Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 19 December 2021

Robin Hood identified?

I stumbled upon an article in The Independent from 2020 about the latest academic research by Dr David Crook into the origins of the Robin Hood legends. This seems to tie in closely with other work on the story and the evidence assembled by other established scholars.

This summarises the research and locates the origin of the story in the events of 1225 and the restored and more confident government of those years gathering in cash to Westminster, an attractive possibility for a highway robber.

As all Yorkshiremen know Robin Hood was one of their own, a Yorkshire based raider, and associated in particular with the stretch of what later centuries would call the Great North Road through Barnsdale along the limestone escarpment between Pontefract and Doncaster. The association with Nottingham only really comes in to the stories later on, as does the idea of social redistribution by robbing the rich to give to the poor. In the early stories Robin Hood is someone who helps an impoverished knight retrieve money from an unjust lord  - a noticeably different theme. The earliest surviving written legend of Robin Hood placed him very specifically just outside the small village of Wentbridge, which grew up to service passing trade along the road where it  dropped into a natural cutting made by the river Went before climbing the other side - an ideal location from which to launch a robbery. In the time of King Edward I extra guards were used to prevent the escape, or capture, of prisoners being moved along this route. In the area there are still Robin Hood’s Well and Little John’s Well.

All this is superbly presented by the late Professor James Holt in his book on the whole subject of the legend, its origins and mutations. In it he postulated an early thirteenth century origin for Robin Hood as a real person snd now, perhaps, he has been successfully identified as Robert of Wetherby or Robert Hod or Hood.

Dr Crook even has an explanation for the involvement of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the story.

His work coalesces well with that of Professor Holt to present an historical figure and events as the source of a rich and lively tradition of story telling that has fired the imagination of medieval balladiers, radical writers, Sir Walter Scott and Hollywood. No mean achievement for an enterprising thirteenth century bandit in the badlands of Barnsdale.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Robin Hood has almost as many theorised identities as Jack the Ripper, each one I have read over the years (for both) so plausible as to be self-evidently conclusive, until the next even better one emerges!

My favourite theory is that he was a descendent of William the Conqueror's half brother and sidekick (until they fell out spectacularly), the villanous Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Earl of Kent, i.e. he was Robin (Fitz) Odo.

Odo of Bayeux was viceroy of England for a while while King William was absent back in Normandy in the years shortly after the Conquest, and missed no opportunity to make money, by double-selling land for example, so much so that the resulting confusion as to who owned what was a significant (although not sole) incentive to prepare the Domesday Book! The famous Trial of Penenden Heath ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_of_Penenden_Heath ) was instituted by the great Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, to enquire into Odo's dubious acquisition of Church lands.

Odo also "borrowed" a large part of King William's army, intending to march on Rome and claim the Papacy. The King caught him just in time, and sentenced him to life in prison, releasing him reluctantly only on his deathbed with the warning that he would cause no end of trouble. Sure enough, Odo was soon involved in a revolt against William II, who banished him. He then went on crusade, but died in Sicily and was laid to rest in Palermo cathedral.

Another theory is that Robin Hood was originally a frankly very nasty robber who blinded his victims so they could not identify him and they would have to wear a hood to cover their ravaged eyes, hence the name. This sounds on the face of it far less plausible until one recalls how the Kray twins, for example, have been mythologised and their violence almost glorified by sentimental people in recent times.

All that said however, I will read Holt's book with great interest and an open mind.

John Ramsden ( blog https://highranges.com/ )