Robin Hood’s Family Tree: I have been fascinated with the legend of Robin Hood since my childhood. Stories, films and tv series about the outlaw fired my love of the past. It led me to an interest in historical research and in later years I have become a genealogist and family historian.
But, there are few subjects more controversial and complex than the origins of the noble outlaw of Sherwood Forest.
The earliest Robin Hood ballads appear in the late fifteenth century. Almost imediately, people wanted to create his biography. One of the earliest ballads, A Gest of Robyn Hode, printed about 1510, is five or six earlier ballads crudely patched together, in the form of a life story.
The Sloane ‘Life’
An anonymous prose life, now in the British Library, is another example of an independant attempt to create a life of the outlaw. But, it was little more than a hotchpotch of material available to a ambitious enquirer of the time.
Known as the ‘Sloane Manuscript’ and written about 1600, in a small and unusually crabbed hand, it states:
“[Robin Hood] was born in Lockesley in Yorkshire, or after others, in Nottinghamshire.”
“So ryotous that he lost or sold his patrimony and for debt became an outlawe.”
And puts Robin Hood’s birth in:
“…the days of Henry 2nd about the yeare 1160.”
The Outlawed Earl
In none of the earliest surviving stories is Robin Hood portrayed as a nobleman. He is always described as a ‘proud’ yeoman, but that is all. There is no biographical detail revealed. It wasn’t until two plays by Anthony Munday (1560-1633), The Downfall and Death of Robert Earle of Huntington, appeared on the Elizabethan stage that we find him fully established and gentrified along with his lover, Maid Marian/ Matilda.
Munday most likely wrote the two plays in 1598. He subtly combined ingredients that would not only be popular with audiences but also avoid incurring the wrath of the authorities. Guided possibly by Richard Grafton, King’s Printer to Edward VI, who claimed to have seen an ‘olde and aunciente pamphlet’ in the exchequer that describes Robert Hood being descended of noble blood. And, John Leland (c.1506-52) the King’s Antiquary, who described Robin Hood as nobilis . But this can mean noble in moral or class or both!
Importantly, Munday play is set during the reign of King Richard and his brother John. This could have been influenced by the Scottish chronicler John Major (1469-1550), who placed the exploits of the ‘most humane and prince of robbers’ during Richard’s captivity. Or, William Warner’s Albion’s England (1609), a metrical history which claims the noble outlaw being of first Richard’s day…
And so the cast was set. The greatest ballad-monger of them all, Martin Parker (c.1500-56) then printed his True Tale of Robin Hood in 1631-2. Parker – using all the available material at the time – and elements from Munday’s plays – produced A True Tale of Robbin Hood, or a briefe touch of the life and death of that renowned outlaw Robert Earle of Huntington, vulgarly called Robbin Hood, who lived and died in AD 1198 being the 9 year of the reign of King Richard the First, commonly called Richard Cuer de Lyon.
Parker even attached an epitaph at the end of his True Tale. He claimed he had deciphered what had been written on Robin’s grave-stone at Kirklees:
Robert Earl of Huntington,
Lies under this little stone,
No archer was like him so good,
His wildness named him Robbin Hood.
Full thirteen years, and something more,
These northern parts he vexed full sore.
Such out-lawes as he and his men,
May England never know again.
Robin Hood’s Pedigree
As a young boy, William Stukeley (1687-1765) had listened ‘enraptured to an old man who remembered the traditional ballads of Robin Hood.’ Stukeley later became a doctor, parson, antiquary and a Fellow of both the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries.
Unfortunately, this respected ‘pioneer of the discipline of archaeology,’ also had – what Professor Ronald Hutton described as – a ‘fanciful side’. In 1746 Stukeley published Robin Hood’s family tree on page 115 of his Palaeographia Britannica. It seems he used information from William Dugdale’s Baronage of 1675. From the genealogy of the Ghent/Gaunt family of Lincolnshire, Stukeley then inserted a fictitious family called Fitzooth and a Robert Fitzooth, commonly called Robin Hood.
Robert/Robin’s pedigree begins with Ralph Fitzooth, back through Philip Lord of Kyme, to the Anglo-Saxon Earl Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, and Judith, niece of William the Conqueror. Waltheof was also Earl of Huntingdon by right of marriage. In the third generation, Stukeley listed, Robert commonly called Robin Hood, pretended earl of Huntington and gives his death as 1247 or 1274.
Modern scholars queue-up to describe this ‘family tree’ as ludicrous, dubious, entirely fictitious and a complete fabrication. So – what Stukeleys motive was – to produced this pedigree – remains a mystery. But, this spurious lineage was eagerly added to yet another anthology of the outlaws life.
Joseph Ritson’s (1752-1803) collection of all the available Robin Hood material at the time, has been described as the most important in the study of the outlaw. Any researcher into the legend of the outlaw owes a great debt to Ritson. It was probably his greatest achievement. He was also a close friend of Sir Walter Scott whom described him as, ” a man of acute observation, profound research and great labour.” Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads was indeed groundbreaking.
This was the first comprehensive collection of references, ballads and opinions on Robin Hood.There was scarcely a reference in literature to the outlaw that he didn’t discover. But, Ritson in his eagerness to assemble almost all the work of the earlier antiquaries and ballad mongers, failed to discard any bogus material. Therefore we have in ‘the full paraphernalia of scholarship,’ what Professor Holt described as the critical apparatus overwhelmed by the plethora of detail. Ritson included Stuteley’s pedigree of Robin Hood and concluded 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 was Robin Fitzooth, which vulgar pronunction easily corrupted into Robin Hood. He is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon; a title to which in the latter part of his life, at least, he actually appears to have had some sort of pretension.”
In this one book, Ritson had brought together strands of Robin the ‘yeoman’ and Robin the ‘nobleman’ with a mish-mash of details from the unreliable Sloane Life, chronicle statements, alleged tombs and epitaphs. The book was hugely popular and everybody plundered it for ideas. Many of the elements featured in his ‘historical anecdotes’ of Robin Hood, still remain popular and continue to this day, in books, movies and television series about the outlaw.