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This article focuses on the ballad, "Robin Hood".
For the character, see Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is a classic medieval ballad featured on ABC's Once Upon a Time and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.


Traditional Plot

In popular culture, Robin Hood and his band of "merry men" are usually portrayed as living in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, where much of the action in the early ballads takes place. So does the very first recorded Robin Hood rhyme, four lines from the early 15th century, beginning: "Robyn hode in scherewode stod." However, the overall picture from the surviving early ballads and other early references suggest that Robin Hood may have been based in the Barnsdale area of what is now South Yorkshire (which borders Nottinghamshire).
Other people point to a variety of locations as Robin's "true" home both inside Yorkshire and elsewhere, with the abundance of places named for Robin causing further confusion. A tradition dating back at least to the end of the 16th century gives his birthplace as Loxley, Sheffield in South Yorkshire, while the site of Robin Hood's Well in Skellow, South Yorkshire, has been associated with Robin Hood since at least 1422. Records show a man named Robin Hood lived in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the 13th and 14th centuries. His grave has been claimed to be at Kirklees Priory near Mirfield in West Yorkshire, as implied by the 18th-century version of Robin Hood's Death, and there is a headstone of dubious authenticity.

The first clear reference to "rhymes of Robin Hood" is from Line 5396 of the late-14th-century poem Piers Plowman, but the earliest surviving copies of the narrative ballads that tell his story date to the 15th century, or the first decade of the 16th century. In these early accounts, Robin Hood's partisanship of the lower classes, his Marianism and associated special regard for women, his outstanding skill as an archer, his anti-clericalism, and his particular animosity towards the Sheriff of Nottingham are already clear. Little John, Much the Miller's Son and Will Scarlet (as Will "Scarlok" or "Scathelocke") all appear, although not yet Maid Marian or Friar Tuck. It is not certain what should be made of these latter two absences as it is known that Friar Tuck, for one, has been part of the legend since at least the later 15th century.

In popular culture, Robin Hood is typically viewed as a contemporary and supporter of the late-12th-century king Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to outlaw during the misrule of Richard's brother John while Richard was away at the Third Crusade. This view first gained currency in the 16th century. It is not supported by the earliest ballads. The early compilation, A Gest of Robyn Hode, names the king as "Edward", and while it does show Robin Hood as accepting the King's pardon he later repudiates it and returns to the greenwood.

The oldest surviving ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, gives even less support to the picture of Robin Hood as a partisan of the true king. The setting of the early ballads is usually attributed by scholars to either the 13th century or the 14th, although it is recognized they are not necessarily historically consistent.

The early ballads are also quite clear on Robin Hood's social status: he is a yeoman. While the precise meaning of this term changed over time, including free retainers of an aristocrat and small landholders, it always referred to commoners. The essence of it in the present context was "neither a knight nor a peasant or 'husbonde' but something in between". We know that artisans (such as millers) were among those regarded as "yeomen" in the 14th century. From the 16th century on, there were attempts to elevate Robin Hood to the nobility and in two extremely influential plays Anthony Munday presented him at the very end of the 16th century as the Earl of Huntingdon, as he is still commonly presented in modern times. As well as ballads, the legend was also transmitted by "Robin Hood games" or plays that were an important part of the late medieval and early modern May Day festivities. The first record of a Robin Hood game was in 1426 in Exeter, but the reference does not indicate how old or widespread this custom was at the time. The Robin Hood games are known to have flourished in the later 15th and 16th centuries. It is commonly stated as fact that Maid Marian and a jolly friar (at least partly identifiable with Friar Tuck) entered the legend through the May Games.

The early ballads link Robin Hood to identifiable real places and many are convinced that he was a real person, more or less accurately portrayed. A number of theories as to the identity of "the real Robin Hood" have their supporters. Some of these theories posit that "Robin Hood" or "Robert Hood" or the like was his actual name; others suggest that this may have been merely a nickname disguising a medieval bandit perhaps known to history under another name. One historian claims Robin Hood was a pseudonym by which the ancient Lords of Wellow, Nottinghamshire, were once known. It is interesting that the village has such a strong connection with maypole celebrations, considering Robin Hood's links with the same thing. At the same time it is possible that Robin Hood has always been a fictional character; the folklorist Francis James Child declared "Robin Hood is absolutely a creation of the ballad-muse" and this view has been neither proven or disproved. Another view is that Robin Hood's origins must be sought in folklore or mythology. Despite the frequent Christian references in the early ballads, Robin Hood has been claimed for the pagan witch-cult supposed by Margaret Murray to have existed in medieval Europe.

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