The story of Robin Hood is one of the most widely known and enjoyed stories of all time.
Of course the story, with all its high-adventure, romance, and a villain you love to dislike, makes for great entertainment. Yet the origin of this tale is shrouded in mystery and speaks to hard times for many in medieval England.
So it's off to Sherwood forest to uncloak the story behind this most famous of all bandits.
Let's unwind the clock about 800 years and go to England to understand the background of Robin Hood. In particular, let's look at some of the key people.
The man who would be king
In the late 1100s, King Henry II was almost the most powerful man in Europe. His kingdom included England, Wales, Ireland, and a big piece of what is now France.
From his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, he had 8 children – 5 boys and 3 girls.
But this was no big, happy family.
Four of his sons – young Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John were not pleased with their share of the pie and revolted against their father several times, fighting him in battle more than once.
During these violent times both young Henry and Geoffrey took sick and died. Finally, King Henry died also, leaving Richard as King.
But don't count out the young and very ambitious Prince John.
Ever the warrior (he raised his first army when he was 15), Richard led an army onto the Crusades to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. Prince John stayed behind to manage things and, when Richard eventually died, later took over as king of England.
Historical correction: In the Robin Hood stories I've seen, King Richard came back at the end and boots John out. In reality, Richard returned from the Crusades only for a short before trouble with France would quickly call him away, he would die in war. John then took over in earnest and then had a long, 39-year reign. (Actually, the drama with King John would continue. But that's for another day.)
Falling in amongst thieves
About 80 years before all this, England had been taken over by a French/Viking people called the Normans. The Normans were many things, but hypocrites they were not. They were the new lords over the English people, and there was no mistaking it. The Normans' harsh treatment caused sincere resentment for many English - this feeling continued into the time of the Robin Hood stories.
The Norman Lords were hard, and the taxes they imposed were high. Many were forced to leave the towns and live out in the forest. Living off the land was the order of the day. For many, this also included stealing from travelers going along the highway.
Such men were later called “Highwaymen,” and their practice led to the express “highway robbery.”
Highwaymen raiding a tilt car by a forest stream by Peter Snayers, c. 1600
The man himself
The question of who was the real Robin Hood (or Robyn Hode, Robin of Sherwood, or Robin of Locksley) is interesting as nobody knows for sure - a history mystery. Historians have their list of people they suspect could have been him. Or perhaps, he is a combination of many real people, or perhaps he is pure fiction.
But regardless of who the real Robin Hood was, the ballads show a brave leader of a group called the merry men who oppose the cruel government of Prince John and the local Sheriff. In the stories, 16 of these men are named; here are some of them:
Little John – So named, strangely enough, because he is a big man. Joins the group after fighting Robin Hood on a bridge with a quarterstaff. He became Robin's 2nd in command.
Friar Tuck – A man interesting of contrasts - on the one hand, he provides the merry men's spiritual comfort. Yet, he is a brave warrior and enjoys the good life.
Maid Marian – Robin's love.
Much, The miller's son. An experienced warrior, and the youngest of the group.
Gilbert Whitehead. A skilled archer, almost as good as Robin.
The ballads of Robin Hood connect him to a people feeling under the thumb by being overtaxed and oppressed. Perhaps this is why people can relate to the story in different times and places – from medieval England to the United States.
This novel by Walter Scott takes place during the time of Robin Hood, and Robin and his gang play a key role in the plot. Also, it does a perfect job of portraying the local population's dislike of how they are being treated by their Norman lords. You can learn more about this book here.
On the web
Robin Hood Tales
This page is part of a larger website dedicated to Robin Hood. Here you can find many of the Ballads of Robin Hood and a sampling of tunes that goes with it.
10 Little Known Facts About Robin Hood
This brief video introduces 10 aspects of the story of Robin Hood that you may not know of. I can't vouch for all of it's complete accuracy, but it does provide some food for thought.
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