Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 14 October 2013

Myriads of Robin Hoods

Today I've decided to turn away from the blood-soaked doings of the 15th century, and delve into a bit of historical background to the legend of Robin Hood.

Some would have it that there is no 'historical background' to the legend as such, and that the character is really a hybrid of older tales, all mixed together with elements of folklore and mythology. Certainly, the oldest written form of the story as we know it, The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (first printed in the 1470s), is up to its eyeballs in debt to earlier tales of Fulk Fitwarin, Eustace the Monk and Hereward the Wake. If taken to pieces and carefully analysed, very little of the narrative can be confidently stated as being original.

So does that mean there was no historical Robin, and that all such 'historicist' theories are so much hot air? Possibly, though that would make the character almost unique: very few English medieval ballad heroes are entirely fictional. Surely the most enduring of them all was once flesh and blood, and not merely stitched together from the rags of other stories? A sort of Frankenstein's Outlaw?

The problem with gleaning medieval records looking for evidence of a historical Robin is that there are too many: brigands, outlaws, cut-throats and general ne'er-do-well's named Robert Hood (or variants) abound, and it is next to impossible to pick one out from the crowd and say 'this is the man'.

To give an idea of what I mean, here is a short sampling of the list of historical villains bearing the outlaw's name:

1219: Robert Hod, outlaw: murdered a man named Ralph Pessun in the Abbot of Cirencester's garden and fled, along with two accomplices. Fate unknown.

1225 AD: Robert Hod, fugitive, fled the assize court at York and had his chattels seized by the Sheriff of Yorkshire to the value of 32 shillings and 6 pence. Crime and fate unknown.

1240: Robert Hode, one of a gang that murdered a man in Devon. All of the suspects fled and were outlawed. Fate unknown.

1256: Robert Hode in Thyrune, Northumberland, fled in the company of a murderer named Richard who murdered a man with an arrow. Intriguingly, the clerk of the court changes Richard's name to John in the repeat entry: a clerical error, or did he have Robin Hood and Little John in mind?

1266: Robert Hod, townsman of Cambridge, was among the rebels that infested the Isle of Ely after the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.

...etc! There are also the later Robert Hoods that appear in The Wakefield Court Rolls, and form the basis for one of the more popular recent theories that Robin was one of the 'Contrariants' i.e. one of those who rebelled against King Edward II.

So who was that hooded man, if anyone? Personally I plump for the Yorkshire fugitive of 1225 as the most intriguing, as well as one of the few to have haunted Robin Hood's traditional stamping ground of Yorkshire (if not Nottinghamshire). On the other hand, 'Hobbehod' may have been completely unremarkable, and just one of the many criminals that plagued Yorkshire in the summer of that year.

Whatever the truth, the mystery behind Robin Hood will probably never be unravelled, and continue to provide great raw material for fiction for centuries to come...


  1. The instances you cite could all be the same man. We know how spellings varied in those days.

    I love this post. It's one of my dreams to study original materials about King Arthur, but Geoffrey Ashe has already done that and there's still nothing conclusive.

  2. Thanks Petrea. Yes I initially hoped that all these Robert Hods - there are others in the same time period that I didn't list - were the same man, but it seems very unlikely.

    The research has been fascinating! If you are interested, I can ask the admin to allow you to join the research group forum :)

  3. You are the expert! Well, I hoped... It must have been a common name. I wonder if any of them were related? I suppose at this remove we'll never know.

    David, I would love to be part of the research group forum. Please let me know what I need to do.

    1. No problem - just email me at Davidpilling56@hotmail.com and I'll arrange it :)

  4. if last entry was 1266, this would have made the man at least 60 if not older so could it have been a father and later his son ? or brothers using same name? First entry 1219 the man would have to have been at least 16 or more like 20-25 to have own horse?

    1. Thank you for your comment :) Sadly, I suspect all or most of these Roberts were separate men.

  5. Hi Dave, I've just been following up this thread about Robert Hod and the abbot of Cirencester for Tony Wait and I've found the original Latin entry in the Pleas of the Crown for the County of Gloucester, but I couldn't find any reference to Ralph's surname being Pessun. Can I ask, please, where you came across his surname? Thanks! Jules :-)

    1. Hi Jules, good to hear from you. Turns out I made an error - 'Pessun' was the surname of a man from an entirely separate record! Hope I didn't divert you onto the wrong track :)