Robin Hood: Fact or Fiction?

Many have heard of his adventures with Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, and his band of merry men, but are any of these adventures described in the ballads of Robin Hood based upon truth or are these stories just some tall tales told to children to teach them moral value? And, if these stories are true, then what time period did he exist in?


“When sharves been sheene,
And shradds full fayre,
And loves both large and longe,
It is merye walking in the fair forest
To heare the small birds’ song.”

This is the same description of the spring forest that opens all of the Robin Hood ballads. Robin Hood was the legendary hero of twelve-century England. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He lived in Sherwood Forest with Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, and his band of “merry men”. He was the hero of at least thirty Middle English ballads. His logic was that it was better to be an outlaw than face a corrupted justice system.

“Robin Hood”

“Gone, the merry morris din;
Gone, the song of the Gamelyn,
Gone, the tough-belted outlaw
Idling in the ‘grene shawe’;
All are gone away and past!
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,
Fall’n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas;
She would weep that he wild bees
Sang not to her – strange! that honey
Can’t be got without hard money!”
--John Keats-1820

Richard the Lionheart, in the ballads of Robin Hood, was the absent king. He spent most of his time in the “Holy Land” or in captivity. When Richard finally did come back, what happened on his way back to England helped to start the Robin Hood Legend.

On his way back from the “Holy Land” during the crusades, Richard the Lionheart was taken hostage by Leopold and was held for ransom. Robin Hood raised money to pay for the ransom and freed King Richard.

Because of Robin’s efforts to raise the money for Richard’s ransom, Richard returned to England and reclaimed the throne from his brother, Prince John, for the time that he was back.

When Richard learned of Robin’s help to pay his ransom, he went in search of Robin in Sherwood Forest to thank him for his help and devotion to him. There, Robin Hood and his men pledged allegiance to him. While Richard was still home in England, Robin and his men were able to come out of hiding since they had Richard’s favor, however, they soon fell into disfavor in society again when Richard left England and went back to the Holy Land. Robin once again fled to the forest again where he was reunited with his men. Robin was forced to stay there for supposedly the rest of his life since Richard was soon killed in the crusades and Prince John once again took the throne of England.

Another main character of the Robin Hood ballads was Prince John. John’s tyrant behavior of the English people also helped to start the legend by giving Robin his reason to fight- to help the oppressed. Robin hated John and vowed to stay loyal to Richard. When Richard left England, John took the throne and began to tax the people to gain riches for himself knowing his brother was out of his way. Even most of Richard’s ransom that Robin had raised by robbing people for went to John. Robin often stole from people like John who were benefiting from the unfair taxing of the English people. All of this wealth went to the poor. Robin’s donations to the poor helped them survive the tyranny of Prince John’s reign.

Upon Richard’s return, Prince John threw himself at his brother’s mercy and Richard forgave his brother. When Richard died in the crusades, Prince John finally got the throne for good.

“Robyn hod in scherewod stod
hodud and hathud and hosut and schod
Four and thuynti arrows he bar in hits hondus.”

This is a description of Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood was believed to have lived. Being in disfavor with society, Robin had to find a place to hide away from the public eye. He found this place in Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest covered about 100,000 acres and was the home of the king’s deer; therefore, it was off limits to peasants by law. Robin illegally killed some of the king’s deer for many of his and his men’s feasts.

Inside of Sherwood Forest, is the Greenwood encampment, which is Robin and his men’s home. In the middle of this encampment stood the Major Oak. This tree was the “council tree” of the outlaws. During the time of Robin Hood, many people saw Sherwood Forest as a dangerous place where many ambushes and robbing took place and therefore tried to almost always travel in large groups of people for protection. However, to Robin and his men, the outlaws, they saw this forest as protection and safety against the Sheriff’s men.

Of course, Robin had to have his faithful companions by his side through all of these hardships. Some of the main characters and friends of Robin in the Robin Hood ballads include Little John, Will Scarlet, Allan A dale, Friar Tuck and Maid Marian. Little John was most well known for his huge stature and immense strength and was Robin’s loyal friend and helped Robin directly with much of his deeds. He was the only one of the outlaws to be at Robin’s death.

Little John’s grave lies at Hathersage in Derbyshire and still can be found today. Will Scarlet’s mention in the Robin Hood ballads dates back to even some of the earliest of the many stories written. He is described as a trustworthy kinsman. Although it is not known for a fact, many believe that Will was buried in a churchyard at Blidworth in Nottinghamshire.

Friar Tuck, in the ballads of Robin Hood, is depicted as a peaceful man who was asked to become a member of Robin’s outlaws after a fight between him and Robin after the Friar dropped Robin in a stream that Robin had made Friar Tuck carry him across. This fight is said to have taken place at Fountain Dale in Nottinghamshire.

Allan A dale did not play such a crucial role in the ballads of Robin Hood. According to legend, he was a minstrel of Greenwood. Robin befriended this man and asked him to become a part of the group of outlaws.

Maid Marian was a beautiful and clever woman who fell in love with Robin and one of the most crucial aspects to the Robin Hood Legend. Legend is that Robin and Marian were married in a church near Sherwood Forest called Edwinstowe.

According to the legend of Robin Hood, his cousin, the prioress, and Sir Roger of Doncaster in Kirklees Priory killed Robin.

Final Verses of “A Gest of Robyn Hode”
“Syr Roger of Sonkestere
By the pryoresse he lay
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode
Through theyr false playe.

Cryst have mercy on his soule
That dyed on the rode!
For he was a good outlawe
And did poor men much good.”


There are many conflicting opinions about whether or not Robin Hood had in fact existed and, for people that do believe that he did exist, there are also conflicting opinions about when he actually existed. For those who don’t believe he existed, some call him a “creation of the ballad muse” while others see his name as a “corruption of ‘Robin of the Wood’”, a generic name for forest outlaws. However, even if Robin Hood didn’t exist, he still has become a symbol for freedom and resistance to petty tyranny.

As for the argument about when Robin Hood actually lived, many historians believe that he lived anywhere between 1190-1307. The evidence supporting the opinion that he lived before 1400 is that the first tale was made by 1400 so the legend of Robin Hood would have to have been well know long before then.

Another piece of evidence that supports that Robin lived sometime long before the fourteenth century is that some of the earliest ballads were sung during the fourteenth century. Although many, those who believe that Robin existed, agree that King Richard the Lionheart and Prince John were the rulers of England during the time of Robin Hood, there are those who believe that Robin Hood actually existed during King Edward the second’s reign.

Some supporting evidence that Edward the second was in fact in power during Robin Hood’s time are the large number of outlaws in England, an anti-tax sentiment and famine.


There is much controversy over who this man was and there is no agreement as to the details of Robin Hood’s existence.

Historically, Richard the Lionheart went on the crusades to escape raising taxes to pay for his debts. Prince John took the throne in place of his brother’s absence as a replacement king of sorts and was forced to raise taxes to pay for his brother, Richard’s, debts and for the money used to pay for expenses and campaigns during the crusades.

Perhaps Prince John was never raising taxes for his own wealth, but he had to pay for his brother’s lack of responsibility for his own mistakes and debts.

Sherwood Forest, the place where Robin and his outlaw friends supposedly lived, still exists today in England, though much smaller. In Robin’s time, the forest was supposed to have covered around 100,000 acres of land. Today, it only covers about 450 acres.

The earliest mention of Robin Hood is in William Langland’s poem “The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman”. This poem was written in 1377 and was to be said by a priest in his book named Sloth. The poem says:

“I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it.
But I know the rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, the earl of Chester.”

There were at least eight people before 1300, thought by many to be Robin Hood’s time, who were given the name “Robin Hood” as a nickname and at least five of the eight people with this nickname were outlaws or people accused of criminal activity. The only way that Robin Hood, if he had actually existed, would have been able to come out of hiding and live a normal life would be a royal pardon. He would have been one of the most wanted criminals of his time, but, if he had existed, he would have been the product of a violent and repressed society.

A reference of Robin Hood was found in the 1850’s in a historical document referencing to a forester named Robert Hood, son of Adam Hood that was born in 1280. He was said to live with his wife, Matilda in Wakefield, Yorkshire. There are theories that his Robert and Matilda Hood could have moved to Sherwood and become Robin and Marian Hood.

Supposedly, Robin’s grave can still be seen today where he was supposed to have died in the ballads; in Kirklees Priory. However, most of Kirklees Priory is now ruined and you can only see a partial inscription of “Here lies Robard Hude…”