Our eponymous hero makes his debut in writing in the late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, which is commonly attributed to William Langland, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was a timely moment for the outlaw to enter literature: English literature as we know it was starting to emerge, and the Peasants’ Revolt – one leader of which, the priest John Ball, even quoted from Langland’s poem – occurred in 1381, shortly after Robin Hood first appeared on the literary scene. It was a time when the social order of England was being challenged and feudalism was rapidly declining. The oldest surviving work of literature to detail Robin’s adventures is the anonymous fifteenth-century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode. The early printer Wynkyn de Worde helped to get some of the first Robin Hood tales into print, around fifty years later: by then, Robin Hood was well and truly part of the English literary landscape.
But where exactly is Robin’s landscape? Why is Doncaster and Sheffield’s airport named after Robin Hood, if the plucky outlaw lived in Nottinghamshire? There are several reasons. First, the earliest stories which mention Robin Hood are set in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire. Robin Hood’s original home was Barnsdale Forest, not Sherwood (and in any case, the majority of the remaining woodland of Sherwood Forest is actually in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire). A Gest, for instance, makes no mention of Sherwood Forest. A Gest is, however, our source of many of the familiar features of the Robin Hood story, and many of the characters – Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son – first appeared in this anonymous poem. Robin Hood’s cloak was scarlet in some of the Robin Hood tales: one nineteenth-century poem, for instance, has Robin in scarlet while his men don the famous Lincoln green.
Nottingham, while we’re at it, derives its name from Snotingaham, the original name for the Saxon settlement that stood on the site of the present city: Snot was the Saxon chieftain who settled there, and somewhere along the way the initial ‘S’ was dropped.
In the original Gest story, Robin’s king wasn’t the absent crusading Richard the Lionheart (reigned 1189–99) – A Gest refers to ‘King Edward’, not Richard or John, and this puts Robin Hood later in English history, some time after 1272 when Edward I ascended the throne.
The idea of Robin being an outlawed nobleman, Robin of Locksley, is far more recent: it derives from Sir Walter Scott’s celebrated medieval romance Ivanhoe (1820). This novel has also been credited with helping to popularise medieval history for a generation of later writers and artists, among them Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. More recently, Scott’s novel provided the blockbuster 1991 movie starring Kevin Costner, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its source material for the character of Robin Hood (who is known throughout as ‘Robin of Locksley’; Locksley, by the way, provides us with another Yorkshire connection, since Loxley is the name of a village and suburb of the city of Sheffield in South Yorkshire). Sadly Hollywood spoiled the film (as usual) with Costner playing Robin with an unashamedly American accent, although not nearly as bad as John Wayne in The Greatest Story Ever Told.