Robin Hood is a figure of English legend and folklore dating to the late Middle Ages. Whether Robin Hood was a historic figure or at least based on more than one historic is a controversial subject. Different scholars have given very different answers.
The earliest reference to a Robin Hood appears to be in 1228 in the records kept by English Justices (judges). The terms "Robinhood", "Robehod" "Hobbehod", "Robyn Hude" were interchangeable and all used in the records to denote fugitives, outlaws and (more rarely) insurrectionists. There is a reference from 1439 which gives the characterization to Piers Venables. Venables was an outlaw who "went into the woods" and assembled many "misdoers" around him. That his actions were reminiscent of Robin Hood may mean that the Robin Hood story was already well-known. It is unknown when Robin Hood ceased to be used as a short-hand term for insurrectionists. In 1605, Guy Fawkes and his associates were characterized as "Robin Hoods" by political opponents.
There also appears to be a literary tradition about Robin in the late Middle Ages. The poem "Piers Plowman" (1360s-1380s) by William Langland features a priest who knows how to sing "Robyn Hood" rhymes better than he knows church hymns. The "Scotichronicon", a 14th century history of Scotland which was revised and expanded a century later, mentions Robin Hood as a historical figure. In fact the chronicle writer has him as one of the supporters of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, the man who led a 13th century Parliamentarian revolution against Henry III of England. The chronicle writer may have identified Robin with Roger Godberd, a historical outlaw. Roger was a supporter of Montfort. When their side lost the civil war, he spend four years as an outlaw before arrested. Roger's hiding place was Sherwood Forest.
There are surviving stories, poems and songs about Robin from the 15th century onward. The earliest known place him either in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire or Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire. The two areas are right next to each other. A 16th century tradition places his birth in Loxley, a small village in South Yorkshire. By the 18th century the location of his grave had been identified with Kirklees Priory, a Cistercian monastery of Yorkshire.
The earliest stories depict him as a champion of the lower classes. He is featured as pious in the worship of Mary, Mother of God and generally protective of women but notable in his anti-clericalism. His enemies include wealthy and corrupt church figures. He is an outstanding archer but sword and knives also appear among his weapons. Little John, Much the Miller's Son and Will Scarlet appear as his companions in works dating between the 1420s and the 1450s. Friar Tuck is added to the legend c. 1475. There was a Robert Stafford, a historic outlaw who used the alias "Frere Tuk" in the 1410s and 1420s. He could have been immortalized in outlaw songs and added with Robin by a later generation.
Maid Marian, his love interest, is more of a mystery. She appears already associated with Robin in May Games festivities of the early Tudor Era (1485 - 1603). But she is generally missing from surviving stories that predate the era. However there was the famous French story "Jeu de Robin et Marion" (13th century) featuring the romance of a shepherdess called Marion and a Robin. These Marion and Robin became stock character in romances. English variations may have chosen to identify the Robin of romance with the outlaw. Thus merging two traditions to one.
The era of activity for Robin is another little mystery. The earliest ballads feature a "King Edward". This could be Edward I (reigned 1272 - 1307), Edward II (1307 - 1327) or Edward III (1327 - 1377). Edward IV (reigned 1461 - 1470) was reigning in an England where Robin Hood was already famous. The 15th century "Scotichronicon" has him active late in the reign of Henry III (reigned 1216 - 1272). The Tudor Era Tales place him even earlier in the reigns of Richard I (reigned 1189 - 1199) and John (reigned 1199 - 1216). While this version was popularized later it is considered the least likely to be accurate. However these versions place Robin in the reign of every king of England between 1189 and 1377, 188 years in all. This is far from pointing a precise historical placement for him.
His social position is also controversial. The earliest tales have him as a yeoman. An imprecise position, the yeoman was understood to be superior to a peasant and inferior to a knight. The Tudor Tales promoted him to a nobleman, if one who has lost his fortune, and even granted him the rank "Earl of Huntingdon", a historic position in the Peerage.
Scholars have searched for a historic Robin Hood in several English or British outlaws who had a wide reputation in the Middle Ages. Hereward the Wake (11th century), Eustace the Monk (13th century pirate), Fulk FitzWarin (late 12th century/13th century). Fulk in particular was said in legend to be a landed gentleman turned outlaw due to quarrels with King John. Not that different from the Tudorian Robin Hood. Even William Wallace, a Scott, has been suggested as a figure influencing the English legends of Robin.
The name "Robin" itself was a common diminutive for "Robert". There are obscure references to a Robert Hood who was an outlaw in the reign of Henry III . Another man of the same name seems to have been outlawed briefly in the reign of Edward II before hired in the service of the King. They have both been theorized to be the historic Robin Hood. "Hood" was also "a common dialectical form of wood". Since the 16th century there appear aliases based on that, such as Robin Wood, Whood, or Whod. Dating to about the same time is the alias "Robert of Locksley". A 18th century genealogist suggested the name Robert Fitzooth. Both aliases were used in later fiction, enough to be easily recognizable.
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