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Robin Hood

Synopsis

Returning home after a decade away at war, the common soldier Robin Longstride is asked to impersonate a dead knight, much to the dismay of the knight's widow who does not like or trust the upstart soldier. But when corrupt local officials attempt to confiscate her family's lands, she has to admit the man has his uses.

Historical Context

When Richard the Lionheart ascended the throne in 1189, he inherited an empire composed not only of the kingdom of England, but parts of Ireland and nearly half of what is now France. This empire, the Angevin Empire, had coalesced during the reign of Richard’s father and mother, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, through political acumen and military skill at the expense of the king of France. Richard did not remain in his lands for long; he departed for the Holy Land as a leader of the Third Crusade, along with King Philip II of France, a year after being crowned.

King Richard remained in the Holy Land through autumn 1192. His departure was precipitated by news that his only surviving brother John and King Philip, who had already returned to France, were conspiring to set John on the throne of England. Captured on his homeward journey and finally ransomed, Richard returned to his lands to find that King Philip had been making inroads into his holdings in France. Richard would spend the remaining years of his life, until 1199, fighting to regain territory that he had lost during his captivity.

As king, John stepped into his brother’s shoes, fighting a losing battle to regain and shore up his lands on the Continent. This, combined with a growing reputation for tyranny, made him enormously unpopular among the baronage. Tensions continued to mount until many of John’s barons rebelled, launching the First Barons’ War (1215-1217) and spurring the creation of Magna Carta. Desperate to be rid of John, the barons invited Louis of France, King Philip’s son, to become king of England. Louis obliged, leading an army to England and joining with the rebellious English barons. The cause of the barons lost its force, however, when King John died in 1216. Reconciliation and peace with his young heir, Henry, was now a more appealing prospect to many of the barons, who switched their allegiance back to England’s royalists, forcing Louis out of England.

At nine years old, John’s eldest son became King Henry III, and England’s internal military turmoil ended, for a time.

The first literary reference to Robin Hood appears over 150 years after the death of King John in Piers Plowman, written in the 1370s.1 It is clear from the reference that there was already a popular tradition surrounding the outlaw by this date. Later historians proposed the era of Richard the Lionheart and King John as the haunt of a historical Robin Hood, and there have been many efforts to locate the real man in the historical record.2 Unfortunately for those on the quest for Robin Hood, there are leads but proof has been elusive. Perhaps this is fitting for a renowned trickster and outlaw.

Historical Accuracy

King Richard the Lion Heart, bankrupt of wealth and glory, is plundering his way back to England after ten years on his Crusade.

In his army is an archer named Robin Longstride. This is the story of his return home where, for defending the weak against the strong, he will be condemned to live outside the law.

So opens Robin Hood, a film that self-consciously attempts to root the story of the outlaw in a historical time and place while crafting a character that appeals to modern tastes. As should be at least partially clear from the historical synopsis above, Robin Hood’s fidelity to the historical record is marginal. Richard the Lionheart did not return from a ten-year crusade with a vanquishing army; he returned after a few years, faced with the task of regaining his lost territories. He did die at Châlus, as the film depicts, in a manner consistent with his leadership style: at the front and center of the action. But for the purposes of the film, it is most effective to characterize him as a brutal king “with one more castle to sack,” before returning home, as one of his knights, Robert of Locksley, comments in the film. It is during the siege of Châlus that Robin Longstride is introduced as a foil to the mighty and powerful; an everyman who will fight for the common people.

Except for the petty tyranny of the local sheriff of Nottingham and the entirely fictional traitor, Godfrey, the mighty and powerful (and corrupt!) are the kingly trio of Richard, John, and Philip of France. While Richard is quickly ushered offstage by a crossbow bolt, King John soon presents himself as an obstacle to the wellbeing of England. Selfish, arrogant, and deceptive, the King John of the film does have parallels in the historical record. One source written approximately ten years after John’s death recalls that “day by day the King’s arrogance grew / and grew, a fault which does not allow those in its grip / to see reason but brings them down.”3 Meanwhile, in the film, King Philip views John as a weak simulacrum of his brother whose kingship is an invitation for invasion. King John and his baronage unite briefly in a dramatic battle on the coast as the forces of King Philip land, but this unity is shattered when an ungrateful John burns Magna Carta following the battle. As has been seen, it was the rebellious barons of England who extended the invitation to Louis of France to invade.

So where does Robin Longstride, the real Robin Hood, as the film would have us believe, fit in to this story? On screen, Longstride adopts the persona of Richard’s knight, Robert of Locksley, to return the fallen king’s crown to England after discovering the knight dying in the road. With his last breath, Robert also tasks the archer with returning his sword to his father. Thus Robin meets Marian, Robert’s widow, and at the behest of Robert’s father, agrees to continue pretending to be Robert so that Marian can retain the family lands after the elderly man’s death. Revelations follow, and Robin learns that his own father was a champion of the people who was put to death by the king’s men when Robin was very young. Confronted with the legacy of his father, Robin finds new inspiration to fight the oppressions visited by the king. In discussions with King John and other barons as Robert, Robin proposes a charter of rights to which John agrees. Following the battle with the French army and King John’s change of heart, Robin is outlawed.

Robin Longstride is an invention of the film and while his particular grassroots social justice values are ahistorical in the context of the First Barons’ War (his motto, “rise and rise again until lambs become lions” hardly applies to the barons) the film fits within the spirit of the Robin Hood tradition. Historians have and will continue to debate whether the outlaw named Robin Hood ever existed. Some suggest that the medieval stories and ballads about Robin Hood were inspired by other historical figures, while some point to individuals found fleetingly in documents of the time.4 It is also possible that Robin Hood was always entirely fictional. Either way, Robin Hood has endured for centuries, and each generation has reinvented him. Robin has been many things, from a yeoman to a nobleman, and his character is often disguising himself, just as Robin Longstride becomes Robert Locksley in the film.5 We may choose to believe that Robin was a disaffected nobleman or soldier who took to the woods in the aftermath of one of the Barons’ Wars that shook England in the thirteenth-century, but the historical record has nothing definitive to say. Robin will continue to be reinvented, donning new disguises, until the historical record reveals him or we lose interest, and if the track record of centuries has anything to say, that won’t happen anytime soon.

~Chloe Massarello

Select Resources

Gillingham, John. Richard I. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Holt, J.C. Robin Hood. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Kaufman, Alexander, ed. British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2011.

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Warren, W. L. King John. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Citations

1Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 3.

2For a discussion of these efforts and the dating of Robin Hood’s life, see chapter three of J.C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989).

3History of William Marshal, edited by A.J. Holden (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2004), 2: 127.

4For examples, see Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 193-198; and chapter three of Holt, Robin Hood.

5For examples, see Kimberly A. Macuare Thompson, “The Late Medieval Robin Hood Ballads: Radical Economics Revisited,” in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. Alexander Kaufman, 179-203 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2011), 180; and Knight, Robin Hood, 15-16.