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William Shakespeare refers to the legend of Robin Hood in his play, As You Like it with the old Duke exiled to the Forest of Arden with a group of Merry Men who “live like the old Robin Hood of England” (Act I, scene i). In his play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare again mentions the Robin Hood legend when an outlaw exclaims “By the bare scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar.” The accompanying characters of the Robin Hood story find their place in Shakespeare’s plays, when in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part 2 Falstaff talks about Maid Marian and Falstaff’s companion Justice Silence sings a song about “And Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John.” What these references tell us is that the legend of Robin Hood was an active part of the history of William Shakespeare and the pop culture of the time period to whom he was writing. But the legend of Robin Hood is quite fluid throughout history with it being used as a symbol for good as well as a symbol for insurrection and a general debate about who he was, whether he was based on a real person, and whether he was a hero or a villain. Here today to tell us about the history of Robin Hood from Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and expert Robin Hood historian, Allen Wright.  

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Allen Wright is a historian of Robin Hood and writes for the website he founded titled “Robin Hood — Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood”, which is filled with detailed history on Robin Hood, the Robin Hood legends, and providing a comprehensive look at the legend, the myth, and the facts about this well known character.

More About Allen Wright

Allen Wright lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He graduated McMaster University in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario with a degree in English Literature and History, and also obtained a degree in journalism from the University formerly known as Ryerson [the person the university was named after was justly cancelled for his involvement in residential schools and the university was since renamed to Toronto Metropolitan University]. In 1997, he founded his Robin Hood website Robin Hood: Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood. He has presented at several Robin Hood academic conference, appeared in TV and radio documentaries, and has been published in everything from scholarly books to graphic novels. Because he is not currently affiliated with a university and because of his interest in outlaws, he jokingly refers to himself as a “rogue scholar”. 

I’ll be asking Allen Wright about:

  • Are there any ballads about Robin Hood printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • The Legend of Robin Hood is strongly associated with Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John of England. Was Robin Hood associated with these historical figures for Shakespeare’s lifetime?  
  • At least one of the Robin Hood stories has him known as “robin of Loxley”, because Robin Hood is supposed to have been born in Loxely, England. Allen, is there a real Loxely, England, was it in existence for Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in the 16th century, was Robin Hood believed to be from there?  
  • …and more!

Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood Project at University of Rochester

Storyworlds of Robin Hood by Lesley Coote

Allen Wright’s Interview with Leslie Coote:

Richard Grafton:

British Library Catalog Reference to Robin Hood

Play by anonymous: Looke About You:

The Sloane “Life of Robin Hood” – Sloane MS 780 (circa 1600, first mention of Loxley)

“They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many
merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. “

— As You Like It (I.1)

17thC image from Broadside on Robin Hood and Maid Marion. | Public Domain| Source

Robin Hood Ballads and Broadsides from Shakespeare’s lifetime

The Robin Hood legend was alive and well in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and recorded in ballads and broadsides from the period. Allen tells us about some of the records we have and how we know what the Robin Hood legend was like in this period:

We can be pretty sure that there are, but there’s almost this weird gap because there’s some right before his lifetime and a whole bunch just after Shakespeare’s lifetime, and one of the most famous ballads from the late 1400s was reprinted in the 1560s and there are some records in the Stationer’s Record of ballads printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime but we don’t have copies of those, the copies survive in the 1600s. We know they were there in his lifetime but we don’t have them. The one that was printed in 1560 by William Copeland included two play texts, which was a tradition going on from the 14400-1600s where Robin Hood plays or games, they were called, so not formal performances like Shakespeare’s plays, but like village festivals and this 1560s text is rich in drama, but it could be people dressed up like Robin Hood and collect money, or getting a badge to be one of Robin hood’s men and collecting money for the local church and things like that.   

“The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield with Robin Hood, Scarlet and John,” woodcut, 28 cm x 35 cm. Circa 1689. Courtesy of the General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. | Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library | Printed for W. Thackeray, J. Millet, A. Milbourn | Public Domain | Source

Robin Hood’s Association with Richard the Lionheart

For Shakespeare’s lifetime, the King that Robin Hood was strongly associated with Richard the Lionheart and King John of England, but this association was unique to Shakespeare’s lifetime in that previous chroniclers had actually associated Robin Hood with other English Kings.

[Robin Hood was associated with Richard the Lionheart] more so in Shakespeare’s lifetime than earlier. The first chroniclers in the 1400s and 1500s dropped Robin Hood into their histories and they all picked different kings to do so. One of the early medieval ballads, the kind if called Edward and there’s tons of debate about which Edward that is. In 1521, John Major said “Richard and John” and that throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime and when he was writing his plays it was the predominant one.  

“[Singing] And Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John.”

Henry IV Part II (V.3)

Beginn de “Gest of Robyn Hode”, 16th century illustration of Robin Hood | Unknown author |
 National Library of Scotland | Public Domain | Source

Was Robin Hood from Loxley, England?

At least one of the Robin Hood stories has him known as “Robin of Loxley”, because Robin Hood is supposed to have been born in Loxely, England. Allen explains that there is not only a real Loxley, England, but there are more than one, and several locations where Robin Hood is thought to be from.

There’s more than one Loxley in England, but there is’nt one in Nottinghamshire, which the Sloane Manuscript in 1600s attributes to Robin Hood…Sheffield is the modern day city of Loxley, and [where] most of the Robin Hood locations are [found]. There’s another Loxley location that’s just outside Stratford Upon Avon and in the 19th century one story offered Robin Fitzoto as the real Robin Hood, but the person who wrote Hamlet is from Warwickshire, but Robin Hood probably was not.  

Was Robin Hood a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?

Public opinion concerning whether Robin Hood is a good guy or a bad guy is a debate still continuing into the present day. For the 16th century and early 17th century when Shakespeare was alive, Allen explains what period references or accounts exist to shine a light on what people in Shakespeare’s lifetime thought about Robin Hood.

The attitude was that he was a criminal, murderer, and a robber, but he was the best of a bad lot. He was better than some of the others because he occasionally helped people and there was a hint about that with different references. Richard Grafton in 1568 has another sense and John Stowe 1590s, wrote about Robin Hood as well, but by the time John Stowe writes about Robin hood, he robbed form the rich and gave to the poor and it was more the helpful things surrounding the story of Robin Hood. By Shakespeare, there was official condemnation of Robin Hood but the redemption of the character was there and happening during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For example, he was originally a middle class character, or a yeoman, and that can mean many things but in 1568, Grafton refers to Robin Hood as an “earl” and that gets repeated into Shakespeare’ s lifetime, which is a major change in the story of Robin Hood. There were still people condemning the story, so it was complex.  

“By the bare scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar,
This fellow were a king for our wild faction!”

— Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV.1)

The Noble Fishermen, a broadsheet preserved by the Bodleian Library as B736. | Original title: The noble fisher-man: or, Robin Hoods preferment, shewing how he won a great prize on the Sea, and how he gave the one halfe to his Dame, and the other to the building of Almes-Houses. The tune is, in Summer time. | Unknown author, between 1624 and 1680 | Public Domain| Source

We know that Shakespeare mentions Robin Hood and various parts of the Robin Hood legend in his works, but there were a few plays in the early modern period dedicated to telling the Robin Hood story. Allen shares the most important plays and then some others that are worth exploring if you’re piecing together the history of this legend from Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The most important Robin Hood play was Antony Munday (some rewrites by Henry Chettle) downfall of Robert Early of Huntington and the sequel .That’s the first one to give him the title “Earl of Huntington” Steven Knight said it was called that because it sounds good. If you pick a real earldom to give Robin Hood ) (and this was a real earldom) then the word “Hunting” sounds the best. [In this play,] King Richard is there, and King John’s mother, Eleanor, is romantically obsessed with Robin Hood and pretends to be Marian and hit on him and especially in the sequel, quite early on, it’s about John pursuing Matilda, that’s the major one people know and it helps shape the legend that exists today.  

Edward I, by George Peele (and possibly Shakespeare), characters dress like Robin Hood.

Robin Hood Supporting Characters, Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marion

No Robin Hood story would be complete without the supporting characters who make the story so exciting including Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marion. Allen explains for us when these characters first arrived to be part of the story of Robin Hood and whether Shakespeare would have known of these characters as well.

Little John’s been there from the beginning and the earliest references to Robin Hood include him. He’s in all the ballads that exist from the 1460s, so 100 years before Shakespeare and he stayed consistently in there. Maid Marion and Friar Tuck have an odd history, they came in through the may game tradition and the ballads where they appear are few and they are late ballads. THere’s not a surviving ballad from Shakespeare’s day, though there are hints that there could be things we don’t have or that later versions could have existed earlier, but the references to Friar Tuck and Marion being in the Robin Hood legend. Are all from the village festivals but not the ballads. You also have Will Scarlett or Scafflock, and as Munday did, Will Scarlett and Robin Hood were Half brothers. George Green, a character from a ballad that we don’t have until after Shakespeare’s day, the Jolly Pinder of Whitefield, and someone possibly Robert Greene, made disparaging remarks about Shakespeare might have written Georgia Green where Robin Hood and Maid Marion are minor characters, and there’s a play 1600 Look About You, borrowing Munday’s idea of Robin Hood being Earl of Huntington.  

“O, fan From me the witless chaff of such a writer That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter Than Robin Hood!”

— Prologue, Two Noble Kinsmen

See the full record of this prologue to Two Noble Kinsmen on the Folger Shakespeare Library website.

Madrigal titled “Since Robin Hood” by Thomas Weelkes, 1608 | Public Domain| Source

Robin Hood Connection to Other Legends like Robin Goodfellow and Adam Bell

There are many legends that connect characters like Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and real people like Adam Bell, to the legend of Robin Hood, but Allen explains that while “There’s a loose connection… it’s not strong. There’s similar sound and Hob is a short form for Robert, and there’s a historical figure from 1225 who is known as Hobohood, and there personalities are similar with both being tricksters.”

In his writings on, Allen writes about the influence of the Robin Hood legend on into the 17th century but still within Shakespeare’s lifetime, citing that the group committing the Gunpowder Plot was called “Robin Hoods” at the time this event occurred in 1605.

William Cecil refers to them in his notes as “Robin hoods” and Robin hood gets attacked from all sides, by Puritans as well as Catholics, for example in Scotland in 1562, it’s Mary Queen of Scots who bans the Robin Hood plays and there’s all kinds of bishops and Protestant Bishops attacking him as well saying he’s either too pagan or too catholic, but he also robs priests, and right after Shakespeare’s lifetime that became a virtue…because he robbed catholics, Ben Jonson did a play called the Sad Shepherd and he has them attack the Puritan attitudes of shitting down the May Games, and shows Robin Hood critical of that. High Middleton founded a Robin Hood Club in 1613 and it may or may not have been the same.  

llustration of legendary English outlaw Adam Bell from “The History of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie” | Unknown date (Likely 1840s-60s) | Author Joseph Crawhall | Public Domain | Source

Allen writes that by the 18th century there was a religious debate club in England known as the Robin Hood Society which would meet to argue over the Bible, religion, and theology. He shares that a similar, though slightly less formal, group also met during the reign of James I of England.

…there’s only a handful of references to it, and it could be the same club where the 1700s one was the same as the 1600s. Some of their references overlap. If you want to be considered an outlaw rebel (whether or not you’re justified) Robin Hood is a good name to use because then you’re an good outlaw, living in an alternative society.

Adam Bell was a legendary English outlaw, who is one proposed figure for a real Robin Hood. Along with William of Cloudsley and Clym of the Clough, he lived in Inglewood Forest near Carlisle, England. Their story is told in Child Ballad 116 entitled “Adam Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee.” The oldest printed copy of this ballad is from 150, printed by Wynkyn de Worde.

Some scholars believe Adam Bell is the “Adam” that comes up in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when he says,

“…hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapp’d on the shoulder, and call’d Adam.” (Act I, Scene 1)

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!