Despite being celebrated as one of England’s greatest heroes, detailed evidence of Robin Hood’s existence has been difficult to come by. Much of the difficulty has been caused by uncertainty over the exact time period he lived.
The first known reference of Robin Hood is little more than a passing mention. Written in 1377, the mention is in William Langland’s epic poem, The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. During the poem, a character named Sloth, a priest, states of his incompetence
I can nought perfitly fit my pater-noster, as the priest singeth, but I can rymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester.
History recalls that there were 3 historical Earls of Chester named Randolf, all related and lived between the 12th and 13th centuries.
Another early reference to Robin Hood is in a poem now resting in Lincoln Cathedral, referring to Robin Hood as an archer in Sherwood Forest.
Robyn hod in sherewod stod
hodud and hathud and gosu and schod
four and thuynti arrows
he bar in his hondus
The first historian to chronicle Robin Hood was the Canon of Loch Leven and later Canon of St Andrews, Andrew of Wyntouns. Writing in 1420, Wyntouns describes Robin Hood and Little John as famous outlaws operating between 1283 and 1285 in Barnsdale and Inglewood.
Litill Iohne and Robyne Hude
Waichmen were commendit gude
In yngilwode and bernysdale
And usit this tyme thar travale
Twenty years after the publication of Wyntouns’ Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, another religious man from Scotland paid testament to the Robin Hood legend. Walter Bower, a student of John Fordun, was responsible for writing a continuation of Chronica Gentis Scotorum, known as Scotichronicon in its completed form. Among Bower’s additions to Fordun’s work is reference to Robin Hood as a member of Simon de Montfort’s army in his rebellion against Henry III. According to the chronicle:
Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads. About whom also certain praiseworthy things are told, as appears in this -- that when once in Barnsdale, avoiding the anger of the king and the threats of the prince, he was according to his custom most devoutly hearing Mass and had no wish on any account to interrupt the service -- on a certain day, when he was hearing Mass, having been discovered in that very secluded place in the woods when the Mass was taking place by a certain sheriff and servant of the king, who had very often lain in wait for him previously, there came to him those who had found this out from their men to suggest that he should make every effort to flee. This, on account of his reverence for the sacrament in which he was then devoutly involved, he completely refused to do. But, the rest of his men trembling through fear of death, Robert, trusting in the one so great whom he worshipped, with the few who then bravely remained with him, confronted his enemies and easily overcame them, and enriched by the spoils he took from them and their ransom, ever afterward singled out the servants of the church and the Masses to be held in greater respect, bearing in mind what is commonly said: ‘God harkens to him who hears Mass frequently’
Bower provides a second reference to Robin Hood, now an outlaw in the forest in 1266.
In this year also the disposed barons of English and the royalists were engaged in fierce hostilities. Among the former, Roger de Mortimer occupied the Welsh Marches, and John Daynil the Isle of Ely. Robert Hood was now living in outlawry amongst the woodland copses and thickets.
81 years after Robin Hood was mentioned as a fighter ‘among the disinherited’ another Scot chronicled the life of Robin Hood. Writing in 1521, Scottish philosopher and chronicler, John Major, mentions Robin Hood in his epic work Historia Majoris Britanniae. Major estimated the time period as being around 1193-94.
About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, an Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods those only that were wealthy. They took the life of no man, unless he either attacked them or offered resistance in defence of his property. Robert supported by his plundering one hundred bowmen, ready fighters every one, with whom four hundred of the strongest would not dare to engage in combat. The feats of this Robert are told in song all over Britain. He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of this man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the humanest and the chief.
In 1569, another chronicler, Richard Grafton, supported Major’s time period and also claimed that Robin Hood was an earl who was outlawed for being unable to pay his debts.
But in an olde and auncient Pamphlet I finde this written of the sayd Robert Hood. This man (sayth he) discended of a nobel parentage: or rather beyng of a base stocke and linage, was for his manhoode and chivalry advaunced to the noble dignité of an Erle. Excellyng principally in Archery, or shootyng, his manly courage agreeyng therunto: But afterwardes he so prodigally exceeded in charges and expences, that he fell into great debt, by reason wherof, so many actions and sutes were commenced against him, wherunto he aunswered not, that by order of lawe he was outlawed, and then for a lewde shift, as his last refuge, gathered together a companye of Roysters and Cutters, and practised robberyes and spoylyng of the kynges subjects, and occupied and frequentede the Forestes or wilde Countries. The which beyng certefyed to the King, and he beyng greatly offended therewith, caused his proclamation to be made that whosoever would bryng him quicke or dead, the king would geve him a great summe of money, as by the recordes in the Exchequer is to be seene: But of this promise, no man enjoyed any benefite. For the sayd Robert Hood, beyng afterwardes troubled with sicknesse, came to a certein Nonry in Yorkshire called Bircklies, where desirying to be let blood, he was betrayed and bled to deth. After whose death the Prioresse of the same place caused him to be buried by the high way side, where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way. And upon his grave the sayde Prioresse did lay a very fayre stone, wherin the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldesborough and others were graven. And the cause why she buryed him there was for that the common passengers and travailers knowyng and seeyng him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their jorneys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlawes. And at eyther end of the sayde Tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seene there at this time
Grafton’s work was taken further toward the end of the century 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.
"Robin Hood was borne at Lockesley, in Yorkeshire, or after others, in Notinghamshire, in the days of Henry the second, about the yeare 1160; but lyued tyll the latter end of Richard the Fyrst. He was of wo[ ? ] parentage, but was so riotous, that he lost or sould his patrimony, and for debt became an outlawe; then ioyning to him many stout fellows of like disposicioun, amongst whome one called Little John was principal, or next to him. They hainted about Barnsdale forrest, Clomptoun parke, and other such places. They vsed most of al shooting, wherin they all excelled all the men of the land, though, as occation required, they had al so other weapons.
One of his first exploits was the goyng abrode into a forrest, and bearing with him a bowe of exceeding great strength. He fell into company with certayne rangers, or woodmen, who fell to quarrel with him, as making showe to vse such a bowe as no man was able to shoote with all; whereto Robin replyed, that he had two better then that at lockesley, only he bare thot with him nowe as a byrding bowe. At length the contentioun grewe so hote, that there was a wager layd about the kylling of a deer a great distance of; for performance whereof, Robin offered to lay his head to a certayne soume of money. Of the advantage of which rash speech, the others presently tooke. So the marke being found out, one of them, they were both to make his hart faint, and hand vnsteady, as he was about to shoote, urged him with the losse of his head if he myst the marke. Notwithstanding, Robin kyld the deare, and gaue every man his money agayne saue to him which at the point of shooting so vpbrayed him with danger to loose his head. For that money, he sayd, they would drinke together, and herevpon the other stomached the matter; and from quarrelling they grewe to fighting with him.
But Robin, getting him somewhat off with shooting, dispact them, and so fled away; and then betaking him selfe to lieu in the woods by such booty as he could get, his company encreast to an hundred and a halfe; and in those dayes, whether they were favord, or how so ever, they were counted invincible. Wheresoever he hard of any that were of vnvsual strength and hardynes, he would disgyse him selfe, and rather than fayle go lyke a beggar, to become acqueynted with them; and after he had tried them with fighting, never giue them over tyl he had vsed means to drawe them to lyve after his fashion.
After such manner he procured the pynder of Wakefeyld to become one of his company, and a freyer, called Muchel, though some say he was an other kind of religious man, for that the order of fryers was not yet sprung up; Scarlock, he induced, upon this occacion: one day meting him, as he walked solitary, and lyke to a man forlorne, because a mayd to whom he was affianced was taken from by the violence of her friends, and giuen to another that was auld and welthy. Whervpon Robin, vnderstanding when the maryage-day should be, came to the church, as a beggar, and having his company not far of, which came in so sone as they hard the sound of his horne, he toking, the bride perforce from him that was in hand to have maryed her, and caused the preist to wed her and Scarlocke together.
Amongst other that greatly freinded him, was Sir Richard Lee, a knight of Lancashire, lord of [..rso.. castle]; and that first vpon this occation, it was the manner of Robin and his retinue to lyue by thieving and robbing, though yet he were somewhat religiously affected, and not without superstition. But of al seynts, he most honored the Virgin Mary; so that if any, for her sake, asked ought of him, he wold perform it, if possibly hecould; neither would he suffer any that belonged vnto him to violate women, poremen, or any of husbandry. Al theyr attempts were chiefly against fat prelates and religious persons, and howses fryers; and he is commended of John Major for the prince of al theyuse and robbers, &c.
Nowe, once it happened him to send little John Scarlocke and Muchel to the sayles vpon Watling streets, to meete with some booty they wanted, when any prey came to theyr hands to leade them into the wood to their habitacion, as if they would vse some hospitality; but after they had eate, would make them pay deerely for theyr cates, by stripping them of such things as they had. So they dealt with Sir Richard Lee, leading to their manor, who made him the best cheare they had; and when Sir Richard would have departed only with giving the thanks, Robin tould him it was not his manner to dyne any where but he payd for such things as he tooke, and so should others do to him ere they
parted, and it were, as he sayd, no good manners to refuse such doing. The knight tould him he had but Xs., which he ment should have borne his charges at Blyth, or Doncaster; and if he had none, it fared ful yl with him at the tyme to parte from it, onely he promised, as he should be able, to requite his curtesy with the lyke. But Robin, not so contented, caused him to be searcht, and found no more but what the knight had told him of; wherevpon he commended his true dealing, and enquired further touching the cause of his sadness and bareness. The knight tould him then of his state and his ancestry, and how his sonne and Hayre, falling at varinge with a knight in Lancashire, slewe him in the feild, for which, and some other such lyke exployts, being in danger to loose his lyfe, the knight, to procure his deliverance, had been at great charges, and even lastly dryven to pawn his castle and lyving to the abbot of St. Maryes, at Yorke, for 400lj; and the cheife justice so dealt with the abbot for his state, or interest therein, that being lyke to forfeyt his lyving for lacke of money to redeeme it at the day appointed, he despaired now of al recovery.
Robin then, pittying his case, gave him 400lj, which was parte of such bootyes as they had gorged, and surety for payment againe within a tweluemont was our Lady. They also furnysht him with apparel, out of which he was worne quyte, and therefore, for very shamement, shortly to have past over the seas, and to spend the rest of his lyfe, as a mournful pylgrime, in going to Jerusalem, &c.; but being now enlightned, he despaired iust as his day appointed to ye abbot, which where the cheife in the shire conversed, accounting al knights lands saued to themselues; and the knight, to try theyr charity, made shewe as if he wanted money to pay the debt, and when he found no token of compassion, left them the money and recovered his land, for which that payment were made he offred to ferme (farm) the abbot thereby.
Now, ere the twelvemonth was expired, Sir Richard provided the 400lj, and a hundred shefe of good arrows, which he ment to bestowe on Robin Hood; and encountering on the way certayne people that were wrestling for a great wager, he stood still to see the event of the matter. So there was a yeman that prevailed, but the other people enuying it, and the rather because he was but pore and alone, accorded among them…to oppress him with wrongs; that the knight took his parte, and rescued him, and at parting gaue him 5 marks.
Nowe it befell, that neere to Nottingham al the cheifest archers had apoynted a day of shooting for some great wager, the Sherife him selfe being appointed to see the game. Nowe that Sheriffe was a fel adversary to Robin and his company, and he againe of them so lesse maligned; therefore, to see into al matters, Little John was sent, in disguysed manner, to go shoote amongst them, where he sped him so wel, that the Shyryfe iudged him to be the best archer; and so importuned him to be his man, that Little John went home with him, under the name of Raynold Greenlefe, and telling him he was bornen Holdernesse.
So Little John watched al advantages to do his master some myscheufe; and, understanding where he used to go hunting, by some means procured his master Robin Hood, and his retinue, to be in redynes ther about. So one day, the Shyryfe and al his people bin gone hunting, Little John, of purpose, kept behinde, and lay a bed as somewhat sicke; but was no sooner gat vp enquired for his dynner of the steward, which, with curse words, denyed him vituals tyl his master were come home; wherevpon Little John beate him downe, and entred the buttry. The cook being a very stout fellowe, fought with him a long tyme, and at length accorded to goe with him to the forrest. So they two ryfled the howse, tooke away al the Shyryfe’s treasure and best thinges, and conveyed it to Robin Hood; and then Little John repaired to the Shyryfe, who, in his hunting, doubted no such matter, but toke him for one of his company; wherevpon Little John tould him he had seen the goodlyest heard of deere that was in the forrest, not far of seven score in a company, which he could bring him to. The Sheryfe, glad to heare of so strange a matter, went with him, tyl he came where the danger of Robin Hood and his company, who led him to their habitacion, …….and there serued him with his own plate, and other thinges, that Little John and the cook had brought away. So that night they made him ly on the ground, after theyr owne manner, wrapt in a green mantel, and the next day sent him away, after they had taken an oath of him never to pursve them, but the best he could to serue them; but the Shyrfte afterward made no more account of the othe then was meete yt.
After this, Little John, Scarlocke, and others, were sent forth to meet with some company, if they were pore to helpe them with some such thinges as they had; if rytch, to handle them as they sawe occasion. So, vppon the way near Barensdale, they met with 2 Blacke monkes, wel horsed, and accompanied with 50 persons. Nowe, because Robin, their master, had our Lady in great reverence
when any booty came to theyr hand, they would say our Lady sent them theyr; wherefore, when Little John sawe that company, hevsed such proverbe to his fellows, encouraging them to encounter; and coming to the monkes, he tould them, that though they were but 3, they durst never see theyr master agayne, but if they brought them to dinner with him; and whom the monke keape of, little John begged to speake reproachfully for making his master stay dinner so long; whervpon, when the monkes enquired for his master’s name, and Little John tould him it was Robin Hood, the monke angerly replyde, he was an arrant thief, of whom he never hard good; Little John replyde as contumeliously, saying, he was a yeoman of the forrest, and bad him to dynner; so the grewe from wordes to strokes, tyl they had kyled al but one or two, which they led, perforce, to theyr master, who saluted them lowely; but the monke, being stout-hearted, did not the lyke to his. Then Robin blewe his horn, and his retinue came in; they al went to dynner, and after that, Robin asked him of what abbey he was, who tould hime he was of St. Mary.
Now it was to the same to whose abbat the knight ought the 400lj which Robin lent him to redeeme his landes with, al which Robin perceiving, begone t iest, that he marvayled our Lady had not sent him yet his pay which she was surety for betwixt a knight and him. Have no care, master, sayd Little John; you need not to say this monk hath brought it, I dare wel swere, for he is of her abbey. So Robin called for wyne, and drank to him, and prayed him to let him see if he had brought him the money. The monke swore he had never hard speech of such covenant before. But Robin bare him downe: he desembled, seing he knewe both Christ and his mother were so iust, and confessing him selfe to be theyr every dayes servant and messenger, must needs have it, and therefore thanked him for coming so at his day. The monke stil denying, Robin asked howe much money he had about him; but twenty marks, sayd the monke. Then sayd Robin, if we fynd more, we will take it as of our Ladyes sending, but wil not of that which is thy owne spending money.
So Little John was sent to serch his bagges, and found about 800lj, which he related to his master, telling him with al, that our Lady had dobled his payment. Yea, I tould thee, monke, sayd Robin, what a trusty woman she is; so he called for wyne, and dranke to the monke, bidding him commend him to our Lady, and if she had need of Robin Hood, she would fynd him thankeful for so lib’ral dealing. Then they searcht the lode of another horse, wherefore the monke tould him that was curtesy to bid a man to dynner, and beate and bynd him; and it is our manner sayd Robin, to leave but a little behind, so the monke made hast to be gone, and sayd he might have dyned as good cheape at Blyth, or Doncastre. And Robin called to him as he was going, and bad him greete wel his abbot, and the rest of their convent, and wysh them to sende hym suche a monke ech day to dynner. Then shortly came the knight to keepe his day; and after salutacions, was about to pay him his money, beside xx marks for his curtesy; but Robin gave it him agayne, telling him howe our Lady had sent him, that, and more, by the abbey’s cellarer, and it were to him a shame to be twyse payd; but the bowes and arrows he accepted, for which he gave him at parting other 400lj.
Nowe the Shyriffe of Nottingham, to drawe out Robin Hood, made to be proclaimed a day of shooting for the silver arrowe, wherto Robin boldely, with al his trayne, repaired, appointing but 6 of his company to shooting with him, al the rest to stand apoynted to f.f.g…d (safeguard?) him; so Little John, Mychel, Scarlock, Gylbert, and Reynold, shot; but Robin won the prise from al, whervpon the Shyryfe and his company began to quarrel, and after, they came to fighting so long tyl Robin and his complices had destroyed the Sheryfe’s trayne, for the most parte, in the conflict. Little John was sore wounded with an arrow in the knee, and being not able to goe, requested his master to slay him, and not suffer him to come into the Shyrftefe’s handes. Robin avoucht he would not lose him for al England, wherefore Mychel was appointed to beare him away on his back; and with much labor, and oft resting, he brought him to Sir Richard Lees castle, whether also, after the broyle, repaired Robin himself, and the rest of his company, where they were gladly received and defended against the Sheryffe, who presently raysed the country, and besieged the castle, who vtterly refused to yield any there tyl he knew the kyng mynd.
Then the Sheriffe went to London, and informed the kyng of al the matter, who dispatched the Shyryffe backe to levy a power of men in that country, telling him, that within a fortnight after, he him selfe would be at Nottingham to determine of that matter. In the mean whyle, Little John being cured of his hurt, they al got them to the forest agayne. When the Sheriffe hard therof he was much agreyed, and sought by al means to app’hend Sir Richard Lee for defynding them, and watching his tyme at vnwares, he surprised him, with a power of men, as he was at hawking, and went to put him in ward at Nottingham, and hang him, wherefore the knightes lady rode in al hast, to Robin, and
him intelligence of her lordes distress, who, in al Haste, pursued by the Sheryfe, and overtaking him at Nottingham, with an arrowe slewe him, and …….if his head, enquiring what message he brought from the kyng, objecting that breach of promise he had made to them in the forest. Once after that they overthrewe the Sheryfe, returned and loosed the knyghte out of his bondes, and furnishing him with weapons, tooke him with them to the forest, entending to vse what means they could to procure the kynge’s pardon, who presently, herevpon, came to Nottingham with a great retinue, and vnderstanding of the matter, seysed the knyghte lyving into his hande; and surweying al the forrestes in Lancashire, he came to Ploutu parke, and fynding al the deare destroyed , he was marvaylous wroth, seeking about Robin Hood, and making proclamation, that who so could bring him Sir Richard Lees head, should have all his land.
So the kyng stayed about Nottingham halfe a yeare, and could not heare of Robin, tyl being advised what a hard hand he bare against religious persons, he got him into a monke’s weed, and with a small company, went as a traveler on the way wher he thought Robin made abode, who espying them with their male horse, take hold of the kynge’s horse, making showe as he toke him for an abbot, and began to enquire after some spending; but the kyng excused the matter, telling him howe he had lyen at Nottingham, at great charges a fortnight, and had left him but 40lj. So Robin toke that, and having devyded it amongst his men, gave the kyng parte againe, who semed to take it in good parte, and then puld out the fyng’s brode seale, and tould him howe the kyng did greet him wel, and charged him to come to Nottingham; whervpon Robin kneeled downe and thanked the abbot, for he pretended to think him none other, for bringing such a message from him that he loved most dearly of al men, and tould him, that for his labor he should go dyne with him;so being brought to the place of theyr abode, Robin blewe his horne, and al his company came, al a hoste obedient to their master. The kyng marvayled, which Robin perceyvine dyd him selfe, with his best men, serue the kyng at meete, of welcoming him for the kyng’s sake, as he sayd.
Then he showed him the course of theyr lyues, and skyl in shooting, that he might enforme the kyng therof, and in shooting proposed this penalty to him that shot one of the garland, that the abbot should give hym a good buffet, and for the nonce made himselfe to forfayt; and when the abbot refused to stryke him, saying, it fel not for his order, but Robin would not cease tyl he made him smyte him soundly that he fel to the ground, for which Robin commended him; but Robin him selfe stroke his men as they fayled afterward. Robin discovered howe he perceived it was the kyng, and to geyther with Sir Richard and his men, kneeled downe and asked forgiueness, which the kyng graunted upon condicion he would be fore him at the court.
So Robin arrayed the kyng and his company with mantels of Lyncolne greene, and went with them to Nottingham, the kyng seeming also to be one of the outlawes, and the th…d the kyng for shooting together for buffits. Robin oft boxt the king, and people suspecting they should be destroyed by Robin and his company ran away, tyl the kyng discovered him selfe, and comforted them, and then ech one was fayne. Then was a great feast for al people; and Sir Richard and his lady restored, for which Robin gave the kyng humble thanks. Then Robin dwelt in the court a yeare, tyl with lavish spending, he had nothing left to mayntayn him selfe and his men, and thereof. All were departed from him but Little John and Scarlocke; and, on a tyme, seeing youngsters shooting, it come to his mynd howe he was alienated from that exercise, for which he was very greyued, and cast in his mynd howe to get away; wherefore he devised to tell the kyng howe he had erected a chapel, in Barnsdale, of Mary Magdalen, and bene sore troubled in dreaming about it, and therefore craved liberty to go a pilgrimage thither barefoot. So the kyng gaue him a week respite for goying and coming; but Robin being come thither, assembled his awld trayne, and never returned backe to the court.
After which tyme he continued that course of lyfe about XX years, tyl, distempered with could and age, he had great payne in his lymes, his bloud being corrupted; therefore, to be eased of his payne, by letting blud, he repaired to the priores of Kyrkesley, which some say was his aunt, a woman very skylful in physique and surgery; who, perceiving him to be Robin Hood, and way’ing howe fel an enemy he was to religious persons, toke reveng of him for her owne howse, and al others, by letting him bleed to death; and she buryed him vnder a greate stone, by the hy way’es side. It is also sayd, that one Sir Roger of Dancastre, bearing grudge to Robin for some injury, incited the prioress, with whom he was very familiar, in such manner to dispatch him, and then al his company was soone dispersed. The place of Little John’s burial is to this the celebro. For yielding of excellent whetstones.