Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 24 April 2014

From small seeds, mighty oaks grow...

Here are some more of my musings on the origins of Robin Hood. For those unfortunates who missed my previous musings, you can get an eyeful of them here:

Previous musings on Robin Hood

What follows is the fruit of a lot of research, done by myself and others, over the past decade or so. Sometime in the nearish future I hope to collate it all into a proper academic essay, with references and a bibliography and everything. For the time being, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Robin Hood may well have been fictional, a never-never figure largely pieced together from older ballads, some based on the careers of historical outlaws. I think it more likely that he did exist, but 'he' was more of a 'them'. Here's what I mean...

In 1254 England was bubbling over with unrest, thanks to the incompetent government of King Henry III. Yorkshire, the largest county in England, was particularly wild and lawless, and the Calendar of Inquisitions for that year records a mob attacking church property in North Yorkshire owned by the Abbey of Byland:

Mob rule

The mob was led by Sir Richard de Riparia, a local knight whose manors bordered on the Yorkshire estates of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and a serious pain in King Henry's rump. If you browse through the list of named offenders, you will spot a Robert Hod or Hood.

Now, here's fun. Those of you with microscopes, extremely good eyesight and about five hours to spare, see if you can spot the name Thomas Hod from this ancient legal record, taken from the AALT website:

He's on here. Honest.

This record is also from 1254, and Thomas Hod is listed among a number of men locked up in York gaol for committing armed robberies and other crimes. He is described as a man of Thirsk, also in North Yorkshire and one of the manors owned by Sir John Deyville.

I have discussed bold Sir John before. See below:

Deyville Part One

Deyville Part Two

At this time Sir John was still a teenager, but already in serious trouble, excommunicated for various offences and obliged to flee the country for a time to avoid retribution. It is extremely likely that the crimes of his tenant Thomas Hod had something to do with it, possibly acting on his lord's behalf. As leader of the baronial rebels in the north, Sir John was probably involved with the earlier raid on church land as well.

So here we have a Robert and Thomas Hood, maybe relatives, active in a spate of robberies and attacks on church property in Yorkshire in the mid-1250s. Minor players, perhaps, but active alongside rebellious noblemen who soon went on to greater and more destructive things.

Clang, hack, slash, maim...etc
Meanwhile, up in Northumberland...in 1256 a Robert Hode fled the village of Thyrune in the company of a man named Richard, accused of killing another man with an arrow. This Robert Hode has nothing to do with the events in Yorkshire, but part of the case reads as follows:

"Richard son of William of Thyrun killed Roger Pessun with an arrow and is summoned to court. And John has fled, therefore let him be outlawed..."

For some reason the clerk has changed the name of the killer from Richard to John. Was this a mere clerical error, or was the clerk aware of an existing tale of Robin Hood and Little John, and changed Richard's name due to his association with a Robert Hode?

Just a few years later, we see the first evidence of the name 'Robin Hood' and variants being used by clerics as an alternative name for various criminals: in 1261 a fugitive named William le Fevre in Berkshire had his name changed to William 'Robehod'. Another eight instances of this practice, ranging from Robehod to Robynhod to Rabunhod, occur all over the south of England until the end of the century.

Sadly, we have no idea what the earliest ballads or rhymes were like. The earliest printed ballads date from c.1470, over two hundred years after this period. We can, however, surmise where some of their inspiration may have come from.

The key period is the 1260s, when the Second Baron's War exploded all over the hapless King Henry and left him a prisoner in the clutches of Simon de Montfort. Our old friend John Deyville was back in town, and from 1260 onwards did his damnedest to stir up trouble in the north. In that year he and various accomplices were chased all over Yorkshire by the Sheriff, who submitted a large bill to the Exchequer for food, wine and outstanding wages for his soldiers.

While Deyville was tearing things up in North Yorkshire, there was further unrest in Holderness in the East Riding. Here there was a full-blown rebellion against royal authority, and a band of rebels broke down the bridges over the Humber to prevent the Sheriff's troops moving in to restore order. The prime movers in the revolt were the Constables, a local knightly family, and among their followers was another Robert Hod:

Robert Hod of Holderness

This Robert Hod was almost certainly a different man to the earlier troublemaker of 1254, but it doesn't really matter: by this time it seems the name Robin Hood was becoming well-known as a byword, possibly even a symbol, of resistance against lawful authority. The fact that real-life criminal Robin Hoods were popping up all over the country can only have helped the legend to spread.

Another Robert Hod cropped up at The Battle of Northampton in 1264, fighting on the side of the baronial rebels. Here the rebels were defeated and de Montfort's son, another Simon, captured. This Robert Hod appears to have been a member of a local family of Hoods, and was later fined heavily for supporting the rebels.

Yet another Robert Hod - they were like rabbits - was among the rebels who holed up in the Isle of Ely in 1266/7, and there re-fortified the old fortress used by Hereward the Wake in his struggle against the Normans. Here we have an example of an old legend merging with an emerging one, fact and history intertwining and no doubt getting thoroughly mixed up in people's minds:

Robert Hod of Ely

The man in Ely is significant, for he and his comrades were summoned there by John Deyville, who had made the island his headquarters. Not for nothing did Walter Bower, the 15th century Scottish chronicler, have this to say under the year 1266:

"...John Deyville was a rebel at Ely: Robert Hode was an outlaw among the woodland briars and thorns...in this year arose the famous cut-throat Robert Hode and his accomplice Little John, whom the foolish populace so love to celebrate in ballad and song..."

Intriguingly, there was also a John le Petit or Little John listed among the Ely rebels. Whether he and Robert Hod knew each other and worked together, can only be guessed at.

John Deyville is the unifying figure in all this. He and his brother Robert spent the winter of 1266 as outlaws in Sherwood Forest, and had earlier obtained royal permission to crenellate their fortified manor house on the summit of Hood, a dramatic location in North Yorkshire.

Hood Hill near Thirsk, in North Yorkshire.
The coincidence of the naming of their house is obvious, and it may be that the exploits of the Deyvilles were merged with the growing content of the Robin Hood ballads. Sir John himself is praised in various contemporary rhymes, including The Song of the Barons.

This Yorkshire stuff is all very well, but what about his lordship, the High Sheriff of Nottingham? After all, Robin is nothing without his opposite number. Every ying needs his yang, and in this case the yang may well have been based on a historical Sheriff, one Reynold de Grey.

Reynold was tasked with defending Nottingham against the various bands of outlaws that infested Sherwood during this period. The town itself was attacked in 1267, its timber walls damaged and a number of citizens killed. The Deyvilles were responsible for some of these disturbances, but there was another man who made life hell for law-abiding folk. His name was Roger Godberd, and it was the job of Reynold de Grey, as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, to hunt him down. Eventually, he did just that:

"Whereas on the showing of the magnates of the council and many others the king lately understood that in the counties of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, as well as in the common ways and in the woods, numbers of men on horseback and on foot, were abroad and that no religious or secular person could pass without being taken by them and spoiled of their goods...Reynold de Grey has bravely pursued these men and captured one Roger Godberd, their leader and master, and delivered him to prison..."

Robin Hood and the Poor Knight
Here Roger Godberd is 'Robin Hood' to the life, leading a band of outlaws in Nottinghamshire while being hunted by his nemesis, the Sheriff. Godberd was allied to the Deyvilles and also to Robert de Ferrers, his feudal lord and 6th Earl of Derby. Surprisingly, he was not executed, but pardoned and died a free man.

During his crime spree Godberd was given shelter by a Yorkshire knight named Sir Richard Foliot, on his castle and lands at Fenwick. Fenwick lies near Barnsdale, the wooded valley in South Yorkshire named as Robin Hood's haunt in the earliest printed ballads.  Foliot's shelter of Godberd is also reminiscent of the kindness of Sir Richard de la Lee in the ballads, who shelters Robin Hood's men in his castle. Here again, fact and fiction collide and form the ingredients of a big semi-fictional soup.

The 'poor knight' of the ballads initially has no name, and is only later merged with the character of Richard de le Lee. He may well have been based on - you guessed it - John Deyville, who thanks to his constant wars was in debt to his armpits and owed almost £400 to the Abbot of Saint Mary's at York. This almost exactly mirrors the debt owed by the poor knight to the same abbey in the story.

Finally, Sir Richard de la Lee himself may well be identified with another historical figure right at the end of this period. In the ballad he tells Robin that his son has been outlawed for slaying a knight of Lancashire. The Staffordshire Rolls for the year 1275 state that one Robert de la Lee, son of Richard, was outlawed for murdering two men, beheading them and carrying their heads into Cheshire. This unpleasant incident may have occurred in a different part of the country, but the parallels are otherwise eerily similar to the story.

And here almost endeth the lesson. Except...who was the original Robin Hood, if anyone? For the story to be already well-known by 1261 surely means that the genesis figure existed at least a couple of generations earlier. The various Robert Hoods and other evildoers of the 1250s/60s added meat to the bare bones of a story that might well have originated with a mysterious fugitive from justice named in the Pipe Rolls for the years 1225-34.

Step forward, Robertus Hood, fugitive...

...if you can see him!

My thanks go to Robert Fortunaso, who runs the Robin Hood - Fact or Fiction website I have made liberal use of here.


  1. Hi David! I hope all is well with you and your family (meaning your dad especially :-)) How fascinating that the poor knight and Sir John Deyville might have been the same person. You're right, what a coincidence: the debt to the abbey.

    I can still remember your brilliant post about Sir John.

    Warmest regards,


    1. Hi Kasia! Thanks for the message, I was wondering if you were still about. All is good here - with all of us! And you, I hope :)