Robin Hood

It  may seem strange that an outlaw, a thief and a robber, should be a favorite theme of song and of story, and continue to command the respect of mankind for centuries after the period of his existence: yet such is the fact in respect to the subject of the present sketch. He was born at Lockslay, near Nottingham, about the year 1150, and flourished during the time of Richard I. of England.

Nearly a century before this, William of Normandy had conquered England, and established the Norman sway in that realm. The great estates passed into the hands of French chiefs and barons; and while nearly all the higher ranks of society, at the period of which we speak, were French, the other classes consisted of native Saxons. Between these distinct races and orders, a natural jealousy existed, which was in no small degree cherished by the laws and policy of the government, which tended at once to oppress the people and extend the privileges of the nobles.

The game laws, which punished those who should kill game in the royal forests, by putting out the eyes, and other mutilations, excited the deepest indignation. The yeomanry of the country were, at this time, universally trained in the use of the bow, and, notwithstanding the severity of the laws, those living around the king's parks frequently shot the game. These persons were so numerous, that they finally associated together in considerable bands, for mutual protection. Many of them devoted themselves entirely to robbing the parks, and became not only skilful in the use of the bow, but familiar with the recesses and hiding-places of the forests, and expert in every device, either for plunder, concealment, or escape.

Of all the leaders of these several bands, Robin Hood became the most famous; for he was not only bold and skilful in forest craft, but he appears to have been guided by noble and patriotic sentiments. According to one of the many ballads which set forth his adventures, he displayed his courage and dexterity at a very early age.

"Robin Hood would into Nottingham go,
When the summer days were fine,
And there he saw fifteen foresters bold,
A drinking good ale and wine.

'What news? what news?' said bold Robin Hood,
'The news I fain would know;
If our king hath ordered a shooting match,
I am ready with my bow.'"

The foresters stared at him, and said, "We hold it a scorn for one so young, presuming to bear a bow, who is not able to draw a string." "I'll hold you twenty marks," said Robin, "that I will hit a mark a hundred rods off, and cause a hart to die." "We hold you twenty marks, by our lady's leave," replied the foresters, "that you neither hit the mark at that distance, nor kill a hart."

"Then Robin Hood bent his noble bow,
And a broad arrow he let fly;
He hit the mark a hundred rod,
And he caused a hart to die.

The hart did skip, and the hart did leap,
And the hart lay on the ground;
'The wager is mine,' said bold Robin Hood,
'An' 'twere for a thousand pounds.'"

The foresters laughed, and taunted the proud archer, and also refused to pay the twenty marks, and advised him to be gone, lest blows should follow. He picked up his arrows and his bow, and was observed to smile as he retired from these discourteous churls. When at some distance, he paused,—

"Then Robin he bent his noble bow,
And broad arrows he let flye;
Till fourteen of these fifteen foresters
Upon the ground did lye."

Sherwood forest, near Nottingham, was the chief theatre of Robin Hood's achievements. At one time he had no less than a hundred archers at his command, a gallant woodsman, by the name of Little John, being his particular friend and favorite. There was also among the merry crew, a mock friar, by the name of Tuck, who appears to have been full of mirth and humor.

Robin's orders to his men were, always to spare the common people; to aid and assist the weak; to be scrupulous never to injure or insult a woman; to be the friend of the poor, the timid, and the oppressed; but to plunder fat bishops, lazy friars, purse-proud squires, and haughty barons. His system was, to take from the rich, and give to the poor; and while he ever observed this rule himself, he enforced it rigorously among all his followers. His history is full of details in which he illustrates these principles.

Robin became so notorious at last, that a price was offered for his apprehension, and several attempts were made to deliver him up; but his courage and dexterity, or his faithful friends, always saved him. One of the old ballads relates an adventure with a stout tinker, who, among others, sought to capture the redoubted outlaw. According to this story, Robin met him in the greenwood, and bade him good morrow; adding, "pray where live ye, and what is your trade? I hear there are sad news stirring." "Aye, indeed!" answered the other; "I am a tinker, and live at Banbury, and the news of which you speak have not reached me."

"'As for the news,' quoth Robin Hood,
'It is but, as I hear,
Two tinkers were set in the stocks,
For drinking ale and beer.'

'If that be all,' the tinker said,
'As I may say to you,
Your tidings are not worth a groat,
So be they were all true.'"

"Well," said Robin, "I love ale and beer when they are good, with all my heart, and so the fault of thy brethren is small: but I have told all my news; now tell me thine."

"'All the news I have,' the tinker said,
'And they are news for good;
It is to seek the bold outlaw,
Whom men call Robin Hood.

I have a warrant from the king,
To take him where I can,
And if you can tell me where he dwells,
I will make of you a man.'"

"That I can readily do," replied the outlaw; "let me look at the warrant." "Nay, nay," said the tinker, "I'll trust that with no man." "Well," answered the other, "be it as you please; come with me, and I'll show you Robin Hood." To accomplish this, Robin took him to an inn, where the ale and wine were so good and plentiful, and the tinker so thirsty, that he drank till he fell asleep; and when he awoke, he found that the outlaw had not only left him to pay the reckoning, which was beyond his means, but had stolen the king's warrant. "Where is my friend?" exclaimed the tinker, starting up. "Your friend?" said mine host; "why, men call him Robin Hood, and he meant you evil when he met with you." The tinker left his working-bag and hammer as a pledge for the reckoning, and, snatching up his crab-tree club, sallied out after Robin. "You'll find him killing the king's deer, I'll be sworn," shouted the landlord; and, accordingly, among the deer he found him. "What knave art thou," said the outlaw, "that dare come so near the king of Sherwood?"

"'No knave, no knave,' the tinker said,
'And that you soon shall know;
Which of us have done most wrong,
My crab-tree staff shall show.'

Then Robin drew his gallant blade,
Made of the trusty steel,
But the tinker he laid on so fast,
That he made Robin reel."

This raised the outlaw's wrath, and he exerted his skill and courage so well, that the tinker more than once thought of flight; but the man of Banbury was stubborn stuff, and at last drove Robin to ask a favor.

"'A boon, a boon,' Robin he cries,
'If thou wilt grant it me;'
'Before I'll do 't,' the tinker said,
'I'll hang thee on a tree.'

But the tinker looking him about,
Robin his horn did blow;
Then unto him came Little John,
And brave Will Scarlet too."

"Now what is the matter, master," said Little John, "that you sit thus by the way-side?" "You may ask the tinker there," said Robin; "he hath paid me soundly." "I must have a bout with him, then," said the other, "and see if he can do as much for me." "Hold, hold," cried Robin; "the tinker's a jovial fellow, and a stout."

"'In manhood he's a mettled man,
And a metal man by trade;
Never thought I that any man
Should have made me so afraid.

And if he will be one of us,
We will take all one fare;
Of gold and good, whate'er we get,
The tinker he shall share.'"

The tinker was not a man of many words; he nodded assent, and added another bold forester to the ranks of the outlaw.

Robin and his friends were so sharply hunted by the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, that they deemed it prudent to retire to the forests of Barnesdale, where they gaily pursued their calling. Their interference in church matters, in various ways, gave offence to his reverence, the Bishop of Hereford, who declared that measures should be taken to repress the insolence of the outlaw, and he promised to look strictly into the matter the first time he chanced to be near Barnesdale. It was on a sunny morning that Robin heard of the bishop's approach, "with all his company," and his joy was excessive.

"'Go, kill me a fat buck,' said bold Robin Hood,
'Go slay me a fair fat deer;
The Bishop of Hereford dines with me to-day,
And he shall pay well for his cheer.'"

Accordingly, the deer was killed and skinned, and laid to the fire, and, with six of his men habited like shepherds, Robin was pacing round and round, as the wooden spit with its savory load revolved, when up came the Bishop of Hereford, who halted, and exclaimed, "What is all this, my masters? For whom do you make such a feast, and of the king's venison? Verily, I must look into this." "We are shepherds, simple shepherds, sir," replied the outlaw meekly. "We keep sheep the whole year round, and as this is our holiday, we thought there was no harm in holding it on one of the king's deer, of which there are plenty." "You are fine fellows," said the bishop, "mighty fine fellows; but the king shall know of your doings; so quit your roast, for to him you shall go, and that quickly."

"'O pardon, pardon,' cried bold Robin Hood,
'O pardon of thee I pray;
O it ill becomes a holy bishop's coat,
For to take men's lives away.'

'No pardon, no pardon,' the bishop he said,
'No pardon to thee I owe;
Therefore make haste, for I swear by St. Paul
Before the king you shall go.'"

Upon this, the outlaw sprung back against a tree, and setting his horn to his mouth, made in a moment all the wood to ring. It was answered, as usual, by the sudden appearance of threescore and ten of his comrades, who, with Little John at their head, overpowered the bishop's guard, and then inquired of Robin what was the matter that he blew a blast so sharp and startling.

"'O here is the Bishop of Hereford,
And no pardon shall we have;'
'Ho, cut off his head, then,' quoth Little John,
'And I'll go make him a grave.'

'O pardon, pardon,' then cried the bishop,
'O pardon of thee I pray;
O had I known that you were so near,
I'd have gone some other way.'"

Now Robin had no pleasure in shedding blood, but he loved to enjoy the terrors of those whom he captured: and to keep them in suspense, while he feasted them on the best, was a favorite practice of his. It was in this spirit that he now spoke:

"'No pardon, no pardon,' said bold Robin Hood,
'No pardon to thee I owe;
Therefore make haste, for I swear by my bow
That to Barnesdale with me you go.'

Then Robin he took the bishop by the hand,
And led him to merry Barnesdale,
And he supped that night in the clear moonlight,
On the good red wine and ale."

How this was to end, the bishop seems to have had a guess. The parody which the outlaw made on his threats of carrying him to the king, showed that he was in a pleasant mood; and the venison collops, and the wine and ale, all evinced a tendency to mercy; of which, as it was now late, he took advantage. "I wish, mine host," said the bishop, with a sort of grave good-nature, "that you would call a reckoning; it is growing late, and I begin to fear that the cost of such an entertainment will be high." Here Little John interposed, for Robin affected great ignorance in domestic matters, leaving the task of fleecing his guests to his expert dependents. "Lend me your purse, master," said his scrupulous deputy to the bishop, "and I'll tell you all by-and-by."

"Then Little John took the bishop's cloak,
And spread it upon the ground,
And out of the bishop's portmanteau
He told three hundred pound.

'Here's gold enough, master,' said Little John,
''Tis a comely thing for to see;
It puts me in charity with the good bishop,
Though he heartily loveth not me.'

Robin Hood took the bishop by the hand,
And causing the music to play,
He made the good bishop to dance in his boots,
And glad he could so get away."

If we may put trust in ballad and song, the loss of the three hundred pounds dwelt on the bishop's mind, and at the head of a fair company he went in quest of his entertainer. He had well nigh taken Robin by surprise, for he was upon him before he was aware; but the outlaw escaped into an old woman's house, to whom he called, "Save my life; I am Robin Hood, and here comes the bishop, to take me and hang me." "Aye, that I will," said the old woman, "and not the less willingly that you gave me hose and shoon, when I greatly needed them." It was thus that the robber always found friends among the poor, for he was uniformly their protector and benefactor.

According to one of the ballads, king Edward had become deeply incensed against Robin, and went to Nottingham to bring him to justice. But in vain did he seek to get a sight of him; at last, however, dressed in the disguise of a monk, he met him, and dined with him and his merry men in the forest. After a time, the king was recognised by the outlaw, who bent his knee in homage, and, upon an assurance of safety, went with him to Nottingham, where he was nobly entertained, in the midst of the court. He soon, however, became sick of this kind of life, and joyfully returned to the greenwood.

But there is no safeguard against the approach of death. Time and toil began to do with Robin Hood all that they do with lesser spirits. One morning he had tried his shafts, and found that they neither flew so far as they were wont, nor with their usual accuracy of aim; and he thus addressed Little John, the most faithful of his companions:—

"'I am not able to shoot a shot more,
Mine arrows refuse to flee;
But I have a cousin lives down below,
Who, please God, will bleed me.'"

Now this cousin was prioress of Kirkley Nunnery, in Yorkshire, and seems to have had no good-will to Robin, whom she doubtless regarded as a godless and graceless person, who plundered church and churchmen, and set laws, both sacred and profane, at defiance.

"Now Robin is to fair Kirkley gone,
He knocked low at the ring;
And none came there save his cousin dear,
To let bold Robin in.

'Thrice welcome now, cousin Robin,' she said;
'Come drink some wine with me;'
'No, cousin, I'll neither eat nor drink
Till I blooded am by thee.'"

She took him to a lonely room, and bled him, says the ballad, till one drop more refused to run: then she locked him in the place, with the vein unbound, and left him to die. This was in the morning; and the day was near the close, when Robin, thinking the prioress was long in returning, tried to rise, but was unable, and, bethinking him of his bugle when it was too late, snatched it up, and blew three blasts. "My master must be very ill," said Little John, "for he blows wearily," and, hurrying to the nunnery, was refused admittance; but, "breaking locks two or three," he found Robin all but dead, and, falling on his knee, begged as a boon to be allowed to "burn Kirkley Hall, with all its nunnery." "Nay, nay,"replied Robin, "I never hurt a woman in all my life, nor yet a man in woman's company. As it has been during my life, so shall it be at my end."

"'But give me my bent bow in my hand,
A broad arrow I'll let flee,
And where this shaft doth chance to fall,
There shall my grave digged be.

And lay my bent bow by my side,
Which was my music sweet;
And cover my grave with sod so green,
As is both right and meet.

And let me have breadth and length enough,
By the side of yon green wood,
That men may say, when they look on it,
Here lies bold Robin Hood.'"

Having given these directions, he died, and was buried as he directed, under some fine trees near Kirkley, and a stone with an inscription was laid on the grave. Little John, it is said, survived only to see his master buried. His burial-place is claimed by Scotland as well as by England; but tradition inclines to the grave in the church-yard of Hathersage.

The bond of union which had held his men so long together, was now broken; some made their peace with the government, others fled to foreign parts, and nothing remained of Robin Hood but a name which is to be found in history, in the drama, in ballads, in songs, in sayings, and in proverbs.