Robin Hood Tales

No. 120

From The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
by Francis James Child, 1888.


The earliest version of this tale is a few verses at the end of the longest and one of the earliest ballads called A Gest of Robyn Hode.  An earlier version of the full tale of Robin's death was found in the famous Percy folio, but because its language is more medieval and the text is fragmented, I have decided to put a later version up first on my site.  However, I have also included the older and better version at the bottom of this page along with the segment of the Gest that deals with Robin's demise.

In the earlier version of the tale, after the Prioress bled Robin Hood, he was stabbed by her lover Sir Roger of Doncaster or Red Roger.  The well-known tale of Robin launching his final arrow to mark his grave was not in the earlier version.  I should probably note that having iron rods stuck into your arms and being drained of some (although not too much, hence the Prioress's treachery)  blood was a common medieval healing techinque.  The wicked prioress was not a vampire, as some modern supernaturalists have claimed.

In another ballad, A True Tale of Robin Hood, a "faithless friar" is said to have killed Robin Hood, and in Robin Hood and the Valiant Knight, it is a monk who did the dirty deed. But the story of prioress is the oldest and longest lasting tradition of Robin Hood's death.  While this story rarely appears in film, it does make an unhappy ending to many Robin Hood children's books. (The 1976 movie Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn is an obvious exception. In this film, Marian is the abbess, and she poisons Robin and herself out of love.)

The priory has been called in various ballads Kyrkesly, Church Lees, Kirkly and even Bricklies or Bircklies. A gravestone can be found on the site of the  old Kirklees priory in Yorkshire, almost certainly the intended location.  The current stone is more recent than the first ballad references to it.  This gravesite is on private property, although the owner of the property has been known to very occasionally allow visitors if you ask nicely.

    Version B

      1  When Robin Hood and Little John
        Down a down a down a down
         Went oer yon bank of broom,
        Said Robin Hood bold to Little John,
         We have shot for many a pound.
                Hey, etc.
      2  But I am not able to shoot one shot more,
        My broad arrows will not flee;
          But I have a cousin lives down below,
        Please God, she will bleed me.
      3  Now Robin he is to fair Kirkly gone,
        As fast as he can win;
         But before he came there, as we do hear,
        He was taken very ill.
      4  And when he came to fair Kirkly-Hall,
        He knockd all at the ring,
         But none was so ready as his cousin herself
        For to let bold Robin in.
      5  'Will you please to sit down, cousin Robin,'
         she said
        'And drink some beer with me?'
         'No, I will neither eat nor drink,
        Till I am blooded by thee.'
      6  'Well, I have a room, cousin Robin,' she said,
        'Which you did never see,
          And if you please to walk therein,
        You blooded by me shall be.'
      7  She took him by the lily-white hand,
        And let him to a private room,
         And there she blooded bold Robin Hood,
        While one drop of blood would run down.
      8  She blooded him in a vein of the arm,
        And locked him up in the room;
         Then did he bleed all the live-long day,
        Until the next day at noon.
      9  He then bethought him of a casement there,
        Thinking for to get down;
         But was so weak, he could not leap,
        He could not get him down.
      10  He then bethought him of his bugle-horn,
        Which hung lown down to his knee;
          He set his horn unto his mouth,
        And blew out weak blasts three.
      11 Then Little John, when hearing him,
        As he sat under a tree,
         'I fear my master is now near dead,
        He blows so wearily.'
      12  Then Little John to fair Kirkly is gone,
        As fast as he can dree;
         But when he came to Kirkly-hall,
        He broke locks two or three:
      13 Until he came bold Robin to see,
        The he fell on his knee;
          'A boon, a boon,' cries Little John,
        'Master, I beg of thee.'
      14 'What is that boon,' said Robin Hood,
        'Little John, [thou] begs of me?'
           'It is to burn fair Kirkly-hall,
        And all their nunnery.'
      15 'Now nay, now nay,' quoth Robin Hood,
        'That boon I'll not grant thee;
         'I never hurt woman in all my life,
        Nor men in woman's company.
      16 'I never hurt fair maid in all my time,
        Nor at mine end shall it be;
         But give me my bent bow in my hand,
        And a broad arrow, I'll let flee;
          And where this arrow is taken up,
        There shall my grave digged be.
      17 'Lay me a green sod under my head,
        And another at my feet;
          And lay my bent bow by my side,
                Which was my music sweet.
          And make my grave of gravel and green,
        Which is most right and meet.
      18 'Let me have length and breadth enough,
        With a green sod under my head;
          That they may say, when I am dead
        Here lies bold Robin Hood.'
      19 These words they readily granted him,
        Which did bold Robin please:
           And there they buried bold Robin Hood,
        Within the fair Kirkleys.
      20 Thus he that never feard bow nor spear
        Was murderd by letting blood;
            And so, loving friend, the story it ends
        Of valiant Robin Hood.
      21 There's nothing remains but his epitaph now,
        Which, reader, here you have,
           To this very day which read you may,
        As it is upon his grave.
           Hey down a derry derry down.

          Robert Earl of Huntington
          Lies under this little stone.
          No archer was like him so good,
          His wildness nam'd him Robin Hood,
          Full thirteen years and something more
          These northern parts he vexed sore:
          Such out-laws as he and his men
          May England never know again.

    Below is a picture of the real gravestone of Robin Hood on the Kirklees estate.  As you can see, the epitaph is a bit different than the ballad version.

    Robin Hood's Tombstone (Photo by David Hepworth, courtesy Lady Armytage

    The photo was taken by David Hepworth, with the permission of Lady Armytage. [Please do not copy without permission.]

    Version A

    [Originally found in a folio manuscript (along with many Robin Hood ballads) belonging to Bishop Percy, some sections are sadly missing.  The old woman who is cursing Robin Hood and it would seem (judging from the fragment) women weeping for him seem like the harbingers of death out of myth, like the washer at the ford. Red Roger is carrying a glave -- a kind of sword, and Robin's brand is also a sword.  When Robin speaks of mood and houzel, he is asking for help in receiving the last sacraments for the dead.  As I mentioned above, having a little blood drained was a common medieval healing practice, but the prioress betrays Robin by draining too much.]

      1  'I will neuer eate nor drinke,' Robin Hood said,
        'Nor meate will doo me noe good,
          Till I haue beene att merry Churchlees,
        My vaines for to let blood.'

      2  'That I reade not,' said Will Scarlett,
        'Master, by the assente of me,
           Without halfe a hundred of your best bowmen
        You take to goe with yee.

      3  'For there a good yeoman doth abide
        Will be sure to quarrell with thee,
          And if thou haue need of vs, master,
        In faith we will not flee.'

      4 'And thou be feard, thou William Scarlett,
        Att home I read thee be:'
         'And you be wrothe, my deare master,
                You shall neuer heare more of mee.'
      5  'For there shall noe man with me goe,
        Nor man with mee ryde,
          And Litle Iohn shall be my man,
        And beare my benbow by my side.'

      6  'You'st beare your bowe, master, your selfe,
        And shoote for a peny with mee:'
          'To that I doe assent,' Robin Hood sayd,
        'And soe, Iohn, lett it bee.'

      7  They two bolde children shotten together,
        All day theire selfe in ranke,
          Vntil they came to a blacke water,
        And over it laid a planke,

      8  Vpon it there kneeled an old woman,
        Was banning Robin Hoode;
          'Why dost thou bann Robin Hoode?' said Robin,
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        [Half a page missing]

      9  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        'To giue to Robin Hoode;
           We weepen for his deare body,
        That this day must be lett bloode.'

      10 'The dame prior is my aunts daughter,
        And nie vnto my kinne;
            I know shee wold me noe harme this day,
        For all the world to winne.'

      11 Forth then shotten these children,
        And they did neuer lin,
           Vntill they came to merry Churchlees,
        To merry Churchlee[s] with-in.

      12 And when they came to merry Churchlees,
        They knoced vpon a pin;
           Vpp then rose dame prioresse,
        And lett good Robin in.

      13 Then Robin gaue to dame prioresse
        Tweny pound in gold,
           And bad her spend while that wold last,
        And she shold haue more when shee wold.

      14 And downe then came dame prioresse,
        Downe she came in that ilke,
           With a pair off blood-irons in her hands,
        Were wrapped all in silke.

      15 'Sett a chaffing-dish to the fyer,' said dame prioresse
        'And stripp thou vp thy sleeue:'
            I hold him but an vnwise man
        That will now warning leaeve..

      16 She laid the blood-irons to Robin Hoods vaine,
        Alacke, the more pitye!
            And pearct the vaine, and let out the bloode,
        That full red was to see.

      17 And first it bled, the thicke, thicke bloode,
        And afterwards the thinne,
           And well then wist good Robin Hoode
        Treason there was within.

      18 'What cheere my master?' said Litle Iohn;
        'In faith, Iohn, litle goode;'
      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [Half a page missing]
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
      19 'I haue upon a gowne of greene,
        Is cut short by my knee,
           And in my hand a bright browne brand
        That will well bite of thee.'

      20 But forth then of a shot-windowe
        Good Robin Hood he could glide;
             Red Roger, with a grounden glaue,
        Thrust him through the milke-white side.
      21 But Robin was light and nimble of foote,
        And thought to abate his pride,
         For betwixt his head and his shoulders
        He made a wound full wide.

      22 Says, ly there, ly there, Red Roger,
        The doggs they must thee eate;
           'For I may haue my houzle,' he said,
        'For I may both goe and speake.

      23 'Now giue me mood,' Robin said to Litle Iohn,
        'Giue me mood with thy hand;
            I trust to God in heauen soe hye
        My houzle will me bestand.'

      24 'Now giue me leaue, giue me leaue, master,' he said,
        'For Christs loue giue leaue to me,
           To set a fier within this hall,
        And to burne vp all Churchlee.'

      25 'That I reade not, said Robin Hoode then,
        'Litle Iohn, for it may not be;
            If I shold doe any widow hurt, at my latter end,
        God,' he said, 'wold blame me;

      26  'But take me vpon thy backe, Litle Iohn,
        And beare me to yonder streete,
             And there make me a full fayre graue,
        Of grauell and of greete.
      27 'And sett my bright sword at my head,
        Mine arrowes at my feete,
           And lay my vew-bow by my side,
        My met-yard wi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        [Half a page missing]

    The Death Scene from A Gest of Robyn Hode

    [Clearly the story of Robin Hood's death has been around longer than the versions of the ballad above.  The events of Robin's death are summarized at the end of a long early ballad.

    The surviving versions of the Gest were most likely composed around 1460 and printed near 1500 AD. It is one of the earliest ballads and by far the longest (divided into eight sections called fyttes) and most influential.  For a variety of reasons, I have not put the whole Gest on my site -- even though it's one of the best ballads. But here I offer a sample to compare with the ballads which came later. If you want to read the Gest in full, an annotated version appears at the Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester website.

    Movies often end with Robin Hood being pardoned by the king [Richard the Lionheart in the recent versions, but a king named Edward in the original ballad. Current scholarship by Thomas Ohlgren and others suggests that the ballad best reflects the time period of Edward III.]  And like in the films, the king comes to the greenwood in the disguise of an abbot.  He befriends and pardons Robin Hood.

    Click here to read that section of the Gest where the king meets and pardons Robin Hood.

    But most movies don't show what comes next. Here are the concluding stanzas of the Gest where Robin becomes an outlaw again, and eventually dies.]

    The Eighth Fytte (Continued)

      433 Had Robyn dwelled he kynges courte
         But twelue monethes and thre,
              That [he had] spent an hondred pounde,
         And all his mennes fe.
      434 In euery place where Robyn came
         Euer more he layde downe,
              Both for knyghtes and for squyres,
         To gete hym grete renowne.
      435 By than the yere was all agone
         He had no man but twayne,
               Lytell Johan and good Scathelocke,
          With hym all for to gone.
      436 Robyn sawe yonge men shote
         Full fayre vpon a day;
              'Alas!' than sayd good Robyn,
        'My welthe is went away.
      437 'Somtyme I was an archere good,
         A styffe and eke a stronge;
              I was compted the best archere
         That was in mery Englonde.
      438 'Alas!' then sayd good Robyn,
         'Alas and well a woo!'
              Yf I dwele lenger with the kynge,
         Sorowe wyll me sloo.'
      439 Forth than went Robyn Hode
         Tyll he came to our kynge;
               'My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
          Graunte me myn askynge.
      440 'I made a chapell in Bernysdale,
         That semely is to se,
              It is of Mary Magdaleyne,
        And thereto wolde I be.
      441 'I myght neuer in this seuen nyght
         No tyme to slepe ne wynke,
              Nother all these seuen dayes
         Nother ete ne drynke.
      442 'Me longeth sore to Bernysdale,
         I may not be therfro;
              Barefote and wolwarde I haue hyght
         Thyder for to go.'
      443 'Yf it be so,' than sayd our kynge,
         'It may no better be,
               Seuen nyght I gyue the leue,
          No lengre, to dwell fro me.'
      444 'Gramercy, lorde,' then sayd Robyn,
         And set hym on his kne;
              He toke his leue full courteysly,
        To grene wode then went he.
      445 Whan he came to grene wode,
         In a mery mornynge,
              There he herde the notes small
         Of byrdes mery syngynge.
      446 'It is ferre gone,' sayd Robyn,
         'That I was last here;
              Me lyste a lytell for to shote
         At the donne dere.'
      447 Robyn slewe a full grete harte;
         His horne than gan he blow,
               That all the outlawes of that forest
          That horne coud they knowe,
      448 And gadred them togyder,
         In a lytell throwe.
              Seven score of wyght yonge men
        Came redy on a rowe,

      449 And fayre dyde of theyre hodes,
         And set them on theyr kne:
              'Welcome,' they saydm 'our [dere] mayster,
         Under this grene-wode tre.'
      450 Robyn dwelled in grene wode
         Twenty yere and two;
              For all drede of Edwarde our kynge,
         Agayne wolde he not goo.
      451 Yet he was begyled, i-wys,
         Through a wicked woman,
               The pryoresse of Kyrkesly,
          That nye was of hys kynne:
      452 For the loue of a knyght,
         Sir Roger of Donkesly,
              That was her owne speciall;
        Full euyll mote they thee!
      453 They toke togyder theyr counsell
         Robyn Hode for to sle,
              And how they myght best do that dede,
         His banis for to be.
      454 Than bespake good Robyn,
         In place where as he stode,
              'To morow I muste to Kyrke[s]ly,
         Craftely to be leten blode.'
      455 Syr Roger of Donkestere,
         By the pryoresse he lay,
               And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
          Through theyr false playe.
      456 Cryst haue mercy on his soule,
         That dyed on the rode!
              For he was a good outlawe,
        And dyde pore men moch god.

    Now that you've finished the ballad cycle:

    NEXT: Prologue, an excerpt from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

    GO BACK TO: Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham (often seen as Robin's first crime)

    | BACK TO: The King's Disguise | TOP | CONTENTS | FORWARD TO: Prologue by Howard Pyle |

    Introductory text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2009.

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