The Robin Hood legends may have grown up about some actual victim of the harsh forest laws of old England. Robin Hood is said to have lived from 1160 to 1247. Some accounts state that he was created earl of Huntingdon by Richard the Lion-Hearted. Most of the legends say that Robin Hood died at Kirklees Priory, in Yorkshire. Near the ruins of this priory is a grave supposed to be Robin's. The epitaph (with the spelling modernized) reads:
"Here underneath this little stone Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. Ne'er archer was as he so good And people called him Robin Hood. Such outlaws as he and his men Will England never see again."
Below is a statement that Robin died in 1247. Some believe the inscription, which is in 18th-century lettering, is a copy from an earlier and genuine stone. Most scholars, however, doubt this. An argument against the hero's existence is the fact that he is mentioned by no historian of the time during which he is supposed to have lived. The events referred to in the stories could not all have occurred in his lifetime.
Robin Hood probably was a mythical character, first introduced into England in connection with the May-Day celebrations. The earliest record of a "Robin" associated with such festivities is in the rustic plays given at Whitsuntide in France in the 13th century. The hero was called Robin des Bois (Robin of the Woods). An old English spelling of "wood" was whode, which could easily have become hode, or hood. At any rate, in the 15th century and later the May-Day celebrations in England were called "Robin Hood's Festivals." Garlands of flowers, a Maypole, morris dances, archery contests, and bonfires were features of the celebrations. Robin Hood was king of May, and Maid Marian was his queen.
Robin Hood represents the ideal of the common people of England in the later Middle Ages. He stands for liberty and the rights of the people against unjust laws and the tyranny of the nobles.
Between 30 and 40 Robin Hood ballads have been preserved. Some date from the 14th century. He is referred to in 'The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman', by William Langland (about 1400). A life of the hero in verse, entitled the 'Little Gest [tale of adventures] of Robin Hood', was compiled from a number of the older ballads and printed about 1500. A ballad, 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne', is given in Thomas Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry' (1765).
From about the end of the 16th century Robin became a subject for dramas and operas. Alfred Tennyson's drama 'The Foresters' is based on legends of the outlaw. Reginald De Koven wrote a light opera entitled 'Robin Hood'. There have been several motion pictures based upon Robin Hood's legendary life.
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