Was The Doctor right? A look at the myth and reality of Robin Hood

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As The Doctor confidently states in last night's episode of Doctor Who, there's 'No such thing as Robin Hood'. But was he correct? Let's take a closer look at the literary and actual history behind one of Britain's most famous legends - and maybe how the hero of Sherwood can find familiarity with the hero of Gallifrey.

Robin Hood and Literature


(Image: Illustration from A Gest of Robyn Hode, published circa 1475)

Some of the earliest records we have that pertain to the image of Robin Hood we know today aren't historical documents, but Literary ones - and these are largely where we have gotten our image of Robin Hood and his band of merry men from today. Even the earliest written mention of Robin Hood as a literary figure, from the seminal Middle English text Piers Ploughman (1377), already acknowledges the character as one of songs and stories rather than as a historical figure:

I can noughte perfitly my paternoster as the prest it syngeth,

But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre.

(That's 'I do not know my Paternoster perfectly/but I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf Earl of Chester', to those unfamiliar with Middle English).


There's very little literature pertaining to Robin Hood from the 13th and 14th centuries that has survived to this day - most of the earliest Robin Hood stories come from Ballad's about the outlaw's exploits, and these are where we begin to see the familar trappings of the legend coming to fore - the likes of Sherwood Forest and Little John are first mentioned in the earliest surviving text we have from one of these ballads, Robin Hood and The Monk, for example - but the Robin of these tales isn't quite the 'steal from the rich, give to the poor' we know today. In fact, these earliest depictions of Robin are much more violent, and doesn't actually do much for giving to the poor (although the Gest does feature Robin stating to his men not to harm lowly peasants and farmers).


Image Credit: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883, via Wikimedia Commons

The legend grows and expands over the next few centuries of fiction, but the 'traditional' image of Robin Hood we know today really starts formulating in the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers of the period were fascinated by the folklore of their ancestors, and Robin Hood came back in fashion in a big way - less of a violent outlaw than he had been in the ballads 300 years before that, and more farcical and light hearted. The character's popularity however exploded in the Victorian era, with one novel more than any other remaining a strong influence on how Robin Hood has been depicted in the 20th and 21st century: Howard Pyle's 1883 novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Pyle gathered the stories told in the ballads that came before him and reimagined them as a cohesive tale for Children, transforming the hardened outlaw of Robin Hood and The Monk into the heroic adventurer beloved by Richard the Lionheart - with his illustrations also giving us the fanciful bowman in tights that we still see today, even in Robot of Sherwood.


The Robin of History


Now we know how the legend that Clara loves so much was formed, what of the actual History behind it? Is The Doctor right? Well, to put it succinctly, yes - the Robin Hood of the popular legend never actually existed. But there is precedent in historical records for an outlaw much in line with the more aggressive Robin of the earliest poems and tales that lived around a similar period of time.

Historian J.C. Holt, a foremost writer on Medieval England, traced back the earliest possible mention of a 'real' Robin Hood to Yorkshire judicial rolls dating from 1225 and 1226 - A outlaw named Robert Hode who escaped justice and fled into the forests of Yorkshire in the early 13th century. The man's name was shortened in documents to 'Robehod' and 'Rabunhud' (or, as we would now say in modern English Robert Hood - or Robin Hood) and when Holt searched for names similar, it revealed a surprising number of outlaws across the 1200's being referred to by those permutations - in the 1261 court trial of outlaw William LeFevre, son of Robert, for example, court records that have survived denote William not as William LeFevre but William Robenhod, Robin Hood transitioning from the name of a man to a moniker, an idea associated with Outlaws and thieves. There are further examples across the 13th and 14th centuries of the term 'Robenhod' being given to outlaws across England, perhaps inspired by the original Robert Hode and his actions in Yorkshire and taking his name.


So whilst it's practically impossible to confirm or deny the existence of a single figure in history as Robin Hood, what is perhaps interesting about him is that seemingly out of nowhere this legend sprang out, whether it was based on a real man or not. A name passed between different men, different faces, that came to mean something else - and after years of tales and stories, became part of Britain's cultural history forever.


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