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Robin Hood, Friend of Liberty

Who among us isn’t familiar with the legend of Robin Hood? A friend of the oppressed, kind to women and children, a robber of the rich and giver to the poor (which has warmed the hearts of socialists and totalitarians ever since), Robin was pursued throughout Sherwood Forest by the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham.

Over the following centuries, later legends introduced the familiar characters we’ve come to know. His love, Maid Marian, and his band of outlaws known as the Merry Men; Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and the rest. Later ballads introduced the legend that Robin was a fallen nobleman, Robert the Earl of Huntingdon or Robin of Loxley, ruined by treachery.

But what is the true story? Was there a real Robin Hood? And if so, what was he doing and why did he challenge the government? Might there even have been more than one Robin Hood?

Enthusiasts have uncovered a collection of Robert’s and Robin’s from the early 13th to the 14th centuries, such as the Robert Hod that appears in the court records for 1226. Other potential Robin Hood’s are the William Robehod of 1262, whose name, royal records show, was changed to William Robinhood, or the 1316 record of a marriage between a Matilda Hood and Robin Hood mentioned in the Wakefield Court Rolls, or the Robyn Hood mentioned as a porter in the court of King Edward II in 1323.

The Robin Hood’s World Wide Society reports that “at least 8 people before 1300 . . . were given the “Robinhood” nickname, at least 5 of whom were outlaws or people accused of criminal activity. One could speculate that this was a period of time where the activities of the real Robin Hood were well known. . . . The significance of this is that as early as 1262, Robin Hood had achieved such fame throughout the region that other outlaws were starting to be named after him. Thus, Robinhood was becoming a generic nickname for outlaws of the time.”

However, the dating of Robin to the 12th century occurred in the late 16th century, when the Robin Hood legend was moved back in time to the 1190’s. The modern legend arraigns Robin and his Men against the evil Prince John the Usurper and the Sheriff of Nottingham on behalf of the oppressed peasantry and in the name of King Richard I, who is away on Crusade. However, there is a problem with that dating as one of the original Robin Hood ballads refers to a King Edward. And kings named Edward (I, II, III) ruled England consecutively from 1272 to 1377, definitely placing Robin later than 1190.

This didn’t deter the 18th century researcher Richard Stukely from inventing a pedigree for Robin Hood that traced him to the time of Richard I, while yet others have suggested that he was one of the dispossessed followers of Simon de Montfort, after his brief military dictatorship collapsed in 1265.

One unexplained fact about the early Robin Hood ballads is that he is linked, not to Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, but to Barnsdale, in Yorkshire, some thirty miles away. Some researchers have raised the possibility that there were two legends based around two or more different Robin Hoods, which merged together over time to unite the Nottingham and Yorkshire stories, and that this would also explain how Robin Hood was active in both the 13th and 14th centuries.

Researching this article, I had thought that the name Robin Hood might be related to ‘hoodlum,’ but apparently not as its origin is unknown. Or that if Robin was entirely fictional, that his name might be an adaptation of robber and hoodlum, but I didn’t find any evidence for that either. However, I did learn that the nomadic class of thieves and robbers in 14th century England were known as the Robertesmen.

The Encyclopedia Britannica definitively dates Robin to the 14th century, in the period prior to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, and most of the Ballads of Robin Hood that we know today are post-medieval. The first reference to Robin Hood the outlaw by name is found in “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” written by William Langland in 1377, during the disorders and discontent that would explode in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In 1380, the Scottish chronicler John Fordun wrote that in ballads, “Robin Hood delights above all others.”

As minstrels and troubadours spread his legend across England, the peasantry embraced Robin Hood and his band of outlaws as their heroes just as much as the nobility idealized King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as their own.

The later legend of Robin Hood is the one that we are all familiar with, which states that he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor (the early ballads merely state that he robbed), with his chief victims being the king and local nobles and corrupt abbots.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Robin Hood and his Merry Men are often portrayed hunting in the king’s forest, poaching the king’s deer and other wildlife. Sherwood forest at that time was much larger than it is today, covering some 100,000 acres. Being dangerous, people feared ambush and robbers and tended to travel in large groups. It could also be possible that Robin and his men were run-of-the-mill thieves and robbers, preying on anyone traveling through Sherwood. Could it be that Robin was just another thug immortalized by admirer’s, like our 20th century gangsters?

If so, Robin faced another, stronger, mafia, that of the king and his lieutenant, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Whatever the truth may be, as the established legend goes, after many adventures and a long career challenging the king, Robin was pardoned and lived out his days into old age. Broken by age, Robin was taken to Kirklees Priory by Little John, where he was accidentally bled to death by the Prioress, although some say he was deliberately murdered by the treachery of Roger of Doncaster.

Little John followed his old friends request and buried Robin Hood where his last arrow fell.

In Papplewick Church there is said to be old gravestones in the floor that bear the markings of bows and arrows, along with the belt and hunting horn of a forester, marking the final resting place of Robin Hood.

If the legends are true, and Robin and his men robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, it is likely that they fought the feudal system by robbing the taxers and returning the money to the oppressed taxpayers among the peasantry. The king and his looters had no property rights to the forest, its animal life or the labor and property of the peasantry. How could they? What they exercised were immoral privileges inherent to the feudal governmental regime, which allowed a few to exploit the labor and property of the many. A modern example of action against taxation was the Poujadist tactic of packing the auctions for tax delinquency in France in the 1950’s, where local Poujadist’s would then buy the property for a few cents and hand ownership back to the rightful owners.

It’s likely the legend of Robin Hood arose in mid-century or maybe a little earlier, during the reigns of Edward II or Edward III. England at that time was a land in turmoil. The Hundred Years War broke out in 1337 and the Black Death struck England in 1348, recurring several times until the end of the century. In 1351, the Statute of Labourers was introduced to impose maximum wages for labor following the depopulation of the towns and countryside by the Black Death. Perhaps as a consequence, the year 1352 saw the introduction of the Statute of Treasons defining great treason against the king and petty treason against local lords.

Bubonic and pneumonic plague had killed between one-third and one-half of the rural population, causing a severe labor shortage. Hired laborers demanded higher wages and better food, while peasant tenant farmers asked for better conditions. In response, some landlords attempted to reassert forced labor dues, which the peasants heroically resisted. Parliament passed the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the aforementioned Statute of Labourers in 1351 to fix wages to where they were before the Black Death wiped out half the population. Enforcement was problematic, but still the peasant’s resented and resisted these attempts to interfere in the new opportunities they were presented with. If Robin really existed during this time, it is easy to see what drove his legend as an enemy of the Crown.

Also at this time, the Church was under attack by popular preachers amid an undercurrent of anticlericalism aimed against the corruption of the priests and abbots. We see this theme in the early legends of Robin Hood, before the invention of the Friar Tuck character, where Robin’s nemesis are often corrupt Abbots, in addition to the Sheriff of Nottingham and the bounty hunter Guy of Gisbourne.

For years the crisis grew worse. In the “Good Parliament” of 1376, members demanded measures to deal with “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars,” but what set off the Peasant’s Revolt was the Poll Tax.

Richard II, the son of Edward III’s son Edward the Black Prince, succeeded Edward III in 1377, inheriting a land near rebellion and a government in dire financial straits because of the never-ending war in France. The Parliament of 1377 imposed a poll tax of fourpence per head, but it went unenforced. The Parliament of 1379 tried again, instituting a graduated income tax based on one’s feudal rank. This too was unenforceable, and the Crown Jewels had to be auctioned off to meet the government’s expenses.

In 1380, Parliament tried again, imposing a tax of one shilling per head, which obviously fell disproportionally on the heads of the peasantry, with the suggestion that the wealthy should assist the poor in paying their portion. Obviously this proved impractical, but the government pressed ahead with its effort to collect the tax in 1381. The historian John Sinclair said the poll tax was “levied with insolence and severity. The patience of the people was at last exhausted. They flew to arms.” By May, the countryside broke out in rebellion.

Attempts to collect the poll tax met with resistance. The attempt to levy back taxes in Kent and Essex in the south of England lit the fuse of rebellion. The peasants of Essex forced a royal justice to swear to never hold sessions of his tax court. The peasants of Kent rose up at the arrival of a tax collector. Clerks were beheaded. Rebellion spread all over England. Peasants attacked landlords and burned tax and feudatory documents, tax collectors were beaten or worse, and lawyers were attacked because of their association with the landed classes. Especially targeted were religious houses -convents and monasteries- because they were the most severe in the demand for forced labor dues.

Meanwhile, the peasants of Kent and Essex captured Canterbury on June 10th, killing the Archbishop, and marched on London to demand redress from the king, who they naively believed was their friend and protector, a false conviction about governments and presidents which they share with contemporary society. The rebels were let into the city by sympathizers and captured the Fleetstreet Prison and on June 13th, razed the Savoy Palace of John of Gaunt, the king’s uncle, and massacred several Flemish merchants.

On the 14th, without sufficient arms to resist them, Richard II rode out to meet the rebels at Mile End and promised them cheap land, free trade, and the abolition of serfdom and forced labor. Meanwhile, that same day, rebels captured the London Bridge and the Tower of London and beheaded the Chancellor, Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, the Treasurer, Sir Robert of Hales, both of whom were believed responsible for the poll tax, and two other ministers to the king. In the early ballads, Robin enforces rebel justice by beheading the Sheriff of Nottingham and his other enemies.

The next day, at Smithfield, the king and his party met with the rebel leader Wat (Walter) Tyler and the peasant army, who presented the king with their demands, which included the confiscation of church lands and their distribution to the peasants. In the tension, a skirmish broke out and Tyler was attacked from behind and badly wounded by the Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth, and was carried to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Most of the peasants, however, did not see what had happened to Tyler, and Richard II successfully appealed to them to remain calm and promised them reforms. Leaderless, but thinking that they had achieved their aims, the peasants began to make their way home.

Wat Tyler was dragged from St. Bartholomew’s that same day, by order of the Mayor of London, and beheaded.

The Peasant Revolt in London was over, but the Revolt in the countryside, led by John Litster, accelerated in the following weeks, but was fatally crushed by the army of the Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, on June 25th.

Richard II then toured the provinces, determined to root out the rebellion. Ringleaders were put on trial. When reminded of his promises at Mile End and Smithfield, the king replied, “[Serfs] ye are, and [serfs] ye shall remain.”

On August 30th, Richard ordered an end to the arrests and executions, and in November, Parliament confirmed Richard’s revocation of his promises to the tax rebels, but approved an amnesty, except for a few participants.

The Revolt had lasted less than a month. The king’s promises at Mile End and Smithfield were never enacted, and local riots continued to break out against manorial oppression. But the Revolt did achieve one thing. It terrified the government into abolishing the poll tax. And Richard II? He would end his days a prisoner in the infamous Tower of London.

Taxes are the engine of tyranny and are resented and opposed by the people of every century. The legend of Robin Hood appeals because of that; the refusal to accept as legitimate what we all instinctively know is not.

As so much in legends, the historical truth isn’t what matters. Instead it is the legendary deeds of Robin Hood that excite us. The man who challenged the state, who dared to take what the rotten government claimed to own, the man who not only did these deeds himself, but also recruited others to help him and in doing so, gained the trust and affection of his people. It’s a legend that will never lose its appeal.


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