A Real Robin Hood?

Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).

Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).

Studying Robin Hood can be a bit like studying Jack the Ripper. There are many “history” books out there, many of which lay claim to having discovered a ‘real’ Robin Hood. A lot of these works are written by local historians, who out of some sort of local patriotism, endeavour to fix the location of the original Robin Hood within their home town.

Most serious historical publications tend to shy away from discussing whether Robin Hood was a real person or not, and are contented with analysing the legend as a whole, studying the early ballads and songs from the medieval period to understand what the legend – not the man – signified to contemporaries.

Yet when I tell people that I am studying Robin Hood for my PhD, the question they inevitably ask is: was Robin Hood a real person? Was he from Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire? Originally I decided against including any discussion of the sort in my thesis, but have recently changed my mind, my  thinking being that, as I was discussing a legend, I cannot very well omit a discussion of a possible real figure from the past who may have inspired the legend. So I turned to the work of the foremost Robin Hood scholar, Professor James C. Holt.

James C. Holt, Robin Hood [1982] (London: The Folio Society, 2008)

In 1982, Holt published his book entitled Robin Hood. It is the definitive survey of the legend, having undergone several re-releases and re-publications. It is a lengthy work as Holt’s time span began in the medieval period and ended in the twentieth century. However, he felt the need to address the historicity of Robin Hood in his final chapter.

A medieval pipe roll

Holt analyses in great detail most of the existing candidates who might be said to be the original Robin Hood. He focuses in on one particular candidate, Robert Hod who was listed as a ‘fugitive’ in the Pipe Rolls of the York Assizes in 1225, and who appeared again one year later, in 1226, under the nickname ‘Hobbehod.’

The evidence pertaining to this man, in Holt’s opinion, make him the most likely candidate for being the original Robin Hood:

The Robert Hod, fugitive, of the York Assizes of 1225 has a clearer field; indeed, the nickname which he was given on the Pipe Roll of 1226, Hobbehod, may well reflect the emergence of the legend. Old, well-known evidence […] suddenly looks refreshed. The Scottish historian, John Major, writing in 1521, believed that Robin Hood and Little John were active in 1193-94. The epitaph left [on Robin Hood’s grave] by Thomas Gale in 1702 recorded that Robin died in 1247. If we arrange all these items chronologically we seem to have the shadowy outline of a biography; Robin active in the 1190s, an outlaw in 1225, dead in 1247, an interval matching his twenty-two years in the Greenwood in the Geste; then a figure of legend by 1262.

James C. Holt, Robin Hood [1982] (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.187.

By Holt’s own admission, however, this would require a lot of faith: “there is nothing to prove it, but it is not impossible’ (Ibid). Holt says that if this Robert Hod of 1225 was the ‘real’ Robin Hood and committed numerous robberies throughout the country, he would have expected more contemporary documents to mention his name. It would also require, he says, a quick generation of a legend, for this Robert Hod died in 1247 but the alias Robin Hood, or variations of it, began to appear in pipe rolls in 1262; 15 years for a man to become ‘legend’ and for other criminals to appropriate his name. Nevertheless, after considering all the evidence, Holt concludes that it is this Robert Hod, dies in 1247, who was perhaps the original Robin Hood.

The important caveat which Holt emphasises, however, is that to search for a ‘real’ Robin Hood is to miss the point. It can, he says, be a fruitless endeavour as no one would ever get a conclusive, satisfactory, and unassailable candidate from the fragmentary evidence available. Moreover, Holt concludes by saying that it is the legend that has grown up around the man which is much more important than any real person could ever be, due to what the legend signifies to different audiences throughout the ages; justice, fairness, and an expression of revolt against harsh authority. These are immortal qualities, argues Holt, and cannot, and should not, be pinned down to any one period or any one man.