Who was the real Robin Hood?

Just as Robin Hood eludes the Sheriff of Nottingham, pinning down the folk hero's exact origins challenges scholars.

English painter Edmund George Warren’s 1859 painting of Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest. The outlaws gathered in the greenwood under the great tree reflect a set of idealized symbols of old England many centuries in the making.
Photograph by Christie's Images/Scala, Florence

Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are a permanent part of popular culture. Set in England during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, the adventures of Robin Hood follow the noble thief as he woos the beautiful Maid Marian and thwarts the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The story has been around for centuries, but its most familiar elements are also the most recent additions. (See also: Medieval cave tunnels revealed as never before.)

Like the roots of Sherwood Forest, the origins of the Robin Hood story extend deep into English history. His name can be found all over the English map: Robin Hood’s Cave and Robin Hood’s Stoop in Derbyshire; Robin Hood’s Well in Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire; and Robin Hood’s Bay, also in Yorkshire. When the story is traced back to its 14th-century beginnings, the figure of Robin Hood changes with time. The earliest versions would be almost unrecognizable when compared to the green-clad, bow-wielding Robin Hood of today. As the centuries passed, the tale of Robin Hood evolved as England evolved. With each new iteration, the Robin Hood legend would absorb new characters, settings, and traits—evolving into the familiar legend of today. (See also: Traveling through unfettered Yorkshire.)

In 19th-century England numerous scholars embarked on a search for Robin Hood after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1820. Set in 1194, Scott’s novel takes place in England during the Crusades. One of the featured characters is Locksley, who is revealed to be Robin Hood, the “King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows.” Scott portrayed Robin as an honorable Englishman loyal to the absent King Richard; this popular characterization renewed modern interest in the figure of Robin Hood and the question of whether or not this “King of Outlaws” was based on a real person. (See also: Jesse James: Rise of an American outlaw.)

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