Were Robin Hood and his ladylove Maid Marian born of a folk of story or did the rebellious Medieval English couple actually exist in reality?

By Mahlia Lone

According to English legal records as early as the 13th century, Robehod or Rabunhod were common epithets for criminals. Robert was a common given name in Medieval England, and Robin (or Robyn) was a common short form of it, especially in the 13th century. Hence, medieval criminal records show a vast number of men called Robert or Robin Hood. An oral traditional of singing the outlaw Robin Hood’s praises started to flourish at this time. While the first literary reference to the “rhymes of Robin Hood” is in the alliterative allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman, composed circa 1370s by William Langland, considered to be one of the greatest works of English literature of the Middle Ages.

A century later, in the 1400s Catholics, as all Christians were at the time, in England celebrated May Day on the religious holiday of Whitsun featuring a quasi-religious rebel who robbed and murdered government tax collectors and wealthy landowners in plays and games. Agrarian discontent lay at the foundations of the feudal system that was built on the shoulders of toiling peasants. As time went on, the characters of Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Alan-a-Dale entered May Day rituals as well. Robin Hood was actually shown at this time participating in Mariology, the cult of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Originally Maid Marian (or the French Marion) was a shepherdess associated with the Queen or Lady of May or May Day. Keeping this in mind, “the world’s foremost authority on Robin Hood,” author Jim Lees in The Quest for Robin Hood set forth that the hypothesis that Maid Marian may originally have been the personification of the Virgin Mary and derived from the older French tradition of a shepherdess named Marion and her shepherd lover Robin in Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, 1283. In fact, Marian’s association with May Day celebrations lasted long after Robin Hood’s  did, as pointed out by Scottish born poet Alexander Barclay in 1500, “some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood.”

As time progressed, generations of wandering minstrels in the Middle Ages spread stories far and wide in England by singing ballads about the exploits of the violent but heroic yeoman Robin Hood who lived in Sherwood Forest with his merry band of men and clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. The popular Hood (lum) was portrayed as a commoner who was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Dressed in a Lincoln green doublet and hose with a jaunty feather in his cap and with his longbow strapped on his back, he was said to have robbed from the rich to give to the poor. The characters of Little John and Will Scarlet were also added to Robin’s merry crew or outlaw gang by now. The early compilation, A Lyttell Gest of Robyn Hode (written in 1450 but printed after 1492) states that Robin lived during King Edward’s reign and it shows Robin Hood accepting the King’s pardon then giving it up and returning to his outlaw life in Greenwood. Robin’s status  was said to be between a knight and a peasant.

King Richard Pardons Robin And His Men

But John Major wrote an alternative version in his tome, A history of Greater Britain as well England as Scotland (1521): “At this time (the reign of Richard the Lionheart) there flourished the most famous robbers Robin Hood and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, and robbed those that were wealthy…The feats of Robin are told in song all over Britain. He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he rob the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbots.”

Major placed the Robin Hood story into the last half of the twelfth century in the more distant time when King Richard was off fighting the Third Crusade with fellow European leaders in an attempt to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslim ruler of Syria and Egypt Salah ad-Din the Great. Though the Crusaders recaptured some territory, they failed to capture Jerusalem and on his return journey King Richard was ignominiously held for ransom by the Duke of Austria. Back in England his brother King John was his proxy ruler who to the resentment of his people levied heavy taxes to pay for the war.

Richard The Lionheart
King Richard On The Third Crusade
King John Of England

According to Dobson and Taylor in their book The Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, Major’s “exceptionally influential eulogy” of Robin presents him as a bold but moral hero, only killing in self-defense, a protector of women and the poor. He was not only a humane robber but also a “chief” or dux in Latin imparting aristocratic implications. In this way, the “renaissance Robin Hood” figure of “distressed gentleman” arose. Major established the basis for point of view, moralizing his deeds, elevating his character to the point of gentrification and, most importantly, removing any trace of the earlier hero of Catholicism, since the Anglican Church now held sway in England.

Accompanying the newly “gentrified” Robin Hood was the equally nobly born lady, Maid Marian who was surprisingly not portrayed as chaste and virginal but retained some of the aspects of her “May Day shepherdess” characteristics. In 1592, playwright, satirist and writer of witty erotic poems, Thomas Nashe recorded that her character of later May Games was played lewdly by a male actor as a parody and figure of fun.

Elizabethan playwright Anthony Munday, titled the “poet to the city” (of London), wrote two plays on the life of Robin Hood: The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, mentioned in the Rose Theatre Kingston records in 1597-8 and published in 1601. Munday ennobled Hood by presenting him as the Earl of Huntingdon since tales of courtly romance and adventure were in vogue at the time. Marian was presented as the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter who fled England due to an assassination attempt on King John (legendarily attributed to King John’s attempts to seduce Matilda) and Robin’s wife who changed her given name Matilda to Marian when she joined him in Greenwood. Her cousin, Elizabeth de Staynton, was the Prioress of Kirklees Priory, near Brighouse in West Yorkshire. In later versions of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is in fact commonly named as “Marian Fitzwalter.”

In their book Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren point out in the introduction to the post-Restoration (after 1660) ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian (Child Ballad 150, circa 17th century) that it’s the only ballad in which Maid Marian, “a bonny fine maid of a noble degree,” played a significant part. She wass portrayed excelling in beauty both Helen of Troy and Jane Shore, one of the many mistresses of King Edward IV (reign 11461-1470) of England, one of three whom he described as “the merriest, the wiliest, and the holiest harlots” in his realm in beauty.

Friar Tuck
Claude Rains As Prince John
Nickolas Grace As The Sheriff Of Nottingham In Robin Of Sherwood

“The events of the ballad had already been foreshadowed in Munday’s play, where Matilda Fitzwater goes to the forest, becoming Marian in the process, to meet the Earl of Huntington, alias Robin Hood. The popularity of Robin Hood ballads was so great that several of these ‘prequels’ seem to have been produced, as in Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham and Robin Hood and Little John.

Structurally the interesting thing about Robin Hood and Maid Marian is that it shows the only credible way to join the outlaw band is to fight a draw with the leader: this is a ‘Robin Hood meets his match’ ballad in a wider sense than usual. Foolish as commentators have found it, the notion of the hero’s fight with his lover is a potent one, whether it testifies to the woman’s possible martial skill, or the enormity of mistreating woman, or both at once. Found in the recent film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the motif is here taken quite seriously, down to the length of the fight and the sight of blood, however improbable it may be that Marian does not hear Robin’s voice until he asks for respite.”

Another twist in the legend occurred when antiquarian Joseph Hunter in his 1852 pamphlet on Robin Hood identified a Robert Hood from Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the archives preserved in the Exchequer, whose story matched very closely the story of Robin in Robert Munday’s play. Hunter wrote that the real Robin Hood spent a stint at the court of Edward II (reign 1307-1327) and subsequently married a woman named Matilda, who changed her name to Marian when she joined him in exile in Barnsdale Forest (following the Battle of Boroughbridge) in 1322. She too had a cousin named Elizabeth de Staynton who was Prioress of Kirklees Priory. With so many similarities with the famous outlaw, there is a distinct possibility that these real life personages on whom the legend is based.

ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, THE, Olivia de Havilland, 1938

Robin Hood’s sweetheart in Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage (Child Ballad 149), is named as “Clorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses,” Marian’s alias in later stories. It recounted Robin Hood’s adventures hunting and a romance with Clorinda, a heroine who wasn’t able to displace Maid Marian as his sweetheart in the mind and hearts of the public. In his introduction to the ballad, American scholar and folklorist Professor Francis James Child who compiled a collection of English and Scottish ballads now known as the Child Ballads gives its first printing as 1716 in the poet Dryden’s Miscellany and points out the “freedom with which it treats tradition and common sense.” So this version was completely discarded.

In 1765, Thomas Percy, the Bishop of Dromore, published Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, including ballads from the 17th century Percy Folio manuscript, which had not previously been printed, most notably of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, a late medieval ballad. In it, the fictional Sir Guy was hired to kill Robin Hood but is killed by him. In later depictions, he also became a romantic rival to Robin Hood for Maid Marian’s love.


Then in 1795, Joseph Ritson published an enormously influential edition of the Robin Hood ballads Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems Songs and Ballads now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw, including Robin Hood and the Potter ballad. Ritson’s collection became a source book for future English poets and novelists. Ritson was a staunch egalitarian and a supporter of the principles of the French Revolution and an admirer of Thomas Paine, the English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, revolutionary and one of the Founding Fathers of America whose writings helped shape many of the ideas that marked the Age of Revolution. Ritson wrote that Robin Hood, “a genuinely historical, and genuinely heroic character,” stood up against tyranny in the interests of the common people.

In his preface to the collection, Ritson put together an account of Robin Hood’s life from the various sources available to him, and concluded that Robin Hood was born in 1160 and died on 18th November 1247 at the age of 87 years. His exploits took place in the reign of Richard I. He theorized that Robin was of aristocratic birth with at least “some pretension” to the title of Earl of Huntingdon, that he was born in an unidentified Nottinghamshire village of Locksley and that his original name was Robert Fitzooth. Ritson cited various sources for his methodical research.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Robin’s Merry Crew

Dobson and Taylor credit Ritson with having “an incalculable effect in promoting the still continuing quest for the man behind the myth,” and note that his work remains an “indispensable handbook to the outlaw legend even now.” So we have Ritson to thank for the modern day story of Robin Hood as we know it.

Sir Walter Scott used his friend Ritson’s anthology collection as a source for his picture of  Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, written in 1818, on which the modern legend of Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon fighting Norman lords is based. Richard the Lionheart calls him “King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows” in it. French historian Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry’s Histoire de la Conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands (1825) presented a similar figure.

20th century writer-illustrator Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood became a popular version for children and further influenced modern accounts of Robin Hood in the U.S. and the world over. Pyle’s Robin Hood is a yeoman, not an aristocrat, who is a staunch philanthropist, a man who takes from the rich to give to the poor. His adventures are more local than national in scope. While King Richard’s participation in the Crusades is mentioned in passing, Robin takes no stand against Prince John, and plays no part in raising the ransom to free Richard.

Kevin Costner

The 1976 British-American film Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, takes up the story after Robin has returned from service with a less than perfect and more realistic Richard the Lionheart in a foreign crusade and Marian has gone into seclusion in a nunnery. Though the film lacked punch, it attempted to flesh out the legend.

Another modern addition to the merry crew in recent times is the diversity factor. Since the 1980s, a Saracen (Muslim or Arab of Turkish extraction) has been shown among the Merry Men.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

(An English Legend)

There was a time when Robin Hood, the famous outlaw, was not an outlaw at all but a nobleman, Lord of Locksley. He lived near Sherwood Forest, and it was in that forest where, one day, Robin went out hunting and came upon a maiden wearing a dress as green as the springtime leaves.

Robin gazed at her, entranced; her face was the loveliest he had ever seen, and he thought she must be a princess.

But the longer he looked at her, the more he could see that this woman had not even one touch of false pride, and that she held her bow and quiver as if she had been born to hunt. He watched her fierce concentration. She took aim and shot, but Robin did not see what it was she hunted. He was staring at her beautiful hair, as black as ink, and at her gaze, which was wise and open.

There, he knew at once, was the woman he would always love.

Later that day, Robin learned her name was Marian. She was the daughter of the noble Earl of Fitzwalter, who lived in a castle not far from Robin’s home. Soon he introduced himself, and before long he and Marian went out hunting together. They would walk and share stories, and naturally they fell in love. When Marian agreed to marry Robin, he thought he must be the happiest man in the world.

But before they could marry, the sheriff of Nottingham cheated Robin out of his fortune, and with his change of luck, Robin was forced to run away into the forest. From that day on, the green wood was the place he would make his home.

Robin was now poor and without any belongings, but he was wise and crafty. He swore to take revenge on all who stole and lied and cheated other folk, and he knew he could live happily in the forest, protecting those unable to protect themselves. Life would be fine, except for one thing. He could never ask Marian to live with him, for he no longer had a home to share with her.

And so, his heart breaking, he wrote to Marian and broke their engagement.

Robin’s life in the forest as an outlaw began. One by one he gathered his band of Merry Men, and with his trusted right-hand man, Little John, and his friends Will Scarlet, Much the Miller and Friar Tuck, Robin Hood became the man everyone knew about. He was generous and gentle to women and children, to all who worked hard, to worthy knights and gallant squires, to anyone who was helpless. Only those who cheated and harmed others — those who used their power to hurt the less powerful — were the targets of Robin’s wrath, and they would never forget the man once they crossed his path.

Robin Hood. Original artwork for Look and Learn (issue yet to be identified).

Time passed. Robin never spoke to anyone of Marian, but he never stopped thinking of her. Sometimes when he was alone in the forest, he imagined what it might be like to see her again, but most of the time he hoped she had found happiness and peace in her life.

But in truth Marian had never stopped thinking of Robin, and at long last she decided she must find him. Traveling alone was unsafe for any woman, and so Marian disguised herself as a young knight. She tucked her hair beneath her helmet, which hid most of her face, and with a sword for protection, she set out into the forest, determined to find her beloved.

At the same time, Robin was in the forest, but he too wore a disguise. Robin did not like to be recognized, and his costumes were so clever that sometimes even Little John did not recognize his own friend. And so on this bright, springtime day — the sort of day that made Robin sad, for it reminded him of meeting Marian in a time that seemed so long ago — he was hunting and dreaming of his long-ago love.

When Robin happened upon a young man in the forest, he disguised his voice, and called out, “Stop, you there! What is your mission here? What is your name, and where are you going?”

Now this young man, in truth, was Marian, but Robin did not recognize her, and she did not recognize him. In fact, his voice sounded so gruff, a shiver passed down her back, and fearing that he meant to harm her, she drew her sword.

When Robin saw that, he too drew his sword. “Since you do not answer, you must be up to evil, lad.”

The two began to fight.

Robin was taller, and stronger too, but Marian was a master with her sword. She defended herself better than nearly anyone Robin had ever fought. He was amazed at the grace with which his enemy moved, the speed and artistry the young knight employed. Under his breath, Robin whispered, “How I wish this man were part of my band of men.”

The fight lasted for a half-hour, when finally Robin wounded Marian’s arm, and Marian’s sword found its way under the heavy hood Robin wore and scratched his cheek.

“Halt then,” Robin called, for he had begun to feel sorry for the young knight. This time, he forgot to disguise his voice, and the moment Marian heard those words, she dropped her sword. “Robin,” she gasped. “Can it be you?”

Now Robin too recognized the voice. This was Marian, the love of his life.

Robin threw back his hood, and Marian flung down the her helmet, letting her hair fall loose. When they saw each other without their disguises, they laughed, and wept, and embraced. Marian swore she would never again let him leave her. She, too, would live in the green wood.

The two walked together toward the trysting tree, the place where Robin and his Merry Men gathered, and when Robin told the tale to his friend Little John, Little John knelt and took her hand in his.

“Lady Marian,” he said, “you shall be our queen, for Robin is our king. And now, we must celebrate!”

And so it was that in that forest, on that lovely spring day, Robin and his sweetheart and all their friends danced and sang and celebrated love and romance.

Similarly, Maid Marian’s role as a strong female character has been picked up by modern feminist writers, such as Theresa Tomlinson in Forestwife novels (1993–2000) that are told from Marian’s point of view. She portrayed Marian as a high-born Norman girl escaping entrapment in an arranged marriage. With the aid of her nurse, she runs away to Sherwood Forest, where she becomes acquainted with Robin Hood.

And in the latest update to the story, Margot Robbie stars in Marian, a new film set in “an alternate Robin Hood universe.” Screenwriter Pete Barry depicts “Marian picking up the cause to lead her people into a pivotal war after the love of her life, Robin Hood, dies. She comes to power, charging into a battle that will not only decide the fate of the kingdom, but also see her don the mantle of the man she loved.” Sounds like a fun ride!

Little John’s Alleged Grave In St Michael’s Church Graveyard, Hathersage, Derbyshire
Robin Hood

There seems to be some truth to the fact that the real Robin Hood and Maid Marian did exist. However, it is also clear that the details of the story have changed over time. Regardless, if you are interested in the legend, and happen to be in West Yorkshire, do pay a visit to the alleged grave of Robin Hood at Kirklees Priory, behind the Three Nuns pub in Mirfield. The headstone bears an inscription of the fifteenth-century ballad relating that before he died, Robin told Little John where to bury him. According to this, as an octogenarian when he became ill, Robin went with Little John to be nursed by his aunt, the Prioress. But Sir Roger de Doncaster persuaded her to murder her nephew and the Prioress slowly bled Robin to death. With the last of his strength, he blew his horn and Little John propped him up by the window placing his trusty bow and arrow in his hands. Before drawing his last breath, Robin shot an arrow and instructed Little John to bury him where the arrow landed. The inscription on the grave still hauntingly reads:

Hear underneath dis laitl stean

Laz robert earl of Huntingtun

Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud

An pipl kauld im robin heud

Sick [such] utlawz as he an iz men

Vil england nivr si agen

Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247


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