Was there a real Robin Hood?

Tourist Attractions Image Gallery This Robin Hood statue is stationed outside of a castle in Nottinghamshire, England. See more pictures of tourist attractions.

Literary references of Robin Hood -- beloved today as a vigilante outlaw and rebellious philanthropist -- stretch back to at least the 14th century. Retold in countless variations, Robin Hood's resume has been expanded and enriched extensively during the intervening centuries. Poets, playwrights and directors have all seized on the good outlaw theme and run with it, breathing new life into the legend again and again. This in turn has led many researchers to sort through the annals of the past, attempting to uncover the man behind the myth, the real Robin Hood who inspired such a devoted following.

But history is as murky as a forest blanketed in predawn fog. Discerning the truth through hundreds of years of repetitive studies and speculations is like trying to hit a target with an arrow while blindfolded. Plus any pertinent facts and public records, ones that could determine the verdict once and for all, likely either no longer exist or possibly never existed in the first place. But which is the case?

Scholars and amateur enthusiasts have pored over scraps of such records and remnants of text trying to piece together the puzzle of one of history's most renowned characters. However, whether he was a character in the sense of an actual personage, or simply a character in the fictional sense, remains inconclusive.

On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the different attempts to dig deep into the past and pull a rogue with a heart of gold from the pages of history. We'll also discuss why any potential answers might not be as clear-cut as they seem initially.

Revealing Robin Hood

According to folklore, the venerable Major Oak in Sherwood Forest served as a hideout for Robin Hood and his band of merry men.
According to folklore, the venerable Major Oak in Sherwood Forest served as a hideout for Robin Hood and his band of merry men.

While some historians claim Robin Hood is based on an actual historical person, most remain skeptical. Verifiable hard facts haven't been uncovered, so claims are based solely on peripheral data and interpretations of the earliest known surviving works that allude to him. These medieval literary pieces include the first passing mention of the hero in William Langland's "Piers Plowman" circa 1377, as well as the first lengthy incarnation, a ballad whose title now ranges from "A Lytyll Geste of Robyn Hode" all the way to the "Gest of Robin Hood," encompassing nearly every possible spelling in between. A trio of three other ballads round out the ranks of the early works: "Robin Hood and the Monk," "Robin Hood and the Potter" and "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne."

However, there has been little shortage of hypotheses that suggest potential candidates for the man behind the legend -- whether they match the narratives of the original stories or not. Some medieval chroniclers, such as Andrew of Wynton and Walter Bower, believed Robin Hood was a real person, but their claims are not accepted at face value nowadays.

Since then, many other names have been tossed into the ring. A Robyn Hod, a Robert (or Robertus) Hood and a Gilbert Robynhood have all been pulled out of the past and fleetingly cast in the spotlight as the inspiration for the Robin Hood story. Such names sounded promising until researchers started stumbling across a whole host of potential candidates with similar surnames like Robynhood, Robinhood and Robinhud. In at least one instance, a judge ordered a man's name changed to Robinhood to denote his outlaw status.

Still other candidates have been drawn from the shadows of history by scholars attempting to determine the identity of the real Robin Hood based on similar deeds rather than relatively close names. Hence, the unlikely monikered Fulk Fitz Warine (or possibly Warin or Waryn) has also been considered briefly, since his life story roughly matches that of the legend. Another man with a flickering glimpse of promise was Robert Fitz Odo, also known as Fitzooth. Sadly for Fitzooth, having a "Fitz" in your name meant you were illegitimate. But if the Fitz is yanked out, you're left with Robert Odo. And that takes us right back to it -- a skewed spelling of "Hood," perhaps?

You get the idea -- the possibilities are endless, and the chances of coming to the end of the search seem unlikely. However, on the next page we'll take a closer look at one such attempt, and consider the overall implications for the modern version of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood: Then and Now

Surprisingly, contemporary enthusiasts still sometimes come out with claims that they've nabbed the elusive outlaw. Here's an example of one such candidate. In his 2004 book "Robin Hood: The Real Story," Brian Benison claims Robin Hood is actually a nickname similar to Billy the Kid and that a fellow named Roger Godberd is the man behind the mystery. According to Benison, Godberd lived in the 13th century and started off as a friend and hunting buddy of the sheriff of Nottingham, Reginald de Grey, until local politics forced the two into different camps. After four years as an outlaw (and sans a seductive Maid Marian) Godberd was finally captured, jailed and eventually pardoned. He returned to his farm and lived out his remaining days peacefully.

Whether or not Robin Hood really existed, one thing is for certain: The details of his life probably would have been vastly different from what is presented in movies, books and plays today. Many researchers have tracked the evolution of the Robin Hood saga over the centuries and the earliest known texts describing the outlaw do not closely resemble modern iterations. For example, early tales and ballads of Robin Hood did not take place during the rule of Richard the Lionheart, nor did they contain any mention of Maid Marian. The Gest ballad described only two grand gestures modestly resembling the altruism that later became a fundamental staple in the Robin Hood legend. Also, Robin Hood was a yeoman, not a fallen nobleman; and his main haunts were areas of Yorkshire as opposed to Nottinghamshire and Sherwood Forest. Those additions, seemingly so integral to the story today, were invented by later authors -- although that's not to say the original Robin Hood's traits don't pop up now and then, casting him in all his free-spirited outlaw glory.

The living myth has evolved and expanded during the many intervening years in the hands of countless creative storytellers, so the Robin Hood we know today exists outside the realm of the original creation -- and apart from the man himself, if indeed he existed.

To learn about additional historical marvels and some decidedly more modern myths, look through the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bellamy, John G. "Robin Hood: an historical enquiry." Croom Helm Ltd. 1985. (11/9/2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=PYg9AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA37&dq=Dobson%20%26%20Taylor%20Robin%20Hood%20legend&client=firefox-a&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=Dobson%20&%20Taylor%20Robin%20Hood%20legend&f=false
  • Chandler, John. "Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero." University of Rochester. (11/9/2009) http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/rh/RH%20Exhibit/Intro.htm
  • Hahn, Thomas. "Robin Hood in popular culture: violence, transgression, and justice." D.S. Brewer. 2000. (11/9/2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=utafxJAR63YC&lpg=PA43&ots=ZCT0RMfXgl&dq=Dobson%20%26%20Taylor%20Robin%20Hood%20legend%22&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q=Dobson%20&%20Taylor%20Robin%20Hood%20legend%22&f=false
  • Hilton, R. H. "The Origins of Robin Hood." Oxford Journals. 1958. (11/9/2009) http://past.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pdf_extract/14/1/30
  • Holt, J. C. "The Origins and Audiences of the Ballad of Robin Hood." Oxford University Press. November 1960. (11/9/2009)http://www.jstor.org/pss/649889
  • "In the footsteps of Robin Hood." Channel 4. (11/9/2009)http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/n-s/robin.html
  • McGarvey, Kathleen. "Starring Robin Hood." University of Rochester. (11/9/2009) http://rochester.edu/pr/Review/V72N1/feature4.html
  • "Nottinghamshire legends: Robin Hood." BBC. Feb. 4, 2009. (11/9/2009)http://www.bbc.co.uk/nottingham/content/articles/2008/04/30/real_robin_hood_feature.shtml
  • "Robin Hood." Encyclopedia Britannica. (11/9/2009)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/505662/Robin-Hood
  • "Spirit of Robin." The Sherwood Forest Trust Web site. (11/9/2009)http://www.sherwoodforest.org.uk/
  • Thomas Knight, Steven. "Robin Hood: a mythic biography." Cornell University. 2003. (11/9/2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=dPtpkU1WSbcC&lpg=PP1&dq=ROBIN%20HOOD%20A%20Mythic%20Biography%20Stephen%20Knight&client=firefox-a&pg=PR4#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  • Wright, Allen. "The Search for a Real Robin Hood." BoldOutlaw.com. (11/9/2009) http://www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/index.html