In the heart of Yorkshire there lies a grave different from every other in England. Guarded by heavy iron bars in the grounds of a private residence in the old parish of Dewsbury and hidden within the shadows of ancient woodland, it stands forlorn and dilapidated after centuries of exposure to the elements. According to 18th century folklore the slab that covered the grave, already severely damaged by that time, possessed magical powers, which gave rise to a trend for passers-by to take away pieces of the stone as a cure for ailments, depleting what remained of the outer shell.
While the site itself may be of interest to the archaeologist, for the historian the grave presents a different challenge. A flat stone slab decorated with a long cross ending with a stepped base, used in the Middle Ages to represent Christ’s death on Calvary, and flanked by a vague inscription has long ceased to exist. In its place now stands an 18th century tombstone marked with a curious epitaph commemorating the life of the man whose remains are said to be interred below. Although the inscription is written in an unrecognisable form of archaic English, the message is clear. In modern English the inscription reads:
Here underneath this little stone
Lies Robert Earl of Huntingdon
No archer as he was so good
And people called him Robin Hood
Such outlaws as he and his men
England will never see again.
Died 24 December 1247
According to tradition, the legendary outlaw Robin Hood met his end in the gatehouse of Kirklees Priory after he was bled to death by an evil prioress and her forbidden lover, Roger of Doncaster, while receiving medical attention at the priory. Some versions of the legend tell that with his last act, Robin shot an arrow through the gatehouse window, and with his dying wish was buried where the arrow fell. The death scene is among the oldest of the Robin Hood legends and is recorded in two of the earliest surviving accounts of the outlaw, namely the ballad of Robin Hood’s Death
, and A Gest of Robyn Hode
. Its credibility is enhanced by the location of the grave some 650 yards from the old gatehouse, albeit out of range for a dying archer, and its existence was even noted by several antiquarians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet despite the site being famed as Robin Hood’s final resting place, questions regarding whether the outlaw even existed continue to persist. And with each passing century, the gulf between history and legend continues to grow.
We all know the story. Set during the reign of Richard I, Robin Hood is famously outlawed, usually for poaching deer or for opposing the rule of Prince John, while the true king, Richard the Lionheart, is away fighting in the Crusades. Here Prince John, the king’s younger brother, seeks to capitalise on Richard’s absence and begins to augment his power, resulting in merciless treatment of Richard’s subjects, notably the Saxons. With this, Robin Hood, sometimes described as the Earl of Huntingdon or Sir Robert of Locksley, becomes involved in a hostile feud with the prince and his followers, particularly the tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham. Now a wanted man, Robin is forced to seek refuge in Sherwood Forest where he encounters a group of outlaws, with whom he fights, before subsequently being welcomed into their company. Here the outlaws live merrily on the king’s deer while stealing the wealth of passing Norman noblemen and redistributing the money into the pockets of the poor. United in their hatred for the prince and the sheriff, Robin moulds the group into a band of formidable fighters, referred to as his Merry Men, and leads them in rebellion against the prince. In some versions of the story the outlaws assist King Richard in reclaiming the throne whereas in others they also play an active role in raising the ransom of 150,000 marks for his release while he is being held captive in Austria, before his triumphant return to England. With Prince John defeated, Richard restores the rights and liberties of the common man, and, of course, Robin wins the hand of Maid Marian.
Although the story is well known, the way in which the outlaw is portrayed continues to vary considerably, usually according to the actors who play him. Errol Flynn famously starred as a wronged Saxon nobleman in opposition to Prince John; Richard Todd portrayed a forester following the death of his father; Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood followed the Robin of Locksley legend, only now with an American accent, but began a new trend of Robin having fought in the Crusades, while the television series starring Jonas Armstrong continued the returning crusader theme, only this time as a member of the King’s Guard. Yet some things never change. In every modern version of the story, Robin represents the epitome of courage. He is the finest of archers; he steals from the wealthy but he distributes the money far and wide, while a typical outlaw would keep it for himself; he is violent, but only to those who oppose his values; he is a great leader, a formidable warrior, and an instigator of peasant revolt, but his loyalty to the true king remains cemented throughout.
But exactly how much of this is history? While the Robin Hood familiar to audiences of the modern day is portrayed as a gallant Saxon nobleman dressed in Lincoln green, robbing from the rich to aid the poor and being capable of bringing down the Norman authority with little more than a flick of the wrists and a cheeky smile, historians continuously fail to find any reasonable proof that this heroic outlaw ever existed. Is this really surprising? If the antics of Fairbanks, Flynn and company are to be believed Robin Hood was a flamboyant medieval superman, capable of winning archery tournaments by splitting the arrow of an opponent with his final shot, swinging effortlessly through the trees like Tarzan, and winning swordfights against highly skilled Normans while tap dancing down a spiralling staircase. Yet this has not dissuaded the optimists from continuing to defy the historians in their bids to authenticate the legend.
So what is the truth about the legendary outlaw? Should we believe the words of the acclaimed historians who have studied the evidence for several years, or the optimists? Is it truly feasible that an outlaw named Robin Hood really existed during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, evading the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham while terrorizing wealthy noblemen with his band of Merry Men, giving the proceeds of his thievery to the poor, and choosing, willingly, to endure the cold wet nights of Sherwood Forest. Could this man really have existed? The answer, most definitively, is no.
But that is not where the story ends.
The original Robin Hood
Popular culture might portray Robin Hood as an outlawed nobleman, usually a disinherited Earl of Huntingdon or a Saxon knight, but this wasn’t always the case. In the earliest versions of the Robin Hood story, the outlaw is described specifically as a yeoman, a term of several variations all of which denote a person of common status, lower than a squire, yet higher than a page. Nor is Robin Hood described as a Saxon. In fact, if we go by the early tales alone, he was not an enemy of Prince John, an ally of Richard I, or even, recorded as living during that time period.
When considering the origin of the Robin Hood legend, nothing is more important than the ballads. In total, thirty-eight of these exist, generally dated between the 15th and 18th centuries, each providing an entertaining insight into the activities of the outlaw. While the later ballads are products of popular culture, the events of the earliest five may hold important clues to any possible identity. The ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode
in particular provides a reasonable overview of his life as an outlaw. The Gest is perhaps the earliest of the surviving ballads, dated sometime between 1400-1520, around the same time as the ballads of Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
and Robin Hood’s Death
The early ballads each paint a similar picture. Robin Hood is an outlaw of yeoman status, who is active in both Sherwood Forest and Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire. He already has the company of his Merry Men, including Little John, Will Scarlock and Much the Millers son, but there is no sign of Friar Tuck or Maid Marian. A rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham is obvious from the start, yet with no indication why Robin Hood was outlawed. Robin is already celebrated as a formidable opponent, the most outstanding of archers, a fair leader and although he does not specifically ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’, the Gest ballad
in particular illustrates his tendency to separate the corrupt from the honest when it comes to stealing their money, and his generosity in helping those in need.
Similarities between the Robin Hood of legend and the yeoman outlaw of the ballads clearly exist, but a time period for the original outlaw is unfortunately not given. In the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk
, Little John cleverly outsmarts the king with false papers when attempting to free Robin from jail, yet the king on this occasion is unnamed. A king, however, is named in the Gest: but he was not Richard the Lionheart, he was an Edward.
To accept that the king of the Robin Hood saga was an Edward has two notable effects on the legend. Firstly, it removes the possibility that Robin Hood was an ally of Richard I. In total, Richard spent less than eight months of his ten-year reign (1189-1199) in England, choosing instead to embark on the unsuccessful third crusade of the 1190s and defending the Duchy of Normandy. Richard’s commitment to England in his earlier life is equally dubious. When still a prince he is recorded as having rebelled against his father and even joined Philip II of France in waging war against England.
Secondly, it means if there was a historical Robin Hood, he must have lived during the reign of an Edward. There are three likely candidates here. The reign of Edward I lasted from 1272 until his death in 1307. His son, Edward II succeeded him and ruled for twenty years before being murdered by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, and subsequently replaced by his son, Edward III, who ruled until 1377. While each is possible, the identity of the king in question can be narrowed down further. The early ballads would not have been in print until the early 15th century, but by 1354 there is clear indication the legend was already well known when a man arrested in Rockingham Forest for poaching and trespassing answered with quick wit that he was Robin Hood. Although doing little in terms of finding the legendary figure, it does at least demonstrate that a legend was already in place by the reign of Edward III.
According to the Gest
, the king personally travels to Nottingham in a bid to capture Robin Hood. Potentially each king could have done this. Edward I was known to have passed by Nottingham in 1300; Edward II is recorded as being present twice, first in 1323 and then again in 1324, while Edward III was in Nottingham in 1330 when preparing to kidnap his mother and Mortimer. The personality of the king may also provide a clue. In the Gest
, the king, disguised as an abbot, feasts with the Merry Men and is entertained by their archery. This king has a tendency to enjoy the company of the yeomen outlaws, a strange personality trait for a king. Yet it is curiously in keeping with the character of one King of England who was known to favour the lower classes throughout his reign. This same king has the most likely connection to Nottingham. All signs point to Edward II.
While the personality of the king can be used to provide insight into the identity of the Edward in question, the personalities of the outlaws do the same. While the Robin portrayed in film is a selfless freedom fighter willing to overthrow unjust authority, the Robin Hood of the ballads is less ready to take up the sword. Despite clear understanding of military procedure, in keeping with that of a soldier, and being a strong and fearless swordsman, Robin’s devotion lies not with the freedoms of the peasant class or to his monarch, but with his faith. The yeoman outlaw is a committed Christian with particular reverence to the Virgin Mary. Further still, he honours his religion with strict dedication to chastity, poverty, and obedience. This is strange behaviour for an outlaw; devotion of this kind seems more in keeping with the piety of a monk. Equally surprising is Robin Hood’s knowledge of banking, illustrated in the Gest
when, from his own resources, he gives a poor knight a loan to recover his debts. What these monk-like warriors did to become outlaws is not given in the ballads. But a possible answer might be found in the legacy of another famous band of outlaws.
The Templars and the Papal Bull
Less than five months into the reign of Edward II of England, Pope Clement V issued a Papal Bull to the Christian monarchs of Europe announcing the excommunication of the Knights Templar. Charged with 104 articles, relating to crimes such as Devil worship and Heresy, several key Templars in France were arrested on the morning of Friday 13th October 1307 and eventually executed by Philip IV for their alleged crimes. The process continued across Europe, though the order faired much better out of France. In England the Papal Bull, sent out in November, was not carried out until the end of December, with arrests finally being made on the 9th and 10th of January 1308. All in all, the number of arrests did not exceed 153, many of whom were aged or infirm.
When it comes to the excommunication of the Templars, historians usually fall into two camps. On the one hand there are those who see the lack of arrests as undeniable proof that the order had subsided by that time and no longer carried much significance. Indeed, the number of arrests throughout Europe is a far cry from the estimated 20,000 members at its peak. Yet for those on the other side of the fence, the lack of arrests provide firm indication that many Templars had already escaped by the time the county sheriffs came to round them up.
Let’s consider the possibilities. An order the size of the Templars does not simply disappear. Nor do well-trained soldiers threatened by the possibility of torture and execution simply sit around waiting to be arrested. Understanding that there was a significant time lag between the Templars being arrested in France and the arrests being carried out in England, the English Templars must have known what was coming.
That some members escaped, whether due to their own shrewdness or the negligence of the sheriffs, is evident. In York, the king actually ordered the sheriff to round up the Templars in his jurisdiction as they were wandering around flouting the law. A similar account is given in a letter to the Sheriff of Kent. Here alone, we already have firm indication that county sheriffs were failing to capture outlawed Templars, and that fleeing Templars were roaming the forests.
According to complaints made by the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury, some Templars were integrating into civilian society. While this could certainly be achieved with the aid of family or friends in nearby towns, the majority of the order would have had to make do, avoiding the inquisitors by seeking refuge in the forests. Nevertheless, this may not have been difficult. Many of the order were experienced in espionage and counter-espionage but to the average passer-by, they would have come across as simple hooded religious men, perhaps like monks or friars, or, as described in the Gest
, like Robin Hood.
By the time the Templars were excommunicated the forests of England were renown as being havens for outlaws, yet with the exception of a small number their stories are now lost to history. Of the outlaws history does remember, it is curious that they had a tendency to be of knightly stock. Of those who were not of noble status, they had a tendency to get caught. As for the pious, obedient, monk-like warriors who lived their lives in devotion to their faith, renown for being the bravest and fiercest soldiers of their time, while grasping a fine understanding of banking yet accepting lives of poverty, their stories are among those of a number of outlaws who slipped the net. Still, by understanding that innocent Templar outlaws were roaming the forests of England during the reign of an Edward while evading the county officials, history can at least recognise that while the legendary order had come to an end, the stories of the individuals continued. And perhaps in doing so, they, themselves, became legends.
When it comes to finding evidence to validate the existence of outlaws, the trail usually goes cold when their deaths and un-consecrated burials go unrecorded by the registries – hardly surprising considering they were forced to live their lives avoiding the authorities. For the fleeing Templars, there is similarly little. However, some previous writers have argued that evidence of their survival can be found in the graves that supposedly inter them. The presence of crusader symbols on graves located in various cemeteries from the Highlands of Scotland to the far reaches of Nova Scotia has successfully convinced some commentators that the outlawed warrior monks did indeed slip the net. While such a suggestion should never be accepted as fact without further investigation, neither should it be rejected as conjecture, particularly if the historians who are dismissing it haven’t even investigated what it is they’re dismissing.
Evidence that a grave situated in the grounds of Kirkless Priory was once decorated with something reminiscent of a Templar cross ending with a Calvary-stepped base, as depicted on thousands of Templar graves throughout the Middle Ages, is well documented. The original slab may have long since disappeared but record of its existence survives in the diagrams drawn by a number of conscientious antiquaries and in the chronicles of those who witnessed the grave in its prime. Certainly there is no Robert Earl of Huntingdon lying ‘underneath that little stone’ but perhaps the bones of a poor yeoman forced to flee unjust persecution still rest in peace beneath where the slab once lay. And perhaps by understanding the story of Robin Hood an important lesson can be learned. Many famous legends stem from history that the historians of the past got wrong. By accepting that it is sometimes necessary to ignore the historian and return to original sources, we may find that the jigsaw of past events fits together more neatly. Particularly when you look in the right place.
For more on the historical outlaw, check out my book Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar available from Amazon UK