliest any authority says he arrived on the scene is 1190, and some have him wandering in as late as the 1320s. Two plausible candidates for the historical Robin Hood have been identified: Robert Hood of Yorkshire, AKA “Hobbehod,” who was recorded in 1228 and 1230 as having been an outlaw and fugitive (which constitutes the sum total of information known about him); and Robert Hood of Wakefield, also in Yorkshire, who lived in the early 1300s.

The evidence adduced in the latter case is as impressive a specimen of loopy historical speculation as you’re likely to find, so I present it here in all its finery: Robert of Wakefield lived during the reign of Edward II, who visited Nottingham in 1323 after a tour of the forests of Lancashire and Yorkshire. (The idea that the king who visited Robin Hood in the forest was Richard I — i.e., Richard the Lion-Hearted — is a relatively modern invention.) Robert Hood owned a tenement in a place called Bichill. A tenement in Bichill was seized by the king’s agents following a revolt. A Yorkshireman named John le Litel or John Littlejohn was in trouble for housebreaking in 1318, and for poaching in 1323. The sheriff of Nottingham in 1318-19 and 1323-25 was Henry de Faucumberg. He was said to be a nasty dude, admittedly a common characteristic of sheriffs of the day. A Henry Fauconberg was a neighbor of Robert Hood’s. In November 1323, one Robert Hood went on the payroll as a porter in the King’s Chamber. Payments ceased in 1324 when Hood was let go “because he could no longer work.” John le Litel, a sailor, was on the King’s Chamber payroll in 1322, 1323, and 1325.

From these crumbs several historians have concocted the theory that Edward II seized Robert/Robin Hood’s property, forcing him into outlawry; that Robin subsequently joined forces with Little John and perhaps others (although Maid Marian and Friar Tuck are postmedieval additions to the clan); that Hood and friends were hassled by de Faucumberg/Fauconberg; that the king eventually met Robin and the boys in the forest and discovered that they were really OK guys; that after pardoning them he gave Robin and Little John jobs toting suitcases or something in the royal household; and finally that after a while Robin got tired of working for a living and went back to his program of income redistribution in Sherwood Forest.

The problem with this whole thing, obviously, is that it’s based entirely on coincidence, without any solid evidence to back it up. Besides, one spoilsport has already proved incontrovertibly that Robert Hood became a King’s Chamber employee before Edward II went to Nottingham. In short, it sounds like bunk to me. For more detail, see Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry by John Bellamy.

The legend of Robin Hood takes an ominous turn

Dear Cecil:

In A Handbook on Witches by Tyndell, which may not be available in this country, the author puts forth the suggestion that Robin Hood was practicing witchcraft. (I suppose this would make no difference, when evaluated from this century, whether or not he was a real person.)

The evidence offered: The name “Robin” is a variation of “Puck,” who was certainly a “supernatural” personage; The favorite colors of witches are black, white, and green; The Merrie Men met under a huge oak tree, which is one of the usual meeting places of covens; The number of people in Robin’s {inner circle} is the same as that in a coven; In order to hold a Black Mass, one needs a defrocked priest (Friar Tuck) and a virgin (Maid Marian, we assume); In present-day England, occult groups still have celebrations marking Robin’s birthday.

Furthermore, the author states that King John was the first English monarch to actively declare war on witchcraft, after being goaded into this by church officials. Therefore, Robin’s antagonism toward the authorities was not motivated by any share-the-wealth ideas but rather was a matter of survival.

— Hugh S., La Grange, Illinois

Oh, sure. Next you’ll be telling me Hiawatha was a drug fiend. Come to think of it, I always did wonder what was in that peacepipe.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.