Was There A Real Robin Hood?

“Robin shoots with Sir Guy” by Louis Rhead

The tale of Robin Hood is one of the most enduring legends of all time. People have been hearing and telling stories about this lincoln green clad outlaw for centuries and with good reason. Let’s face it; the tale of Robin Hood is a good one. Many versions give us intrigue, excitement, violence, love, philanthropy and more. This is just the kind of story that people love to hear. The question is, is this medieval adventure story based in reality? Was Robin Hood a hero? More specifically, was there a real Robin Hood?

Let us start with what your average person, who is somewhat familiar with the story, knows about Robin Hood (some of this information is conflicting among sources). Robin Hood was an expert archer and swordsman. He lived in Sherwood Forest because he was an outlaw. He was either middle class, a knight, or a nobleman. The love of his life is Maid Marion (or Marian). He has a group of fellow outlaws/bandits that are called the Merry Men. The most popular and noteworthy bit of information about Robin Hood is that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. That is about the extent of what most people know about Robin Hood.

If we were to try to ascertain whether Robin Hood really existed or not, we would probably do best to go by the earliest mentions of him. The story has obviously been embellished, and some parts outright made up, over the centuries. Much of what we know about Robin Hood today did not exist when Robin Hood was first mentioned in the pages of history (mostly in ballads). For example, Maid Marion did not exist in the earlier texts, so it is doubtful that if any of the Robin Hood tale is real that she would be part of it. The earliest mentions of Robin Hood say he was a man of the middle-class, so we can probably exclude any knights or nobleman. Many of the Merry Men were added in later years as well. So, we are really left with Friar Tuck, Little John (John Little), Much and Will Scarlet. There is little mention of why Robin Hood is an outlaw (stories regarding this vary in later tellings) and no mention of his good deeds early on, either.

Taking all of this information into account, if we were to assume that this much is accurate, we are looking for an outlaw of any kind, living in the woods with four other men. He was a skilled archer and swordsman. He was a man of the middle class, whose name was Robin Hood. No such man has ever been found. That doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, but it probably means that even the most common information about him is probably incorrect.

Not to worry, some scholars believe that he may just be difficult to find because of how common his name was. Furthermore, his name may not have even been Robin Hood. There are also conflicting ideas as to where he lived, Sherwood or Barnsdale. Without this information, the ‘real’ Robin Hood, if there was such a man, could easily slip past historians.

Another problem that faces historians and Robin Hood enthusiasts is the period in which Robin Hood lived. There is no clear indication of when Robin Hood lived. Despite this, scholars typically believe that Robin Hood lived between 1100 and 1400, if he lived at all. Well, that is only three hundred years to comb for an elusive outlaw. Not so bad, right? Wrong, some scholars date him back even farther. With all of this confusion and disagreement, it is hard to know if people are even looking for him in the right period.

Chances are that, if Robin Hood were a real person, that the character Robin Hood is merely loosely based on him. We can be fairly certain that the Robin Hood that we know today never existed. Furthermore, if he were real, it is doubtful that we will ever know. It is not as if a medieval court document that says, “The Robin Hood we mention in this court document is the Robin Hood that is mentioned in verse for centuries.” is likely to be found. We may have to rely on guesswork on the mystery of Robin Hood’s identity, or lack thereof, indefinitely.

Wright, Allen, Search for a real Robin Hood, retrieved 5/14/10

Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter. Shelly was a professional cook for 10 years and still has a passion for food. She cooks and writes about cooking nearly every day. She produces a wide variety of content, on top of her niches. Shelly is a stepmother, a former military, current veteran wife, sister of four and aunt of seven (so far).
  • Daniel Asamota

    I’ve read up on Robin Hood for many years and I have to say that the man simply didn’t exist. The time period he was created was really a tough time for Britons with corruption everywhere and burdens put on the poor man’s back. People were virtual slaves to the land and the landlords treated them how they wished! They were taxed to no end and slaved day and night just to keep enough food in their bellies to keep from starving. The need for a champion was prevalent and in the absence of one they created one. There probably was a robin hode an outlaw for they were all called robin hode’s then who showed some kindness to someone poor for reasons of his own and a creative jongleur who may have heard of or witnessed the singular act wrote a song about it embellishing it as jongleur’s do. The original story was probably about any thief known with a band of thugs who didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor but for himself and was admired for having the guts to do so. Like many highwaymen he probably met his end at the end of a noose when the sherriff caught up to him thus began the stories for people wished he had have gotten away. But in truth, Robin Hood didn’t exist. Like King Aruthur, it’s simply a story that entertains and gives one hope that one day someone will come to save them out of their present state of despair. A false hope, but hope nonetheless.

  • Darrell Gudmundson

    I have been told there is, at one of the great churches of England, an elaborate burial marker within, with name John Little (little John?). The man appears to have been about 7 feet tall!

  • Militarylady

    We have a Robin Hood’s Bay near Newcastle and a different story is told. Yes, King John was a bad King, but stories of Warwick Castle too focus in the archives on such characters who were folk hero’s that were percolated down the centuries. Again the archives at the British Museum in London will document the period. King John’s treasure is said to be in the Wash. A crossing by Holbeach in Norfolk near to Long Sutton where the packed mules went and they sank with the treasure. It is still searched for. Perhaps King John took to the sands to avoid Highwaymen and bandits. Again I will follow it up as one of my men is a metal detector specialist. Yes, I too am still looking for King John’s treasure for many years as archaelogy is not a monetary science. It is of the past finds and how we understand history of England as a place of habitation of Kings and Roman occupation. We have a rich history of artifacts missing and folk tales ensue.

  • Alistair Briggs

    I once read something somewhere that claimed that the real point of the Robin Hood stories is not the traditional ‘forest versus town’ or ‘rich versus poor’ battle, but the victory of the merchant adventurer over the failing, corrupt nobility. And that Robin Hood, dressed in his expensive cloth, was really the champion of the emerging middle classes rather than the poor.

    Real person or made up person, or indeed based on someone real, shouldn’t matter I suppose because at the end of the day they make darn good stories 😉

  • http://www.associatedcontent.com/user/514186/shelly_barclay.html Shelly Barclay

    “A Gest of Robyn Hode” was one of the earliest and, I agree, one of the most important, Al. The color red, however, became associated with Will Scarlet, who was wearing red silk when he met Robin Hood. That could be another reason why he was put in lincoln green.

    Another interesting thing about early tales of Robin Hood is that he quite often lost his fights and had to have the Merry Men rescue him. In fact, most of his Merry Men were men that bested him in fights. He was kind of a pansy. lol

    I, personally, think that he must have been either very loosely based on real characters from around that time or that he was made up altogether. It is understandable that people of the day would be tired of paying out taxes to the sheriffs while they went hungry. It kind of makes me think of how environmental awareness became popular around the time Captain Planet came out. lol We make stuff up to suit our times. I wonder if future generations will ever think any of our ‘heroes’ were real.

  • Alistair Briggs

    Random one for you: In all of the early ballads written about Robin Hood (15th century) the ‘tights’ he wore were red.
    Example: One of the longest and most important ballads was ‘A Gest of Robyn Hoe’ says that Robin and his ‘merry men’wear a ‘good mantell of scalet and raye’ (a kind of striped red wrap.
    In other ballads of the time Robin wears red (or scarlet) and his men wear green – this reflecting his status as ‘leader’.
    Only in later versions did ‘Lincoln Green become the colour – but there is a chance that that might not have been green (originally anyway) lol
    Lincoln, at the time, was the capital of the English dyeing industry and although ‘Lincoln Green’ was Green, they also produced ‘Lincoln Grain’ which was scarlet. Some scholars think that the latter may be the case but that translations have left it as green.

    I once read someone claiming that the story of Robin Hood was the creation of English spin doctors, trying to restore national confidence after the devastation of the Black Death and that his epic adventures were based loosely on those of William Wallace.

    Anyway, I suppose we will never know for sure :)