Lawless, Frank and Free Usage | The Many Lives of Robin Hood

It was the 1960s grainy, black and white television series ‘what done it’ for me and I have been smitten ever since.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad
Loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

Furthermore, I will shamelessly sit and watch the 1938 Warner Brother’s extravagant romp, The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland with the slightest encouragement. Okay, so in this version Robin walks into the sunset as Baron of Locksley with the girl and the knighthood but in fairness, the story was never clear-cut to begin with.

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In the more erudite reconstructions based on contemporary literature, a prematurely aged forty something Robin at the end of his outlawing career eventually makes it to Kirkleys Nunnery to join his wife Maid Marian, but the evil Prioress has already put a trail of deception in motion.

Telling Maid Marian that Robin is dead, she advises Marian to ‘take the veil’ without delay to save herself from King John who would not dare to violate a nun. The Prioress of course, knows that Marian is heir to all of the Locksley estates, and if she becomes a nun, Kirkleys will get the whole package.

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Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne

Meanwhile, Robin, who never fully recovered when the rope which was carrying him to his escape from King John’s dungeon, snapped twenty foot short of the ground – giving him an internal injury that was beyond the scope of 12th century medicine – finally hobbles into Kirkleys Nunnery. Ignorant of his true identity, the Prioress treats him kindly and gives him the guest room.

She then puts her medical hat on and resorts to a common yet futile practice of the day – she opens a vein in his arm to bleed him and then tightly bandages it. A friendly chat before he nods off to sleep results in her discovering that he is Robin Hood.

All compassion instantly leaves her. She tells Robin that Maid Marian is at Locksley and that she will give him horses and men to go there the next morning. Evil intent ensues. When Robin is asleep she gives the bandage on his arm a final adjustment – loosening it so that the blood will flow unimpeded from the opened vein and he will bleed to death.

When Robin wakes his is too weak to move but he summons up enough strength to blow his horn for the last time. Not only does Little John hear it, albeit weakly, in the forest, but Maid Marian, who is kneeling in the chapel praying for her ‘dead’ husband also hears it.

Robin never makes it home with Marian but at least he dies in her arms. Ironically, Errol Flynn also went to an early grave, aged fifty, for a different kind of hard living. Robin’s last pull of the bow shoots the arrow to his grave in his beloved Sherwood Forest. In Bernard Barton’s 1828 poem, The Death of Robin Hood, the event is described with suitable pathos:

And where it fell they dug his grave,
Beneath the greenwood tree;
Meet resting-place for one so brave,
So lawless, frank, and free.

Heroes, legendary or real change over the centuries at the whim of storytellers, poets, and balladeers, and of course, movie makers. Robin Hood is one whose true escapades have been lost in the mists of time.

Was Robin Hood merely a nickname for all medieval criminals or was he what we want to believe, a handsome, brave outlaw so besotted with social justice that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Sadly, the evidence seems to favour the former since there were already eight outlaws nicknamed Robinhood by 1300. In 1261, records show a William de Fevre was made an outlaw, but the following year a royal official changes the name to “William Robehood” or “Robinhood” proving that Robinhood was already becoming a generic nickname for outlaws.

This practice would continue down the centuries. When the Derbyshire outlaw Piers Venables rescued prisoners in 1439 the chronicler says “beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection wente into the woodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meyne.” Almost two centuries later the criminals behind the Gunpowder Plot were called “Robin Hoods” by the king’s principal secretary Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. So, was Robin Hood really the prince of thieves or just a name for any medieval gangster, the first in a long line of hoods?

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Rob Woos Maid Marian

The word “hood” then, or variations of it, has always been associated with thieves and criminals. The word hoodlum originated in San Francisco in the 1870’s to describe young street gangsters and had spread to the rest of the United States by the 1880’s. One popular explanation of its origin is that it comes from the Bavarian word huddellump, meaning ragamuffin. The shorter form of hoodlum was then used to describe gangsters as hoods in the 1930’s. Hoodwink, on the other hand originated in the 16th century and literally referred to covering someone’s eyes with a hood or blindfold in order to rob them.

The literary references all agree on one thing, not that Robin wore Lincoln green tights but that he was active in the North of England around the Barnsdale area and Sherwood Forest. In the 14th century he is fleetingly referred to in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, while a later 14th century work, A Gest of Robyn Hode refers to Nottingham, Barnsdale, Sherwood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. It’s a surprisingly accessible piece, all 1,824 lines of it. I defy you not to understand the opening verse:

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.

Or as they say in marketing parlance, people who liked this also liked…Robin Hood and the Potter dated from about 1500. Here’s the opening verse:

In schomer, when the leves spryng,
The bloschoms on every bowe,
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now.

Don’t you just love it? Don’t you just want to be sitting in the greenwood under a big oak tree with your flask, sandwiches and a hardback copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. This children’s classic was first published in 1956 and it contains the most extravagant and quintessential colour plates by Walter Crane. I dearly wish I were ten-years-old and reading it for the first time!

If you are a complete Robin Hood nerd like yours truly, you can read many poems about that ‘gode yeman’ dating from medieval up to the nineteenth century in Mike Dixon-Kennedy’s The Robin Hood Handbook (The Outlaw in History, Myth and Legend).

It was also around 1500 that Scottish historian John Major writes that Robin Hood was active during the time of Prince John’s attempted coup against his brother, Richard the Lion Heart.

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Robin Hood with Richard the Lionheart

Real or imagined, Robin Hood’s name and fame had spread throughout the length and breadth of England by the end of the 13th century, but one man’s deeds must have lit the original spark that has resulted in the wealth of conflicting evidence and theories. He was brave enough to live in Sherwood Forest – the King’s private hunting grounds, and bold enough to bury his arrows in the King’s deer. In doing so, he and his merry men risked having their ‘bow pulling’ fingers cut off for a first offence, their eyes burned out for a second offence, and being hanged for a by then unlikely third offence.

Even Friar Tuck, one of the most colourful and necessary characters of the legend was added to the cast several hundred years after the supposed events, and perhaps his jocularity resulted from the belief that cooking the King’s deer did not earn the same punishments as did killing them. I don’t know how many Robins or how many Hoods there were, but I am glad those generations of balladeers and poets took enough artistic licence to let the legend of the greenwood live on.

A shorter version of this was broadcast on RTE Sunday Miscellany, October 20th 2002.

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