Shakespeare’s Historians


In his chronicle entitled History of Greater Britain (1520), John Major became one of the first writers to place the story of Robin Hood at the turn of the 12th century, the period with which it is now most commonly associated. As Major told it, during the reign of King Richard the First there lived a pair of famous robbers named “Robert Hood (Robertus Hoodus) and Little John [who] spoiled of their goods only that were wealthy.” These outlaws “took the life of no man unless…he attacked them or offered resistance in defense of his property. Robert supported by his plundering one hundred bowmen, ready fighters every one, with whom four hundred of the strongest would not dare to engage in combat.” It was Robert Hood’s renown that he “would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbotts.”

Not everyone was convinced of the time period as proposed by Major. Hector Boecius (a.k.a. Boece, Boetius) had this to say in his Chronicles of Scotland (1531): “King Hary & his son Edward had weir aganis Symon Norfort & otheris sundry nobleis of Inglad…. About this tyme was sy waithman Robert hode with his fallow litil Johne, of quho ar mony fabillis & mery sportis song among the vulgar pepyil.”

Holinsheds-chroniclesYears later, Boecius was the primary source for Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison when they published their own speculations about “Robin Hood, that notable and most famous outlaw” in their Chronicles (1587). They too noted the “manie fables and merie jests devised and sung amongst the vulgar people” about the legendary thief, and they perpetuated the belief that Robin “with his fellow Little John” may have plied their trade sometime between 1254 and 1270, during the reign of Henry III. They acknowledged, however, that John Major “writteth that they lived (as he doth gesse) in the dayes of King Richard I, 1198.”

Richard Grafton followed the lead of Major instead of Boecius when he wrote his Chronicle; or History of England (1569), providing a much more detailed (though, of course, unsubstantiated) account: But in an olde and auncient Pamphlet I finde this written of the sayd Robert Hood. This man (sayth he) discended of a nobel parentage: or rather beyng of a base stocke and linage, was for his manhoode and chivalry advaunced to the noble dignité of an Erle. Excellyng principally in Archery, or shootyng, his manly courage agreeyng therunto: But afterwardes he so prodigally exceeded in charges and expences, that he fell into great debt, by reason wherof, so many actions and sutes were commenced against him, wherunto he aunswered not, that by order of lawe he was outlawed, and then for a lewde shift, as his last refuge, gathered together a companye of Roysters and Cutters, and practised robberyes and spoylyng of the kynges subjects, and occupied and frequentede the Forestes or wilde Countries. The which beyng certefyed to the King, and he beyng greatly offended therewith, caused his proclamation to be made that whosoever would bryng him qGrafton's_Chronicleuicke or dead, the king would geve him a great summe of money, as by the recordes in the Exchequer is to be seene: But of this promise, no man enjoyed any benefite. For the sayd Robert Hood, beyng afterwardes troubled with sicknesse, came to a certein Nonry in Yorkshire called Bircklies, where desirying to be let blood, he was betrayed and bled to deth. After whose death the Prioresse of the same place caused him to be buried by the high way side, where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way. And upon his grave the sayde Prioresse did lay a very fayre stone, wherin the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldesborough and others were graven. And the cause why she buryed him there was for that the common passengers and travailers knowyng and seeyng him there buryed, might more safely and without feare take their jorneys that way, which they durst not do in the life of the sayd outlawes. And at eyther end of the sayde Tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seene there at this present.

John Stowe, too, employed Major’s time frame when he wrote his Annales of England (1592). In Stowe’s account, there were “many robbers and out-lawes” in England during King Richard’s reign, the most renowned of whom were “Robert Hood and Little John.” While this pair of thieves “entertained an hundred tall men, and good archers” to commit their crimes, they were restrained by Robert Hood’s unwavering priniciples. “He suffered no woman to be oppressed, violated or otherwise molested:   Poor men’s goods he spared, aboundantly relieving them with that which by theft he got from Abbeys and the houses of rich Earls.” For these reasons, Hood was esteemed among robbers and highwaymen as their “Prince, and the most gentle Theefe.”

In 1632 Martin Parker wrote of Robin Hood (“Instiled Earle of Huntington, Lord Robert Hood by name”) in his influential tribute “A True Tale of Robbin Hood.” Here are a few excerpts from that poetic work:

In courtship and magnificence
His carriage won him praise
And greater favour with his prince
Than any in his days.

In bounteous liberality
He too much did excell,
And loved men of quality
More than exceeding well.
. . . 

Full 13 years and something more 
these outlaws lived thus —
Feared of the rich, loved of the poor,
a thing most marvelous.

The wording of the final stanza above is drawn from an epitaph which supposedly graced the outlaw’s gravestone, as recorded by Parker:

Decembris quarto die, 1198:
anno regni Richardii Primi 9.Robin hood's grave
Robert Earl of Huntington
Lies under this little stone
No archer was like him so good

His wildness named him Robin Hood
Full 13 years & something more
These northern parts he vexed sore
Such outlaws as he & his men
May England never know again




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