The legend of Robin Hood is so old no one knows how old it is. Nearly a thousand years is a good, if imprecise, guess. Over the years, and all the stories, Robin changed.
First a yeoman, then elevated to a dispossessed aristocrat; once living under King Edward, then firmly and far more famously attached to Prince John and Richard the Lion Heart; sometimes more of a scoundrel, sometimes more of a hero; at one time primarily concerned with his own wild and merry life, and at another mainly concerned with defending the oppressed and ransoming the rightful king.
Although it’s fallen out of most modern re-tellings, Robin Hood used to be a solidly religious man. True, he robbed churchmen, but he robbed them because they were rich. He attended Mass at the risk of his neck – going into Nottingham, or holding a secret Mass in the greenwood and then refusing to flee when the sheriff came hot on his trail.
In one of the earliest stories Robin vowed himself a “true Christian man”. In part this was the ingrained forms of that day, and even the villains would swear by “the God that died”. Yet he was meant to hold it truly. One of the oldest ballads told that every day, before he would eat, Robin heard three Masses:
The one in the worshyp of the fader,
The other of the holy goost,
The thyrde was of our dere lady,
That he loved of all other moste.
Robyn loved our dere lady;
For doute of dedely synne,
Wolde he never do company harme
That ony woman was ynne.
G. K. Chesterton, at the beginning of his own poem about Robin Hood, quoted a translation of this last stanza:
Robin loved Our Dear Lady
And for doubt of deadly sin
Would never hurt a company
That any woman was in.
Another ancient song repeats the same sentiment:
Roben Hood was the yemans name,
That was boyt corteys and fre;
For the loffe of owr ladey,
All wemen werschep he.
In the Robin Hood movie starring Errol Flynn, the chivalrous respect for women lives on, but the reverence for Mary, from which it came, is lost.
But whatever changes were ever made to the legend of Robin Hood, some things are always the same. His boldness and his archery are constant through centuries of story-telling. More vitally, Robin Hood is always a rebel – whether against good authority or bad, or only for his own free life in the greenwood. His robbery is another inalterable element of the tale.
And despite that, there is a strain of goodness in Robin Hood that is never quite chased out. In some of the stories Robin’s nobility was little more than an ember in the ashes, in others it was a blazing fire ; in all of them you knew he was more than a common thief.
And all this was changeless because it, and not King Edward or King Richard or any social position, made Robin Hood himself.