Is "Robin Hood" Based on a True Story?

by Nicole Schmoll
The legend of Robin Hood has a long and interesting history.

The legend of Robin Hood has a long and interesting history.

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"Robin Hood" is the romantic story of a man who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. It has been told and retold in books, plays, movies and animated movies so many times it has achieved the status of folklore. While no one can be sure a man named Robin Hood did not exist, the consensus among historians and researchers, according to an article by Dr. Mike Ibeji, is that Robin Hood is a legend. If there was a man named Robin Hood, his existence cannot be historically verified.

When the Legend Began

A William Robehod is referenced in a King's Remembrancer's Memoranda Roll of Easter 1262 for being a fugitive and having his chattel seized by the prior of Sandleford. When the account is cross-referenced with the roll of the Justices in Eyre in Berkshire in 1261, the same account appears, but the outlaw mentioned is named William son of Robert le Fevere. Dr. Mike Ibeji, writing for the BBC UK, posits that the legend of Robin Hood was already well known at this time, and so the clerk transcribing the later roll changed the outlaw's name to William Robehod. Dr. Ibeji notes that it was common for outlaws living in the mid-13th century on to refer to themselves by pseudonym as Robehods or Robynhods in deference to the legend. The earliest known literary reference to Robin Hood is found in a poem by William Langland and shows that, by the time of its writing, the legend of Robin Hood already had a firm footing in England. The poem, called "The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman" was composed in 1377 and includes a line that says, "I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it. / But I know the rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, earl of Chester."

Where the Legend Grew

The forest has always been a consistent character in the Robin Hood legend. Both Sherwood and Barnsdale Forests in England were the private property of the king and his court who used it for hunting wild game. In the 13th century, the Sherwood Forest would have covered about 100,000 acres. As such a vast semi-wild place, it was perfect not only for deer but as a place of refuge for outlaws. During that time, many travelers viewed the forest as a dangerous place to visit and, therefore, traveled through it in large groups. In 2011, Sherwood Forest is a county park covering about 450 acres. It has a visitor's center and tree called the "Major Oak," which draws nearly 1 million tourists each year. A Robin Hood Festival is held there each year.

Where the Legend Lies

Legend has it that Robin Hood is buried in the Kirklees Priory. A medieval gravestone can be seen bearing the inscription "Here Lies Robard Hude," which leads some to believe this is the grave of the Robin Hood on which the legend is based. Dr. Ibeji notes that an epitaph written by Thomas Gale in 1702 records the existence of Robin Hood's grave at Kirklees and that the grave dates to 1247. However, Dr. Ibeji suggests that no strong historical evidence guarantees that the grave belongs to the man on which the legend is based. Dr. Ibeji concludes that a Robin Hood type may have been active during the reign of King John between 1225 and 1261, but that he gained such fame during his lifetime that within one generation, a legend developed about him that obscured his true identity.

Two Robin Hoods

Dr. Ibeji theorizes the most plausible explanation for the origin of the Robin Hood legend as a man who hid in the Sherwood Forest until he was freed by King Richard is that it grew out of two stories about two or more outlaws who fought against the excesses of King John. In addition to the stories of Robert le Fevere, there was a man named Fulk FitzWarin, whose tale may have aided the legend. FitzWarin learned a robber named Piers de Bruville assumed his identity and committed thefts in his name. FitzWarin hunted Bruville and his gang down and murdered them all. He was a childhood friend of King John but warred against him as an outlaw for three years as an adult. FitzWarin was pardoned in 1203 and died around 1256. The stories of the two men combined with others in the 15th century morphed into stories introducing characters such as Little John and Friar Tuck, although there is no historical evidence of their existence.

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