Robin Hood

This section of the website is concerned with Robin Hood - the man. It also seeks to explore the endurance of the legend in history and aims to provide a window into my research that led to the writing of my first book, Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar. The reasons for the book lie in history. Its primary aim to enlighten and explore. My interest in Robin Hood began as long ago as I can remember, and will undoubtedly continue for as long as memory will serve. My quest has been lifelong, and I firmly believe its contributions to the history have been useful. Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, I leave in your own capable hands.

To my mind, the greatest problem any researcher is destined to encounter with the search for a real-life Robin Hood is the confusion over the time that he lived, a matter made all the more difficult by his curious promotion from yeoman to earl by chroniclers of the 16th century. Without question, there is no Robert Earl of Huntingdon lying underneath that little stone that once lay in the grounds of what was formerly Kirklees Priory. Still, this does not discount the possibility that the remains of at least one member of another group of outlaws who lived over one hundred years later may yet rest in peace on the celebrated site.

As the last century has demonstrated, myth and legend are often nothing more than history that was either forgotten or misunderstood. Thanks to Schliemann and his contemporaries, we now know that Troy is a city that really existed. Thanks to Carter et al. Tutankhamen is renowned as perhaps the most famous of the Egyptian pharaohs.

Amazing how the jigsaw of history fits together – provided you place the pieces in the correct places.


1225 The name of an outlaw called Robert Hod appears in court records
1226 Robert Hod reappears in records as Hobbehod
1260 William, son of Robert, le Fevere is reprimanded for the creation of an armed band
1261 William, son of Robert, reappears in records as William Robehod
1266 Sheriff of Nottingham, William de Grey, is involved in a conflict with outlaws on the back of de Montfort’s defeat at Evesham
1283 Characters Robin and Marion appear in Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion
1304 William Wallace is referred to as the Scottish Robin Hood in folio 103 of registrum premonstratense
1307 The Knights Templar are arrested in Paris
1308 First arrests of Templars in England
1312 Dissolution of the Templars
1376 John Gower includes characters Robin and Marian in his epic Mirour de l’omme
1377 Publication of Piers Plowman by William Langland, including reference to rhymes of Robin Hood
1420 Publication of the Orygynale Chronikyl of Scotland, written by Andrew of Wyntouns. According to Wyntouns Robin Hood and Little John were active in Barnsdale and Inglewood Forest in 1283
1439 A group of armed men led by Piers Venables cause trouble at the May Day games in Aston, Derbyshire. The petition to parliament refers to him as causing trouble ‘like it hadde be Robyn Hude and his meyne’
1440 Publication of Walter Bower’s continuation of John Fordun’s Scotichronicon. Among Bower’s inclusions are references to Robert Hood fighting among the ‘disinherited’ against King Henry III and Prince Edward I in 1265-6
1450 Publication of Robin Hood and the Monk
1469 Outlaws Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale rise up against the Yorkist government
1475 Publication of a play titled Robin Hood and the Sheriff
1498 William Marshal marches under alias Robin Hood when leading a gang at Willenhall
1500 Publication of Robin Hood and the Potter
1520 Approximate date for publication of A Geste of Robyn Hode
1521 Publication of John Major’s Historis Majoris Britanniae, placing Robin Hood as an outlaw during the reign of King Richard I
1569 Chronicler Richard Grafton refers to Robin Hood as an Earl living during the reign of Richard I
1598 Playwright Anthony Munday depicts Robin Hood as a disinherited Earl of Huntington in two plays
1600 Sloane Manuscript refers to Robin Hood as being born in Loxley in about 1160AD
1606 Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder conspirators referred to as Robin Hoods by Robert Cecil
1623 Martin Parker pens A True Tale of Robin Hood referring to him individually as Earl of Huntingdon

The Symbol

The legend of Robin Hood is one of an iconic symbol rather than the story of a man. It began at a time when the people of England were deprived of many basic rights. A time when the feudal system was at its height. For the inhabitants of England at the time, the social conditions would have been notoriously hard. At no time were they allowed to chose a varied way of life, nor were they free to work when and for whom they chose. It is strange in many ways that such a way of life inspired many writers in the 19th century to glorify the time. To them, it was an age of prosperity: a time when the people of England farmed the land, enjoying success and clean living, plentiful food and an idyllic backdrop of rolling countryside.

The time of the Robin Hood legend was a time when hunger and deprivation stalked the land. The crimes and failings of the feudal system were long and aggravating. Should one attempt to remove themselves from a life of toil and suffering, the promise of extended hardship was the only reality – in many cases, time in the stocks and even death.

While it is probably true that those who lived at the time of the legend longed for freedom, precisely what their concept of liberty was cannot be answered by a freeman enjoying the privileges of the 21st century. Outside the towns and villages, the country was covered in forest spanning into the hundreds of thousands of acres. While the silence and lush greenery of the forests has come to represent an idyllic symbol, for those of the lower class, the woods held great mystery. Stories abounded that evil spirits, survived from an ancient time, inhabited the forests plaguing on travellers with magic. But it was not just spirits who inhabited the greenery. Within the dense thickets and glades, thieves and murderers preyed on passersby, seeking out ill-gotten gains, surviving on deer, wild boar and rich venison, creatures whose killing was strictly illegal to all but a select few. Traditionally, it was due to a hatred of the feudal system and a necessity to poach deer that the tales of the noble outlaw originated: never was Robin Hood an outlawed nobleman, or a disinherited Saxon as depicted throughout the last century, but simply: an outlaw.

For those who escaped the feudal system, or those outlawed for fleeing trial, the forest was their refuge. But if it was a refuge, it was a refuge of last resort. The iconic representation of the legend encapsulating the idyllic setting of Middle Ages England is powerful, but its message is probably more potent than it is accurate. In reality, the romanticism of the outlaw owes a lot to the later writers, and incorporates more about the age in which it was told than the age he lived. As the centuries have passed such romanticised impressions of Middle England has become inseparable from the legend, forever entrenching its image on the English national identity.

While it is true that the forest and the outlaw encompasses much of the Robin Hood legend, in truth, the legend of Robin Hood includes many things. In the early days he was a good fellow of the oppressed, a leader of integrity, an excellent archer and a man of sincere, and often extreme, piety. Though the legend has evolved, the symbolism of the honourably outlaw has adapted with it. In such ways, Robin has grown to mean more than the identity of the man. No longer are they historical stories of a man and his loyal supporters. Instead, they are tales of morality, focusing on our desire for a time when the corrupt and the disgraced are replaced by the noble and the good, setting up an age of prosperity where the idyllic forest takes on a form of genuine utopia.

But if indeed there was such a man, his existence was one of suffering. The ballad, A Geste of Robyn Hode, refers to the conditions being more arduous than any hermitage. But in operating in such a way, and living at such a time, the legend of the man brought with it other positives. For the audiences of the early tales, the antics of the man were not only those of hope, but they gained in Robin the image of a powerful ally.

The legend has continued to adapt and endure, but in doing so, the identity of the man has, at least in the mainstream, become almost irrelevant. For me, that has always been a great disappointment. While the story of Robin Hood is indeed one of symbolism, that is no reason to dismiss the importance of the historical man. The emphasis of the early legend was that Robin was an outlaw ‘who walked on ground’ and that tales of his tragedy and comedy did occur sometime before the legend became celebrated. Whether the man described in the ballads as a ‘yeoman’, a man of meagre of means, not necessarily dissimilar to the typical commoner of the English feudal system, was genuinely inseparable from the historical inspiration is a question that can never be answered. For audiences of the modern legend, the answer is more clear cut. But even the man portrayed as a Saxon freedom fighter is not completely removed from the hero of the early days. One way or another, the hero is always an outlaw, and his assistance to the oppressed is noteworthy.

The Legend

We all know the story. Set during the reign of Richard I, Robin Hood is famously outlawed, usually for poaching deer or for opposing the rule of Prince John, while the true king Richard the Lionheart is away fighting in the Crusades. In England Prince John, the king’s younger brother, seeks to capitalise on Richard’s absence and begins to augment his power, resulting in ruthless treatment of Richard’s subjects, notably the Saxons. With this, Robin Hood, sometimes described as the Earl of Huntingdon or Sir Robert of Locksley, becomes involved in a hostile feud with the prince and his followers, particularly the brutal Sheriff of Nottingham. Now a wanted man, Robin is forced to seek refuge in Sherwood Forest where he encounters a group of outlaws, with whom he fights, before subsequently being welcomed into their company. Here the outlaws live merrily on the king’s deer while stealing the wealth of passing Norman noblemen and redistributing the money into the pockets of the poor. United in their hatred for the prince and the sheriff, Robin moulds the group into a band of formidable fighters, referred to as his Merry Men, and leads them in rebellion against the prince. In some versions of the story, the outlaws assist King Richard in reclaiming the throne. In contrast, in others, they also play an active role in raising the ransom of 150,000 marks for his release while he is being held captive in Austria, before his triumphant return to England. With Prince John defeated, Richard restores the rights and liberties of the common man, and, of course, Robin wins the hand of Maid Marian.

Although the story is well known, how the outlaw is portrayed continues to vary considerably, usually according to the actors who play him. Errol Flynn famously starred as a wronged Saxon nobleman in opposition to Prince John. Richard Todd portrayed a young Robin Hood outlawed following the death of his father. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood followed the Robin of Locksley legend, only now with an American accent, but began a new trend of Robin having fought in the Crusades. In contrast, the television series starring Jonas Armstrong continued the returning crusader theme, only this time as a member of the King’s Guard. Yet some things never change. In every modern version of the story, Robin represents the epitome of courage. He is the finest of archers. He steals from the wealthy, but he distributes the money far and wide, while a typical outlaw would keep it for himself. He is violent, but only to those who oppose his values. He is a great leader, a formidable warrior, and an instigator of peasant revolt, but his loyalty to the true king remains cemented throughout.

While the Robin Hood familiar to audiences of the modern-day is portrayed through cinema and other media as a gallant Saxon nobleman. A man dressed in Lincoln green, robbing from the rich to aid the poor and being capable of bringing down the Norman authority with little more than a flick of the wrists and a cheeky smile, historians continuously fail to find any reasonable proof that this heroic outlaw ever existed. To the sensible, this is hardly surprising. If the antics of Fairbanks, Flynn and company are to be believed Robin Hood was a flamboyant medieval superman, capable of winning archery tournaments by splitting the arrow of an opponent with his final shot, swinging effortlessly through the trees like Tarzan, and winning swordfights against highly skilled Normans while tap-dancing down a spiralling staircase.

So what is the truth about the legendary outlaw? Should we believe the words of the acclaimed historians who have studied the evidence for several years, or the optimists? Is it truly feasible that an outlaw named Robin Hood existed during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, evading the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham while terrorising wealthy noblemen with his band of Merry Men, giving the proceeds of his thievery to the poor, and choosing, willingly, to endure the cold, wet nights of Sherwood Forest? Could this man really have existed?

The Original Robin Hood

Popular culture might portray Robin Hood as an outlawed nobleman, usually a disinherited Earl of Huntingdon or a Saxon knight, but this wasn’t always the case. In the earliest versions of the Robin Hood story, the outlaw is explicitly described as a yeoman, a term of several variations all of which denote a person of common status: lower than a squire, yet higher than a page. Nor is Robin Hood described as a Saxon. If we go by the early tales alone, he was not an enemy of Prince John, an ally of Richard I, or even, recorded as living during that period.

When considering the origin of the Robin Hood legend, nothing is more important than the ballads. In total, thirty-eight of these exist, generally dated between the 15th and 18th centuries. All provide an entertaining insight into the activities of the outlaw. While the later ballads are products of popular culture, the events of the earliest five may hold important clues to any possible identity. The ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, in particular, provides a reasonable overview of his life as an outlaw. The Gest is perhaps the earliest of the surviving ballads, dated sometime between 1400-1520, around the same time as the ballads of Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood’s Death.

The early ballads each paint a similar picture. Robin Hood is an outlaw of yeoman status, who is active in both Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire and Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire. He already has the company of his Merry Men, including Little John, Will Scarlock and Much the Millers son, but there is no sign of Friar Tuck or Maid Marian. A rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham is evident from the start, yet with no indication why Robin Hood was outlawed. Robin is already celebrated as a formidable opponent, the most outstanding of archers, a fair leader. Although he does not specifically ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’, the Gest ballad, in particular, illustrates his tendency to separate the corrupt from the honest when it comes to stealing their money, and his generosity in helping those in need.

Similarities between the Robin Hood of legend and the yeoman outlaw of the ballads exist, but a time for the original outlaw is unfortunately not given. In the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk, Little John cleverly outsmarts the king with false papers when attempting to free Robin from jail, yet the king on this occasion is unnamed. A king, however, is named in the Gest: but he was not Richard the Lionheart, he was an Edward.

The Lionheart Myth

The idea that Robin Hood lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart was first put forward in 1521 by the Scottish philosopher and chronicler, John Major, in his epic work Historia Majoris Britanniae. Major estimated the time as being around 1193-94, although he did not attempt to portray Robin Hood as an ally of Richard the Lionheart or being in opposition to Prince John.

In 1569, another chronicler, Richard Grafton, supported Major’s period and also claimed that Robin Hood was an earl who was outlawed for being unable to pay his debts. Grafton’s work was taken further toward the end of the century by the playwright Anthony Munday who portrayed Robin as Robert Earl of Huntingdon (spelt Huntington at the time), who was disinherited of his position by Prince John. Firm acceptance of Robin Hood as the Earl of Huntingdon is provided in a ballad entitled A True Tale of Robin Hood written by Martin Parker in 1632. The ballad was composed a short time after an overview of Robin Hood’s life was recorded in an anonymously written document called the Sloane Life stating Robin Hood as having been born in 1160 in a town called Locksley.

Which King?

To accept that the king of the Robin Hood saga was an Edward has two notable effects on the legend. Firstly, it removes the idea that Robin Hood was an ally of Richard I. In total, Richard spent less than eight months of his ten-year reign (1189-1199) in England, choosing instead to embark on the unsuccessful third crusade of the 1190s and defending the Duchy of Normandy. Richard’s commitment to England in his earlier life is equally dubious. When still a prince he is recorded as having rebelled against his father and even joined Philip II of France in waging war against England.

Secondly, it means if there was a historical Robin Hood, he must have lived during the reign of an Edward. There are three likely candidates here. The reign of Edward I lasted from 1272 until he died in 1307. His son, Edward II succeeded him and ruled for twenty years before being murdered by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, and subsequently replaced by his son, Edward III, who ruled until 1377. While each is possible, the identity of the king in question can be narrowed down further. The early ballads would not have been in print until the early 15th century. Still, by 1354 there is a clear indication the legend was already well known when a man arrested in Rockingham Forest for poaching and trespassing answered with a quick wit that he was Robin Hood. Although doing little in terms of finding the legendary figure, it does at least demonstrate that a legend was already in place by the reign of Edward III.

According to the Gest, the king personally travels to Nottingham in a bid to capture Robin Hood. Potentially each king could have done this. Edward I was known to have passed by Nottingham in 1300; Edward II is recorded as being present twice, first in 1323 and then again in 1324, while Edward III was in Nottingham in 1330 when preparing to kidnap his mother and Mortimer. The personality of the king may also provide a clue. In the Gest, the king, disguised as an abbot, feasts with the Merry Men and is entertained by their archery. This king tends to enjoy the company of the yeomen outlaws, a strange personality trait for a king. Yet it is curiously in keeping with the character of one King of England who was known to favour the lower classes throughout his reign. This same king has the most likely connection to Nottingham. All signs point to Edward II.

England During The Reign Of Edward II

Edward II of England, son of Edward I, was born in April 1284. As the fourth son of Longshanks, he had not been expected to become king. This changed on his becoming heir to the throne after only a few months due to the previous heir’s death. During Edward’s youth, the king took every opportunity possible to prepare the prince for kingship. He was present on many of Longshanks’ Scottish campaigns, and trained in war and statecraft.

Despite this, Edward II was never cut out to be a king. His preference was for entertainment and frivolity. According to the historian William Stubbs, Edward was the first king of England since the conquest who was ‘not a man of business’. Many historians place the blame on his favourite, Piers Gaveston, who Longshanks put in exile. One of Edward II’s first acts on his accession was to recall Gaveston and appoint him as an adviser. The barons grew increasingly concerned by the king’s actions, leading to reform. In 1311 he was forced to stand aside and allow a baronial committee of 21 lords ordainers be appointed for the purpose of governing the realm. For the first time in English history, there was something of a separation between the person of the monarch and the institution of the crown.

During the reign of Edward II England was a haven for outlaws. It is estimated that there were more in England at that time than at any other. During his reign the forest of Sherwood still spanned some 100,000 acres, crossing six counties. Barnsdale was also described as a sizeable wooded forest. The role of the sheriff had changed with each sheriff now confined to his geographical area of jurisdiction. During Edward II’s reign, the sheriff of Nottingham owned the castle at Tickhill, on the verge of Barnsdale, and would have been responsible for that area.

The Templars Expulsion

In 1303, King Philip sent a force of French soldiers to Rome intending to kidnap Pope Boniface VIII. The charges against the pope were unfathomable, ranging from heresy and sodomy to the murder of the previous pope, Celestine V. The mission failed, thanks mainly to the presence of Hospitallers and Templars, but the pope died shortly after, allegedly in shock at the French king’s slanders.

Boniface’s successor, Benedict XI, lasted less than a year. Following this, he was replaced by Raymond Bertrand de Got, a childhood friend of Philip, who took up the name Clement V. Following his inauguration in 1305, the new pope wrote to the heads of both the Templars and the Hospitallers of their views regarding a further crusade. Also discussed was the possibility of merging the orders. De Molay replied in the summer of 1306, stating his negativity regarding the merger and that any further crusade should number at least 20,000. In June, Clement summoned both men to council at Poitiers, though the meeting was delayed on several occasions, eventually taking place in May 1307. Leader of the Hospitallers, Fulk de Villaret was even further delayed, making it impossible to resolve any matters. As a result, talk moved onto other issues, including accusations by former Templars regarding the order’s initiation ceremony. De Molay had already spoken with Philip about the charges, and had been partially reassured.

Clement’s health had deteriorated early in 1307 and was suffering again later in the year, delaying his investigations into charges against the order. While Clement maintained any investigations should wait until his health picked up, Philip acted to the contrary. In September he sent out instructions to secret agents that mass-scale arrests of the order would take place on 13 October. The day earlier, de Molay was in Paris, attending the funeral of the king’s sister in law, Catherine of Courtenay, and even served as a pallbearer. Based on indications given, de Molay was unprepared for what came next. The following dawn, a series of raids throughout Paris saw de Molay and sixty fellow Templars arrested on charges of sodomy, heresy, defacing the cross, and denying the crucifixion. The beginning of the warrant read.

Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans la Royaume: effectively translating: God is not content, there are enemies in the kingdom.

Throughout Europe, the reaction was of utter shock, though partial scepticism due to the similarity of the charges given to Boniface VIII. The Italians, writing at the time of the arrests, were entirely convinced the allegations were concocted for Philip’s personal gain, particularly at a time when he was severely indebted to the Templars to fund his wars. Philip confiscated what was found at the Paris Temple, but interestingly little of value was found. The lack of wealth has convinced many authors and historians that the Templars were aware of the arrests in advance and that the ageing de Molay was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the order.

Trials and Excommunication

Following their arrests, the Templars in Paris were kept in solitary confinement. The Templars were read the charges placed against them and were instructed admission was the only possible chance of liberty, whereas denial would mean certain death. Evidence available suggests the Templars faced torture on the rack before the inquisition was active.

De Molay faced the inquisition on 24-25 October at the University of Paris. During that time, he confessed before a large assembly that he denied Christ and spat on the cross during the initiation ritual. Under further pressure from Philip, Clement V issued a papal bull, the Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, on 22 November ordering the arrest of Templars throughout Europe and seizing of their assets. Arrests occurred on a limited and delayed basis, though confessions were nonexistent as torture was forbidden.

The Pope’s insistence that any confession made by the Templars be subject to Papal Inquisition led to a further Papal Committee being set up on Christmas Eve. De Molay and his senior Templars were all present, all of whom withdrew their confessions as they were no longer under threat of torture. The Pope brought proceedings to a halt in February. Following this, Philip took the case against the order to doctors at the University of Paris. The lack of momentum in the case against the order was slow. When Clement arrived in Poitiers in June, Philip ordered his men to close off the town, leaving Clement isolated. By August the Pope reluctantly agreed to participate in convictions and persecution of the order. Following this, individuals were judged by the Pope and the Templar order as a whole by the king. Another Papal Bull, the Fasciens misericordiam, which brought proceedings to a long-awaited beginning. In late 1308 a council met at Vienne, set up to decide the future of the order.

The Pope questioned de Molay at Chinon, though still in the presence of agents of the king. De Molay admitted his guilt. After another year in prison, the Papal Commission for the Kingdom of France began its hearings. De Molay spoke that he would speak for the defence of the order. It has often been argued that the Templar Rule, forbidding its members from being literate, contributed massively to de Molay’s inability to mount a defence, regardless of the order’s abilities in other areas.

In total, 127 charges were made against the Templars in France. In 1310 the commission resumed with over 600 Templars coming forward to defend the order. In reality, the situation was dire. Most of those who defended the order were already guilty of confessing to the charges under torture. In May 1310, 54 Templars were burned at the stake, as punishment for maintaining the order's innocence. Further military pressure from Philip saw Clement release a new series of Papal Bulls, including the Vox in excelso, at the Council of Vienne in 1312, officially dissolving the order. Another, the Ad providam, issued their remaining assets be transferred to the Knights Hospitallers.

In England, arrests were slow to gather pace. Despite the order going out on 22 November 1307, in England, it was not until 26 December the King finally sent it out. Arrests finally took place on 9-10 January 1308, by which time only 115 members of the order were recorded as being in England.

The Templars in Yorkshire

London aside, Yorkshire was the most important of the English Templar communities, and also the largest. In total 10 Templar preceptories existed in that county: Copmanthorpe, Cowton, Faxfleet, Foulbridge, Hirst, Newsam, Penhill, Ribston, Westerdale and Wetherby, 4 of which were found in the West Riding, close to Barnsdale. The Templar Church at Campsall and the mill at Burghwallis were also merely a stone’s throw from the Saylis. Based on the evidence from the trials after their arrests, the Templars of Yorkshire travelled between preceptories regularly and would have been well known to one another. According to the surviving records, most Templars were from the local area as indicated by their ‘locative’ names, for example, Richard de Ripon. In total the Templars had land in over 70 vills (taxable units) in Yorkshire, making it the most profitable county. Strangely, little of this seems to have survived the inquisition. Of the remaining Templars, only 18 were arrested from the ten preceptories.