Robin Hood is a legendary English outlaw, known principally from medieval ballads. He has become one of the best-known British folk heroes. One reason for his enduring fame may be that as the legend developed, so did his attributed skills, alleged accomplishments and gallantry: although an outlaw, he had an unshakable code of honour. His chief attribute was that he only stole from people according to their means; further, he did not keep more of his booty than was needed to sustain himself and his band of followers, but gave most of what he took to charity, as captured in the maxim that he ‘robbed from the rich and gave to the poor’. Robin and his men were said to have been superior archers and swordsmen, to have pledged themselves to saving people from injustice, and upholding the honour of all women. In later stories, Robin is also presented as a loyalist, helping to ‘hold England for Richard, against the would-be usurper, his brother Prince John, later King John of England. Robin is joined by band of helpers who have also become well known, the 'Merry Men'; they include Little John, a large and very strong man called 'Little' as a joke, Friar Tuck, and Robin's love interest, Maid Marian. Over the years, countless stories, plays, teleplays and films have been created with Robin Hood as either the protagonist or a featured player, and the trend continues up through the present day.
The historical origins of the story are uncertain. Official records dated 1225-7 refer to a fugitive from justice in the York area named Robert Hod or Hobbehod, who has been suggested as a possible original for the story, though it seems likely that stories of a variety of outlaws with different names came to be attached to Robin. From 1261 onwards, examples are found in various records around the country of people surnamed Robinhood or similar. At this place and time surnames were not hereditary, so they were rather in the nature of nicknames. These occurrences suggest there was already a well-known character after whom they were named. There is a reference to poems about Robin Hood in the work of William Langland in 1377, but that gives no information.
The next sources are two Scottish historians from the first half of the 15th century, who date Robin Hood and Little John to 1283-5 and 1266 respectively. Shortly after, around 1450, we have the first surviving stories. There are three short stories and a long collection. Two of the short stories present Robin and John's conflicts with the Sheriff of Nottingham and their hideout in Sherwood Forest. The third, in contrast, places Robin in Barnsdale in the West Riding of Yorkshire; it also mentions Guy of Gisborne. The long collection, The Gest of Robyn Hode, is set mainly in Barnsdale and nearby Wentbridge, but includes some Nottingham and Sherwood material as well, and says Robin died at Kirklees Priory in the West Riding. It refers to the king of the time as Edward, and the details of a royal progress it describes have been used to establish its identity with one made by Edward II in 1323.
Robin Hood plays were being performed by 1425, but early texts have not survived. A fragment from 1475 features Guy of Gisborne and Friar Tuck. The latter was a real individual (though under a pseudonym), an outlaw in Surrey and Sussex (nowhere near Robin Hood country) in the period 1417-1429 (long after Robin Hood could have lived). Similarly, Maid Marion starts to be associated with Robin by about 1500. She originates from a 13th-century French play featuring a completely different Robin.
A Scottish historian writing in 1521 dates Robin and John to 1193-4. In the early stories Robin is essentially a criminal. The idea that he robbed the rich to give to the poor appears in 16th- and 17th-century sources. Another 16th-century development is the idea that he was of noble birth: Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.
An epitaph noted around 1700 gives the date of his death as 1247. A late development is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), where "Robin of Locksley", later revealed as Robin Hood, is one of the leaders who thwart the Norman barons who have abducted the (Saxon) heroine and others.
By the 20th Century, the tradition and its subsequent literary embellishments had been synthesised into a standard tale that informs the modern Robin Hood canon. In modern variants of the story, a Saxon knight, usually described as one Baron Loxley, returns from the Crusades to find that his ancestral home and possessions have been seized (or destroyed) by the local Norman administrators. Unable to retrieve his estate and chattels by honest means, Loxley turns bandit and hides out in Sherwood Forest.
In recent times there have been a large number of book, film and television adaptations.
The Robin Hood ballads were first collected and published in 1795 by Joseph Ritson, an antiquarian who was known as cantankerous but scrupulous (over-scrupulous according to Walter Scott). He confidently pronounced that "Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the county of Nottingham, in the reign of King Henry the Second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble, and his true name Robert Fitzooth . . ."