Robin Hood and the Crusades: When and Why Did the Longbowman of the People Mount Up Like a Lord?

Robin Hood and the Crusades: When and Why Did the Longbowman of the People Mount Up Like a Lord?

By Stephen Knight

Florilegium, Vol. 23:1 (2006)

Mounted man carrying bow, from A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, published in Antwerp in c.1500

Mounted man carrying bow, from A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, published
in Antwerp in c.1500

Introduction: In the mid 1950s some thirty million people in Britain and the United States would each week watch an episode of the British-made The Adventures of Robin Hood. It starred Richard Greene as the officer-type hero, returned from the crusades and forced, through the vileness of the Norman lords under bad Prince John, to take to the forests to defend English freedom. As a nobleman and a returning crusader, Robin rode into the opening scene, and he is remembered as a cavalryman: the theme song, still widely known, goes “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men.” But what does this imply? Is it just Robin on a horse leading his faithful infantry? Or are all the band mounted, like fox-hunters, or lost cowboys? Or are the two lines alternatives: perhaps Robin might either ride through the glen on his own or might just be there on foot with his band of men? And why, in any case, is it a glen — a word connected with Scotland, not English Nottingham? This paper will discuss issues like these in light of the long-lasting Robin Hood tradition. But the most interesting question is simply where this idea of Robin on horseback came from, and where and why the crusades became involved.

The earliest Robin Hood ballads are remarkably unlike the modern standard image of the hero. He is a yeoman, not a lord, and his social relations with his band are lateral, not hierarchical. He is not hiding away in the forest until his king returns: he is, like a real outlaw, there all the time and always against the king, or at least against the king’s officers. He has a very small (and thus historically accurate) band, not the politically challenging regiment of men that he develops under the influence of Scottish ideas of resistant outlawry. He lives in a late medieval present, not in the time of good King Richard or bad Prince John — the latter’s usurping villainy made, in a sixteenth century renovation, Robin’s resistance in fact hierarchy-supporting and conservative. He has no relations with a Lady Marian: his only gendered emotion is his worship of St. Mary (apart from his male friendships, of course). Most striking of all, he does not rob the rich to give to the poor: he takes from the rich and corrupt to give to himself and his friends, not yet deploying the de haut en bas patronization of charity.

This image of a reasonably credible late medieval outlaw is emphasized by the fact that he is always on foot. Not only was that a basic marker of class: it was also functional. It is impossible to draw and shoot a longbow from the saddle, and that seriously threatening weapon, which can pierce armour and fell a war-horse, is central to the earliest identity of the ballad outlaw, and to the social challenge inherent in his representation. It seems entirely proper in that context that the proverbial statement, recognized in law as an example of a well-known truth, is that “Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood,” as distinct from television Robin riding onto our screens.

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