Pattaya Daily News

28 December 2006 :: 16:12:43 pm 21338

Myths and legends 2: robin hood

Robin of Sherwood, Robin of Locksley, Robert Fitzooth, Robyn Hode or Robin Goodfellow? Who exactly was the legendary English folk-hero cum villain with a heart of gold and did he in fact actually exist? Well, to be frank, we can’t truthfully say, but, like King Arthur, he represents an eternal archetype whose purpose was to inspire, especially in time of crisis.
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The stories of Robin Hood are typically set in England between the 12th and 15th centuries with most of the events taking place in or near Sherwood Forest. In the first stories, Robin appears as a simple highway robber trying to avoid capture, but later tales represent him as a man wrongfully denied his noble title.

As a forest dweller, he seems to have roamed throughout the heavily forested midlands and north of England, through Nottinghamshire, Barnsdale forest in Yorkshire and as far as Cumberland. The most authoritative document, one of the Sloane manuscripts in the British Museum, maintains he was born around 1160 in Lockesley in Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire, which presents a slight problem as the place spelt with or without an “e” doesn’t actually exist in either county. An attempt to have him born in Loxley, Staffordshire, a yeoman son of a landowner similarly poses the problem of being a non-existent place. The assertion that he was a dispossessed nobleman, Robert Fitzooth, the earl of Huntington, is justified by the claim that vulgar pronunciation easily corrupted the name Robert Fitzooth into Robin Hood, which seems highly unlikely.

Further pedigrees cast him as an outlawed supporter of the defeated Simon de Montfort circa the mid 13th century and even as a Wakefield man who was a participant in Thomas of Lancaster’s rebellion in 1322. Clad in green, Robin and his merry band were reminiscent of the fairy legends of the Celts. Robin was a name often given to fairies and even the guardian god or spirit of the woodland, Robin Goodfellow, or the Green Man so often seen in ancient church carvings. In truth, we shall never know; suffice it to say that his legend was the inspiration of the oppressed peasantry of England and has represented the glorified arch-hero who robbed the rich to feed the poor ever since.

Mediaeval England, even over the period of the 12th to the 14th centuries, was still suffering from the tribulations of the transition from the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy to that of the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had either been killed or had largely fled to the Byzantine empire, leaving the Anglo-Saxon yeomanry and peasantry to the mercies of the Norman aristocracy, which has left its legacy in the English language with words of oppression such as gaol, (jail), court, magistrate, penalty and punishment. Let’s also not forget that the Normans were originally Norsemen or Vikings, who had become French over a period of little over a century, so not exactly the most enlightened of individuals!

Mediaeval society existed at subsistence level. Economic disasters like plague or famine forced a desperate population to attack the crops of more fortunate neighbours, crimes for which in later times they’d be transported to Australia. Both town and country lacked any effective police force, and therefore, although the majority of known or suspected criminals could be dispossessed of land and property, few were apprehended. At times in 13th century England, only one in 100 murderers was ever brought to trial and convicted. The rest beat a hasty retreat, many apparently into the forest to live like wild beasts or find kindred spirits, often organized band of outlaws who were wont to terrorise the countryside.

The local populace protected itself as best it could against such bands, but the assistance of a local knight at the head of his retainers was little better than that from the bandits. The distinction between the peasantry and the gentry and nobility was more a question of caste than class, not merely distinctions of education, rank or wealth, but a different ethnic group who even spoke a different language, French. Indeed, it was not until the Statute of Pleading in 1362 that English was permitted to be used in court proceedings.

The Norman aristocracy was prone to oppress the peasantry, usually in the form of excessive taxation, but they were also not averse to the exercise of jus primae noctis (“the right to the first night”) also known as le droit de seigneur (the right of a nobleman or feudal landowner to have first sexual relations with a servant’s bride). The peasant masses struggled to eke out a meagre living while a relatively small number of nobles and members of the church elite controlled the country’s land and wealth.

People told and retold the Robin Hood stories as a means of expressing their discontent with overbearing government authorities, dishonest church officials and laws restricting hunting and farming rights. It was a turbulent time of baronial rebellions, which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The authentic Robin Hood ballads, especially the ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode and his Meiny(band)’, were the poetic expression of popular aspirations and discontent. The theme of the free but persecuted outlaw enjoying the forbidden hunting of the forest and outwitting or killing the forces of law and order naturally appealed to the common people as did his envious life of freedom and adventure.

A medieval outlaw was a person who, for reasons of politics or crime, had been officially repudiated by the law and ostracised from his community. Being defenceless against his enemies, all he had was his own courage, strength and intelligence. Forced to hide in the extensive forests, or in the fenlands, he had to live by illegal hunting and by robbery. He was not friendless, often being able to surround himself with a strong and well-organised marauding band. He also had friends among the poor and the naturally lawless and those who detested the oppressive forest laws and the other injustices of their day.

Robin Hood was a rebel, and many of the most striking episodes in the tales about him show him and his Merry Men: Little John, the Curtal Friar, (Friar Tuck), Much et al robbing and killing representatives of authority and giving the spoils to the poor. Their most frequent enemy was the sheriff of Nottingham, a local agent of the central government, cohort of the infamous usurper, Prince John. In ‘Lytell Geste’, Little John asks Robin for guidance as to how the band should live and is told that they must do no harm to any husbandman ‘that tylleth with his plough’, or any good yeoman, or any simple knight or squire, but

‘These byschoppes, and these archbyschoppes,

Ye shall them bete and bynde;

The Hye Sheryfe of Notynghame,

Hym holde in your minde.’

Robin later shot the sheriff of Nottingham and then cut off his head. Generally, he hated the senior clergy who, to him, ranked with the sheriff and the verderers (judicial officers of the royal forest) who enforced the oppressive forest laws, wealthy ecclesiastical landowners and with those justices who always sided with the rich, or administered the law corruptly.

This was not because Robin Hood hated the Church as such, or because he was irreligious. Quite the opposite, he was a devout man who grieved because his perilous way of life made it impossible for him to hear mass as often as he would have liked. He was strongly devoted to the Virgin, for whose sake he is said never to have harmed any company that had a woman in it and he was friendly towards the lesser clergy. Robin treated women, the poor and people of humble status with courtesy and compassion. The ‘Lytell Geste’ remarks:

‘so curteyse an outlawe as he was one never non founde’

Yet it was not for his ferocity or as a champion of justice that Robin was best remembered in tradition, but for his gaiety and love of trickery. In this respect, Robin was like Robin Goodfellow who boasts of his pranks of misleading travellers at night, spoiling milk and frightening young girls.

Robin’s open-handed generosity, especially to the poor and distressed, and his courtesy to all, including the travellers whom he robbed endear him to all. He was a genial thief who charmed his victims out of their purses and, frequently, feasted them afterwards on venison.

Although Robin is an outlaw, he and his band respected the authority of the ruling king, who, according to the 18th century antiquary, William Stukeley, was Richard I. In many stories, the king disguises himself and joins the Merry Men, intending to capture Robin. But the king then discovers Robin’s honourable ways and pardons him. Alternatively, the king is Edward II who was so horrified by the plundering of the robbers in his forests that he declared their leader must be executed at all costs. Curious, he went himself to the greenwood, disguised as an abbot and inevitably fell into the outlaws’ hands. They treated him well, and after entertaining him to a splendid meal of his own venison, gave him an impressive display of their skill in archery. (Robin and his followers’ great skill with the bow was justly famous, even in a land where, from Edward 1’s time onwards, every Englishman whose income from land was less than 100 pence a year was by law trained in archery). Suddenly, Robin recognised his liege lord in his abbot’s disguise and fell on his knees, begging for mercy and pardon for himself and all his band. Edward, inevitably, forgave them as long as they left the forest and he even took Robin to be his Groom of the Chamber. After a while, however, Robin tired of the safety and order of court life and began to yearn for the greenwood once more to which he duly returned for 22 years.

Finally, the infirmities of old age and a fit of sickness forced him to seek the assistance of the prioress of Kirklees Priory in Yorkshire, his relative, but rather than merely letting blood, she treacherously caused him to bleed almost to death. Whereupon he asked for his bow to be put into his hands and, supported by Little John before an open window, he shot an arrow through it, saying:

‘Where this arrow is taken up, there shall my grave digg’d be.’

A mound in the park, within bowshot of the house, is said to be the outlaw’s last resting-place.

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : Stories

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