CHANGES TO THE LEGEND
Early on, the official opinion on Robin Hood was not favourable. Oh, in the eyes of the public, he was a hero. But according to historians and other busybodies, he was a hooligan and a murderer -- someone not to be trusted.
That soon changed. John Major remarked on how Robin Hood was the humanest of robbers, and noted that the outlaw enriched the poor with "the plunder taken from abbots". And slowly, people started to have a kinder opinion of that merry rogue. This led to the major change mentioned in the first section below.
And Major's dating of the legend was copied and repeated by others. By the time of Elizabeth I, Robin Hood was associated with King Richard I and his much-maligned brother John. Although, as you'll see below, Robin still manages to show up elsewhen from time to time.
Other changes began to happen. For example, characters from other outlaw legends like Adam Bell and Gamelyn (who shows up as in the ballads as Young Gamewell, the true name of Will Scarlet) met Robin Hood. And Robin took on even more traits of real outlaws like Fulk fitz Warin and Hereward.
And Robin Hood was given a home town, Locksley (most likely Loxley in Yorkshire).
New stories were told. New elements added to the old stories. For example, a manuscript from around 1600 tells the story of how Robin Hood became an outlaw -- a story that no one told in the early years (that we know of). In this tale, Robin was outlawed when he killed some foresters because they refused to pay up on a bet. The story is recorded in the later ballad, Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham. This Sloane manuscript's Life of Robin Hood summarizes the pre-existing Gest, but also borrows elements from later ballads -- the earliest surviving copies appearing decades after the Sloane MS. It is the Sloane MS which contains the first reference of Loxley as Robin's birthplace.
But that wasn't the only origin story our bold outlaw was given. Not by a long chalk.
ended up being very different than his medieval incarnation.
There was a curious side effect to Robin Hood's improving reputation. He was thought to be a good man and very noble. Somewhere along the line Robin Hood was went from being noble to being a noble.
Richard Grafton in his 1569 Chronicle at Large
, challenged the traditional social status of Robin as yeoman.
But an olde auncient Pamphlet I finde this written of the sayd Robert Hood. This man (sayeth he) discended of a noble parentage: or rather beyng of a base stocke and lineage, was for his manhood and chiuarly aduanced to the noble dignitie of an Erle.In Grafton, Robin is outlawed after he goes into debt -- an origin that is used in later works that make Robin Hood an earl. [In the Gest , Robin also falls into debt, although that is towards the end of the tale.]
There's some debate about how authentic this "olde auncient Pamphlet" was. Knight feels Grafton was not the type to invent his sources. However, this would not have been the first time a non-existent pamphlet was used to add to a medieval legend.
But the veracity of a chronicler is not that important. It wasn't long before playwrights also bestowed Robin with the title of earl -- Earl of Huntingdon, to be exact.
Shakespeare's contemporary Anthony Munday (with help from Henry Chettle) made Robin the star of two Elizabethan tragedies, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington .
I use the term "star" very loosely. Robin dies in the first act of Death . The rest of the play borrows from an Elizabethan poem where King John pursues a woman named Matilda. (Munday's plays make Marian an alias for Matilda Fitzwater, based after the semi-historical and legendary FitzWalter.)
Robin has a reduced presence in other Elizabethan plays in which he appears, and very little from the ballads are used. Knight is very critical of this trend when he writes, "the Summer Lord of the play-game and ballad has been frozen into inactive aristocracy."
To give an example of the Elizabethan Robin Hood, here is Sir Doncaster,
a bad guy from the Munday plays explaining his paper-thin motivation for
"I hate thy cousin, Earle of Huntington,
And in 1746, Dr. William Stukeley combed through old family records, changed a name here, forged a whole family there, and "discovered" the quite fictitious, Robert fitz Ooth, Norman lord of Kime and pretended earl of Huntingdon. This fictional name was used by many latter writers.
Sources and Further Reading:
Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2010.