Every generation seems to get its own version of the legend of Robin Hood. Most of the recent Robins, such as the one played by Kevin Costner in the 1991 film version, are wronged British noblemen who teach corrupt, often French, officials a lesson before being reconciled with the king and resuming their rightful status.
But for hundreds of years Robin Hood was one of the people. He was the free outlaw who stood up for those in bondage, dispensed the justice denied by the corrupt legal system and took back the wealth stolen from the poor in taxes and church tithes.
The first criminals called Robin Hood appear in official records in the 13th century. The key ingredients of the Robin story were established in a collection of ballads, written between 1400 and 1500, which involved the now familiar characters, archery contests, cunning disguises and daring rescues.
These ballads were sung or recited in great halls and marketplaces. They had spread across England by 1500.
In these violent, bawdy ballads Robin is not a noble. He and his outlaws undermine the social order by disguising themselves as officials of the state, robbing churchmen, and liberating condemned prisoners and women forced into marriage.
The extraordinary popularity of the ballads lies in the way they show that commoners could get the better of their masters. The most famous ballad, A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood, was so popular it had been reprinted seven times by the mid-16th century.
In this Robin instructs Little John that the poor should be protected while those in authority should be shown no mercy:
But see you do no farmer harm
that tills with his plough
Neither the good yeoman
that walks by the greenwood shade
Nor no knight or squire
that will be a good fellow
But these bishops and these archbishops
You shall beat and bind
And the High Sheriff of Nottingham
Keep him on your mind.
The historian Stephen Knight points out, “The Gest advocates massive theft from the church, civic insurrection against and murder of a properly appointed Sheriff, breach of legitimate agreement with a king.”
In the 15th and 16th centuries Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Maid Matilda or Marian, were celebrated across England in the May games.
During the games the accepted social order was turned on its head, the churches were closed and young people went off into the forest to have sex.
According to the historian Christopher Hill, “The games also offered open defiance to authority, an alternative to the rule of gentry, freemen of boroughs and the hierarchy of the church.”
The symbolic radicalism of Robin Hood and his games often spilt over into real rebellion. In 1439 Sir Piers Venables of Tutbury and his gang rescued a friend from the Sheriff:
“In manner of war, riot, route and insurrection arrayed with force and arms and made a rescue, and took away the said John Forman with them in manner of insurrection, went into the woods in that country, as if they were Robin Hood and his men.”
The authorities were worried by the games. In 1555 the Scottish parliament banned celebrations involving Robin and Little John. It didn’t work.
John Knox wrote in 1561 that in Edinburgh “the rascal multitude were stirred up to make a Robin Hood, which enormity was of many years left off and condemned by... act of parliament. Yet would they not be forbidden, but would disobey and trouble the town.”
There were those who believed that anyone who could stir up the common people, as Robin did, must be a member of the upper classes.
By the early 17th century gentrified versions of Robin Hood were making their appearance in plays and then in “True Tales”. Robin became the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon, a blue blooded noble born to lead the masses to follow their rightful rulers.
It is testimony to Robin’s symbolic power that after the English Revolution of the 1640s he was enlisted to help restore the authority of the crown.
As part of the celebrations for the coronation of Charles II in 1661 a play was enacted in Nottingham in which Robin’s traditional loyalty to King Richard was carefully exaggerated.
In 1746, the historian William Stukeley invented a noble pedigree for Robin - Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntingdon - 400 years after Robin the commoner had taken up his bow.
The revolutionary upheavals that marked the birth of capitalism brought Robin back into the spotlight. In the repression that followed the French Revolution, the Robin legend could be a vehicle for expressing criticism of industrial society.
In 1795 the radical Joseph Ritson wrote his famous Life of Robin Hood which was reprinted throughout the 19th century.
Ritson’s Robin was “a man, who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people)”.
In 1817, the poet John Keats expressed his revulsion at the destructive impact of war and money on human relationships and nature by evoking Robin and Maid Marian:
And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days
She would weep and he would craze
He would swear, for all his oaks
fallen beneath the dockyard strokes
Have rotted on the briny seas
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her - strange that honey
Can’t be got without hard money
Robin was also brought in to serve those constructing a new British nationalism in the 19th century. The novelist Walter Scott portrayed Robin as a decent Anglo-Saxon, fighting off the Norman invaders, a genealogy which stayed with the legend as Robin made the transition from printed word to the screen.
Perhaps the most influential film portrayal was Errol Flynn’s 1938 film. Robin swashbuckles athletically against a Norman foe whose processions and architecture call to mind the trappings of fascist regimes.
In the 1980s Michael Praed and Jason Connery starred in the Robin of Sherwood TV series, a spiritual response to the ravages of Thatcherism.
The legend of Robin Hood is so enduring because it has been capable of expressing popular responses to social change. It was rooted in longing for liberty, and revenge on parasitical lords and priests.
These impulses were intensified by the social changes of the 16th and 17th century, such as the enclosures of the land and encroachment of the market.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm explained the enduring appeal of social bandits like Robin Hood:
“Man has an insatiable longing for justice. In his soul he rebels against a social order which denies it to him and whatever the world he lives in, he accuses either that social order or the entire material universe of injustice.
“Man is filled with a strange, stubborn urge to remember, to think things out and to change things. And in addition he carries within himself the wish to have what he cannot have - if only in the form of a fairy tale.”