ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, March 1998


Judy Cox

Robin Hood: Earl, Outlaw or Rebel?


From International Socialism 2:78, March 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Robin Hood is easily the most enduringly popular of all the legendary heroes of the past. He makes his first appearance in literature as far back as 1377 in a poem called Piers Plowman, where the character called Sloth says:

I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it.
But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, earl of Chester

(I Kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the Priest it syngeth,
But I kan rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre.) [1]

Medieval minstrels sang tales of Robin Hood across the length and breadth of Britain. In Tudor England Robin led the tremendously popular May Games and the oral tradition of ballads about him remained very popular. He pops up in Shakespeare’s plays, and his was the name adopted by radical candidates in elections which preceded the English Revolution. Robin was a character in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and he also scaled the literary heights, making appearances in poems by Keats and Tennyson.

In the 20th century he has been played by the most charismatic of screen idols, Douglas Fairbanks Senior and Errol Flynn and, more recently, by the somewhat less charismatic Kevin Costner. Robin has made an effortless transition to television, with several programmes such as the popular 1980s series, Robin of Sherwood, and the ongoing feminist children’s programme, Maid Marion and her Merry Men.

Few of the other heroes of the past have survived to be household names into the 21st century. Who today tells tales of Hereward the Wake, scourge of the Norman invaders, or Eustace the Monk, soldier of fortune, or Fulk fitz Warin, a Welsh warrior who took up arms against King John? [2] In comparison with Robin, even King Arthur has faded into the mists of time. What, then, is the secret of Robin’s phenomenal success? Was he a nobleman reforming the worst excesses of the system, then becoming reconciled with the King and the established order, a truly British hero? Is he the representative of a supra-historical yearning for an idyllic rural past, where the sun always shone, as the heritage industry would have us believe? Or is he a symbol of resistance to tyranny, whose legend has endured because in every age people have sought ways to oppose the oppression they faced? [3]

Noble outlaw or outlawed noble?

For many people the archetypal Robin Hood is the character played by Erroll Flynn in the 1938 film. He is a wronged nobleman who challenges the tyranny of bad King John and is restored to his rightful position, his lands and his lover by good King Richard, who returns from the crusades in the nick of time. However, this widely accepted tale of Robin has little in common with the Robin Hood legend in its earlier years. One of the earliest elements of the legend is a series of ballads, probably written between 1400 and 1500, which established many lasting features of the Robin Hood story, such as wicked sheriffs, gallows rescues, cunning disguises and archery contests. Today these are familiar as the stuff of children’s cartoons, but these ballads were written from the perspective of poor farmers and artisans. [4] The simple, often extremely violent stories give a sense of opposition between the natural social order of the outlaws in the forest and the new relationships associated with the developing towns, with their legal restrictions, acquisitiveness and prisons.

In one of the earliest ballads, Robin Hood and the Monk, there is a sense that the solidarity of the outlaws and the freedom of the forests provide security against the alien, corrupting forces of organised religion and the legal system. Another early ballad, Robin and the Potter, reveals the monetary edge to the restrictions of the town, which one historian has interpreted as expressing artisans’ dislike of producing artefacts for the market, ‘an early vision of alienated labour’. [5] Historian Stephen Knight provides an insight into the early popularity of the Robin Hood ballads: ‘The semi-mythical sense of resistance and opposition to the ‘statutory’ forces of state, church and emergent mercantilism seems deeply embedded in these tales and references, and they are a major mode of opposing those forces in the cultural consciousness of the late medieval period’. [6] Seen in this context, many familiar themes of the Robin Hood stories gain a new dimension. For example, the theme of disguise, often as a state or church official, has a sense of undermining authority that has radical potential, as does the theme of liberating those imprisoned and condemned by the state, or the rescue of women forced into marriages against their will.

It seems likely that the ballads were sung to audiences of common people, yeomen and artisans. For example, in the later ballads there are several ‘Robin Meets his Match’ storylines. Various artisans, such as potters, butchers, and tanners, all give Robin a thrashing before being accepted by the outlaws. Historians Dobson and Taylor have associated the proliferation of fighting artisans with the growth in importance and self consciousness of tradesmen in this period, as if each trade sooner or later fits itself into a Robin Hood ballad, or a crowd pleasing minstrel does it for them.

The most famous of all the early ballads, A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood, was so popular it was reprinted seven times by the mid-15th century. In the Gest there are many traditional features and characters of the legend, but Robin does not give what he acquires to the poor, in fact the only charity he shows is to a poor knight. Many historians have used this to dismiss the radical edge of the early legend. [7] However, it can also be argued that the Gest echoes the values of a feudal world where actual money meant little because, in feudal terms, ‘use value rather than cash nexus’, taking people in, giving them protection, food, clothing, would have been seen as more beneficial than a cash prize. [8] Another historian has compared the Gest’s sympathy for the knight with the ideas expressed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where rebels retained their allegiance to the crown and to the idea of a true religion, however violent their hatred for the king’s courtiers, churchmen and other agents of what they felt to be an unfairly oppressive state. [9] On this basis the relatively sympathetic portrayal of the knight is compatible with a rebellious attitude towards the ruling order in general.

In addition, the Gest provides evidence that opposition to oppression was central to the early legend. At the beginning of the Gest, Little John asks Robin for instructions and Robin replies that he must be good to the poor and to knights and squires that ‘will be good fellows’ but bishops and archbishops must be beaten on sight and the sheriff is the ultimate target:

But see you do no farmer harm,
that tills with his plough.
Neither the good yeoman
that walks by the greenwood shade:
Nor no knight or Squire
that will be a good fellow.

But these bishops and these archbishops,
You shall beat and bind,
And the high sherriff of Nottingham
Keep him on your mind.

(But loke ye do no Husbonde harme,
that tilleth with his ploughe.
No more ye shall no gode yeoman
That walketh by the grene-wode shawe:
Ne no knyght, ne no squyer
That wol be a gode felawe.

But, thesse Bishoppes and these Archbishoppes
You shall them bete and bynd
The Hye sherif of Notyingham
Hym holde ye in your mynde.)

As Knight points out, ‘The Gest, after all, advocates massive theft from the church, civic insurrection against and murder of a properly appointed Sheriff, breach of legitimate agreement with a King.’ It is ‘a story with much potency among people who experience institutionalised oppression and therefore require the relief of fictional forms of dissent’. [10] The Robin Hood ballads were a major focus for the idea that oppressive authorities can be resisted, even if this usually remained an aspiration rather than an active opposition.

The tradition of the ballads was, therefore, a very powerful one. ‘For centuries Robin Hood was a symbol of independence, of resistance to authority in church or state. This concept is central to the whole saga and particularly prominent in the early ballads’. [11] However, the association of Robin Hood with the aspirations of the oppressed was not limited to the ballads. In the 1440s Walter Bower wrote Scotichronicon, a history of Scotland and England. The book contains this passage about the year 1296: ‘Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the dispossessed, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedy and comedy’. [12] Two centuries later in 1640 during elections in Somerset for what turned out to be the Short Parliament, an opposition group known as ‘Robins’ and ‘Little Johns’ stood a candidate to whom they referred as Robin Hood. [13]

However, even before the Restoration, Robin had begun a process of gentrification. Firstly Robin ‘being of base stock was advanced to the noble dignity of an Earl’ and then he later acquired an inherited peerage. [14] Representative of this process were two influential plays by Andrew Munday, the Downfall of and Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, written in 1598. One possible reason for Munday’s granting Robin nobility may have been that the success of his play depended on the patronage of the court who liked to see themselves cast in heroic mode. Christopher Hill suggests that the impact of Munday’s play was such that ‘from the early 17th century the "tales of Robin Hood" came to be regarded as plebeian, perhaps in reaction to the attempt of Munday and others to make him a peer’. [15] The political significance of the character of Robin Hood must have certainly come into sharper focus in the 1590s, years of famine and social unease which laid the basis for Shakespeare’s most political play, Coriolanus.

However, the attempt to upgrade Robin socially was concerted and sustained and probably reflected more long term social changes. In the early 16th century the crown tightened the royal forest laws which brought the king into conflict not only with servants, paupers and beggars but with the aristocracy and the gentry. As the crown attempted to impose its claim to ownership of the forests and the animals living in them it came into conflict with traditional ways of living both among the poor and the landed gentry. The gentrification of Robin could have reflected the fact that sections of the propertied classes were in conflict with the crown. There was ‘open warfare over hunting rights, often in gangs led by gentlemen against peers or the crown. Aristocratic and gentry feuds were an inescapable part of the social and political scene in Tudor and early Stuart England ...’ [16]

Whatever the direct cause, many Robin Hood stories of the time show the process of gentrification, and their authors appear anxious not to enhance the status of secular heroes from among the common people. Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood, 1632, describes itself as ‘A briefe touch of the life and death of that Renowned outlaw, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, vulgarly called Robbin Hood who lived and died in 1198’. Some went to great pains to ‘prove’ Robin’s noble birth. In 1795 Dr William Stukeley, Lincolnshire antiquary and fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, provided the fictitious earl with a spurious pedigree of Norman nobles, descended from Robert Fitz Ooth who died in 1274, a fiction which was repeated by many and became an accepted part of the tale of Robin Hood.

However, even as the ennoblement of Robin was in full swing, it proved to be impossible to completely separate him from his popular origins. In fact, though his image was cleaned up a bit, he did become a purely aristocratic hero. In fact, he evolved into the archetypal ‘social bandit’, as Eric Hobsbawm has described it, a noble robber hated by tyrants and authority, but loved and protected by the people. [17] Thus despite Robin’s social elevation, Martin Parker acknowledges that he remained a scourge of the rich:

But were he knew a miser rich
The poor did oppresse
To feel his coyne his hand did itch
He’d have it more or less.

While Dr Stukeley was inventing his noble hero, new generations of radical writers were discovering that the story of Robin Hood could provide a means of expressing political opposition to the established order. Joseph Ritson’s famous life of Robin Hood was written in 1795, against the backdrop of political and industrial revolution. Initially it was published as two volumes, then as one volume in 1824 which was reprinted throughout the 19th century. The 1824 version of Ritson’s Robin Hood has recently been reprinted in two beautiful volumes, which includes A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood, Martin Parker’s Life of Robin Hood, and the early ballads discussed above. Unfortunately, the price puts the book outside most people’s reach, which is a great shame as the book is fascinating itself and played an important part in the development of the legend. Although Ritson was not the first collector of the Robin Hood stories, his contribution was unique in two ways:

He was the first collector to be a convinced radical, an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for Tom Paine’s insistence on the Rights of Man; and secondly he was the first major collector to work in a period when, for reasons of rapid social change, many of those who reflected on events and values were interested in looking back to contrast the turbulent present against what had gone before, whether it was imaginary, real or a mixture of the two. At such a time, when overt political dissent was highly dangerous, a story from the past like that of Robin Hood was a suitable medium to convey feelings of a more or less critical character. [18]

Ironically, given his radical views, Ritson followed earlier work in asserting that Robin was the noble Robert Fitz Ooth, Earl of Huntingdon, born 1160. However, Ritson had no doubt as to the radical potential of the story. Ritson’s Robin was:

a man, who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. [19]

Ritson showed his republican stance by demanding, ‘What better title King Richard could pretend to the territory and people of England than Robin Hood had to the dominion of Barnsdale or Sherwood is a question humbly submitted to the consideration of the political philosopher’. [20]

During the 19th century, as the question of building and reinforcing nationalism become important for the British ruling class, Robin Hood was enlisted in this cause, which was doubly ironic considering his histories as a common thief or a wronged Norman lord. Walter Scott involved Robin, albeit on the sidelines, in his nationalist novel, Ivanhoe. In the political polarisation which followed the French Revolution, Scott drew ideological support from an arch-opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, to create his story of sturdy Saxons opposing the tyranny of their Norman conquerors. It was, however, writers from the other side of the political divide who found themselves turning to Robin Hood in greater numbers.

In fact, in the turbulent years of the early 19th century, the Robin Hood legend increased its fascination for radical writers. In 1817, encouraged by a reprint of Ritson’s book and politically stirred up by several high profile sedition cases against radicals, the ‘war of the intellectuals’ took place when John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, Walter Scott and Robert Southey all started work on versions of Robin Hood’s story. Keats’s poem, To JHR in Answer to his Robin Hood Sonnets, was probably the most successful of these efforts. It expressed Keats’s revulsion at industrialisation and the impact of the cash nexus on direct sensual relations between humans and their natural productivity, as can be seen from this extract:

And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep and he would craze.
He would swear, for all his oaks
fallen beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas.
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her - strange that honey
Can’t be got without hard money.

Thus, in the 19th century, while writers such as Scott were recasting Robin as a symbol of British nationalism, others were refashioning him in his more traditional role as an opponent of the establishment. Another example of this was Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marion, written in 1822. Maid Marion satirised the ‘growing use of medieval material as a conservative manoeuvre, nostalgia for feudalism and mystique of monarchy’. [21] Tales of Robin Hood certainly retained their popularity with the mass of ordinary people. In 1840 Pierce Egan the Younger, author of a play called Wat Tyler, wrote Robin Hood and Little John: or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, which was produced in 41 instalments of a ‘penny dreadful’, and sold ‘hundreds of thousands’ of copies, a modern echo of the phenomenal success of the medieval ballads.

It was towards the end of the 19th century that the heritage industry began to develop: the Tate Gallery was opened in 1897, the National Trust established in 1895. Heritage was ‘anti-urban, anti-modern and in some sense anti-democratic’. It ‘replaced religion for many as a value’. [22] The ever popular Robin was a perfect candidate to become a symbol of an idyllic British past. Even today Nottinghamshire County Council promotes Robin Hood, along with what remains of Sherwood Forest, as very marketable symbols of our harmonious past.

By the 16th century the idea of poor, rural, freedom as opposed to urban, propertied, restrictions was well established. This was a strong theme in the 16th century Robin Hood ballads, and in 17th century plays such as Richard Brome’s A Jovial Crew, written in 1641. As the enforced enclosures of the common land and the superseding of old protective customs by new laws grew in pace, the newly destitute joined the droves of beggars and vagabonds who had always populated the countryside. It was possible for a bonded peasant or wage labourer to look with envy on those who dispensed with all social ties and responsibilities and lived in liberty in the forests.

As well as embodying this image of rural liberty, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Maid Matilda or Marian, were central characters in the May Games which were a very popular rural custom, traditionally encouraged by the wealthy landowners. They were festivals in which people dressed up, drank and danced and demanded money for the church or charity. For example, in 1607 churchwardens in St Cuthbert’s parish, needed money to repair a bell so they held a ‘church ale’ with a procession involving not only Robin Hood, but also Noah and his ark, St George and his dragon, the Sultan of Egypt, morris dancers and giants. [23] Historian David Underdown has described how in the mid-15th century the May Games were part of a very rich tradition of religious plays, civic processions and pageantry: ‘In Cornwall and other counties miracle plays still flourished, and even the small Somerset village of Croscombe could promote an annual cycle of plays and revels, complete with Robin Hood and folk heroes’. [24]

However, the May Games also embodied a potential undermining of traditional authority and created the conditions for unlicensed sexual behaviour. A Scottish historian, John Major, wrote in 1551 that the May celebrations were ‘kept in a tavern, not a church, in such intemperance of eating and drinking as is the enemy of chastity, in dances and lewd songs that are equally her foe’. [25] In 1549 Bishop Hugh Latimer referred to a visit he made to a town where the church stood empty on a Sunday because, he was told, ‘it is Robin Hoode’s day. The parishe are gone abroad to gather for Robyn Hoode’. [26]

The establishment was increasingly concerned by the general freedom for the sexes to mingle, drink and dance together provided by the May Games. By the early 17th century Puritan writers and preachers thundered with increasing ferocity against what remained of the ‘heathenish’ and popish revellings. [27] However, as David Underdown has noted, ‘the concern for order was not unique to Puritans, but was a product of the widening gulf between the substantial people ‘of credit and reputation’ and the disorderly poor’. [28] The growing, centralising state of the period became increasingly hostile to the Games. Christopher Hill explains why: ‘The games also offered open defiance to authority, an alternative to the rule of gentry, freemen of boroughs and the hierarchy of the church.’ The symbolic radicalism in the May rituals, the character of Robin Hood and the enforced collection of money, could easily spill over into more overt gestures of rebellion. In 1439 Sir Piers Venables of Tutbury and his gang rescued a friend from the Sheriff:

In manner of war, riot, rout and insurrection arrayed with force and arms and made a rescue, and took away the said John Forman with them ... in manner of insurrection, went into the woods in that country, as if they were Robin Hood and his men; and now they come at different times to Scropton.

(In manere of werre, riote, route and insurrection arriaed with force and armes and made a rscours, and toke awey the saide John Forman for theyme ... in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that contre, like as it hadde be Robyn hode and meyne; and so after that tyme they come diverse tymes withinne the fraunchise atte Scropton forsaide.) [29]

At Southacre, in Norfolk, in 1441, a group of over enthusiastic revellers blocked the road singing, ‘We arn Robynhodesmen, war war war,’ and threatening to murder a certain Sir Geoffrey Harsyk. In 1498 there were the beginnings of a Robin Hood riot, when a group gathered to rescue two men arrested for assault. Roger Marshall of Westbury, Staffordshire, defended himself in the Star Chamber on the charge of leading riotous assembly to Willenhall under the name of Robin Hood. [30]

Given these events it is not surprising that in 1555 the Scottish parliament banned any annual celebrations involving Robin, Little John, the Abbot of Unreason or the Queen of the May. Anyone involved in choosing such characters could face five years imprisonment, and anyone chosen to play the parts faced exile. However, banning the Games did not put an end to them. John Knox in his 1561 history wrote that in Edinburgh apprentices and craftsmen gathered ‘efter the auld wikket manner of Robyn Hoode’ and then ‘the rascal Multitude were stirred-up to make a Robin-Hood, which enormity was of many years left off and condemned by Statute and Act of Parliament; yet would they not be forbidden, but would disobey and trouble the Town’. [31]

This tradition of festivals, with which Robin was so identified, died out in the century following the Restoration, with the expansion of towns, the growth of the urban middle classes and more strictly polarised rural communities. This was not however, before poor Robin was enlisted by the ruling class to the service of the crown, which was desperately trying to re-establish its authority after the Restoration:

Robin Hood, for centuries a symbol of popular independence and resistance to authority, was quickly pressed into service. As part of the Coronation celebration at Nottingham in 1661 a short play was enacted in which Robin’s traditional loyalty to King Richard was carefully exaggerated ... [32]

There is, after all, a centuries old tradition of Robin Hood in his forest haven, garlanded with flowers, dressed in green, as Shakespeare described the forest of Arden in As You Like It: ‘there they live like the old Robin Hood of England; they say many young gentlemen flock to him every day and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’ However, the real tradition was never a simple celebration of rural life. The legend was so enduring precisely because it evolved to express the popular responses to successive social changes. Eric Hobsbawm argues that the archetypal social bandit of which Robin is the most famous, is a phenomenon which ‘seems to occur in all types of human society which lie between the evolutionary phase of tribal and kinship organisation, and modern capitalist and industrial society’, and is especially widespread during the transition to agrarian capitalism. [33] The Robin Hood legend was rooted in the widespread desire for liberty amongst the poor, a desire which was rooted in the oppressions of medieval life, and intensified by the social changes of the 16th and 17th century, the brutal enclosures of the land, civil war and encroachment of the market. Another aspect of the social banditry legend was the idea of the primitive redistribution of wealth, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, which was central to Robin’s legend in all its different guises.

’Many talk of Robin Hood who never shot his bow’

Most research into the legend of Robin Hood has focused on finding the ‘real’ Robin. In this respect the work of the academics differs little from the work of amateur local historians across Britain. Sadly, as techniques have developed, so successive theories as to the identity of the ‘real’ Robin have been discredited. One of the first historians to suffer this fate was Joseph Hunter, who published an account of the life of Robin Hood in 1852. He had apparently found evidence which fitted with the narrative of the Lytell Gest. In the Gest Robin is an outlaw in Barnsdale, near Doncaster, who is reconciled with ‘comely King Edward’ when the King visits Yorkshire. In the Gest Robin joins the King’s service, then becomes bored and returns to the forest. Hunter found that a Robert Hood lived in Wakefield up to 1317, and that he disappeared from all records as he would if he were outlawed (or, more typically, dead). Edward II did travel to Yorkshire in 1323 and a Robyn Hode was in his service in March 1324, then left in November of the same year. Sadly, ultraviolet light has revealed that this Robyn Hode was in the king’s service in July 1323, before the king went north, and so the case was already disproved before more research revealed that the Robin Hood legend was in full swing well before these dates. [34]

The first recorded criminal named after the legend of Robin Hood, appears in the King’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll for Berkshire in 1262, which shows that the prior of Sandleford seized the goods of William Robehod, fugitive. By the slimmest chance this record can be matched with the Roll of the Justices for same area. This shows that William, son of Robert Le Fevre, is indicted with two other men and two women for forming a criminal gang of armed robbers. What these records show is that someone changed William’s name to ‘Robehod’ because he was an outlaw. This indicates that the legend of Robin Hood was already going strong in 1262. [35]

This means that the most likely candidates for a ‘real’ Robin must have lived before that date. One possibility was discovered by L.V.D. Owen in 1936. Owen’s candidate makes his first appearance at assizes in York at Michaelmas in 1226. Here, records show that income included 32s 6d for the chattels of Robert Hod, fugitive. The following year when the name appears again it is written in a more colloquial form, as Hobbehod. [36] However, this is not the first recorded Robin Hood who is an outlaw. Between 1213 and 1216 a Robert Hood, servant of the Abbott of Cirencester, killed Ralph of Cirencester in Cirencester. All this suggests that any attempts to identify the ‘real’ Robin are very rash as new, earlier candidates will almost inevitably be revealed by new research.

If locating the ‘real’ Robin is a hopeless task, then claiming him for one locality is equally difficult. The history of searching for Robin has revealed that the legend was spread right around Britain throughout the 13th and 14th centuries (by 1438 a ship called Robin Hood was registered as far away as Aberdeen):

A pattern begins to emerge of a figure whose functions are found right through Britain, with local occurrences of no clearly rationalised distribution, and no more than a slight concentration in the North Midlands ... Whereas the early ballads appear to link with the small towns developing through craft and mercantilism of central and northern England, the plays are recorded as far away as Exeter and Falkirk, all by 1500. [37]

Given the obvious state of communications in medieval England, this speedy development of the legend points to an amazing popularity from the very beginning. While we cannot know the exact circumstances behind this, we can hazard a guess based on what we do know of early medieval England. Firstly, this was a society racked from top to bottom by violence and repression, a society in which the majority of people were not free and spent their lives toiling on the land. The peasants lived next to royal forests literally teaming with food, where the penalty for poaching was torture and death. This was an era of frequent rebellions, of outlaws fighting wars with the King’s armies, an era where becoming an outlaw or choosing the life of a beggar was the only chance of freedom.

Under these conditions, it becomes easier to see the appeal of a hero who not only escapes to freedom and a life of ease, but also returns to protect the weak and take revenge on tyrants. This is why Robin Hood and all the social bandits who succeeded him were so popular. He was a ‘righter of wrongs, the bringer of justice and social equity’, a robber who steals from the rich to give to the poor, kills only in self defence or justified revenge and can only be defeated by betrayal:

Social banditry of this kind in one of the most universal social phenomena known to history, and one of the most amazingly uniform ... this uniformity is not the consequence of cultural diffusion, but the reflection of similar situations within peasant societies, whether in China, Peru, Sicily, the Ukraine or Indonesia. Geographically it is found throughout the Americas, Europe, the Islamic world, South and East Asia and even Australia ... Otherwise social banditry is universally found, wherever societies are based on agriculture, and consist largely of peasants and landless labourers, ruled, oppressed and exploited by someone else – lords, towns, governments, lawyers or even banks. [38]

This is the real heart of the Robin Hood legend. Wherever people are oppressed and beaten down by tyrants, but without the means to fight back on their own behalf, they will dream of an avenging hero, one of the people, but with the freedom, courage, and ability to right their wrongs on their behalf. Robin’s story has endured because he represents an unquenchable desire for a better society, a desire which down the centuries has adapted in form but not in content: the violent yeoman standing up against the bishops in the ballads; the unruly Robin of the May Games with his challenges to the authority of the church and state; Ritson’s radical Robin; Keats’s poignant symbol of hostility to capitalist society; Errol Flynn’s anti-Nazi Robin [39] and the 1950s TV series starring sturdy Richard Greene, and written by Ring Lardner Jr and Ian McLellan, who were blacklisted in McCarthyite witchhunts.

Whether myth or legend, Robin is the embodiment of the aspirations of thousands throughout the centuries. He was a symbol of freedom when the majority lived in serfdom, an enforcer of natural justice when most were powerless in the face of tyranny, and hero to revenge the inequality suffered by the poor. Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant book on social bandits sums up the case for Robin Hood with the following quotations and statement:

‘Man has an insatiable longing for justice. In his soul he rebels against a social order which denies it to him and whatever the world he lives in, he accuses either that social order or the entire material universe of injustice. Man is filled with a strange, stubborn urge to remember, to think things out and to change things; and in addition he carries within himself the wish to have what he cannot have - if only in the form of a fairy tale. That is perhaps the basis for the heroic sagas of all ages, all religions, all peoples and all classes.’

Including ours. That is why Robin Hood is our hero too, and will remain so. [40]


1. Quoted in J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames and Hudson 1991), p. 16.

2. For more about these latter day heroes, see ibid., pp. 62–66.

3. Ibid., p. 10.

4. Ibid., ch. 3.

5. S. Knight, Robin Hood: a Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Blackwells 1994), p. 56.

6. Ibid., p. 60.

7. J.C. Holt, op. cit., p. 110.

8. S. Knight, op. cit., p. 79.

9. Ibid., p. 80.

10. Ibid., p. 81.

11. C. Hill, Liberty against the Law (Penguin Press 1996), p. 76.

12. J.C. Holt, op. cit., p. 40.

13. C. Hill, op. cit., p. 77.

14. Ibid., p. 77.

15. Ibid., p. 75.

16. Ibid., p. 87.

17. E.J. Hobsbawm, Bandits (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1969).

18. S. Knight, op. cit., p. 154.

19. J. Ritson, Robin Hood (Routledge 1997), p. xi.

20. Ibid., p. v.

21. S. Knight, op. cit., p. 182.

22. Ibid., p. 202.

23. D. Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion (Oxford University Press 1985), p. 55.

24. Ibid., p. 45.

25. J. Cox, Robin Hood: Myth and Reality, Socialist Review 148.

26. S Knight, op. cit., p. 111.

27. D. Underdown, op. cit., p. 47.

28. Ibid., p. 49.

29. J.C. Holt, op. cit., p. 150.

30. S. Knight, op. cit., p. 109.

31. Ibid., p. 109.

32. D. Underdown, op. cit., p. 282.

33. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 14.

34. Ibid., ch. II.

35. Ibid., ch. VIII.

36. Ibid., p. 54.

37. S. Knight, op. cit., p. 29.

38. E.J. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 14.

39. For a discussion of the anti-Nazi imagery of the 1938 film, see S. Knight, op. cit., pp. 227–229.

40. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 115.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 21.4.2012