The tale of Robin Hood is one of the most enduring legends of all time. People have been hearing and telling stories about this lincoln green clad outlaw for centuries and with good reason. Let’s face it; the tale of Robin Hood is a good one. Many versions give us intrigue, excitement, violence, love, philanthropy and more. This is just the kind of story that people love to hear. The question is, is this medieval adventure story based in reality? Was Robin Hood a hero? More specifically, did he exist at all?
Let us start with what your average person, who is somewhat familiar with the story, knows about Robin Hood (some of this information is conflicting among sources). Robin Hood was an expert archer and swordsman. He lived in Sherwood Forest because he was an outlaw. He was either middle class, a knight, or a nobleman. The love of his life is Maid Marion (or Marian). He has a group of fellow outlaws/bandits that are called the Merry Men. The most popular and noteworthy bit of information about Robin Hood is that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. That is about the extent of what most people know about Robin Hood.
If we were to try to ascertain whether Robin Hood really existed or not, we would probably do best to go by the earliest mentions of him. The story has obviously been embellished, and some parts outright made up, over the centuries. Much of what we know about Robin Hood today did not exist when Robin Hood was first mentioned in the pages of history (mostly in ballads). For example, Maid Marion did not exist in the earlier texts, so it is doubtful that if any of the Robin Hood tale is real that she would be part of it. The earliest mentions of Robin Hood say he was a man of the middle-class, so we can probably exclude any knights or nobleman. Many of the Merry Men were added in later years as well. So, we are really left with Friar Tuck, Little John (John Little), Much and Will Scarlet. There is little mention of why Robin Hood is an outlaw (stories regarding this vary in later tellings) and no mention of his good deeds early on, either.
Taking all of this information into account, if we were to assume that this much is accurate, we are looking for an outlaw of any kind, living in the woods with four other men. He was a skilled archer and swordsman. He was a man of the middle class, whose name was Robin Hood. No such man has ever been found. That doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, but it probably means that even the most common information about him is probably incorrect.
Not to worry, some scholars believe that he may just be difficult to find because of how common his name was. Furthermore, his name may not have even been Robin Hood. There are also conflicting ideas as to where he lived, Sherwood or Barnsdale. Without this information, the ‘real’ Robin Hood, if there was such a man, could easily slip past historians.
Another problem that faces historians and Robin Hood enthusiasts is the period in which Robin Hood lived. There is no clear indication of when Robin Hood lived. Despite this, scholars typically believe that Robin Hood lived between 1100 and 1400, if he lived at all. Well, that is only three hundred years to comb for an elusive outlaw. Not so bad, right? Wrong, some scholars date him back even farther. With all of this confusion and disagreement, it is hard to know if people are even looking for him in the right period.
Chances are that, if Robin Hood were a real person, that the character Robin Hood is merely loosely based on him. We can be fairly certain that the Robin Hood that we know today never existed. Furthermore, if he were real, it is doubtful that we will ever know. It is not as if a medieval court document that says, “The Robin Hood we mention in this court document is the Robin Hood that is mentioned in verse for centuries.” is likely to be found. We may have to rely on guesswork on the mystery of Robin Hood’s identity, or lack thereof, indefinitely.
Wright, Allen, Search for a real Robin Hood, retrieved 5/14/10, http://www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/index.html