By R. H. Hilton
Past and Present, Vol.14:1 (1958)
Introduction: Thomas Becket, Henry II’s chancellor and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was an officially canonised saint, the most celebrated object of medieval English pilgrimage Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, a transplanted baron from the Ile de France, was popularly and unofficially canonised for his part in the political upheaval and civil war of 1258-65. Another temporary, unofficial saint was Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, celebrated because of his rebellion against the government of his cousin, Edward II. But in spite of their official or unofficial sanctity, none of these, nor any other Englishman of the middle ages, ever became such a popular hero as Robin Hood. His popularity has never waned since we first hear of tales about bis exploits in a version of Langland’s Piers Plowman, probably composed towards the end of the seventies of the fourteenth century. But Thomas Becket and the others really existed. Did Robin Hood ever live or was he a figment of popular imagination, or even the individual invention of a clever ballad maker?
In this article I shall argue that probably there was no such individual, but that his historical significance does not depend on whether he was a real person or not. I shall suggest that what matters is that one of England’s most popular literary heroes is a man whose most endearing activities to his public were the robbery and killing of landowners, in particular church landowners, and the maintenance of guerilla warfare against established authority represented by the sheriff. A man who would now, of course, be described as a terrorist. Perhaps a social historian can help to solve some Robin Hood problems which have so far mainly been considered by the literary historians.