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Statue of Robin Hood drawing his bow and arrow

Was Robin Hood a real person?

It’s nice to imagine there was once a charismatic outlaw hiding out in Sherwood Forest robbing from the rich to give to the poor - but was Robin Hood actually a real person?

Image: The statue of Robin Hood near Nottingham Castle | Philip George Jones /

The story of Robin Hood has been popular with young and old alike for centuries. The exploits of the cunning outlaw and his band of Merry Men have appeared in books, poems, plays, films, television shows and video games. 700 years after his first mention in English literature, Robin Hood’s popularity shows no sign of waning. We take a look at the origins of the story, how it evolved and ask the question - was he a real person?

Medieval origins

The earliest printed mention of Robin Hood is in William Langland’s 14th-century poem Piers Plowman. Robin Hood is only mentioned in passing, but the assumption that readers would be familiar with him suggests he was already an established folk hero before he began appearing in ballads and poems in the Middle Ages.

Some believe ‘Robin Hood’ was a generic name for an outlaw in the Middle Ages, and there’s evidence to back this theory up. As far back as the 1260s, the names ‘Robehod’, ‘Robinhood’ and ‘Robbehod’ appear on the rolls of justices from Berkshire to York, lending credence to the idea that it was a common term in the 13th century.

Robin Hood in the spotlight

The earliest surviving ballad where Robin Hood is the lead character is Robin Hood and the Monk, written in the 1450s. The ballad introduces several elements that later became integral parts of the story. These include the Nottingham and Sherwood Forest setting, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the ‘Merry Men’ - Little John and Much the Miller’s Son.

After Robin Hood and the Monk, the floodgates well and truly opened. May Day Games - where Medieval peasants played characters from the Robin Hood stories - introduced Maid Marian as the love interest. Ballads and poems such as A Guest of Robin Hood, Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham introduced Will Scarlet and the affable Friar Tuck. We also learned more about Robin Hood’s preference for cunning and trickery over brute force, and his death from poisoning gets its first - but by no means last - mention.

In these early ballads, there is no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, nor is there any suggestion that he is of noble birth - both of which became important elements of his story later on. In the 15th century, Robin Hood and his Merry Men were still rough ‘n’ ready brigands out for what they could get, and he is portrayed as a commoner, not a nobleman.

The legend evolves

It was in Tudor times that Robin Hood was elevated to the nobility. In Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon from 1598 and 1601 respectively, we have the first mention of Robin Hood being of noble birth. This idea struck a chord, and he has usually been portrayed as a nobleman whose title was unjustly stripped from him ever since. Subsequent plays also introduced the idea that Robin Hood was a loyal soldier of King Richard I, fighting alongside him in the Crusades. This added Richard’s brother, Prince John, to the story, establishing a trio of villains for the outlaw to battle against - Prince John, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne, who was introduced in a children’s story hailing from the 1650s.

This period also saw a switch from the story of Robin Hood being one that was mostly performed to audiences to one that was primarily written down. So-called Broadside Ballads (cheap, single sheets of paper with a story, song or poem printed on both sides) became extremely popular. New events were woven into the fabric of the legend, such as Robin Hood’s famous quarterstaff fight with Little John. In the 17th century, another Merry Man was added to the roster courtesy of the Broadsides - the minstrel Alan-a-Dale.

In 1795, Robin Hood finally became the altruistic outlaw we know and love when Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems Songs and Ballads now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw was published. His generosity in this story struck a chord with the public so much so that he’s been robbing from the rich to give to the poor ever since.

Victorian additions

In the 19th century, the story was specifically adapted for children for the first time. Several versions of the tale were published, most notably Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood from 1883. Unusually, Pyle shunned the idea of Robin Hood being a nobleman, but apart from that, many of the familiar elements of the legend are present. Pyle even has Robin Hood and his men pardoned by none other than Richard the Lionheart at the end of his novel - an idea that cropped up again in the 20th century.

Also adding to the legend in this period were Sir Walter Scott and Jaques Thierry, as well as a set of stories for children known as the Child Ballads. The stories by Scott and Thierry depict Robin Hood as a Saxon fighting corrupt Norman lords, while the Child Ballads feature his participation in an archery contest, which is actually a trap set for him by the Sheriff of Nottingham. The fight against the Normans and the archery contest where Robin Hood splits his opponent’s arrow were seamlessly integrated into the legend and have remained an important part of it ever since.

Modern Robin Hood

The 20th century saw film and TV breathe new life into the Robin Hood story. From early silent films such as 1908’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men to 1938’s classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Hollywood caught the Robin Hood bug and has never let go. From Douglas Fairbanks in the silent classic Robin Hood in 1922, to Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991; from an ageing Robin played by Sean Connery in 1976’s Robin and Marian, to a wily cartoon fox in Disney’s Robin Hood, this most English of folk tales has been retold on the silver screen for over a hundred years.

TV, meanwhile, has been portraying Robin Hood for over 70 years, the two most famous portrayals being Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s, and Michael Praid and Jason Connnery in Robin of Sherwood in the 1980s. Add in a plethora of new books, toys, board games and computer games, and the legend of Robin Hood is in no danger of fading into history any time soon.

Was Robin Hood real?

While it’s nice to imagine there was once a charismatic outlaw hiding out in Sherwood Forest robbing from the rich to give to the poor, there is no evidence that Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Little John or Friar Tuck were real people.

Life in the Middle Ages was hard for pretty much everyone but those at the top of the social tree, so it’s little wonder that a tale of a plucky band of brigands sticking it to the rich struck a chord with downtrodden peasants at the time. Sadly, a tale is all it is.

It’s true that outlaws did indeed go by the name ‘Robin Hood’ back in the 13th century, but these men bear no resemblance to the dashing outlaw of legend. Instead, Robin occupies the same space in the public imagination as King Arthur - as nothing more than a ripping yarn.