Origins of a Legend: Robin Hood and the Disinherited

Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Prince of Thieves, Sean Connery, Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. There have been so many interpretations of the legendary figure, but where does the story really come from? Novelist and historian David Pilling reveals all.
The real Robin Hood? Simon de Montfort, drawing of a stained glassed window from Chartres Cathedral
Home » Articles » Origins of a Legend: Robin Hood and the Disinherited

Robin Hood and the Disinherited

The story of Robin Hood as we know it today is usually set in the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and King John (1199-1216). This tradition goes back no further than 1521 and the work of John Major, a Scottish theologian, who in that year, published the Historia Majoris Brittaniae. His work includes a brief notice on Robin Hood:

“About the time of King Richard I, according to my estimate, the English robbers Robert Hood and Little John were lurking in their woods, preying only on the goods of the wealthy…this Robert retained with him a hundred well-armed men, whom a force of four hundred would have hesitated to attempt to dislodge. His deeds are sung all over England.”

Major added that Robin was ‘the prince of robbers, and the most humane’. He seems to have placed the outlaws in Richard I’s reign upon a whim. Major’s dating was followed by Sir Walter Scott, whose character of Robin of Locksley in the bestseller Ivanhoe (published 1820) has influenced every version since.

Robin Hood could be linked to the Disinherited, the term given to Montfortian rebels in England in the latter reign of Henry III (1216-1272). After the battle of Evesham in 1265, and the death of their leader Simon de Montfort, Henry confiscated the lands of all surviving rebels. This led to a renewed period of civil war, as men snatched up their swords again to recover their lost estates. Two more years of bitter conflict followed, until much of England was reduced to waste. ‘Nowhere was there peace, nowhere security’, as the fifteenth century Scottish chronicler Walter Bower put it.

Bower was also the first chronicler to place Robin Hood among the Disinherited, alongside real-life baronial rebels such as John d’Eyville. In his work, the Scotichronicon, Bower talks of Robin Hood:

“At this time there arose from among the disinherited and outlaws and raised his head that most famous armed robber Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices. The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasms in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing [of them] more than in other romances.”

Bower goes on to describe Robin and his men hearing mass in Barnsdale, when they are suddenly attacked by the sheriff and the king’s men. While his followers tremble in fear of death, Robert Hood puts his faith in Christ; as a result, he is able to defeat his enemies and put them to flight, despite being heavily outnumbered. Thus, as Bower remarks piously, ‘God listens to the man who hears mass often’.

Bower was not the only Scottish chronicler to place Robin in this era. Andrew de Wyntoun, writing in about 1420, referred to Robin and Little John under the years 1283-5:

“Then Little John and Robin Hood
As forest outlaws were well renowned,
In Inglewood and Barnsdale
All this time they plied their trade.”

Inglewood Forest is in Cumbria, near Carlisle and the Scottish border, a long way from Robin’s usual haunts of Barnsdale in south Yorkshire and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire. Like Bower, Wyntoun gives no reasons for placing the outlaws in this context. It may be that they were both working from now-lost ballad material. Overall, it can be said there was a general impression among Scottish annalists that Robin Hood was a historical figure, active in England in the late thirteenth century.

Bower placed the outlaw Robert Hood among the Disinherited in 1266, and there were at least two men of that name active on the rebel side in that year. One is mentioned in the Cambridge jury presentments of 1269, set up to enquire how many local men had joined Sir John de Eyvill in the Isle of Ely during the time of the disturbance. Ely was famously used by the English folk hero, Hereward the Wake, in his last stand against William the Conqueror. The ruins of his waterlogged fortress were apparently still visible in the thirteenth century.

The Robert Hood mentioned in the enquiry was part of a gang active in the isle. His companions were one Roger son of Robert and William Page. Unfortunately, this brief account supplies no further information on the gang or their fate. Even so, a Robert Hood among the rebels at Ely makes an interesting coincidence with the juxtaposition of John de Eyvill and Robert Hood in Bower’s chronicle:

“John de Eyvill occupied the Isle of Ely; Robert Hode was an outlaw amongst the woodland briars and thorns.”

The second Robert Hood among the Disinherited was one Robert Ode of Harbury, a local knight of the county of Warwick. Robert was a member of the rebel garrison at the mighty stronghold of Kenilworth. In late 1266, he and some other men rode out of the castle to rob Henry of Mercinton on behalf of the prior of Clattercote in Oxfordshire, who had hired their services. The robbery took place at Woodford in Northamptonshire and Robert was described as the ringleader or ‘principal robber’. Two years later, in 1268, he was summoned to answer for the crime before a jury of the hundred of Wardon in Northants, near the castle of Rockingham. Described as an enemy of the lord king, Robert Ode did not appear to face his accusers, and was heavily fined.

Robert was also active in his native county. In 1268, he and two other men were accused of having invaded houses at Itchington and Chadsunt in Warwickshire, belonging to Thomas de Wymundham, Treasurer of the Exchequer, and carried away his goods.

The plot thickens when one considers Robert Ode’s ties of land and lordship. He was a tenant of Robert de Ferrers, the ‘wild and flighty’ Earl of Derby, who for a time, was a Montfortian rebel. Locked up by Simon de Montfort, he was imprisoned again after the battle of Chesterfield in 1266 and later swindled out of his inheritance by Henry III and his sons. Robert Ode held the manor of Chesterton in Warwickshire and Rodswell in Derbyshire from Earl Ferrers. He was probably summoned to fight at Chesterfield, and afterwards among the survivors who fled into the woods. A contemporary annalist wrote fearfully of these men:

“They collected in bands in the woods, which were suitable hiding-places, and made hide-outs in various places. They were more dangerous to meet than she-bears robbed of their cubs and seized everything they wanted from everywhere.”

In 1267, Robert Ode came into the king’s peace and paid a redemption fine to Hamo Lestrange, the sheriff of Staffordshire. There is no precise date for his submission, and he may have taken part in the violence that raged in and around Sherwood Forest. The Disinherited plagued the northern counties, especially Nottingham and Derby, and several pitched battles were fought in the woods over the winter months of 1267. On 6 January, William Leyburn, a king’s knight, was despatched with eight knights and thirty sergeants to reinforce the garrison at Nottingham. In April, there was an engagement between the garrison and the outlaws inside the forest ‘Rossold’ (probably Rufford inside Sherwood); the royalists came off worse and suffered heavy losses.

The situation deteriorated. On 20 March, the sheriff of Nottingham and Derby was ordered to hunt down the outlaws, with no effect. In August, it was reported that men of Duffield forest had attacked Nottingham itself, broken into the town and killed a number of people. Henry III sent his younger son, Prince Edmund, racing to Nottingham to arrest the wrongdoers and imprison them in the castle, where their ransom was set at 1000 marks.

Apart from men named Robert Hood, the actions of other Disinherited rebels have eerie similarities with the medieval legend. Sir John de Eyvill, the pugnacious northern knight who occupied Ely, was a ballad hero in his own right. The Leicester annalist Henry Knighton described him as “a canny man and a doughty warrior”, while he was also praised in The Song of the Barons, a Montfortian ballad composed about 1264:

Et Sire Jon d’Ayvill
Que onques ni aima treyson ne gile
Fu en lur companie

(And Sir John Deyville
Who never liked treason or guile
Was in their company)

John held the manor of Egmanton inside Sherwood Forest and would have been familiar with the forest and the highway to Egmanton from Newark. Strikingly, on 10 September 1276, he was required to pay the abbot of St Mary’s in York the sum of 578 marks, almost £400, to redeem his manor of Thornton-on-the Hill in Yorkshire. £400 is the exact sum lent by Robin Hood in the medieval ballads to an impoverished knight, so he might redeem his pledged lands from St Mary’s.

Of all the figures of this era, perhaps the most convincing inspiration for the legend is Roger Godberd, described as a “leader and master” of outlaws. Like Robert Ode, Godberd was a tenant of Earl Ferrers, and followed his master into rebellion. His band roved over the northern counties and even into Wiltshire, where they robbed and killed a monk. This is reminiscent of the anti-monastic tone of the ballads. Robin Hood’s dislike of clergymen is expressed in the first verse or ‘fytte’ of the Geste of Robyn Hode:

“These bishops and these archbishops.
Them you shall beat and bind.”

In another tale, Robin Hood and the Monk, a ‘great-headed monk’ is murdered by Little John, in revenge for betraying Robin to the sheriff.

In 1271, Roger Godberd was captured inside Sherwood Forest by Hugh Babington, the under-sheriff of Nottingham. In classic Robin Hood style, Godberd and his accomplice Walter Devyas broke out of prison at Nottingham Castle and escaped back to Sherwood. Afterwards, they took refuge at the castle of Sir Richard Foliot, a local knight who held lands in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. In consequence, the sheriff of York was ordered to seize Foliot’s lands in Yorkshire and take his castle at Fenwick. He was eventually pardoned, but his sheltering of outlaws is quite similar to fyttes five and six of the Geste, in which Robin Hood is given refuge by a knight, Sir Richard of the Lee. In the legend, Richard’s castle is besieged by the sheriff; in reality Richard Foliot surrendered his castle without a fight. Nevertheless, the coincidence between history and ballad is striking.

In summary, a strong argument can be made for placing the origins of the legend of Robin Hood in the era of the Disinherited. Some aspects of the careers of various real-life Montfortian rebels possibly influenced the early medieval ballads. The general atmosphere of the time, with the forests of England plagued by outlaws, could well have inspired this most enduring of English tales.

At times it is possible to witness history merging into legend. For instance, part of the account of Thomas Wykes for the war-torn summer of 1266:

“When the time came when the woodland tops are everywhere covered in green leaves, the barons, openly proclaiming that they had been deprived of their patrimony and impatient of peace, did not restrain their rage.”

Compare this to the first lines of the Geste:

“In summer,
When the woods be bright
And leaves be large and long
It is very merry in the fair forest
To hear the birds’ song.

To see the deer draw to the dale,
And leave the hills high,
And shade themselves in the green leaves,
Under the greenwood tree.”

Thus the ‘rage’ of the Disinherited may have found a gentler echo in the ballads of Robin Hood.


David Pilling is a writer and historian, and the author of the Rebellion against Henry III: The Disinherited Montfortians, 1265-1274, and the Robin Hood and Longsword series of novels. His latest book is Blood Feud.