Everyone knows Robin Hood, whether your favourite is the portrayal by Errol Flynn, Richard Greene, Kevin Costner, Jonas Armstrong, Russell Crowe or countless others. Or maybe even in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, where he goes by the name of Locksley. Robin is a nobleman dispossessed by Bad King John and the Wicked Sherrif of Nottingham, who gathers a vast outlaw band, including Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck, along with his love Maid Marian, to rob the rich and give to the poor, defend the people's rights and generally upset the Sherrif till Good King Richard comes back from the Holy Land and sorts everything out.
That's the story now, and it's an excellent story, but not at all how the legend began. The earliest ballads of Robin Hood, dating from at least as far back as the 15th century, include the extraordinarily long A Little Geste of Robin Hood and his Meiny, which is 456 stanzas long and represents the earliest extant telling of the whole central legend.
We're not told who Robin is or how he fell foul of the law, merely that he's a good yeoman, who's an outlaw in Barnesdale with his followers, Little John, Will Scathelock and Much the miller's son. He meets a poor knight, Sir Richard at the Lee, whose lands are in mortgage to the rich Abbot of St Mary's, and is unable to meet the deadline for repayment. Taking pity, Robin loans him the amount needed to meet his debt, which Sir Richard promises to repay in a year's time. Sir Richard redeems his land, and returns a year later to repay Robin. However, Robin has already had the opportunity to rob St Mary's Abbey of twice the sum owed and tells Sir Richard to keep his money.
Little John then infiltrates the following of the Sherrif of Nottingham, already mentioned as Robin's nemesis, and, under pretext of helping him take Robin, leads him into a trap. Robin spares the Sherrif's life in return for an oath guaranteeing safe conduct. To test this, Robin attends an archery contest at Nottingham (which, of course, he wins) but the Sherrif breaks his word and tries to arrest him. Escaping, the outlaws take refuge in the castle of Sir Richard, who is later seized and imprisoned by the Sherrif in punishment. Robin and his men rescue him, and Robin shoots the Sherrif dead.
By this time, the King (Edward, our comely King) has heard of Robin's exploits and sets out to capture him. Coming to Barnesdale, he finds Robin, who entertains him so courteously that the King offers him a pardon and a place in the royal household. Robin only remains in the King's service for fifteen months before he grows fed up and returns to his life as an outlaw in Barnesdale. Twenty-two years later, he's betrayed and murdered by his kinswoman, the prioress of Kirksley. The end of the ballad is very perfunctory, but another early ballad, The Death of Robin Hood, tells the story in more detail. This includes the famous scene where the dying Robin looses off an arrow and asks to be buried where it lands (therefore, as the old joke goes, being the only man ever to be buried in the ceiling).
Now, it should be obvious just from that brief synopsis that a great deal has changed over the intervening centuries. Sir Richard, a central character here, has been almost forgotten, although his story featured in one episode of the 1950s TV series, and Marian is conspicuous by her absence. One theory is that Robin and Marian first met in folk ritual, rather than story. Robin gradually came to be identified with the Green Man and appeared in the May rituals as consort to the May Queen, and this may well have been Marian's original identity.
Only three "merry men" are ever mentioned in the early ballads: Little John, Will Scathelock and Much the miller's son — conveniently, the list forms a perfect half-stanza in ballad meter. "Scathelock" eventually mutated into "Scarlet", but two of Robin's other standard followers, and one of his enemies, appear each in their own ballad.
Robin Hood and Alan a Dale, a somewhat later ballad, tells how Robin takes pity on a young man whose betrothed has been cruelly denied him and given instead to an old knight. Robin succeeds in putting this right, but there's no suggestion that Alan joins the merry men.
Similarly, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar tells the familiar story of Robin's meeting with Friar Tuck. Here, though, Robin merely entertains the unnamed friar in the greenwood and sends him on his way laden with gifts.
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne tells of Little John being taken by the Sherrif of Nottingham. Meanwhile, Robin meets a stranger who turns out to be Guy of Gisborne, a bounty hunter searching for him. They fight, and Robin kills Guy, then goes to Nottingham disguised as his enemy to rescue Little John, who kills the Sherrif. Again.
All these are one-off tales that gradually became integral to the legend, but a couple of the differences are more fundamental. Robin Hood has become so firmly associated with Sherwood Forest that it's a shock to find that he was originally placed in Barnesdale, in southern Yorkshire (a fact now recognised by the local airport being named after him).
I suspect the reason for the change was the prominence of the Sherrif of Nottingham in the legend. On the face of it, it would seem unlikely that he would be pursuing a Yorkshire outlaw, and this was eventually "corrected".
It's a curious anomaly, but county courtesy was doubtless laxer than now, and maybe one or more Sherrifs of Nottingham were noticeably diligent in chasing outlaws beyond their borders. There was also a crucial period in the 1320s, following the Earl of Lancaster's rebellion, when the Sherrif of Nottingham was also given responsibility for policing Yorkshire, and it's possible that this aspect of the story arose then.
It's also clear that this version takes place not during the Third Crusade (the 1190s) but while a king called Edward was on the throne. This could be any of the first four Edwards (1272-1377, 1461-1483) all of whom might well, by contemporary accounts, have been described as "comely". Edward IV, for instance, was the grandfather of Henry VIII, who was supposed to be the spitting image of his granddad.
In fact, much of the legend seems to belong to a later period than the 12th century. Given the importance of archery in every version, it would be odd for it to be taking place before the full development of the English longbow. Robin is described as a yeoman, the class of peasants free from feudal obligations who became more numerous as the feudal system decayed, and who formed the backbone of the archers that destroyed the French armies at Crécy and Agincourt in the 14th and 15th centuries.
There's also no trace of the "Normans and Saxons" element common in modern interpretations. In fact, this element seems to have been invented by Sir Walter Scott and was anachronistic even for the 1190s. By that time, the issue wasn't really that the lords and knights were foreign conquerors, but that so many of them were absentee landlords, putting far more stock in their French possessions than their English lands. This was particularly true of Richard I, who barely acknowledged that he possessed England, other than as a resource to fund his wars. By contrast, "bad" King John was busy encouraging the growth of trade and towns throughout the kingdom.
By the later mediaeval period, many landholders were also building up patchwork "empires" of manors all over the country, destroying any hope of a relationship with the serfs on any given manor. Many of these empires were owned by abbeys, who were too busy becoming piously rich to care about the peasants they owned. The Little Geste seems to be deliberately contrasting the conscientious lord of a single manor (Sir Richard) with the corrupt abbot.
As I've suggested, the merry men were almost certainly not the small army depicted in some modern versions. Mediaeval outlaw gangs, unless they were of high enough status to hold a castle, were typically no more than three or four men, so the four (including Robin) mentioned in the ballads are probably the whole group. On the other hand, that may not have been the limit of Robin's power. Near the end of the Little Geste, when Robin returns to Barnesdale, he blows his horn and
Seven score of wight young menCame ready on a row,
And fairè didden off their hoods,And set them on their knee:
'Welcome,' they said, 'our dear mastèr,
Under this green-wood tree!'
Robin may not have had a large gang of his his own, but he seems to have been the Godfather of Barnesdale. Some of the ballads suggest that he could call on other outlaws gangs, at need, to augment his own.
The ballads almost certainly include stories from tales about other outlaws. A notable outlaw ballad from the same period, Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley, which derives from the north-west of England, contains similar stories. The most striking parallel here, though, is not with Robin Hood but with the Swiss legend of William Tell, in the scene where William of Cloudesley is forced to shoot an apple off his son's head. Both legends appear to have borrowed the motif from a Danish story.
Nevertheless, there's a highly tempting candidate for the "real" Robin Hood, although many scholars dismiss it. In 1322, a Robert Hood of Wakefield is recorded as being made outlaw, possibly as a result of the Earl of Lancaster's rebellion against Edward II, which led to the situation referred to above, when the Sherrif of Nottingham was restoring order to Yorkshire.
A lot is made of Robin's name, and he's sometimes referred to as "the Hooded Man", but that misses the point that Robin was the normal diminutive of Robert, while Hood was and is quite a common surname. Surnames were fairly widespread even by the late 12th century, and were the rule, rather than the exception, by the 14th. There's nothing at all unusual about the name.
A number of other features of the Little Geste seem to be reflected at this time, including Edward (several years before his ex-king/red-hot-poker interface) making a progress through the north, during which he pardoned many rebels, and a "Robin Hood" appearing in the accounts of the royal household immediately afterwards.
On the other hand, Robin Hood appears earlier than this as a generic name for an outlaw. It's possible, of course, that the minstrels took up this particular outlaw simply because he had the right name (imagine what the tabloid press today might make of a notorious criminal called Robin Hood, Jesse James or Billy Kidd) but that still leaves the question of where that name came from.
Even if there was a model, it's doubtful whether there was ever one man who did all the things described in the early ballads, let alone in the later versions. Which is fair enough. Robin Hood is an archetype, a figure we can think of whenever we suffer from corrupt authority. The legend that's developed is a great story. I remember watching reruns as a kid of Richard Greene's TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I wouldn't have anything different in the wonderful Errol Flynn film. Some other versions — well, they have their good points, at least.
The legend of Robin Hood will and should continue to evolve, continue to be reinterpreted. But the earliest versions were great stories too, and it would be good if the whole diversity of the tradition were better known.