Robin Hood is known the world over as one of England’s best-loved heroes. His legend has been adapted for the screen, both big and small, at least once in every decade (and often multiple times) since the silent era.
Yet most people know relatively little about the actual story and historical context, and what they do know may be misinformation. To set the record straight, and to explore some interesting details, here are 10 little-known facts about the mythos.
10. We don’t know who he was… or if he even existed
The “real” Robin Hood is thought to have been one Robert Hood, an outlaw operating in the north of England between the 12th and 14th centuries. The only trouble is, there are far too many to choose from—especially when you factor in the variant spellings (Hod, Hode, Hudde, de Huda, etc.). There was a fugitive by the name of Robert “Hobbehod” Hod living in Yorkshire, for example, around the year 1255, and another imprisoned in Rockingham, circa 1354, for “trespass of vert and venison,” i.e. straying into royal hunting grounds. Another Robert de Huda was recorded in 1199 as a deserter from Henry II.
Any one of these (and many others) could have been the “real” Robin Hood. Or none of them. Or even all of them. Some say the name was merely a nom de guerre, a nickname assumed by criminals in general in their efforts to escape the law—in this case derived from the word “robber” and the “hood” that they wore. If true, this doesn’t mean Robin Hood was a myth—just that he was more than one person. And that might explain how “he” became so widely renowned.
9. He didn’t have anything to do with the Crusades
Many adaptations, including the upcoming 2018 movie, associate Robin Hood with the Crusades to the Holy Land. In the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood, as well as the more recent Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, there’s actually a Muslim Saracen warrior among the Merry Men.
But the Crusades context wasn’t added to the Robin Hood mythos until Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe in the 19th century. In fact, Robin Hood doesn’t even appear to have lived during the reign of Richard the Lionheart the crusading king. Certainly the earliest ballads have nothing to do with all that. Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter, for example, were just about duping the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the latter, Robin Hood swaps clothes with a potter and goes to sell pots in the city, where he ends up winning an archery contest against the Sheriff’s men. When asked if he knows Robin Hood, the hero leads the Sheriff to his camp, humiliates him, and steals his shoes before sending him home barefoot.
8. Friar Tuck came along later
Of all the Merry Men, Friar Tuck is undoubtedly the most distinctive. But he wasn’t mentioned in the earliest ballads. Along with Maid Marian, Friar Tuck was introduced to the Robin Hood mythos via traditional May Festival dramatizations, as a stock character for Morris dancers. His name probably refers to his shortened, or “tucked up” robe, no doubt useful for dancing (and fighting).
Interestingly, evidence suggests he was real. Two Royal writs in 1417 called for the arrest of one “Frere Tuk,” an outlaw later revealed (in a 1429 letter) to be Robert Stafford, chaplain of Lindfield in Sussex.
There’s evidence that Little John may have been real too—although it comes from a century earlier. There was a Littel John poaching deer in Yorkshire in 1323, for example, and a John le Litel in 1318, who was part of a band of raiders. Famously a giant of a man, the ironically named Little John became Robin Hood’s chief lieutenant after beating the hero in a duel.
7. Much the Miller’s Son is much-ignored
The lesser-known Merry Men (at least the ones with names) are Will Scarlet, Alan a Dale, and Much the Miller’s Son. Will Scarlet was a background character in the earliest ballads and was originally called Will Scathlock, from Middle English sc(e)afan, meaning “to shave,” and locc, meaning “hair” (in other words referring to a skinhead).
Alan a Dale, meanwhile, wasn’t present in the earliest ballads at all. He was first mentioned in a 17th century tale, in which Robin Hood helps him win back a lover from a wealthy older man. Hence the character is frequently depicted as a romantic and a lover of music—a counterbalance to the masculinity of the others—and was played by Bing Crosby in the musical Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964).
The most prominent of the Merry Men in the ballads is Much the Miller’s Son. Yet he’s often left out of adaptations, including Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) and Ridley Scott’s 2010 blockbuster. Maybe this is because he’s also the least sympathetic character. In the ballad Robin Hood and the Monk, for instance, he’s depicted as a cold-blooded killer who apparently thinks nothing of killing a little boy. Another reason for leaving him out of modern adaptations may be that, unlike the other Merry Men, who each have some defining visual trait or prop (Little John’s great size, Friar Tuck’s robe, Will Scarlet’s red clothes, Alan a Dale’s harp, and Maid Marian’s gender), all we really know about Much is that he was the son of a miller. He doesn’t even have his own origin story. That said, his name is understood to have been a nickname referring to his having “much” wealth, thanks to his father’s profession.
6. The 2018 movie is one of many upcoming releases
Otto Bathurst’s 2018 movie Robin Hood may be the 77th adaptation of the tale (at least going by this incomplete list), but it’s just one of many upcoming reboots. Sony wants to launch a new franchise with their “medieval superhero” movie Robin Hood (previously titled simply Hood because… that’s edgy, we guess?), while Disney plan to use the Pirates of the Caribbean template in producing a Robin Hood of their own. Warner Bros., meanwhile, are reportedly working on their own Robin Hood movie too—also called Hood and helmed by Lilly and Lana Wachowski (though production seems to have stalled on that one).
DreamWorks announced Merry Men more than five years ago, seemingly in response to the popularity of Jack the Giant Slayer and Oz the Great and Powerful, while Sony’s Marian will star Margot Robbie as the love interest in the wake of Robin Hood’s death. There’s also a Robin Hood 2058 in the works, about a dystopian future London and a band of activist thieves, as well as at least two TV series—Nottingham and The Outlaw Chronicles.
5. There’s still a Sheriff of Nottingham
In another early ballad, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin finally kills the Sheriff. Following a prophetic dream of his own capture, the hero meets Sir Guy of Gisborne, who claims to be hunting the outlaw but doesn’t know what he looks like. After fighting and killing Sir Guy, Robin disguises himself in his clothes, cuts off his head, mutilates his face, and delivers it to the Sheriff of Nottingham, declaring it to be the head of Robin Hood. Refusing the reward, however, he demands to fight the imprisoned Little John instead—and when his accomplice is brought out, the two of them kill the Sheriff together.
But the Sheriff got the last laugh. It being an official role in the City of Nottingham, there continues to be a Sheriff to this day. And at the time of writing, the Sheriff is actually a woman. Her role, which lasts for a year, is mostly ceremonial, focused primarily on tourism-related events and openings as opposed to chasing down criminals.
But one of her predecessors, Leon Unczur, took it a little more seriously. He dressed in a black gown with a gold chain—even for unphotographed interviews with print journalists—and when Nottingham set up an urban beach in the city center, he went along to kick over kids’ sandcastles. As he sees it, having “always played the baddie in school plays,” he may have been born for the role. One of his first acts as Sheriff was to grant himself a throne in Nottingham Castle, where he held court while carrying out his duties. He also set up the Sheriff’s Commission to expand his powers from a civil position to more of an ambassadorial role. This allowed him to extract more cash from tourists (although, it should be noted, only from those who could afford it, on a voluntary basis, and for the purpose of investment in the city).
4. Robin Hood’s grave is hidden from the public
According to the earliest ballads (perhaps the most reliable sources we have), Robin Hood was killed by his cousin the Prioress of Kirklees. Under the pretext of bloodletting—a common medical treatment back then—she slashed open one of his veins and allowed him to bleed half to death before her accomplice, Sir Roger of Doncaster (aka Red Roger), finished him off with a sword—though not before Robin dealt a mortal wound in return. As he lay dying, Robin is said to have fired an arrow into the woods and asked Little John to bury him where it landed.
Only the gatehouse of the Priory of Kirklees still stands today, but the woodland nearby is home to Robin Hood’s grave. Ironically, however, you have to trespass across a wealthy landowner’s estate (in other words becoming an outlaw yourself) just to pay respects to the hero. Unlike most British heritage sites, there are no signposts or public footpaths leading to it.
Nowadays the (allegedly haunted) site is in ruin, strewn with broken columns and stone, but it still looks grand and mysterious. If anything, the moss that covers the monument—vibrant green in the light that gets through the trees—only adds to the ancient mystique, evoking images of Robin Hood himself. It’s thought to be a replacement of a much earlier monument that got chipped away to nothing by people who thought it cured toothache. The inscription (presumably copied from the original gravestone, and much easier to understand if you read it aloud) proclaims:
Here Underneath dis laitl Stean
Laz Robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as hi an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris 1247
And while it’s generally thought to be a folly—since ground penetrating radar tests revealed no indication of a burial, let alone the presence of bones—some think his remains lay somewhere undiscovered in the woodland. Unfortunately, there are now controversial plans to build over the area and develop it as an industrial space.
3. Sherwood Forest is threatened by fracking
Even in 1609, centuries after Robin Hood’s earliest mention, Sherwood Forest was more than 20 miles long and eight miles wide, occupying roughly 100,000 acres of Nottinghamshire. It wasn’t all woodland, though. “Forest” was merely a legal designation for an area set aside for the exclusive hunting rights of the king; Sherwood would have comprised open meadows and other terrain in addition to ancient woodland.
And ancient it was. According to pollen records, there has been dense forestry in the area for at least 10,000 years, and many trees there today are several centuries old. The Major Oak Tree, for example, where Robin Hood and his men had their camp, is roughly 1,000 years old and is the biggest in all of Britain, with a girth of 10 meters and a 28-meter spread.
Recently, the fracking company Ineos has been given permission by the British government to carry out seismic surveys in the area, allowing them to detonate explosive charges underground. They assured the public that some of the most ecologically sensitive parts of Sherwood Forest would be left untouched, but as it turns out they were lying. Their work not only threatens wildlife in the area (and, like all fracking, affects people further afield), but it could also pose a significant threat to the ancient Major Oak Tree itself.
2. Robin Hood wasn’t a revolutionary communist
Everybody knows Robin Hood “stole from the rich and gave to the poor” as a kind of proto-communist hero. Indeed, he was co-opted by the Soviets for several 1970s/’80s propaganda films. It’s a common interpretation of the character. According to the director of the 2018 Robin Hood, Otto Bathurst, it makes him more believable.
However, there’s not a great deal in the original ballads to suggest he was a revolutionary at all. While they focused on social issues and classes as opposed to dragons and magic, they give no suggestion that Robin Hood sought to overturn the social system and redistribute wealth to the poor. Rather, he fought to rid the existing social system of corruption—of the King’s over-taxation and the Sheriff’s rampant extortion.
It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an essential one to make—especially as Hollywood gears up to politicize the tale even further with plenty of new adaptations. It’s the difference between seeing Robin Hood as economically liberal or economically conservative—as someone who wanted to punish the wealthy simply because they were wealthy with his own kind of tax on the rich, or as a more conservative figure who stood for libertarian ideals and an end to oppressive taxation. (That’s what conservatives like to think anyway, and they seem to have a point.)
1. Maid Marian may have been black
Before white Irish actress Eve Hewson was cast in the role of Maid Marian for Robin Hood (2018), black actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw was in the running. And people didn’t like it one bit, seeing it as just another example of politically correct revisionism.
But it’s not nearly as anachronistic as it seems. Medieval Europe was far from culturally isolated; in fact, people of color had been living in Britain since at least the time of the Romans. And they weren’t all traders and slaves. King James IV of Scotland had numerous black courtiers who, judging by their gifts of slippers, silks, and pure gold, clearly weren’t slaves or servants. The remains of a noblewoman of African descent were also unearthed in York, and tournaments were frequently held to win the honor of a so-called Black Maiden or Lady. Racism may not even have existed in Britain until it was used to justify colonialism—the enslavement and genocide of dark-skinned natives overseas at the time of the British Empire.
Not only does this mean Maid Marian could have been black, but evidence suggests that she was. There’s an etymological link, for instance, between her name (sometimes given as ‘Murrian,’ or the “Moorish one”) and traditional English ‘Morris dancing’ or “Moorish dancing,” in which participants sometimes wore black-face. Maid Marian actually appears to have originated as a stock character in these dances, alongside Friar Tuck. And Sir Morien, the black knight of Arthurian legend, and the black Saint Maurice, may have related derivations.
In other words, we don’t know that Maid Marian was black, but the evidence suggests that she was. It’s a shame the 2018 movie missed an opportunity to challenge misconceptions.