By Allen W. Wright
To become a legend, Robin Hood needs bad guys to trick, outwit, rob, bedevil ... and sometimes behead. So, here's a look at some of the greedy, sadistic folks that make Robin Hood look so good.
Without question, Robin Hood's principal enemy is the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin has tricked the sheriff on many occasions and killed him at least three times.
More properly this bad guy would be the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As sheriff of these two counties, the Sheriff (or often his under-sheriff, the deputy who did much of the real work but was not mentioned in the legend) would be in charge of seizing an outlaw's property, administering the shires and collecting taxes. The sheriff is the legal authority in the Robin Hood legend, appointed by the king.
The sheriffs were unpaid by the king, and had to pay a yearly sum to hold the office. No matter. The sheriffs made enough money from their various duties to pay off the king and still make a handsome profit. There were many attempts to reform the sheriffs, but there were always some rotten apples.
The sheriffs that Robin Hood fights are greedy and corrupt, abusing their authority by collecting too many taxes. The sheriff might be the legal authority in Nottinghamshire, but he was most certainly not the moral authority.
The sheriff changes from story to story. He has different names, and often times he is given no name at all. His title is more important than the man. [Although details of the real-life sheriffs can be found at the Search for a Real Robin Hood section.]
In some stories, the sheriff is an overweight fool, mere comic relief to nastier foes. Other times, he's a smooth political operator with a sharp wit. Or he can be the leader of a magical cult. He can be silly, sinister or merely psychotic. Once in a while, the sheriff is portrayed as a good man doing an unpleasant job. Such interpretations are rare though. Usually, the Sheriff of Nottingham deserves everything Robin Hood does to him.
Robin Hood often wears disguises and tricks the sheriff into entering the forest. When the sheriff leaves the forest, he's been relieved of his cash, silverware and sometimes even his clothes. Once, Little John entered the sheriff's service. On a hunting trip, Little John promised to show the sheriff seven score of deer. Instead the corrupt official found himself facing 140 outlaws. Robin robbed him and only let him go after the sheriff promised not to bother the outlaws. The sheriff said he'd be the best friend Robin Hood ever had.
Once safe in Nottingham, the sheriff went back to his scheming ways. He concocted an archery contest to lure Robin Hood into a trap. But Robin Hood escaped the sheriff's trap and killed the sheriff for breaking his word. Robin cut off the Sheriff of Nottingham's head. Another story has Little John shooting the sheriff in the back.
Still, many times the sheriff does survive his encounters with Robin Hood. Once Robin Hood said he would have killed the sheriff if it weren't for the kindness of the sheriff's wife. (Would it be improper of me to suggest that Robin and the sheriff's wife might have been ... involved with each other?) In other stories, however, the sheriff is single. Sometimes he has no interest in women. Other times, he is entirely too interested in Maid Marian.
Click on these links to read some ballads where Robin Hood tricks the sheriff:
Sometimes the sheriff has sought help to capture or kill Robin Hood.
One day Robin Hood met a stranger in the greenwood. This odd man was dressed from head to foot in a horse's hide. The stranger told the outlaw that he was hunting Robin Hood.
Robin doesn't tell him who he is, but proposes an archery contest. The stranger shoots well, but Robin's archery skills are better. The stranger is amazed at how good Robin is and says he must be better that Robin Hood himself. The stranger wants to know his opponent's name. Robin refuses to until the stranger gives his own name.
The stranger introduces himself as Guy of Gisborne. Then, Robin announces that he is Robin Hood of Barnsdale, "a fellow thou has long sought."
Robin and Guy draw their swords and begin to fight. Guy wounds Robin in the side, but Robin recovers and with a backhanded stroke, he kills Guy of Gisborne.
Robin cuts off Guy's head, sticks it on his bow and mars Guy's face with an Irish knife. Then, Robin dresses in Guy's horse hide. Disguised as Guy, he goes in search of the sheriff who has captured Little John. The sheriff thinks Robin is Guy and surrenders Little John to the disguised outlaw. Robin and Little John escape, killing the sheriff as he flees back to Nottingham.
And that is the quick and bloody history of Guy of Gisborne.
Or, a history at least. The name was a good one. And now Gisborne (or Gisbourne or Gisburne) has become a recurring enemy of Robin Hood. In many tales, he is a rival for the affections of Maid Marian. Much to Guy's dismay, Marian chooses Robin.
In the original ballad, Gisborne is called Sir Guy, but he is only a yeoman like Robin. In other tales, Gisbourne is a true and powerful knight, even more important that the sheriff. And in yet other stories, he is a landless knight. This Gisburne acts like a school bully and is the sheriff's deputy and lackey. Other times, while Sir Guy commits evil acts, he is emotionally conflicted.
Whatever his lot in life, Sir Guy is one of Robin's most dangerous foes.
Over the centuries, Robin has amassed quite a rogue's gallery of foes.
Some are simple, good-natured tradesmen who Robin fights for the fun of it. Robin usually loses these fights. His opponents usually end up joining the Merry Men or at least part on good terms with the outlaw leader. But Robin has faced darker opponents like the sorcerer Simon de Belleme or Maudlin, the Witch of Papplewick. Robin's killed French pirates on the high sees. And Norman knights and robber barons fear the outlaw.
However, many of Robin's enemies are members of the church. In the early ballads, Robin is a devout Catholic. The churchmen he robs are rarely as devout.
One such enemy is a monk who spots Robin in a Nottingham church. The monk tells the sheriff where to find Robin Hood. Later Little John beheads this monk.
Robin Hood has also crossed swords with the Abbey of St. Mary's in York. Once he helped a knight pay his debt to the abbey. Robin doubled his money by relieving the abbey's chief steward of 800 pounds. One version of the legend says that the Abbot of St. Mary's and the Sheriff of Nottingham are brothers. Another says the prior of the same abbey was Robin's uncle Gilbert. In this story, Gilbert arranged the downfall and death of his kinsman.
Many bishops have regretted meeting Robin Hood. For example, Robin captured the Bishop of Hereford and forced this corrupt bishop to say a mass and do a dance. Click here to read the ballad Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.
But the worst of Robin's clerical foes is the Prioress of Kirklees. She is Robin's own cousin, and Robin went to her seeking medical help. Robin paid the Prioress 20 pounds to drain some of his blood (a common medieval healing practice). But the Prioress and her lover Roger of Doncaster, or Red Roger, conspired to drain away too much blood. Robin died because of their treachery.
Another of Robin's infamous foes is Prince (and later King) John. You can learn about this villain and his family in the next section.
Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2009.