Whether or not Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of English folklore ever really ever existed…is entirely up in the air. At best, Robin Hood can be said to be an amalgamation of a variety of actual outlaws from the period, at worse, he would be seen as the romanticised figure of the age. But while Robin Hood may not have been a real person, his world and everything about it, still fascinates us to this day. Just a few years back, we watched Russell Crowe in “Robin Hood”, in 2010. So, centuries after the time he lived, we remain enthralled with this fantastical figure who may never even have lived.
Robin Hood was an outlaw, who lived in Sherwood Forest in the English midlands county of Nottinghamshire. So famous is his legend that the flag of Nottinghamshire even has a picture of Hood on there! Hood was known as an archer, a swordsman, and as a crusader of sorts, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Here, we’ll look at the various parts of his legend and just how romantic and brave they really were.
Robin Hood: Outlaw at Large
Before Robin Hood was anything else, an archer, rider, horseman and all-round good-guy, he is most famously known as being an outlaw, living in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Gee, it must be nice, living in the midst of nature with your band of merry men and the Maid Marion, holding up stagecoaches, and giving money and food to the needy.
In Medieval times, being an outlaw was a real problem. To become an outlaw, you had to have committed a crime, of course. And if the prosecuting party (the king, the local sheriff or landlord) did not want you executed, he could simply declare you to be an outlaw. Or, in the Latin legalese: Caput Lupinum.
To be an outlaw meant that the law no-longer applied to you. You were literally ‘outside’ the law. You had no obligation to follow it. However, this also meant that the law had no obligation, thereafter, to protect you! Enter ‘Caput Lupinum‘.
It literally means ‘Head of the Wolf‘, or ‘Wolf’s Head’. To be branded a wolf’s head outlaw meant that, not only were you outside the law, and its protection, it also meant that you would forever be hunted…like a wolf. And, like a wolf, anyone who killed you, no matter how it was done, no matter where it was done, automatically received the king’s royal pardon. There was no price or penalty to be paid by anyone for the death of a wolf. Or an outlaw. They were considered scum, and anyone who successfully killed an outlaw was seen as doing the king (and his subjects) a favour.
Robin Hood: The Archer
In the days of Robin Hood, the main long-range weapon was the bow and arrow. Known since antiquity, bows and arrows were simple, but lethal weapons, able to bring death to its target from several yards away. Robin Hood was supposed to be an excellent archer, able to hit targets from impossible distances with remarkable accuracy.
But what was the reality of medieval archery?
To be an archer took great skill. Skill and experience gained over years of practice. It took skill to aim and shoot reliably. But it also took great strength. No weakling would be able to simply pick up a bow, load an arrow and fire it. Considerable arm-strength was required to force the bowstring back to produce the energy required to fire an arrow over dozens of yards, and hit with enough force to kill or at least injure your enemy, or quarry.
Before the age of firearms, archers were essential in any army. Able to stand well back from the field of battle and rain down volley after volley of lethal fire from above, from the relative safety of a hilltop, or behind a castle wall. Since archers were so important, in England, the practice of archery was made a law. Anyone desirous of becoming an archer had to train from the age of seven (co-incidentally, the same age that a boy training to be a knight, also had to start from!), to build up the speed, strength and accuracy required to reliably fire a bow and arrow. In villages and towns, archery-practice was mandatory; at least two hours a day, at least once a week. Usually, this was two hours on Sundays, since that was the one time that people in the community gathered together, for church. After religious services, the men would go out for target-practice every week.
Although bows came in several shapes and sizes, for a full-grown male, the weapon of choice was usually the military longbow. Made from the wood of the yew tree, the longbow was not named-so for nothing. Up to five or six feet high, a longbow was generally designed to fire an arrowshaft up to nearly three feet long!
The first book written in English, on the subject of the longbow, and on archery in general, was produced in the mid-1540s, by Roger Ascham (1515-1568). An educated man of letters, Ascham was a private tutor, and a university lecturer. He also happened to be Princess Elizabeth’s Latin tutor; so when he wrote his book, (titled “Toxophilus“), he dedicated it to King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father.
The Sheriff of Nottingham
We don’t generally associate sheriffs with England, do we? They’re something you find in the United States, along with their cohorts, the sheriff’s deputy. But the sheriff actually originates in England.
Originally, areas of land in England were governed by Ealdormen. Literally ‘Elder Man’ or ‘Older man’, meaning a man of age, and therefore, experience. These men were royal officials and were in charge of keeping law and order within their allotments of land. The position survives today in the word ‘alderman’.
Eventually, the alderman died out in that capacity, and his duties were taken over by another man: The Sheriff.
The original title was “Shire Reeve”. A shire is a stretch of land, synonymous with the word ‘County’. A shire reeve was the administrative official responsible for the preservation of law and order within that shire. Eventually, the two words were melted into the one word: “Sheriff”.
Much like a modern sheriff, the sheriff of Robin Hood’s day was responsible for the upholding of the law, such as the capture of outlaws like Robin Hood.