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One of the most popular 'empiricist' theories, first suggested by Joseph Hunter in the 1800s, is based on a man named Robert Hode (or Hood) of Wakefield, who lived in the Wakefield area of West Yorkshire in the early 1300s. Hunter and other writers after him suggested that this man was caught up in the rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster against King Edward II in 1322, and outlawed after the rebel defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. He was (so the theory goes) later pardoned and served for a time as a porter or 'valet de la chambre' in Edward II's household.
This sketchy outline of Robert Hode's career would fit with the narrative of the Geste, a 15th century compilation of Robin Hood ballads and the first to try and provide the famous outlaw with some kind of career. In the Geste Robin Hood is indeed pardoned by a king named Edward (not Richard the Lionheart) and spends some time at court before leaving to go back into outlawry.
It's a neat theory, but one with massive gaps in the evidence. There's no clear proof that Robert Hode of Wakefield was ever outlawed, or the same man as the 'Robyn Hod' who served as one of Edward II's porters. Recently I've been researching the 14th century plea rolls held at the National Archives in London, and have found a bit of evidence that may help to close a few of the gaps.
Below is the record in question:
'King's Bench Plea Rolls, 1316:
An assize comes to recognise if Alice, who was the wife of Robert de Everingham, William le Corour, Thomas Page of Brotherton, Henry de Tikehull, Adam Pakock and Robert Hode unjustly, etc, disseised Juliana, who was the wife of Richard Farburne, of her free tenement in Farburne after the first, etc. And whereupon they complain that they disseised her of four acres of land with appurtenances, etc. And Alice has come and the others have not. But a certain Thomas de Wartre answers for them as their bailiff, and says that they have done no injury or disseisin thereupon. And as to this he places himself upon the assize....'
At first glance it doesn't look very exciting, just a standard land dispute. However, a few things stand out. Alice's husband, Robert de Everingham, was the last hereditary Keeper of Sherwood Forest. He was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle for various offences, and died there in 1287, quite possibly tortured to death for refusing to throw himself on the mercy of a jury. So here is Robert Hode (almost certainly the Wakefield man) in league with the widow of the Keeper of Sherwood.
The locations mentioned - Brotherton. Tikehull or Tickhill, Farburne or Fairburne - are all within the area of Wakefield and Barnsdale: Barnsdale, a wooded valley in the West Riding, is the setting for much of the early Robin Hood ballads. See the map below (Barnsdale itself is a little way south of Ferrybridge):
Granted, this is still a long way from proving that Robert Hode was an outlaw in Barnsdale, or the model for the ballads of Robin Hood. However it does at least add to our knowledge of the man, and demonstrate his connections with a family of knightly rebels and certain ballad locations. More information may yet come to light. Now, back to those dusty old court rolls...