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Medieval and Byzantine History Medieval and Byzantine History Forum - Period of History between classical antiquity and modern times, roughly the 5th through 16th Centuries


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Old July 9th, 2018, 10:02 AM   #1
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Origin of Robin Hood's merry men


Robin Hood was said to have had 143 merry men with him, and they were all dressed in Lincoln green. Even if Robin himself was based on a real person, what about the small army of outlaws at his command?

Here's an idea. Though it's not 100% certain, there's good evidence that earliest stories of Robin Hood were set around the year 1323, when King Edward II visited Nottingham for two weeks and pardoned a number of outlaws (as he does in the Geste). So here's where it gets really interesting. In 1322, Thomas of Lancaster, along with others such as Roger Mortimer, went to war against King Edward II. Apparently, from what I understand, their armies were all dressed in green clothing.

Now, when Thomas of Lancaster was finally defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, he retreated to a town and stayed there overnight. But - and here's the significant bit - during the night, a large number of his forces fled. The next day, Thomas was captured and subsequently executed.

And as I understand it, the King outlawed all the supporters of Thomas of Lancaster after this, which surely would have included those men who made up his army.

So, in 1322, a large portion of an army of several hundred men all dressed in green clothing fled somewhere in Yorkshire. In the story of Robin Hood, likely set the following year (1323), we find Robin Hood hiding in Barnsdale forest in Yorkshire leading an organised group of 143 fighting men, clothed in Lincoln green and seeking the King's pardon.

If the above-mentioned details are correct, then this seems like a bit too much of a coincidence to me. What do you guys think of this theory?
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Old July 9th, 2018, 11:18 AM   #2

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Certainly an interesting idea. However, for me at least, the origins of those "merry men" and probably Robin Hood are to be found in a study of folklore.
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Old July 9th, 2018, 12:52 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by Aelfwine View Post
Certainly an interesting idea. However, for me at least, the origins of those "merry men" and probably Robin Hood are to be found in a study of folklore.
What do you mean by that? Are you saying you don't think they really have any historical origin?
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Old July 9th, 2018, 04:05 PM   #4

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The OP seems plausible enough, and I think the name 'Robin Hood' was a generic one for outlaw rather than a specific person.
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Old July 9th, 2018, 05:02 PM   #5

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Sounds plausible to me too.
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Old July 9th, 2018, 05:24 PM   #6
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The OP seems plausible enough, and I think the name 'Robin Hood' was a generic one for outlaw rather than a specific person.
I agree; even the name 'Robin Hood' - robbing with a face concealed by a hood - is a synonym for any roadside bandit. As for the 'merry men', likely to be an embellishment to make for a more interesting tale. For example Maid Marian has French roots and was eventually woven into the Robin Hood tale.

All makes for a jolly good story, and I'm sure back in the day made for some rousing ballads, which no doubt inserted unpopular noblemen of the day getting their just desserts from Robin and his gang.
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Old July 10th, 2018, 12:50 AM   #7
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Quote:
So here's where it gets really interesting. In 1322, Thomas of Lancaster, along with others such as Roger Mortimer, went to war against King Edward II. Apparently, from what I understand, their armies were all dressed in green clothing.
The problem here is that although there is now a shade of green called Lincoln green and although modern imagination has Robin & Co dressed in green, Lincoln green was usually a russet red colour. There was a green variant, but the real deal was red. 'Green' meant 'woven woollen cloth'. Kendal, another major medieval wool town, produced Kendal green, which was actually a dull yellow, although modern colour charts have recast it as a shade of green.


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If the above-mentioned details are correct, then this seems like a bit too much of a coincidence to me. What do you guys think of this theory?
Not terribly convincing, I'm afraid. Outlawry had a very specific meaning in medieval England. Being 'outside the law' was a punishment in and of itself. It meant that you didn't have the protection of the law, meaning that anyone could pretty much do whatever they liked to you. Outlaws would take to the woods and mountains and existed there in numbers.


For your theory to fly, you need far more than an ostensible similarity between a work of fiction and your take on the aftermath of a historical event. You say that Thomas' men were outlawed, but you also say they fled from Boroughbridge (North Yorkshire), which is about forty miles from Barnsdale (near modern Doncaster in South Yorkshire), although both are on the Great North Road (now the A1). There'd have been plenty of places closer to hand to hide out, were that necessary. Do we have any evidence that the king actually knew who Thomas' men were? Or did he just say 'I outlaw his followers'. Men fleeing from Boroughbridge are unlikely to have remained as a block. They'd most likely just have scattered and presumably tried to get home. Even if they had been individually named by the king, would they necessarily have known it?


Outlaw bands did exist in the forests and were a problem for the authorities. Many if them would have been made up of individuals who essentially came together for mutual protection. I don't see anything in the Robin Hood ballads that requires us either to say that his band are based on a single, real outlaw band or that even if they are, they should be seen as Thomas of Lancaster's men.



You'd probably look askance at anyone who tried to argue on the basis of the real world places used in the Harry Potter books that there really was a wizard school somewhere up in Scotland ("but isn't it coincidental that the Hogwarts Express leave from Kings' Cross, which has always been the terminus for trains heading up the main east coast line into Scotland" etc etc). The same is true for the Robin Hood ballads. They were the popular entertainment of their day and there is no reason why they should have been rooted in single, real world events.

Last edited by Peter Graham; July 10th, 2018 at 12:54 AM.
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Old July 10th, 2018, 03:10 AM   #8

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The problem with taking a historicist approach to Robin Hood is not identifying potential candidates, that's actually pretty easy, there are potentially dozens who kind of sort of fit parts of the ballads if you squint hard enough. For instance you can pretty easily shoehorn Roger Godberd into the Geste as convincingly as anyone else but it doesn't make him RH.

Or, if you want an alternative theory the earliest chronicle mention (Fordun's 'Scottichronicon' as continued by Wyntoun) of RH and Little John says that they led the dispossessed following the De Montfort Rebellion, which would mean (potentially) that Robert de Ferrers Earl of Derby was RH and John Deyville was LJ (except that there was also an actual John Little involved so it might well be him instead).

As to folklore, the only early ballad (by which I mean mid 15th century in the form we have it) which could be said to contain 'folkloric' elements is the incomplete 'RH and Guy of Gisborne' and I have my own (widely dismissed) theory about that one. Records of early (pre 15th century) May Games activities and possible RH entertainments are even scarcer than chronicle entries.

For cloth, there's a fairly convincing argument that the 'Geste' (as we have it today) may have been commissioned by the mercers guild and consequently cloth comes up a lot (more often than archery).

Thanks to Langton's 'Piers Plowman' we know that RH ballads were widespread by 1377 and by 1400 'Robin Hood in Barnsdale (or Sherwood) stood' was being widely quoted as an aphorism and used for handwriting practice. Before that there's a reference to 'Robyn Oed's Bay' from the 1320s in a letter to Edward II from the Count of Flanders (complaining about piratical activity and the illegal seizure of shipping) but no real way of knowing when and why the place was so named.

While we cannot divine the origin of the character we can say that sometime in the early to mid 14th century seems to have been the period when the legend really took off.
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Old July 10th, 2018, 06:03 AM   #9

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According to the scholar, Timothy Ludgren, there are only three stories that can be firmly placed in the medieval period: "The Gest of Robin Hood", "Robin Hood and the Monk", and "Robin Hood and the Potter". There are two ballads which may have there origins in the late medieval period, and they are: "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne" and "Robin Hood`s Death".
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Old July 10th, 2018, 06:44 AM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Aelfwine View Post
According to the scholar, Timothy Ludgren, there are only three stories that can be firmly placed in the medieval period: "The Gest of Robin Hood", "Robin Hood and the Monk", and "Robin Hood and the Potter". There are two ballads which may have there origins in the late medieval period, and they are: "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne" and "Robin Hood`s Death".
Agreed, there is no firm date for 'Gisborne' (and the surviving manuscript copy dates from the mid seventeenth century) but most scholars (eg. Knight, Ohlgren, Fowler) seem content that it sits broadly within the same date range as the 'Gest', the 'Potter' and the 'Monk'. It sounds like Lundgren (and I admit I've not read his book) is simply acknowledging this fact, which is what I should also have done.

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/tex...e-introduction

Last edited by Dave Evans; July 10th, 2018 at 06:46 AM.
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