Manchester Metropolitan University

The Real Robin Hood

Sean McGlynn reconsiders the origins of the popular myth and suggests a new contender for the original folk hero; not an outlaw from Nottingham but a devoted royal servant from Kent, who opposed the French invasion against King John in 1216.

'Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest' by Edmund George Warren, 1858. Corbis / Christie's

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robin Hode.

[A Gest of Robyn Hode, 15th century]


Robin Hood is an ever-present figure in the pantheon of English heroes, continually capturing the imaginations of historians and writers of historical fiction as much as those of the general public. Whether he was a real character or not is the subject of perpetual debate. The paradox is neatly captured by the entry on Robin Hood in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in which the author argues that his biographical subject was entirely mythical.

As a medievalist I had a natural interest in the Robin Hood legends, but I never considered him as a topic to pursue. Or that is not until, while researching a neglected French invasion of England, I learned more about a band of common men dwelling as outlaws in an English forest and using their bows to fight against tyranny and oppression under the charismatic leadership of a longbow-wielding folk hero. Not only has this individual never been identified as a possible origin of the Robin Hood stories, he was no mythical figure but a real man of flesh and blood and a genuine English champion.

The latest of some 60 films and TV series dedicated to Robin Hood was Ridley Scott’s eponymous 2010 blockbuster starring Russell Crowe. With it came the inevitable flow of books, bringing the legend up to date with a number of modern interpretations, trying to identify, if only in broad terms, Robin Hood and his Merry Men and to place them in their real chronological and geographical context. David Baldwin puts forward the established leading contender, Roger Godberd, an outlaw probably living between 1230 and 1290. However, the timing is arguably too late for the origins of the Robin Hood stories, as we shall see. Furthermore, Godberd’s reputation is a negative one of a squalid thief and killer – there is nothing of the hero here – and he lacks association with that most necessary accompaniment: the totemic longbow.

The authors Nigel Cawthorne and Jim Bradbury do not commit themselves, but give more attention to the importance of popular stories of Hereward the Wake, a resistance fighter against the Normans after the 1066 conquest of England; the early 13th-century occasional outlaw nobleman Fulk Fitzwarren; and Eustace the Monk, a French pirate who served both with and against King John. Eustace and Fulk were the heroes (or anti-heroes) of popular vernacular romances in the 13th century.

Bradbury, in his careful assessment, summarises the real but ultimately unknown Robin Hood as ‘a criminal who pursued a criminal and violent career’, who ‘operated in Yorkshire, Sherwood and Nottingham’ and who ‘became leader of an outlaw band of men skilled as archers’. None go so far as Adam Thorpe’s fictional depiction in Hodd (2009) of a psychotic blasphemer, stoned on magic mushrooms, but research has opted for unadorned, gritty verisimilitudes to present us with an unattractive figure, who falls short of the noble outlaw and folk hero as portrayed in popular ballads, such as A Gest of Robyn Hode, dating from the mid-15th century:

Robyn was a prude outlaw,
Whyles he walked on grounde;
So courteyse an outlawe as he was one
Was never non founde.

It is from ballads of this period that Robin becomes known to us. That is not to say earlier ballads did not exist: they almost certainly did, but they have not survived. In William Langland’s epic poem from 1377, Piers Plowman, the priest Sloth admits he does not know his Paternoster well, but ‘I kan [know] rymes of Robyn hood’, indicating an existing tradition.

When and where?

Where do we place Robin Hood in location and time? For the majority of historians, if Robin Hood truly existed, his activities were centred around the criminal hotspot of Barnsdale in South Yorkshire (hence Russell Crowe’s heroic but ultimately doomed attempt at a northern accent). This is based on late medieval references such as ‘Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood’. But there is some disagreement on this. Barnsdale could be confused with Bryunsdale near Nottingham; Stephen Knight, in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), suggests that the reference is really to Barnsdale Forest in Rutland.

There is further disagreement about when the inspiration for the Robin Hood stories began. The two dominant schools of thought plump for either the early 13th or the 14th century. Those who favour the later period often cite evidence that shows the lawlessness of the period, while a reference to King Edward in one ballad could point to the reigns of any one of the three kings (Edward I, II and III ruled in succession from 1272 to 1377).

Film makers have usually chosen to set the legend during the reign of Richard I (r.1189-99), focusing in particular on the period when the king was captured and held prisoner as he was making his way back from the Crusades (1192-94). The Scottish chronicler John Major, writing in 1521, believed the Angevin rule of Henry II (r.1154-89), Richard I and John (r.1199-1216) to be the time when ‘flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood an Englishman and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods those only that were wealthy’.  Major was perhaps not far off. There is clear evidence to suggest that the Robin Hood stories were established by the mid-13th century. Records from this time reveal that a suspected robber, William, son of Robert le Fevere on a Memoranda Roll of 1261, had his name changed by a different scribe on the roll of the Justices in Eyre in Berkshire of 1261 to William Robehood, indicating awareness of the legend. A similar transcription occurred much earlier. In 1225 the York Assizes refer to the fugitive Robert Hod; in the margin of the 1226 Pipe Roll he is given the sobriquet of Hobbehood. The name Robert Hood is first recorded in a criminal context for the killer of Ralph of Cirencester sometime between 1213 and 1216.

For all the many hints, clues and leads, the historian must be honest and ultimately confess ignorance of who the real Robin is – if indeed he ever was. It is a matter of conjecture and possibility. The ever-evolving story adapted itself to different times and different places, with the name Robin Hood replacing as a matter of course the true identity of the man on whom Robin was based. The name itself is therefore probably of minor relevance to finding the origins of the stories. Robin Hood was almost certainly a composite figure. But what seems evident is that there was some inspirational basis to the legend and this is what we should pursue, if we are to understand the tradition. But one real-life character who has as much, if not more, of a claim than any other to the origin of the stories has been completely overlooked: William of Kensham. William fits the time and, crucially, the image of the heroic outlaw of legend. He is not a squalid cut-throat and thief, but a faithful servant to his king and a forest-dwelling, bow-wielding freedom fighter. What is more, such was his popular fame from his daring exploits that he became a legend in his own lifetime and earned his own nickname from contemporaries: Willikin of the Weald.

William of Kensham (also known as Cassingham and variations of Collingham) appears frequently in the official records of King John, Henry III (r.1216-72) and even Edward I. He was a minor servant of the crown, acting from 1217 as the warden of the Seven Hundreds of the Weald in Kent, a reward for his services to John and Henry in the war against the French; Kensham was a manor there. His origins are unknown. However the records show that he settled in this area with his family and that he was succeeded by his son, Ralph.

William was mentioned with high regard in contemporary writings, an unusual acknowledgement for the time as he was a lowly figure on the social scale and a reflection of the fame that he earned. Roger of Wendover says that William was a young man in 1216, the time at which he became widely known. His name appears repeatedly in official rolls after 1217 until 1251, as he remained in the king’s service, his mundane duties including temporary police work and supplying logs to friends of Henry III. His death, after 40 years of service, can be calculated from the records as occurring in 1257, the year his wife was granted protection by Henry III. (Coincidentally, this is also the time of Fulk Fitzwarren’s death.)

The first barons’ war

So for what did William become famous? The background to his exploits is the somewhat neglected French invasion of England of 1216. The baronial revolt against King John in 1215 that led to Magna Carta in June and all-out civil war by the autumn had left the barons in a precarious position by the end of the year. Defeated in an epic siege at Rochester Castle, they were holed up in London in need of assistance. They offered the throne to Prince Louis (‘the Lion’), son and heir of the powerful Capetian Philip II of France. Louis arrived in May 1216 with a large invasion force and established himself in England. A lightning campaign left over a third of the country in Louis’ hands, from Winchester in the south to Lincoln in the north. At one point, as many as two thirds of the barons of England paid allegiance to the Capetian as Louis I of England. In a remarkable progress, the young monarch of Scotland, Alexander II, travelled all the way from his home country to Dover in the far south-east to pay homage to Louis, as one king to another. The French were to remain for 18 months. Within the French occupation zone there were three prominent islands of opposition: the royal castles of Windsor and Dover and, in the great forest of the Weald in Kent and Sussex, the English resistance force of William of Kensham.

William’s band comprised around 1,000 archer volunteers (sagittarii) from the rural regions. These men knew the area well enough to take full advantage of it, hiding in the forest and laying ambushes, using their skills as bowmen to inflict serious casualties among the French. Contemporary sources make clear that William and his men were a highly effective resistance outfit. Roger of Wendover writes that they took to the forests and ‘continued to trouble the French throughout the whole war, and slew many thousands of them’. The chronicler referred to as the Anonymous of Béthune, a royalist participant in the 1216-17 war, speaks admiringly of William’s ‘noble prowess’ and how he was feared and ‘renowned in Louis’ army’. The author of the History of William the Marshal confirms these views: ‘Witness the deeds of Willikin of the Weald’, he exhorts his readers, employing the already popular name for William. Recognition of the latter’s successful activities was acknowledged at the highest level in September 1216, when King John wrote to the men of the Weald to express his gratitude for their loyal service.

William continued to serve the crown after John’s death in October. In February 1217 Louis made for Winchelsea on the south coast, hoping to retake the neighbouring port of Rye before returning temporarily to France for reinforcements. Even before reaching there he had been fretting over the vulnerable supply routes to these towns, as the routes went through the forested Weald. When he arrived at Winchelsea, Louis found himself in a well-laid trap: royalist ships blockaded the ports in the Channel; to the north William moved in to hinder any French attempts to reach the Franco-baronial stronghold of London by guarding the thoroughfares and destroying bridges. Fear of William grew: his men swiftly dispatched any French prisoners by beheading them. According to one source, the French leader ‘did not know which way to turn ... Louis was so harried that he felt himself in desperate straits’. His men began to starve before being relieved by Eustace the Monk and a French flotilla.

William is recorded in action again in late April, when Louis returned with his reinforcements. Approaching Dover across the Channel, Louis could see smoke rising from his siege camp around the castle. A French source reports that ‘Willekins de Wans and many of his men’ had launched a surprise attack on the camp and killed those guarding it. This assault successfully prevented Louis from joining up with his troops there, forcing him to land at Sandwich instead. Such was William’s standing that he was joined for the attack on the Dover siege camp by King John’s illegitimate son, Oliver, a leading commander. In May Louis burned the towns of Hythe and Romney, but his actions were hindered once more by William and his men.

The French occupation was finally brought to a halt in August, 1217, following the Plantagenet victory under Hubert de Burgh against Prince Louis in the epic and bloody naval battle of Sandwich, arguably a more important sea victory for Britain than that won against the Spanish Armada or at Trafalgar. Following the victory, William was rewarded for his services against the French oppressors with tenements in Essex and the wardenship of the Seven Hundreds of the Weald. He was also guaranteed an annuity during his lifetime and his widow received royal protection for seven years after his death. Perhaps more valuable than this was the honour bestowed on William as a war hero, spoken of favourably by the king, and the acclaim encapsulated in his affectionate and widely-known nickname.

All the elements

It is hard to find another contender for the Robin Hood story from this age or afterwards who is both a hero and an outlaw. In William we have both: a feted resistance fighter, loyally protecting the crown, but also, from Louis’ perspective, an egregious outlaw defying the righteous rule of the imposed new regime. Louis had written to his English subjects demanding their support and obedience and the men and towns of the Weald and ports in the south had indeed officially sworn allegiance to their French master. Furthermore, other candidates for the original Hood have merely oblique references to bowmen (usually crossbowmen) accompanying their mention. William of Kensham presents us with an enigmatic but non-noble leader in command of a band of skilled archers living in the forest and laying ambushes for their enemies. No other claimant to the origins of the Robin Hood stories presents this combination of characteristics.

The context of the French invasion and occupation is important, too: neglected by historians, this was understandably regarded by contemporaries as the major event of the era. Is it a coincidence that the story of the 11th-century East Anglian, Hereward the Wake, became very popular by the mid-13th century? In 1216, exactly 150 years after the Norman Conquest, the English must have felt that history was repeating itself with another (initially successful) French invasion. Recollections of the heroic efforts of an earlier Englishman to resist foreign invasion must have complemented William of Kensham’s inspirational actions in defence of the kingdom. Nor is it a coincidence that Eustace the Monk is regarded as a major influence on the Robin Hood stories; he was a key player in the events of the 1216 invasion, meeting his end at the battle of Sandwich, when he was captured and decapitated on his ship. Such was his reputation that his head was paraded on a pole around southern towns to reassure the population that this traitor was truly dead. Eustace was the subject of his own romance, which has ensured his fame and his place in the evolution of the Robin Hood story. (A genuine monk in his early career before turning to piracy, would he not in any case serve better as a model for Friar Tuck?)

Incidental evidence

The argument that the south-east is entirely the wrong place for the legend to begin is predicated on the uncertain assertion that Robin Hood is unquestionably connected with the Barnsdale area and nowhere else. But, as we have seen, there is disagreement over which ‘Barnsdale’ is being referred to. There are also some strong historical associations: in the few examples of the surname Robinhood recorded in the second half of the 13th century, Holt notes that ‘there is a total concentration in south-eastern England’. He warns that this may simply reflect ‘the fact that far more judicial records survive for south-eastern England than for the North and that they happen to have been studied more intensively’. Yet it is also possible that this early concentration of the name could also reflect an area that saw the origins of the legend take hold with Willikin of the Weald. There is other incidental evidence, too, which may be relevant.

In her recent research on late medieval fishing in Kent, Sheila Sweetinburgh explores the names given to vessels and their connections, for example, with religious themes, plants and animals (e.g. The May Flower). Unexpectedly and unexplained, she notes one ship sailing under the name of Robin Hood and another named Little John.

Furthermore, a link can still be made to Nottingham that preserves the south-eastern association in William of Kensham’s time. During the French occupation, Nottingham was the main operational headquarters for the royalist army. William’s renown as a military leader was known there, as it was throughout the war zone. The degree to which his role was recognised by central military planners is reflected in the fact that the king’s son, Oliver, joined him for the attack on the Dover siege camp in April, 1217.

The royalist high command would have been anxious to receive William’s first-hand intelligence of Louis’ troop movements in this vital part of the country, as well as information on enemy troop numbers, morale and the local political ramifications of the occupation. As an invaluable eyewitness with an understanding of strategy and first-hand knowledge of the enemy, William would surely have been summoned to Nottingham to brief the war council. Here he and any accompanying men would have been able to demonstrate their skills as archers and describe their successful forest ambushes and encounters with the enemy.

Propaganda value

William’s success in the south was likely to have inspired similar tactics further north. It is also highly likely that he visited Nottingham at least once during the 18-month occupation, but even if he did not his propaganda value as a brave, non-noble Englishman, resisting the imposed tyranny of the French, would still have been enormously valuable to John and Henry’s followers in Nottingham and elsewhere. William’s loyalty and achievements would have been widely proclaimed to inspire people in the battle against the French. Such was his fame that three surviving contemporary chronicles considered him worthy of attention and praise, in spite of the fact that he lacked the usual prerequisite of knightly status.

Consequently Nottingham may have been an area that became associated with a forest-dwelling yeoman and his band of freedom-fighting archers. It is also significant that the city and its nearby forests of Barnsdale and Sherwood are all close to Lincoln, the site of the decisive land battle at Lincoln Castle in May 1217 between Henry III’s men under the command of his regent, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and the French forces, led by the Comte du Perche. The eastern edges of Sherwood Forest were actually closer to Lincoln than to Nottingham; the forest may well have been a base for hit-and-run sorties against the French, as well as for harassing the enemy and impeding their movements and communication with their northern and Scottish allies. (In the legends, Robin Hood’s men are famously camouflaged in ‘Lincoln green’.)

In the most authoritative study of Robin Hood, James Holt argues convincingly that Robin was a legend by the 1260s. For this to have happened he says that it would be a stretch, but ‘not impossible’, for there to have been ‘a quick generation of the legend, perhaps even beginning in Robin’s lifetime’. This is exactly what happened within ten years of William of Kensham’s daring feats, to the extent that contemporary chroniclers were even aware of his folk name.

The most probable truth behind the Robin Hood legend is that over time storytellers incorporated and conflated various characters from a range of stories and settled on the instantly recognisable name of Robin Hood as the woodsman. The dramatic exploits of well-known figures would have been interwoven into these stories with considerable embellishment. William of Kensham not only embodies and reconciles the folk hero/outlaw paradox, but he also presents a real man fighting loyally for the crown against what the propaganda of the day depicted as an unjust foe – while all the time hiding deep in the forest with his band of bowmen.

Sean McGlynn is a lecturer in history for the University of Plymouth at Strode College



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