In one form or another, we have all heard the tales of Robin Hood – the roguish outlaw of Sherwood Forest roaming Nottinghamshire in search of adventures, fighting the dastardly Sheriff and doing true good in a time when the law protects the evil and greedy. An equally famous detail of the story we all know today is that the adventures of Robin Hood take place in the reign of good King Richard the Lionheart, who spends most of the tale away fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land, all the while his evil brother, Prince John, divides the country as he sees fit. Like with most ancient and medieval legends that have survived to the present day, these stories have seen centuries of evolution and change. A lot of similar stories from around the same time have been swallowed by the ever-growing Hood mythos, for example, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck have been shown to have come from later or separate traditions. For decades, scholars have tried to pick apart the stories of Robin Hood and compare what remains to real historical documentation to see if it’s possible to track down the real outlaw, if he existed. In dissecting the stories we love, the oldest known ballads of Hood have challenged the very facts we associate with the beloved hero. For a start, the ballads mention plenty of instances of Hood and his men robbing from the rich, but there is no mention of giving to the poor. Rather than being the incarnation of true, fair justice, this earlier version sees the outlaw in a much more brutal role. And majorly, rather than being set in the reign of Richard, the ballads mention Robin and his men being pardoned by a different king entirely.
So, the question remains, if Robin was real, which king did he really serve and/or fight against?
In our search for answers, we turn to one of the earliest ballads titled The Geste of Robyn Hode, which follows a collection of the Merry Men’s adventures in the Greenwood. At the end of the Sixth section, or fytte, the last line states ‘Tyll that I have gete us grace, Of Edwarde, our comly kynge,’ then the seventh fytte goes on to tell the story of the English king who dresses as a monk and allows himself to be caught by Hood so that he may see the truth of the man’s character. The ‘comly kynge’, or comely king, is not called Richard, but Edward. While this may be a seemingly destructive clue, derailing everything we think we know about Hood, this actually frees the dating of the stories and gives us a wider field to search for an outlaw of flesh and blood.
Given the publication of this ballad, around the early 16th century going by surviving prints, there can only be three King Edwards who could have met Hood and his Merry Men, them being Edward I, II, and III. Of the three, Edward I is the most unlikely given the timing and the socio-economic conditions of the country at the time. Edward III is more likely, but most scholars accept that Edward II is the prime suspect for Edward the Comely King. Given his unpopularity at the time of his late reign, there is reason to believe that social unrest would force a lot of men to take to the forest and survive by robbing travellers on the road. The Lancastrian Revolt or the Despenser War, previously discussed on the Historian’s Magazine (edition 9), gave rise for many disbanded men-at-arms of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, to take to the woods in this manner and continue their rebellion against the unpopular king as a guerrilla war.