For more than 700 years, Robin Hood has captured the imaginations of artists, storytellers, and consumers alike, becoming one of the world’s most beloved folk heroes. The famous archer’s mission of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has inspired books, movies, a stock app, and Disney’s greatest animation achievement to date (#notupfordebate).
But did Robin Hood actually exist? If he didn’t, where did his legend come from? And, if he did, what was he really like?
Join us as we explore the real hackstory of Robin Hood and his merry band of thieves.
The Prince of Thieves
To a modern audience, the story of Robin Hood may seem fairly straightforward: badass dude lives in the forest with his BFFs, takes shiny things from mean rich people, and gives it to the more deserving poor. However, the legend of Robin Hood has actually undergone radical transformations over the centuries.
The earliest known reference to Robin Hood appears in a poem called Piers Plowman, which was published in the 1370s. The archer and his band of thieves begin to make more regular appearances in narrative ballads throughout the 15th century.
The earliest version of Robin Hood is pretty dark, more Man on Fire than Men in Tights. Robin Hood and his crew (which in these early iterations includes Little John and Will Scarlet – no Friar Tuck or Maid Marian yet) are anti-government rebels, sowing chaos in the area around Sherwood Forest by murdering wealthy landowners.
This depiction of Robin Hood reflects the discontent of the times: in the 14th century, serfs were fed up with the raw deal they were handed by their feudal lords and starting to make their anger known. The early Robin Hood is also a commoner, like the serfs he defends, but one with a very particular set of skills that allows him to enact revenge on the landed upper classes.
Only in the 16th century, once the political climate in England between serfs and lords calmed down a bit, does Robin Hood become the merry man we know today. Robin begins to use his archery skills for more dazzling tricks and less grisly murder and changes from a discontent peasant to a benevolent lord who cast aside his fortune to help the common man. Robin even gets a beautiful, strong-willed love interest in Maid Marian and a jovial sidekick in Friar Tuck, completing his transformation from dangerous criminal to champion with a heart of gold.
So You’re Telling Me Robin Hood Was Just A Folk Legend, Right?
Well, not exactly.
Though Robin Hood mainly appears as a fictional hero, there is actual historical evidence of similar figures that really existed. Early fourteenth century legal records make reference to criminals with the nicknames of “Robehud” or “Rabunhod” running around England. But were these epithets inspired by a real Sherwood Forest archer, or did they, in turn, inspire the fictional legend?
Modern historians are still debating. For what it’s worth, medieval chroniclers (who would’ve been the contemporaries of the real Robin Hood) seemed to believe that Robin Hood really did exist. There are references to the prince of thieves in a number of historical accounts, like John Major’s History of Great Britain, which was published in 1521. However, like in literature, there are many different historical versions of Robin Hood, some placing him as a contemporary of Richard the Lionheart and others of Edward IV.
Regardless of whether or not Robin Hood really existed, we can say for sure that the character has seriously long-lasting appeal. Robin Hood has appeared in thousands of adaptations over the centuries and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, with another new version featuring actor Taron Egerton in production now.
Unfortunately for Taron, we still don’t think his interpretation could possibly be any sexier than Foxy Robin.