It has come to our attention at Nottingham City of Literature that Sheffield has again been attempting to lay claim to the Nottingham legend and folk-hero, Robin Hood. Many of Sheffield’s blasphemous arguments are focused on location: that Robin Hood was Robin of Locksley. But why is location so important to the myth, and how reliable is it as a factor which makes up the Robin Hood canon?
There are several strong elements of location that underpin the Robin Hood myth. Firstly, in some mythology he is Robin of Locksley, Loxley being a village in South Yorkshire and the metropolitan borough of Sheffield. Secondly, Robin lives as an outlaw in Sherwood Forest, a woodland most commonly associated with Nottinghamshire. Thirdly, there is the significance of the Sheriff of Nottingham, one of Robin’s biggest adversaries. To calcify these as ‘facts’ or canon is difficult as the location of the Robin Hood myths (where they are set and where their characters are from) are fluid, changing, and depleting over the years in both a fictional and physical sense.
Let’s first address Sheffield’s persistence that Robin is Robin of Locksley. According to a Wikipedia page, the only place I could find any detailed argument for Sheffield, the forest of Loxely Chase had extended as far as the South East of Nottinghamshire in the 12th century, joining with Sherwood Forest, which, in times gone by, would have spilled out into neighbouring counties. The first reference to Robin Hood being ‘of Locksely’ can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ (1819), a relative latecomer to the Robin Hood myth and perhaps showing signs of a trend that developed later in the 19th century of reforming and sanitising folklore for a prudish Victorian audience. ‘Ivanhoe’ is nevertheless very significant, along with Howard Pyle’s ‘The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1883), in shaping what Robin looks like today: a noble rebel, loyal to the true King of England. In earlier versions of the myth, such as the much less swashbuckling Robin Hood plays of Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle in the late 16th century, Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon (or Huntington), locating his noble seat in East Anglia, but we don’t see Cambridge attempting to lay claims on Nottingham’s folk-hero.
We can now turn to the ancient greenwood of Sherwood Forest, where most mythology sets Robin’s adventures. The first association of Robin Hood with Sherwood Forest can be found in the Lincoln Cathedral Manuscript, written in English circa 1400: ‘Robyn hod in Sherewod stod’. The location of Sherwood Forest as the site of many of his adventures has certainly stood strong in the canonical mythology, but the specifying of this as Nottinghamshire becomes a little more difficult to pin-point. Sherwood Forest is now contained to the surrounding areas of Edwinstowe and the Thoresby Hall estate, but this is only after centuries of deforestation, privatisation and farming. With that in mind, Sherwood Forest does not explicitly mean Nottinghamshire in the 12th century, when the stories are typically set. Today, it’s impossible to tear Sherwood Forest away from Nottingham – it has an NG postcode.
‘Robin Hood’ is being treated not as a man, but a metaphor – an ideal of noble rebelliousness that lends its names to locations that want to embody what Robin Hood represents.
The Sheriff of Nottingham is inseparable from the Robin Hood myth, the man on the ground in Prince John’s cruel leadership in the absence of Richard the Lionheart. He appears in ‘A Gest of Robyn Hood’ another early text of the Robin Hood mythology, written around the 15th and 16th centuries, which mentions the ‘hye Sherif of Notyingham’ as an enemy of Robin Hood, alongside bishops and archbishops. It is however in Yorkshire that the poem locates Robin and in the woodland of Barnsdale Forest, which would now be in modern-day districts of Doncaster – NOT Sheffield. What all this shows is that Robin Hood can’t be pinned to one location. The spread of Robin Hood locations can be taken in two ways: either his work took him across the country, or ‘Robin Hood’ is being treated not as a man, but a metaphor – an ideal of noble rebelliousness that lends its names to locations that want to embody what Robin Hood represents.
The earliest written mention of Robin Hood can be found in William Langland’s ‘Piers Ploughman’: a long and difficult 14th century dream-poem written in Middle English and drenched with Christian metaphor. In the fifth pasus (dream sequence) of the B-Text version of the poem, the deadly sin Sloth, here personified as a lazy parson, disassociates himself from the highbrow language and literature of the Church. He knows no Latin, but does know the ballads of Robin Hood. This says something interesting about who ‘owns’ Robin Hood. He is placed in opposition to highbrow literature simply through appearing in a poem written in Middle English, the language of the common folk as opposed to the Latin of the Church or the French of the Court. The manner in which his name is mentioned in passing assumes that everyone knows who Robin Hood is, he needs no introduction to Langland’s audience. Robin is truly of folk origin, giving explanation to the lack of any earlier written record – his stories probably originated from an oral tradition, making them fluid, adaptable, and local.
‘Icons of England: Robin Hood’
‘In Quest of Robin Hood”, The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Association 1971 by Robert E. Morsberger
Lincoln Cathedral MS, translated by Henrik Thiil Nielsen