Robin Hood…mutilates the face with “an Irish knife” and then “He took Sir Guy’s head by the hair / And stuck it on the end of his bow.”
Many years ago, I planned to write a graphic novella about Robin Hood, combining my own research and speculation with material from the early recorded stories. This is probably why ROBIN HOOD: A TRUE LEGEND by Sean McGlynn caught my eye. When I was little, I stood inside the Major Oak, a vast thousand-year-old oak tree in Sherwood which, according to folklore, was the shelter for Robin and his men. It’s supposedly the biggest oak tree in Britain, and probably the only one that could provide cover for the Merry Men, who were said to have been 140 in number.
They were, of course, not that merry:
When Robin’s men hear of his capture, Little John takes charge and seeks revenge against the monk; on finding him he “Struck off the monk’s head”. This is standard fare for a medieval tale, but more shocking is that John’s companion also decapitates the monk’s young page who is accompanying the monk.
In 1416 and 1417, a royal writ was issued twice for the capture of a gang leader going under the nom de guerre of Friar Tuck. His armed gang was causing havoc in the forests and parks of Sussex and Surrey; game was stolen and the dwellings of foresters and warreners (servants of the crown) burned down. The friar was never caught, but his name was revealed in a pardon of 1429 as Robert Stafford, a chaplain of Sussex.
Robin being a diminutive of Robert at the time.
This slim, amusing book is a synthesis of other people’s research, but that’s not always a bad thing. Being able to put discoveries and suppositions side by side is useful. I will warn you now that the editing of the text is questionable in places – if that bothers you, then a few moments will make you nuts. It doesn’t bother me.
The book brought me details on names I knew but had never really looked into, like:
Eustace the Monk is one of the most colourful characters of the entire Middle Ages. A flavour of his life can be summed up by the title of a popular talk I regularly give on him and of a forthcoming book I am writing: Eustace the Farting, Foul-Mouthed, Cross-Dressing Monk and Notorious Medieval Pirate. But even this does not do him justice.
(Add “necromancer” to that.) But these are side snacks in pursuit of the source and breadth of the Robin Hood legend, and how the name “Robin Hood” was used:
In 1441 in Norfolk, we encounter a gang of yeomen and labourers who set themselves up on a road to attack travellers, vowing to kill a local member of the gentry. Their chant was: “We are Robynhodesmen – war, war, war!”
Norfolk is a goodly ways south from Sherwood Forest. Or Barnsdale Wood, the other contender for Robin Hood’s patch. They knew him further north, too, into Scotland – where they also knew Little John, in separate stories. And, from sorting all this material together, one of the author’s points is this:
...the most famous characters – Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and probably Little John – are all likely to have originated in stories of their own.
The fusing of different characters with their own separate traditions in this manner was a common medieval practice.
A modern way to understand this is to consider the remarkable ongoing cinematic successes of American comic book superheroes. In 1963 Marvel Comics initiated the Avenger series by bringing together a group of superheroes who were already established in their own comics: Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man and the Incredible Hulk...
The Robin Hood legend as we know it may in fact be a team-up.
Anyway, the author takes us through an enjoyable little tour of what we know about Robin Hood and the various possible sources of the legend, before landing on a name I didn’t know, which the author taps as the true root of the Robin Hood story.
William of Cassingham, also William of Kensham, also Willikin of the Weald. The Weald is in the south of England – where the surname Robinhood was most prevalent — but the king he was loyal to was based in Nottingham. As McGlynn notes:
As one of the leading commanders of the resistance, and one of the few actually named in the sources, William would have been known in Nottingham. The propaganda value of his exploits would have been invaluable
I haven’t actually spoiled the book by mentioning this, I don’t think — it’s not a cliffhanger, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what Sean McGlynn presents here, and, in unrolling the tale of Willikin of the Weald, it’s amusing to see previously mentioned real characters show up.
Anyway. Poorly edited, to be sure, but educational and a great deal of fun. I can see myself reading it again with notebook in hand, to follow up on many and various threads. Who knows, this may actually goad me into finally writing that graphic novella after all.
ROBIN HOOD: A TRUE LEGEND, Sean McGlynn