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Robin Hood in the Sixteenth Century: One Outlaw or Several?

Monday, 02 March 2015

Several students from Bolton School attended a fascinating lecture by Professor Richard Hoyle which considered how the Robin Hood tales were interpreted by different generations throughout the sixteenth century. Professor Hoyle is currently at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and has held chairs at the Universities of Central Lancashire and Reading. The lecture was the last of the Bolton branch of the Historical Association’s 2014-15 series which have been held at Bolton School Girls’ Division. 

Professor Hoyle, a leading economic and social historian of early modern England, told how Robin Hood, the man and the story, was recreated again and again throughout history and embellished by each generation. In this respect, he is similar to the fictional Sherlock Holmes. His will-o’-the-wisp quality makes him difficult to pin down, difficult to locate in time and space, and the storyline easily adaptable by successive generations. 

The oldest story, The Gest of Robyn Hode, locates Robin in South Yorkshire and there is, initially, no Maid Marian or Friar Tuck and he is not imbued with a social conscience. This tale, which interweaves four stories, was without women and without humour. It did not openly address class conflict but it was anti-clerical and it dealt with judicial corruption, loyalty and justice.   

The Professor then explained how Robin disappeared from the view of polite society after the reign of Henry VIII but that the tales were kept alive through acting and storytelling at  pageants and festivals until it was revived towards the end of the sixteenth century in ballad form. Gradually the tale began to incorporate all the key ingredients that we associate with it today, including Robin as a force for good as he robs the tax collectors to give to the poor whilst Richard I is absent on the crusades, and the development of characters such as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and his band of loyal men including Little John and Friar Tuck. Only a small set of the ballads were printed, some were “ballad nasties” that contained gratuitous violence (such as the decapitation of Guy of Gisborne), whilst others were polite and gentile ballads; the majority were spoken and have since been lost.  By the end of the century, Robin was reinvented again for polite audiences as a fallen nobleman, the Earl of Huntingdon, whose land had been confiscated by his uncle, the Abbot of St Mary. The story now was about malgovernment and dispossession. 

The Professor concluded his well attended lecture by saying Robin Hood was an attractive tale and some of its longevity was due to it being so malleable: the eponymous hero was indeed several outlaws depending on which generation was relating his story.

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Professor Hoyle and Sixth Form girls at Bolton School

Professor Hoyle and Sixth Form girls at Bolton School