By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II
“Robyn stode in Bernysdale, and lened hym to a tree, and by hym stode lyttell Johan, a good yeman was he, and also dyde good Scathelock, and Much the myllers sone…”
- excerpt from the late 15th century Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode
Was Robin Hood a real historical figure? This question has both excited and confounded professional and amateur medievalists since the late 18th Century and, thanks to their work delving into what remains of English court records and pipe rolls from the time, a slew of possible candidates has arisen.
Interestingly, none of them existed during the time in which the traditional Robin Hood stories we are familiar with today. That is, in the late 12th century Angevin era when Kings Richard I and John I were active. In fact, there exists hardly any evidence that a possible historical Robin was even remotely associated with that period. Instead, our candidates seem to range between two periods of heightened political instability within medieval England – the Montfortian crisis of the mid-13th Century and the turbulent reign of Edward II in the early 14th Century.
The first and most popular candidate for the historical outlaw is one “Robert/Robyn Hode” who the 18th Century amateur antiquarian Joseph Hunter discovered in 14th century court records from Wakefield’s Yorkshire estate in pipe rolls of the Royal Wardrobe from the reign of King Edward II. Hunter deduced these two names to be the same man and developed an elaborate theory about Robert/Robyn: that he had been born in Yorkshire to a Royal Forester named Adam, had gotten into legal trouble after siding with Thomas Earl of Lancaster in his doomed rebellion against Edward, had been pardoned by the King, and then earned a position in the royal household as a porter before running away back to the wilderness of his native Yorkshire.
As impressive and compelling as this theory may be, more modern scholars have pointed out that Hunter’s thesis suffers from several debilitating weaknesses. First of all, there is no conclusive evidence that the Wakefield Robert and the Robyn from the wardrobe rolls is indeed the same person. Also, neither figure seems to have lived a life even remotely as exciting as the Robin of legend. The Wakefield Robert’s only recorded crime was failing to appear for a 1316 military muster, and the porter Robyn seems to have simply grown tired of Royal service and returned home without leave. Additionally, there is nothing to suggest either played any noticeable role in the Earl of Lancaster’s Despenser Uprising and subsequent defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Seen in this light, Hunter’s candidates do not cut a very convincing picture of the real Robin.
Going further back to the heady days of Simon de Montfort and the Parliamentarian revolt he masterminded, we find a few more possible candidates. The earliest is an outlaw found recorded in the Yorkshire pipe rolls of 1226 who apparently went by several different names including Robert Hod, Hobbeshod, or simply Hod. However, this individual’s only recorded crime was defaulting on a debt to St. Peter’s local abbey.
Later, in the hey-day of the Montfortian Wars, we find some more convincing figures. Among de Montfort’s partisans were the brothers John and Robert Deyville, both of whom fought in Yorkshire even after the war’s formal end. Some details of their lives match what is found in the Lytell Geste, but overall, neither figure seems to stand out as a definitive historical Robin.
Finally, there is the story of the knight Robert Godberd, the man who fought alongside Simon de Montfort at the disastrous Battle of Evesham, and who was subsequently outlawed for his allegiance to the Baronial cause. It is worth noting that nearly two centuries later, the historian Walter Bower identified “Robin Hood” as having been outlawed for the same reason. Godberd would spend several years eluding royal authorities in Nottinghamshire before finally being captured and imprisoned – ultimately being pardoned by King Edward I on his return from the Ninth Crusade and permitted to live out the rest of his days peacefully.
In searching for candidates for the “real” Robin Hood, researchers, unfortunately, encounter several historiographical difficulties. The first is simply that there are not enough existing primary source materials from the times in question to flesh out any potential candidate conclusively. While the medieval English were known for their meticulous record-keeping, especially regarding legal matters, the passage of time has steadily eroded away at these records, and sadly not enough remain to cross-reference the life story of any individuals mentioned except the most well-known. The next difficulty is that naming (and the spelling of names) in medieval England was anything but standardized. The name “Robin” is a variant of the more common name “Robert” and could be spelled in various ways.
Additionally, multiple instances of the surname “Robynhod” begin to appear in the pipe roll accounts around the mid-13th century. This confusion over names leads one to agree with the historian John Maddicott that the name by which we know the outlaw now may have been nothing more than an alias used by several outlaws from the time. Ultimately, so long as there are historians interested in uncovering the real Robin Hood, the search for our elusive forest outlaw will continue, but while he remains hidden in the deep forest of long-lost history, the quest seems to be as frustrating as the attempts of the Sheriff of Nottingham to bring his cheeky quarry to earth.
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.
Bellamy, John. Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry (Indiana University Press, 1985)
Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Archer (The Boydell Press, 1985)