The identification of an historical Robin Hood in late mediaeval England has so far eluded researchers. It has proven very difficult to find a person named 'Robin Hood' in the historical records who fits the description of the individual in the early ballads. Indeed, there is a possibility that Robin Hood is an entirely fictitious character invented by some little understood collective or community process (Donnelly).
Another avenue is to find an historical individual who is not named Robin Hood, but on whom the ballads may be based. This approach is taken in two recent books by John Paul Davis and David Baldwin. Meanwhile, the legend of Robin Hood has been treated more generally by Nigel Cawthorne in a volume for the "Brief History" series. The three books appeared at about the same time, in 2009 and 2010, so their authors were not familiar with each others' work on the topic.
The important aspect of the Davis book is that it is not a new interpretation based on hitherto unknown documents or sources. Instead, it is largely a close re-reading of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, dating from the years circa 1450-1520. In this early tradition Robin Hood is presented as a real person: a skilled archer, a yeoman rather than a disinherited nobleman, a courteous and very religious outlaw inhabiting the forest of Barnsdale in the southern part of Yorkshire. He is loyal to a 'King Edward' but robs high churchmen, and there is no suggestion that he is a Saxon rebel against Norman tyranny.
From this starting point, Davis begins his analysis of the early ballads to produce some intriguing results. Chronologically, he places their events in the reign of Edward II (1307-1327) and links them to the suppression of the Knights Templar, which began in Paris in 1307 but reached England a little later in 1308 and 1309.
The Knights Templar were a mediaeval Christian military order founded in the year 1118 to protect pilgrims going to the Holy Land and to raise money for the Crusades. Over the centuries they became rich and powerful with their own estates, a large private army and their own banking system, which served the wider mediaeval economy. Not all the order's thousands of members were knights--some were more humble yeomen who worked the land to raise money for the organisation. All were trained in martial arts, and all took vows of chastity consistent with entering holy orders.
The order of the Knights Templar was suppressed in England in 1308, but without much enthusiasm on the part of the royal authorities. This allowed many of its members to escape the trials and tortures meted out to their fellows on the continent of Europe, and to turn outlaw instead. Here, according to Davis, is the source of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It may explain why the ballads do not give individual reasons for their outlawry. If they were ex-Templars, then they were not the perpetrators of usual criminal acts, but were instead outlawed as a group by a Papal Bull or decree (Davis, 71-73, 94-99 and 104).
With this premise, Davis then applies his interpretation to various aspects of the earliest ballads. He notes that the outlaw bands of the Merry Men and the Templars were fraternities, but both had a three-level hierarchy. Robin Hood was the master at the top, like the master of the Templars. Sometimes other outlaws were assigned to carry Robin's bow for him in a way that "parallels the Templar custom." Curious references to Robin's refusal to eat until the outlaws bring a "guest" to him seem to suggest a Templar dining ritual (Davis, 102-103).
Then there is the simple fact that in the ballads, the Merry Men are too well-disciplined in the martial arts to be humble rustics randomly recruited into a band of outlaws. It makes more sense if they are Templars on the run and thus already trained military men (Davis, 73 and 77). In addition, the outlaws have various types of horses--one in particular, a "courser," was a light, fast horse often used by the military for sending messages (Davis, 109-110). These characteristics are consistent with men of a military order.
Likewise Robin Hood's strong religiosity in the ballads, jettisoned by modern versions of the story, is easily explained if he were a member of a religious order, while his typically courteous behaviour fits with the mandate of the Templars to offer protection. Davis also notes the proximity of many Templar properties in Yorkshire to Barnsdale, where Robin Hood was supposed to operate (Davis, 104-105 and 107).
Two of the older Robin Hood tales are re-interpreted by Davis in the light of his Templar thesis. Guy of Gisborne, the villainous character searching for Robin Hood, is lured into the forest by the outlaw and killed in a particularly gruesome fashion after a fight. Davis sees Gisborne as the mediaeval equivalent of a bounty hunter charged by the authorities with tracking down runaway Templars and bringing them to 'justice' (Davis, 113).
The story of Sir Richard the poor knight, helped by Robin Hood with a loan of four hundred pounds to repay a debt owing to an abbot, is another case. Davis views this as a Templar-like function fulfilled by Robin Hood, and thinks that Sir Richard may have been a participant in the "Hospitaller-controlled Crusade of 1308-10" (Davis, 131-133). The episode also relates to Robin's hostility towards the higher established clergy: by helping Sir Richard, he can get back at some of those persecutors of the Templar order.
Davis' interpretation is largely circumstantial, but nevertheless it does make many previously unexplained aspects of the ballads fall neatly into place. He does not identify a particular person as the historical Robin Hood, instead offering the outlawed Templars order as the collective source for the fraternity of the Merry Men.
This is a solid piece of historical research which also offers a good discussion of the general problem of identifying an historical Robin Hood in the wider context. In the end, however, the author has a problem, as he cannot decide whether the ballads reflect historical episodes incorporating Templar background material, or whether they are fictions whose authors added Templar references (Davis, 213).
Davis overlooks a further problem in what is otherwise a fine piece of historical detective work. If the Robin Hood stories of the early ballads are based on historical episodes of Templars forced into outlawry in the period from (roughly) 1308 to 1330, then why don't the ballads simply state this clearly? Why weren't the tales told in a more straightforward way in, say, the mid fourteenth century, when any actual Robin Hood outlaws would have been dead? Why do we have to wait until the twenty-first century for John Paul Davis to unlock the secrets of what could have been told as a classic tale of political-religious persecution?
David Baldwin's book is different, in that he attempts to identify a specific person as the historical Robin Hood. There is a good exposition of the difficulties involved, although some readers may find the background material somewhat tedious. It takes Baldwin until the last two chapters of an eleven-chapter book to reveal his candidate for the real Robin Hood.
According to Baldwin, the man who best fits the bill is one Roger Godberd, a landholder of Leicestershire who was born in the early 1230s and died in the early 1290s. He was involved in the rebellions and civil wars of Simon de Montfort during the mid-1260s, and turned outlaw. He was captured and, like the Robin Hood of the ballads, was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle. After a trial in London he was imprisoned and later released.
Baldwin's argument focuses on the similarities between the stories of Godberd's involvement with the Yorkshire knight Sir Richard Foliot, and Robin Hood's with Sir Richard at the Lee (Baldwin, 169-171). Likewise, he points out that Godberd's sometime enemies were Sherriffs of Nottingham (Baldwin, 169). As acknowledged by Baldwin, there are significant differences between the stories of Roger Godberd and the Robin Hood of the ballads. Unlike Robin Hood, Roger Godberd was not a superior archer, he was married with children, and he was not particularly religious (Baldwin, 154, 168 and 174).
There are, however, far more serious issues with David Baldwin's interpretation. In the first place, there is no clear evidence as to why Godberd was rebelling and turning outlaw. Was it for personal gain, out of loyalty to an overlord, or to aid a political cause? (Baldwin, 176). Moreover, he does not appear as a particularly likeable individual. As a minor, he unsuccessfully sued his mother and stepfather in 1250 for wasting his inheritance. (Baldwin, 154). Ten years later, he illegally evicted one of his tenants from his land, and then failed to appear in court to answer charges (Baldwin, 156).
To identify this person as the historical Robin Hood would require a geographical shift to the south, towards Leicestershire and Wiltshire. There is no mention of Godberd operating from Barnsdale in Yorkshire, as in the traditional ballads (Baldwin, 175). It is also not clear that Roger Godberd was a yeoman, as Baldwin states that the evidence only "suggests" this as his status (Baldwin, 173 and 167). Meanwhile Davis dismisses Roger Godberd as the historical character behind Robin Hood, because the former's actions caused "widespread panic and fear" not attributed to the latter (Davis, 85).
The conclusion of Baldwin's book is not as singular as its subtitle claims. The Robin Hood of the ballads is not unmasked, and instead Roger Godberd is presented as only one of a number of historical individuals who may have provided biographical sources for the ballads (Baldwin, 176). These include the late mediaeval rebels Fulk FitzWarin, Eustace the Monk and Hereward the Wake, about whom tales were told that sometimes resembled those of the Robin Hood ballads. There is an important distinction here, which Baldwin does not make. No one told stories or wrote down ballads about Roger Godberd, who is an unknown historical figure except to experts in thirteenth-century disputes. His case is therefore not comparable to those of the others mentioned. If Roger Godberd was an admirable character and outlaw of popular renown, then why are there no ballads about him? Why would his exploits be insinuated, by some sleight of hand, into the story of Robin Hood, when popular culture heroes are usually commemorated with their own names?
Nigel Cawthorne's book is of a different genre, presenting a non-judgemental assessment of various possible historical Robin Hoods. His work covers the main themes: the origins of the tales, the possible timeframes, and the historical figures whose biographies may have been raided for the ballads. The book is essentially about the evolution of the Robin Hood legend from the late mediaeval period right up to its various Hollywood treatments.
Cawthorne has long chapters on Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace the Monk, but these are fabulous mediaeval tales of little relevance to any historical Robin Hood. The only connection is through minor episodes, such as a tale in which one hero disguises himself as a potter to gain advantage over his enemies, similar to a Robin Hood storyline (Cawthorne, 127 and 143). At the same time, Cawthorne does consider that the exploits of Roger Godberd "may well have contributed to the tales that built up around Robin Hood" (Cawthorne, 152).
Much of the book is a discussion of the Robin Hood story as it later emerged in the seventeenth century and onwards. There is also an interesting chapter comparing Robin Hood with other, more modern "social bandits" like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and Ned Kelly (Cawthorne, 83-94). Since Cawthorne's book is part of a popular series intended for general readers, it lacks the scholarly depth of those by Davis and Baldwin.
After considerable efforts by scholars like the latter, the identity of an historical Robin Hood proves to be as elusive as ever. Such investigations never grapple with a fundamental problem of their research, which is that the suggested inspirations are not named in the tales. It does not do to argue that the authorities suppressed the memory of such persons, who then had to be given the alternative identity of Robin Hood. There are too many historical examples that contradict this notion, including some cited by these authors.
In one sense Robin Hood is not comparable to Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, or Fulk FitzWarin. The latter were real, documented historical figures, rebellious against royal authority and commemorated by stories in their own names. Those in power could not stop the spread of these tales, which in some cases became elaborately embellished over time.
In much the same way, the great rebels whose lives may be contemporaneous with the Robin Hood of early legend enjoyed enormous popularity. Simon de Montfort (c. 1208-1265), killed at the battle of Evesham in 1265 while resisting royal authority, had been excommunicated by the Church. Yet for a number of years he enjoyed a posthumous reputation as a popular saint, with hundreds of miracles attributed to his gravesite. It took great effort for the authorities to weaken the cult (by about 1280), but a modern university in Leicester is now named after him (Baldwin, 132-141). Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, executed in 1322 for rebellion against Edward II, likewise became the object of a popular cult, with alleged miracles associated with his remains at Pontefract Church in Yorkshire. His hat and belt were preserved as holy relics down to the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century (Baldwin, 141-142).
The authorities might condemn such commemorations, but they could not entirely prevent the spreading of stories about popular rebels or anti-authoritarian saints. Once that is clear, we need to know why it would be necessary for the life story of Roger Godberd or the unknown Templar to be changed into that of Robin Hood. The idea that one person's biography was simply transformed into that of another goes against what is known about popular culture: indeed, there is a contradiction in commemorating one individual's deeds by attributing them to someone of a different name.
In spite of these three scholars' efforts, the identity of an historical Robin Hood remains unknown. Baldwin's identification of Roger Godberd as the real basis for Robin Hood has too many problems to gain widespread acceptance among scholars in this field, who have long known about this possibility. Davis' re-reading of the early ballads is a most original interpretation, but one based on circumstantial evidence that lacks a solid cultural context. The problem is a difficult one for any historian to solve, and until something more substantial emerges, the interpretation of Robin Hood as a fictional character will endure.--Fred Donnelly
Fred Donnelly teaches at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Canada.
David Baldwin, Robin Hood; the English Outlaw Unmasked (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2010).
Nigel Cawthorne, A Brief History of Robin Hood (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2010).
John Paul Davis, Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar (London: Peter Owen, 2009).
Fred Donnelly, "Why Robin Hood Can't Be Caught", Albion Magazine Online, vol. 8, Issue 1 (2011).
Copyright © Fred Donnelly 2012.
Copyright © Fred Donnelly 2012.