Ask any audience attending a lecture on Robin Hood the following questions: to each there will be an entirely predictable answer. \ Who has never read, heard or seen a tale of Robin Hood? Answer: no-one. \ Who has read the stories as an adult other than to children? Answer: no-one. \ Who has ever read the stories in the original versions? \ Answer: no-one. \ In one form or another, the tales have been told to children by adults who themselves learned them as children. That holds good for the last two hundred years, probably for much longer. It is thus that the legend has been transmitted and transmuted; and has endured. - Professor. J.C. Holt, Robin HooThe Robin Hood legends form part of a corpus of outlaw stories which date from around the reign of King John. Two other key outlaws, Fulk fitzWarin and Eustace the Monk, were historical figures whose lives can be clearly identified at this time, but Robin Hood himself is much more problematical.
What is striking about these stories is that they reveal that, in an age when the Rule of Law was respected as the foundation of good government, those who put themselves outside the law had become popular heroes. This is in complete contrast to public perceptions of the outlaw at the beginning of King Henry II's reign, and shows that the existing order had come to be regarded as tyrannical. Tyranny was the abuse of law.
If the existing order was founded on the arbitrary will of evil men who could twist the law to their own ends, then it was the role of the outlaw to seek redress and justice by other means. In a violent age, these means were invariably violent. Robin Hood and his contemporaries were cunning, merciless and often brutal (in one instance Much the Miller's Son murders a monk's page to prevent him giving them away); but by the codes of their time, they were also honourable.
In all these tales, the forest figures prominently. The forest in the Middle Ages included very extensive areas of cultivated land as well as wood and waste land. They were the private preserve of the king and his officers, and were protected by a harsh series of forest laws, against which there could be no appeal - not even to the ecclesiastical courts..
The origins of the Robin Hood legend are very obscure. The first literary reference to Robin Hood comes from a passing reference in Piers Plowman, written some time around 1377, and the main body of tales date from the fifteenth century. These are found in the tales of Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450); The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode (written down c.1492-1510, but probably composed c.1400); and the C17th Percy Folio, which contains three C15th stories: Robin Hoode his Death, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.
Within these literary references, there is nothing to suggest that Robin Hood should date to the time of King John: in fact the only king mentioned is 'Edward our comely king', which probably refers to a visit to Nottingham of King Edward II in 1324. Yet a court roll from Berkshire indicates that the legend of Robin Hood dates much earlier than this.The King's Remembrancer's Memoranda Roll of Easter 1262 notes the pardoning of the prior of Sandleford for seizing without warrant the chattels of one William Robehod, fugitive. This case can be cross-referenced with the roll of the Justices in Eyre in Berkshire in 1261, in which a criminal gang is outlawed, including William son of Robert le Fevere, whose chattels were seized without warrant by the prior of Sandleford.
This is merely the earliest of several such references to Robehods or Robynhods, most of them outlaws, after the mid-C13th, and it provides a usefulterminus ante quem for the existence of the legend. Robin Hood must have existed before 1261 for his name to have been misused in such a way.This William son of Robert and William Robehod were certainly one and the same, and some clerk during transcription had changed the name. It follows that the man who changed the name knew of the legend and equated the name of Robin Hood with outlawry.
We should not be surprised at such misuse. There are numerous cases in the C13th & C14th of outlaws deliberately taking on the pseudonyms of Robin Hood and Little John, and it seems likely that the original Friar Tuck who got accreted to the legend was one Robert Stafford who was active in Sussex between 1417 and 1429. Yet this in itself indicates just how difficult it is to tie Robin Hood down, since each misuse of the legend adds details of its own.It is simply not possible to locate the historical Robin Hood with any certainty. The literary corpus very firmly locates the activities of the outlaw in the north, around the Barnsdale area and Sherwood Forest.
He was born in 1170 and for a time during his childhood (though it is not quite certain just how long), Eustace lived in a monastery. While this didn’t last very long, and it doesn’t seem that he really “took” to the religion, it at least explains where his later moniker rose from.
After this, between the years of 1202 and 1204 (he was already 32 years old at this point, so clearly much of his early history is lost), Eustace the Monk went to work in the household of the Count of Boulogne (the city in France in which he had been born).
As the legend goes, it is here that he got his start in some of the shadier aspects of life.Eustace was accused by the Count, for one reason or another, of improper stewardship of his possessions. Having been accused (and most likely guilty), Eustace fled the city as an outlaw. He would never again live a proper or legal life.