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 remark 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 three 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 a 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.
Eighty-one 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 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 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.