14 things you (probably) didn’t know about Robin Hood

Fourteen years ago (in the spring of 2007) I started thinking seriously about publishing my first novel. I began getting up at 4am to write before going up on the train to London to do a day’s work at The Times newspaper. I also spent most weekends working on the first one – Outlaw, the tale of a gangster-ish Robin Hood and his loyal, none-too-bright side-kick Alan Dale. Nearly a decade and a half later, I’ve written ten full-length Outlaw Chronicles novels, including two I self-published over the past year, and three eBook short stories. To celebrate this commitment to one legendary English hero, here are fourteen facts that you may not have realised about Robin Hood . . .

I self-published Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold in March 2020

1 Outlaw of the pipe rolls

The very first mention of Robin Hood in history comes in the pipe rolls, the financial records of medieval local governments. A character called “Rob Hod” appears in the 1226-27 pipe rolls of the York Assizes, who has goods worth 32 shilling and 6 pence confiscated and who becomes a fugitive. The crime he is accused of is not recorded. He appears again in the rolls of 1227-28 as “Hobbehod” and is still apparently an outlaw.

2 Smooth criminals

Between 1261 and 1300 there are eight malefactors called “Rabanhod” recorded in various local pipe rolls from Berkshire to Yorkshire. And still more in later centuries. It seems that, after the middle of the 13th century, criminals who came before the courts may have adopted the name Robin Hood to add a bit of glamour to their crimes. This means the stories about the legendary hero were circulating, probably sung in ale-houses, from the 1250s onwards.

3 The “John Smith” of the Middle Ages

Robin Hood may have been a very common name. Robert, and its diminutive form Robin, were popular names in medieval times. Perhaps one in four people descended from Normans in the 12th century were given that name. And ordinary people often wore cloaks with hoods or just a hood on its own. People usually had one name and a descriptor – Tall, Little, Brown (hair) – or were described by their occupation, eg, Smith, or Hooder, as in maker of hoods. So calling someone Robin Hood, might be as vague as calling someone today John Smith, or “the John who wears Jeans”. It could refer to many, many thousands of people.

4 Robber of the Woods

The name may even have been a sort of joke – or an amusing play on words. Robert pronounced in a French accent could be Robber. In some northern English medieval dialects the words “Hood” and “Wood” are pronounced exactly the same. So Robin Hood might simply mean the Robber of the Woods, ie, an outlaw.

5 Summer time and the stealing is easy

Being an outlaw might have been a seasonal occupation. It the early ballads it is always summer in the Greenwood, never winter. In summer the foliage hides you, facilitating ambushes of unwary travellers, and sleeping rough is feasible. There is evidence to suggest outlaws went home or stayed with friends or relatives in the freezing winter.

6 Was he from Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire?

Sherwood Forest was huge. It was 100,000 acres, extending from the town of Nottingham to the River Meden. In those days a “forest” was an administrative area owned by the King where special laws applied – it was his hunting preserve and not necessarily an area of woodland as we use the term today. There would be fields, meadows, commons, villages, etc in a “forest”. The northern tip of Sherwood was only thirty miles from Barnsdale, so Robin Hood could easily have operated in both areas. In 1194, King Richard chased a deer from Sherwood to Barnsdale. The Yorkshire/Nottinghamshire debate doesn’t make much sense when you can travel between the two in one day.

7 Or a Man of Kent?

Robin Hood may have been from Kent. I say this as a man who grew up and still lives in Kent (and with my tongue slightly in my cheek). Some historians (eg, Sean McGlynn) suggest the Robin Hood legend may have been based on a real individual called Willikin of the Weald. He was a yeoman who raised a force of archers in the then thickly wooded Weald of Kent to fight off the invading French army of Prince Louis (son of Philip II of France) in 1216 (See my novel The Death of Robin Hood).

The Death of Robin Hood - Angus Donald

8 Or possibly a German?

Robin Hood may have been German. OK, this one is a little out there. But there is a character I have been researching for my new Viking series (The Last Berserker is out now) called Widukind. He led the Saxon resistance against the Christian Franks in the late 8th century. He raised force of archers who hid in the deep forests of north Germany and ambushed the invading Christian armies of Charlemagne. Perhaps our English Robin Hood legend contains a folk-memory of the Saxon hero Widukind of Westphalia. Or perhaps not.

9 Don’t ever call him a peasant

Robin Hood was middle class. In the early ballads, Robin Hood is a yeoman – not the Earl of Locksley or Huntingdon. It was the Tudors who ennobled him in the 16th century. But as a yeoman, Robin is not particularly lowly: until 1300, the term is used, along with armiger and esquire, to describe the broad mass of lesser landowners. The Victorians invented the Saxon vs Norman trope, the peasants vs the aristocrats, which was continued into the 20th century.

10 Holier than thou

Actually, Robin Hood supports the status quo. The Robin Hood of the early ballads is not a revolutionary. He is anti-corruption, but in no sense does he want to change the social order, ordained by Almighty God. He did not think the peasants were being exploited, but believed each class must discharge its duties for the common good. He is also a devout worshipper of the Virgin Mary. He isn’t against the Christian Church – just corrupt and greedy churchmen.

11 Diversity, 16th-century style

Maid Marion may have been black originally. The name Maid Marion may have originated as Murrian – meaning the Moorish one. Marion comes late to the Robin Hood legends – she’s French – appearing as a regular character in the English May games only in the 1500s. These games featured Morris (Moorish) dancing and Marion was a bawdy, pantomime figure, a sort of Widow Twankey, played by a man. And she was associated with Friar Tuck, not Robin.

12 And call off Christmas!

There was no sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood’s time. The office of sheriff of the town of Nottingham was created in the 15th century (in 1449). The royal official in charge of tax collection (as well as oppressing the peasants and calling off Christmas) in the 12th and 13th centuries would have been titled the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests. The current sheriff of Nottingham (as of 19 March 2021) is a black lady, a friendly-looking mother of four called Patience Uloma Ifediora. 

13 Archers, stand fast! Nock . . . and loose

Britain had elite fighting bowmen before Crecy and Agincourt. I occasionally get stick for having so many bowmen in my battles and people say that we didn’t really use archers like this until much later. But Welsh archers were famous soldiers in the 12thcentury, and a contingent accompanied Richard the Lionheart on the Third Crusade. Gerald of Wales, writing in 1188, tells of an oak door “the width of a man’s palm” that had been penetrated by their arrows.

14 Further reading

The very best series of novels about Robin Hood is the Outlaw Chronicles – in my not-so humble opinion, which include two new volumes Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold and Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones. You can see a full list of the Outlaw Chronicles in the correct order here. Happy reading to all my fans – and long live Robin Hood!

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