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Robin Hood is one of England’s enduring legendary heroes. Deprived of his rightful inheritance and outlawed, Robert of Locksley (or Loxley) shelters in the King’s forest of Sherwood, where he assumes natural leadership over the vagabonds and other outlaws in hiding there, all victims of medieval England’s harsh laws and brutal penalties for infringement. Robert becomes Robin Hood, dresses his men uniformly all in Lincoln Green and ensures they are well-organised. Each one, but Robin especially, is an excellent fighter and expert in England’s terror-weapon, the longbow. Loyal to the true King, Richard the Lionheart, who is away in the Holy Land fighting the heathens, the particular enemy of Robin Hood and his Merry Men is Richard’s wicked brother, John – and of course the evil but incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham. Along the way, they are romantically joined by all the other principal characters, such as Little John, Friar Tuck and, naturally, Maid Marion. Robin’s Merry Men (and women) live off the fruits of the forest, hunting the King’s deer, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. At the end, Robin is bled to death by the wicked prioress of Kirklees and buried by Little John where his last arrow fell.
However, Robin Hood is historically illusive. Do we believe the traditional Nottingham stories, which would put him somewhere in the late 12th/early 13th centuries? Some believe he was Robert Hode, an early 14th century outlaw of Barnsdale, near Wakefield in south Yorkshire. Could he be based on a much earlier, shadowy, mythical figure, a Green Man of the forest; or perhaps an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter? Was he a single real person, or a composite of many? Did he exist at all? Was Olde Merrie Englande really the kind of place where you’d be happy to camp in a forest that was often cold and damp, always fearful of discovery, scraping a primitive living and subject to every discomfort and ailment on offer, from a nasty cold to the plague?
Personally, I don’t think we should allow the inconvenience of historical accuracy to spoil our enjoyment of the romantic legend. Clearly, several film producers agree. I don’t know how many screen appearances Robin Hood has had, but it has been at least fifty and some of them have been real shockers. In that regard, it would be hard to beat the atrocious 2010 film starring Russell Crowe and the fragrant Cate Blanchett. We might recall Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, John Cleese, Kevin Costener and a cartoon fox more fondly. But here’s the thing: somehow, somewhere, centuries ago, the tales started, were spread by poets and singers of ballads and have been with us for about 700 years. Not only that, but Robin Hood place names crop up all over England – mostly in the East Midland counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and in south Yorkshire.
These include Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster. If you’re trying to track down our mythical hero, though, it won’t be among the package tourists and airliners. Where better place to start than in his ancestral home of Sherwood Forest? This was a royal hunting ground in medieval times and boasts the Major Oak. This massive oak tree, with a girth of about 36 feet (12 metres) and a spread of 92 feet (28 metres), is reckoned to be about 800 – or even 1,000 – years old. It was here, so they say, that Robin and his Merry Men would sit down to a cheery supper under the greenwood tree, quaffing ale, telling tales, slapping each other manfully on the back and gaily enjoying a jolly jape. Up the road used to be Robin Hood’s Larder, also known as the shambles oak, a large hollow tree where the outlaws were said to hang their venison. This has long gone, but the Major Oak is still just about with us, its ponderous, almost sacred, old branches propped with steel poles. There is actually nothing – not even a little carved cupid’s heart inscribed “Robin + Marion 4evah” – to associate the Major Oak with Robin Hood, apart from its location. Of course, it would have been a little smaller in Robin’s day – possibly no more than a sturdy young sapling with a twinkle in its eye. So if anyone’s daft enough to believe this tree is anything other than a bit of tourist propaganda, sell them an acorn in a gift-box. It’s still worth seeing, though.
The tree is actually named after a local historian, Major Hayman Rooke, and has had other names in its long life, including the Queen’s Oak – presumably in reference to its majesty. At one time, it was a site for cockfighting. Now it is the chief attraction within the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve, allegedly receiving about half a million visitors a year who come from all over the world in search of Robin Hood. Nottinghamshire County Council has done a pretty good job, showcasing the forest as it might have been in past centuries, when outlaws may well have hidden amongst its trees and met in its glades. Now, there are waymarked walks and various initiatives to preserve wildlife. They have gone to a lot of trouble with a visitor centre, a suitably rustic-looking complex which includes a nice little exhibition, a couple of souvenir shops and a café. The shops sell items ranging from the lowest kind of tat to some reasonable gifts and interesting books. The café has dodgy décor and its staff seem keen to be elsewhere but, unlike Marion and Robin, at least you don’t have to hide behind a convenient bush when you need the loo. (Since writing this article, the Visitor Centre has received a make-over; maybe the staff have too).
Ten minutes walk away, across a cricket pitch, is the pleasant village of Edwinstowe – named for the 7th century Saxon King of Northumbria who was buried there. The 12th century church of St Mary’s is traditionally where Robin and Marion were married, under the arch of the doorway. Mind you, I’m sure I’ve heard they tied the knot at other places too.
Twenty miles down the road is the City of Nottingham, an ancient Saxon settlement where our folk hero is so celebrated that even the busmen’s uniforms used to be Lincoln Green. I don’t know if they still are, but I’d be prepared to make a small wager that some of them wear tights. At one time, Robin Hood was the logo of a now defunct local brewery, Home Ales. Medieval Nottingham was a significant place, which allegedly harboured the notorious sheriff and which we are told Robin visited several times, on one occasion selling cut-price meat at the Hen Cross whilst disguised as a market wife. A few yards from the 12th century inn, The Olde Trip to Jerusalem, where pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land are reputed to have rested, you’ll find a 7 foot brass statue of Robin Hood in the shadow of the old castle walls. There’s not much left of Nottingham’s medieval castle now and, modelled on what sculptor James Wood thought a stocky, muscled, medieval archer might have looked like, you might find the statue doesn’t fit your image of the man. It was unveiled, along with effigies of other characters nearby, in 1952 and it’s a pleasant spot – certainly a ‘must do’ if you’re on the trail; there’s normally a small queue for photographs. Occasionally, Robin’s arrow, or even parts of his bow, go missing; it is customary to blame students, but my money is on Yorkshire terrorists.
The many variations of the Robin Hood legend all have the ingredients essential for the very best stories: goodies and baddies, right versus wrong, excitement, humour – and romance. Like Superman, Batman and other latter-day super heroes, there is an element of mystery and hidden identity, and the weak are always looked after. Robin Hood has other attributes, though: he is highly intelligent, often anti-establishment and he is very fond of pricking pomposity. Not only does Robin fight for justice against tyranny; he does so from the wrong side of the law. He is happy to take on the might of institutions like the church and government when they are corrupt – and he is absolutely delighted to humiliate bullies. The sheriff (or ‘shire reeve’) in medieval England was not the loveable law enforcer of westerns, but the local judge and tax collector; everyone’s favourite person to hate and fear. Maybe Robin Hood is the world’s most famous outlaw because, down through all the centuries, he has been the people’s hero that everyone secretly wants to be.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Sherwood Forest. You’ll also find details for Nottingham Castle and The Olde Trip to Jerusalem.