Robin’s Hoods

Patrick Wormald

  • Robin Hood by J.C. Holt
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 500 25081 2
  • The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation and Study of William of Malmesbury’s ‘De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie’ by John Scott
    Boydell, 224 pp, £25.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 85115 154 X
  • Megalithomania by John Michell
    Thames and Hudson, 168 pp, £8.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 500 01261 X

It has been said of the early Christian Irish that they were very interested in their history, but preferred it in the form of fiction. If one English reaction to his observation is likely to be that things have not changed much in the Emerald Isle, another ought to be that their own self-satisfaction is misplaced. Of the ‘facts’ of early English history which Every Schoolboy Knows – Alfred and the Cakes, Canute and the Waves, Harold and the Arrow – only the last has any claim to be in a real sense true (and even that has only recently been rescued from understandable scepticism by painstaking scholarship). The legends discussed in these books concern Robin Hood, the early history of Glastonbury, and the meaning of the megaliths. Such material poses problems for the professional historian or archaeologist: is it worth the trouble to debunk what are, after all, fairly harmless stories? A society’s legends are arguably as much a part of its history as the actual events of its past: too dry-as-dust an approach risks isolating the scholar from the very audience that he or she is trying to convince. And what, to coin a phrase, is Truth? Two of these books are by modern scholars, the other by one of the greatest English Medieval historians. Two, though not unsympathetic to the importance of legends, are critical in their approach; the other, not the Medieval historian’s, seems to want to dispense altogether with the methods of modern scholarship.

Professor Holt observes that Robin Hood has a unique distinction: his is the only entry in the Dictionary of National Biography devoted exclusively to proving that its subject never existed. But he has another distinction too. Over the last twenty years or so, he has elicited some of the very best historical writing by English Medievalists. Among recent contributions, a sparkling (and remarkably good-humoured) debate in Past and Present, a splendid survey of The Outlaws of Medieval England by Maurice Keen, a delightful collection of Rymes of Robin Hood by Barry Dobson and John Taylor, and a constructive reassessment of ‘the birth and setting of the ballads of Robin Hood’ by John Maddicott, have not only cast a flood of light on the origins and significance of the legend, but also materially extended knowledge of what it is just legitimate to call the ‘popular culture’ of later Medieval and Early Modern England. Professor Holt, a native of the part of Yorkshire where the legend probably originated, and sometime professor at Nottingham, the outlaw’s conventional urban haunt, was himself a major contributor to the Past and Present series. His new book is a more than worthy member of the illustrious company it seeks to keep. Sustained by a mellifluous style, meticulous scholarship, a powerful historical imagination and profound human sympathy, it is, if not definitive, then at least as good a book as one can readily imagine, even at the level of competition which the subject has already inspired.

The consensus of Robin Hood studies as it has emerged in the past twenty years may be summarised as follows. First, as regards the legend: the earliest reference to ‘rymes of Robyn Hood’ is in the 1377 text of Langland’s Piers Plowman. By the early 15th century, references have become relatively abundant. The earliest extant Robin Hood ‘ryme’, ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, is found in a manuscript of 1450 or soon after. The central text of the cycle, A Gest of Robyn Hode, is extant only in early 16th-century printed texts, but some of its linguistic forms suggest that it may have been composed nearer to 1400 than to 1500. Together with three or four other ‘rymes’ and a fragment of a play, these form the core of the legend as it was bequeathed by the Middle Ages. Robin already has his most familiar companions, Little John, Will Scarlett (or something similar), Much the Miller’s son and Friar Tuck. He is at home in Sherwood Forest and the sworn enemy of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He is an archer of genius and a master of disguise. He is loyal to the king, and ‘dyde pore men moch god’, but he had no time for the wealthy and grasping religious orders: the Gest begins with the story of how Robin helped an impoverished knight pay his debt to the abbot of St Mary’s York, and fleeced the abbey in the process. Though he ruthlessly slays and mutilates the hired killer, Guy of Gisborne, he scraps heartily with a potter who has the better of him.

But already by 1500 Robin and his band had been incorporated in the ‘May Games’, whence the hero first acquired his Marian. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, play-wrights, ballad-mongers and historians combined to give him his unsupported date in the time of King Richard’s exile, his wholly bogus aristocratic status as a dispossessed heir to the earldom of Huntingdon, and, somewhat incongruously, a greatly enlarged corpus of unashamedly plebeian opponents with an ever-increasing tendency to improve on the potter’s performance in single combat with him. The classical series of Robin Hood stories was compiled, complete with pseudo-historical introduction, by Joseph Ritson in 1795, and it was Ritson, inspired by the French Revolution, who first introduced the notion that Robin robbed the rich to give to the poor. It remained for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to create the figure who underlies the children’s stories and Hollywood epics of modern times.

If the development of the legend may thus be traced with relative ease, what lies behind its earliest appearances? The most ambitious attempt to identify a ‘real’ Robin Hood was made 130 years ago by Joseph Hunter, who spotted a Robert Hood at Wakefield in 1316-17 and a ‘Robyn Hode, porter’ in the royal chamber in 1324. Since the Gest envisages a tour of the North by ‘Edwarde, our comly kynge’ as the context of Robin’s pardon and entry into royal service, and since Edward II is known to have made such a tour in 1323, the pieces seemed to fit perfectly. But modern scholars are no longer convinced: for example, the name Robert Hood and its variants was not uncommon in the Wakefield area through the 13th and 14th centuries, but the only Yorkshireman of this name ever known to have been outlawed was ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’, who forfeited his chattels at the York Assizes in 1226. Nevertheless, though the question of Robin’s ‘real’ identity remains open, there is a modern consensus that a real person (or persons) is at the heart of the cycle. He can no longer be dismissed as a figment of Teutonic mythology: he is not, in the words of Francis Child, the greatest of all ballad scholars, ‘absolutely a creation of the ballad muse’. It has been pointed out that ‘the outlaw hero in pre-industrial societies has rarely, if ever, been a purely fictional creation.’

The consensus goes further. Despite the notoriety of Sherwood and Nottingham, it is agreed that the original Robin’s likeliest locale is Barnsdale in South-West Yorkshire. Apparently this was never a forest, but it was an obvious haunt for highwaymen on the Great North Road, and had indeed acquired a reputation as such by the later Middle Ages. The Gest shows a detailed knowledge of Barnsdale topography which is entirely lacking for Sherwood and Nottingham. The story of Robin and the poor knight looks very like the earliest constituent of the cycle, because it borrows least from other outlaw cycles of the English Middle Ages: the enemy here is the abbot of St Mary’s York. It is generally accepted that, just as the cycle accumulated wholly extraneous matter in the post-Medieval epoch, so the Gest itself is a compound of two or more stories rather loosely stitched together, and the Nottingham saga(s) may well have been transported to Robin of Barnsdale from a Sherwood outlaw of another name. (The unravelling of the legend is generally much complicated by clear evidence that criminal gangs in the later Middle Ages actually take aliases from the Robin Hood cycle.)

So far so good, but major points of dispute remain. One is the date of the genesis of the cycle, whether real or fictional: the options focus around 1225, the date of ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’, and 1325, that of ‘Robyn Hode, porter’. Second, there is the question of how these stories were disseminated, or, put another way: what was the audience of the early ballads? Was it one of peasants or of gentlemen? And if we compromise on the most common social category in the stories themselves, the ‘yeomen’, what do we mean by that? Third, and closely connected to the second issue, is this literature with a social message, expressing the grievances of the underprivileged classes in Medieval society? Or is it ‘mere’ literature, reflecting the tastes of a wide cross-section of people?

Professor Holt’s survey of the area of common ground is both incisive and persuasive. He finally destroys Hunter’s candidate by deciphering from a barely legible household record the fact that Robyn Hode was already a porter in the royal chamber before Edward II’s northern progresses. He himself leans towards the York outlaw of 1226, but his fundamental principle is that the legend is, in a sense, timeless, that ‘the identity of the man matters less than the persistence of the legend.’ It is on the sources and dissemination of the legend that he makes his major original contribution. The earliest stage of the cycle that we now possess bears, as Holt admits, marked later Medieval features, and may indeed have been affected by the experiences of later Medieval people, Edward II included. But none of this proves that the ‘real Robin’ dates from the first half of the 14th century, or even that the cycle originated then. Holt can reasonably suggest that such later Medieval features as the vocabulary of ‘bastard feudalism’ are ‘seasonal top-dressing’, applied to keep the stories ‘fertile’; and that the reason stories of Robin Hood seem to multiply from the later 14th century on is not that they were then relatively new, but that in this period English vernacular literature at last emerged from the slumber imposed by the wheel of fate at Hastings. He makes a powerful point when he argues that, given the inchoate structure of the Gest, and its even looser relationship to the other early stories, no single incident, however closely connected to datable events or people, can be considered to supply a terminus ante quem for its origins. On the other hand, features of the earliest stories that seem anachronistic by the 14th century can reasonably give us a terminus post quem. Holt can point to at least one of these: the fact that the poor knight’s contract with the abbot of St Mary’s would have become illegal under the Statute of Mortmain of 1279. Such as it is, the evidence points to a date nearer the time of ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’ than that of ‘Robyn Hode, porter’.

Much more important is Holt’s discussion of the dissemination of the cycle. He is able to show that the one common link between the various locations featured in the early stories, and between the places where the earliest ‘Robinhood’ surnames are found, is the huge honour of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (1298-1322), stretching right across Northern England, and down through the Midlands to Sussex. Building on this vital clue, Holt goes on to resolve the peasant-gentleman debate by dissolving it. The word ‘yeoman’ in the later Middle Ages covered, not only the more prosperous free peasants of the countryside, but also the middling officials of aristocratic households. Indeed, it was probably to the latter that the word originally referred – as Holt says, we still speak of the ‘Yeomen of the Tower’. The likelihood that it was to yeomen of the household rather than yeomen of the land that the earliest stories of Robin Hood were directed had already been indicated by the extent to which they were touched by the brush of courtly romance. Holt now supplies a further highly persuasive, if not decisive argument. Robin and his men are without wives or women of any significant sort. ‘Yeoman’ was originally ‘younger-man’, and the bachelor status of the younger household official was his hallmark from the days of Beowulf to those of Upstairs, Downstairs. At the same time, aristocratic households were frequently visited by schools of travelling minstrels, men who also plied their trade in the humbler environments of alehouse and village fair. We can thus establish a bridge between the semi-aristocratic, all-boys-together tone of the early stories themselves, and the wider listening public where they took so firm a hold. Songs about yeomen appealed both to the landed peasant of some substance and to the bachelor household officials of the great: but what evidence there is suggests that they began with household yeomen, and those of Thomas of Lancaster in particular. Scarcely anything is as satisfying to the sort of historian who seeks to take account of the literature of his period as the discovery of its probable intended audience. By a remarkable tour de force, and against considerable odds, Professor Holt has come as close as anyone could to doing this for the ‘Rymes of Robin Hood’ – and this is a point of considerably greater historical interest than the original Robin’s real identity.

Finally, there is Holt’s contribution to the issue of the cycle’s social message. He has little time for the more banally Marxist view of Robin as People’s Hero. Quite apart from the fact that it was Ritson who first coined the image of robbing the rich to give to the poor, the early stories say nothing of the genuine grievances of the real poor, their labour services, manorial dues and taxes, and are innocent of the great push for freedom from servitude of the English peasantry in the later Middle Ages. Robin ‘dyde pore men moch god’, helped a down-at-heel knight, and learned proper respect for a potter: but neither a potter nor even an impoverished knight ranked among the real later Medieval poor, who do not feature in the cycle at all. If Robin preyed on the rich rather than the poor, this was sound business sense from his point of view; and if he never robbed those who were honest about what they were carrying with them, the poor had less to conceal than the rich. Robin’s special appeal lay elsewhere, along a broader front. He was an enemy of all authority below the crown’s in an age of bureaucratic, and especially judicial, corruption: an age when crime was normally punished by outlawry, not merely because more severe penalties were hard to enforce, but also because an outlaw’s chattels were forfeit anyway, and the king’s judges were often more interested in the profits than the strict enforcement of justice. There are several known instances of attacks on royal officials and judges by outlaws in the later Middle Ages, and there is some evidence that they were applauded at a surprisingly high social level.

All this Holt discusses, as others have before. But he is not afraid to take a further and much less fashionable step. For all their later glory, Robin Hood and his Merry Men were frankly criminals. If outlaws, especially highwaymen, have always had their romantic aura, whether in England or in the American West, they also have their victims. Holt rightly points to the distress, by no means always among the well-established, that was caused by the historically-attested counterparts of Robin Hood. Their activities extended beyond highway robbery to protection rackets, savage feuding among themselves, and outright mayhem. Billy the Kid was also said to have been loved by the poor because he concentrated his attention on the rich, yet The Magnificent Seven reminds us that the bandit is not always the poor man’s friend. The Robin Hood cycle affords the all-time definitive image of the Crook with a Heart of Gold, which no doubt accounts for its spectacular success. The historical Robin, whoever he was, is sure to have had his darker side.

To judge from the modest price of this handsomely illustrated book, its publishers envisage an audience of metaphorical alehouses and village fairs as well as academic households. It must be said that Professor Holt makes few concessions, his elegant style apart, to the proverbial general reader. The extracts from the ‘rymes’ are translated, but many other passages of Middle English are not. The argument can be dense in places, and the apparatus is substantial. Nevertheless, Holt and his publishers deserve their wider audience. This is an outstanding scholarly work.

The first English historian to try to sift the legends with which his countrymen have decked out their history was William, a monk of Malmesbury Abbey, who wrote 850 years ago. His De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie was written to justify some, but not all, of what the early 12th-century monks of Glastonbury believed about their past. The Norman Conquest was a traumatic blow to the great Old English monasteries. They lost lands to the Conqueror’s followers. Their rituals were overhauled by enthusiastically reforming Norman abbots. Worst of all, the very existtence of their most revered local saints, whose relics brought them pilgrims and thus, bluntly, pilgrim wealth, was impugned by sceptics like the great Archbishop Lanfranc. The result, as Sir Richard Southern has shown, was a remarkable explosion of historical writing in the generations after the Conquest. William of Malmesbury himself sought to rescue the Anglo-Saxon past as a whole in spectacular studies of the deeds of its kings and bishops. Others contented themselves with proving the antiquity of their own monastery’s foundation, the terrifying efficacy of their saint’s relics, and not least their titles to the property which they had lost or which was threatened. Glastonbury’s case was particularly serious. It was common ground (as indeed it still is) that its origins were lost in the mists of antiquity, but, then as now, ‘lost’ is the operative word: unlike many houses, it possessed no account by Bede of a seventh-century foundation. There had been a notorious incident when its Norman abbot unleashed his armed guard on his recalcitrant monks. And to cap it all, its greatest saint, St Dunstan (+ 988), had been buried at Canterbury (his archbishopric), and Canterbury writers were even claiming that Glastonbury’s history went back no further than his mid-tenth-century abbacy.

What William wrote for Glastonbury was in fact the first work in English historiography which can be called a scholarly thesis in something like the modern sense. He wrote to establish a specific historical point, the antiquity and importance of Glastonbury, and he did so by means of evidence very similar to that which a modern historian would employ. He used charters of endowment, not so much to justify the abbey’s titles, as to construct a sequence of abbots for the framework of his story. He used archaeological evidence, examining the structure of standing buildings and the names on sepulchral monuments. He even, if less impressively, used place-names. Naturally, he also cited oral traditions, but he was not afraid to question their authority. By these means, he did indeed nail the canard that Glastonbury’s history began with Dunstan.

But he would not go all the way with what the monks wanted. He did not assert that Dunstan was after all buried among them. He said nothing of King Arthur, who was already tied into the abbey’s history, and whose bones were to be spectacularly ‘discovered’ there in 1191. His observations on Glastonbury’s pre-Saxon past were in general studiedly cautious. As a result, he got scant thanks for his labours from the monks. Within decades, all the legends he had so carefully eschewed were boldly interpolated into his text, including that of St Dunstan’s burial at the abbey. By the mid-13th century, the full panoply of the Glastonbury legends, including, above all, the putative foundation of the church by Joseph of Arimathea, had been fathered on the scrupulous William. And it is only in this sadly dropsical state that William’s essay survives. All this goes far towards explaining why William’s remarkable achievement has not been more widely recognised, why Mr Scott’s is the first edition of the text since 1727, and why it is the first ever text or translation in which it is possible to disentangle William’s original from the accretions of his patrons and audience.

To judge from John Michell’s Megalithomania, the spiritual heirs of Joseph Ritson and the monks of Glastonbury are now plotting a drastic revenge for their eclipse at the hands of positivists, Medieval and modern. Michell’s book is in part a lavishly illustrated survey of ideas about megalithic monuments since the 18th century, ideas which are invariably entertaining, frequently zany and just occasionally suggestive. But it is also, increasingly stridently, a sermon. On the one hand, professional archaeologists come under savage fire: their wholescale excavations have merely destroyed the sites which they were investigating; their esoteric scholarship has alienated a wider public whose love of the stones and appreciation of their cosmic significance far surpassed the perceptions of muse-less archaeology; they have dismissed (at their intellectual and moral peril) the discoveries of Lockyer and Thom, the astronomer-archaeologists, and Watkins, the ley-hunter. Above all, ‘the most damning criticism of excavations at ancient sites ... is that the sum total of all their labours has contributed scarcely at all to resolving the problem ... of why they were built.’ On the other hand, there is something to be said for the popular legends and/or antiquarian speculations which have gathered like lichen around these stones. Even the craziest theories, from Stukeley’s Judaeo-Anglican Druids onwards, may reveal basic truths about the relationship of megaliths to the energy-fields of the environment which are hidden from the archaeologist’s bleary eye.

A little of all this commands some sympathy, at least from the non-archaeologist. I suspect, for example, that while the astro-archaeologists have greatly overstated their case, there is still a case to be answered by their critics. Nevertheless, the non-archaeologist, with no axe to grind, is also, for that reason, entitled to react with indignation bordering on disgust to much of the rest. Needless to say, the attack on professional archaeology is grossly unfair. To take one point only, Richard Atkinson, the doyen of Stonehenge archaeologists, has given the most sympathetic attention to Thom’s astro-archaeological views. And what Mitchell seems prepared to pit against the archaeological achievement is often farcical, if not pitiful. Does he really believe that Henry O’Brien was right to ascribe the round towers of Ireland to Persian immigrants practising fire-worship, rather than Irish Christians seeking to evade the torches of the Vikings? What is one to make of an author whose comment on the proposal of J. Foster Forbes that Scottish stone circles were built by the remnants of the priesthood of Atlantis is ‘well, maybe so, perhaps not’? At other points in this farrago, Michell seems almost to endorse the authenticity of Ossian and the effectiveness of megaliths with holes in them as an aid to childbirth. After this, it is scarcely surprising to find Hobbes stigmatised as a believer in evolution, or the entirely erroneous statement that Anglo-Saxon popular assemblies met at megalithic sites.