The Legends of Robin Hood

Robin Hood in "Robot of Sherwood" episode of Doctor Who (c)BBCThe Doctor regularly encounters all sorts of unexpected things in history. Frequently they’re of an alien nature; creatures from other worlds have repeatedly influenced what occurs on ours, even if our history books have forgotten them. Occasionally, however, even the Doctor is unable to explain what he encounters. One such occurrence happened in late 12th century England, when he encountered Robin Hood, an impossible figure to meet since he’s a character of folklore, not history, a fact about which the Doctor remained adamant.

The oldest surviving ballads dedicated to Robin Hood come from the 15th century. However, there are references to the character in 14th century material. The Robin Hood of these works, however, looks significantly different from what a modern reader would expect. It’s not until the 16th century, for example, that Robin starts to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Originally, he’s a more common thief, albeit one who limits himself to stealing from those who “deserve” it.


“Robin of Sherwood”

His company looks different too. The early stories had fewer merry men. Maid Marian and Friar Tuck are both absent in the early literature. And modern stories have added even more characters, most notably Arab ones. The TV program Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986) gave us Nasir. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), there’s Azeem, and Robin Hood (2006-2009) includes an Arabic woman named Djaq.

Then there’s the question of timing. The early stories call the king Edward, although they don’t clarify which one. The 14th century did include three by that name: Edward I (the king from Braveheart), Edward II and Edward III.

Richard the Lion Heart

Richard the Lion Heart

Today, however, nearly everyone associates Robin Hood with Richard the Lionheart, who ruled 1189-1199, and it is during Richard’s rule that the Doctor meets Robin Hood. That association was first developed in the 16th century, and it draws on historical events. While Richard is commonly depicted in fiction as a romantic and heroic figure, he was actually pretty terrible at being king. Of his ten years ruling England, he spent nine and a half of them on the continent either at war or being held hostage, which cost England a fortune in ransom. He only really returned to England to raise more money to fight more wars.

His younger brother, John, took advantage of the situation, attempting to seize the crown for himself in his Richard’s absence. This is the common scenario for modern Robin Hood tales. The attempt failed, but Richard forgave him. When Richard later died (from a battle wound), John legitimately inherited.

There’s debate as to exactly how awful John actually was, but he certainly wasn’t a good king. At one point, he locked away a noblewoman and her son and left them to starve to death. He insisted on marrying a 12-year-old girl already betrothed to another. He flew into fits of rage. And, of course, he alienated the nobles enough that civil war broke out, which was only quelled by the signing of Magna Carta.

Alan Rickman Sheriff of Notingham

Alan Rickman in his upstaging performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Prince of Thieves”

The pairing of Richard and John is, thus, an easy plot contrivance. Richard is painted as the virtuous yet betrayed king to whom Robin can be loyal while simultaneously acting as an outlaw against John’s unjust allies, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Meanwhile, it is easy to believe John capable of whatever nefarious plot a writer might have in store for him.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the stories are just that: stories. The Robin Hood folklore changes over time, reflecting a variety of changes in cultural outlooks. The original stories are considerably different than those told today, set in a different time period and depicting significantly different characters. The Doctor was quite right in doubting the identity of his supposed Robin Hood!

Lucretia Strange, time traveler, has never met a historical period she didn’t like…except the 18th century, which was just rubbish.   You can find all of her articles HERE.  Her alter ego blogs at History, Interrupted.

History, Interrupted

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