top of page
  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 77 - The Time Travelling Friar or A Wagger of Ballocks (Bands Week)

Tom's Notes; Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men

I thought that this would be a good one; some popular culture history that everyone should know. It’s the sort of stuff that you can impress your friends with at the pub. I’m going to delve into the history of the legend of Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men. See what I did there with this week’s theme?

I didn’t actually know that much about the history of Robin Hood before researching this week’s episode. I’d watch the films with Kevin Costner and Russel Crowe playing Robin Hood and I’d watched the Disney film (Robin Hood and Little John riding through the forest!). We also had a brilliant cult-classic children’s television program in the UK called Maid Marian and her merry men from the early nineties (this was very Blackadder in style and was co-written by Tony Robinson; Baldrick from Blackadder). Historically, Robin Hood in these modern films is from the time of the Third Crusade, when King Richard I Lionheart was on Crusade in the Holy Land pitted against Saladin. Meanwhile, John (Richard’s brother and later King) is portrayed as a disloyal, plotting and usurping turd.

The opposing portrayals of the brothers; Richard as brave and honourable, John as conniving and treacherous, is ridiculously simplistic and unhistorical. I’d like to take a moment to tear down this image of Richard in a short aside.

His father was King Henry II and in 1170, King Henry II made plans to divide his kingdom (and at this time it included not only England, but around half of modern day France; in reality it was more complex than this; it wasn’t just a case of this is our, that is yours. The modern concept of the nation state is very different). His three eldest sons (still alive) were given three parts of the kingdom. The future Richard I was given Aquitaine (and he paid homage to the King of France just to confuse things). King Henry II would remain in overall charge, but his three eldest sons would have substantial roles and independence.

The stroppy sons soon threw gigantic wobblies because they wanted to do what they wanted. So, they threw their toys out of their prams by waging war on their father! Daddy, daddy! I want to be completely in charge! The three little toe-rags ran off to the King of France and revolted against their father. Long story short. Henry II quelled this revolt, secured a favourable peace treaty with the King of France and accepted an apology from his three sons (sorry daddy! But it was fun leading lots of people needlessly to their deaths wasn’t it!?). Throughout all of this, John, who was only a boy, stayed in the UK watching Paw Patrol.

The idea that Richard was a true English patriot is nonsense too. He was born in England but he certainly wasn’t a football, Carling drinking, NHS clapping, fish and chips eating, Butlins holidaying Anglo Saxon. He was from the house of Plantagenet, descended from William the Conqueror and he spent most of his life in France or looking for a fight on Crusade. In fact, he may have spent as little as months in England during his reign as king.

Anyway, Richard I isn’t the subject of my piece today, so let’s talk briefly about Robin Hood and then on to his Band of Merry Men so that we keep to this week’s theme.

Robin Hood, and derivatives like Robert Wood, were very common names, so passing references to criminals called Robin Hood in medieval documents are relatively common. I think that it’s fair to say that it is very difficult to convincingly and credibly pinpoint who Robin Hood was, or who exactly the legend is based on, so we won’t, although many have tried.

The oldest reference to the tales of Robin Hood comes from the poem Piers Plowman by William Langland in around 1380. In this poem, stories of Robin Hood are referenced, rather than the man himself, suggesting that there is already a tradition. This is around 200 years after Richard I and his two other eldest brothers revolted against Henry II. The first ballads of Robin Hood (rather than passing references) come from around 1450 to 1500.

In a Gest of Robyn Hode, we already have the familiar band members of Little John and Will Scarlet, but also the less well-known Much the Millers Son. The story involves the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood is most definitely and outlaw who likes pinching things and then giving them away in a charming way.

In Robin Hood and the Monk, we have Little John and Much the Millers Son again, along with many unnamed members of the band of outlaws. Incidentally, this source has the oldest reference to Robin Hoods ‘Merry Men’.

Of these earliest Merry Men, Little John is the most famous. How he became included in the band is not told in the early sources but he is a loyal and smart companion of Robin Hood. In later ballads, 17th century, the story is told of how Little John joined Robin Hood after a quarterstaff fight on a bridge (ala Kevin Costner). As with Robin Hood, it is nigh on impossible to find convincing evidence that Little John actually existed, or if he did, that we know who he was. It doesn’t help that Little John, or John Little, was a common name. As is always the case, there are local legends about Little John around the country. He is apparently buried in Derbyshire (you can view his grave) and there is a cottage in the same county that he apparently lived in. It is also claimed that he was hung in Dublin.

Of more historical value, Little John is mentioned alongside Robin Hood in 2 of the earliest references to the legging wearing, arrow pinging legend. That is the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland written by Andrew of Wyntoun and the Scotichronicon of Walter Bower.

Now here’s a question with an interesting answer for you Sam, how many official languages of Scotland are there and what are they? Gaelic, English and Scots. This chronicle by Andrew of Wyntoun is written in Scots and 30% of Scotland still speak this language whilst only 1% speak Gaelic. There are also a number of speakers in Ulster as a result of the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th Century where Scots and Northern English people were moved to Ulster to work the land. It’s quite confusing, but I think it evolved out of Middle English, so it is possible for you and I to read it and understand a good amount of it.

According to an early ballad, Will Scarlet, another of the very earlier Merry Men apparently joined Robin Hood and Little John when he encountered Robin Hood when out hunting deer illegally. The two fight but midway through the battle it is revealed that Will Scarlett is seeking Robin Hood because he has been kicked out of his home for killing his father’s steward. Silly billy! As with both Little John and Robin Hood, there are historically dubious references to Will Scarlett, namely his grave is apparently in Nottinghamshire.

Much less is known about Much the Miller’s Son despite him appearing in the early ballads. We know pretty much nothing other than the fact that he murdered a page boy.

There are two other very famous members of the Band of Merry Men that need discussing; Friar Tuck and Maid Marian. The two are later additions to the stories of Robin Hood from May Games festivities. The May Games turned Robin Hood from a hero of only sung ballads, to a star of festivities and performances, alongside the adopted characters of Friar Tuck and Maid Marian. The May Games were celebrations, usually in May as the name would suggest, welcoming the summer. The origins of these festivities are older than time! Robin Hood becomes a key figure in these plays at around the time of the first recorded ballads (so the end of the 15th century).

Maid Marian was adopted probably from a French story of a shepherdess Marian who dilly-dallys with a shepherd called Robin. There is also a theory that Maid Marian was a prostitute. The following quote comes from a story dating from the mid 16th century: "She is a trul of trust, to serue a frier at his lust/a prycker a prauncer a terer of shetes/a wagger of ballockes when other men slepes.” However, she soon becomes a noble lady. Interestingly, and this is a cracking smart-arse fact for listeners to pocket, Friars didn’t exist in England at the time of Richard I, when as we have discussed, most modern Robin Hood stories are set. The first friars were Franciscan and arrived in 1224. Richard I died in 1199. Friar Tuck is also occasionally depicted as a lithe and fit monk who is skilled with the sword. His image as corpulent boozer comes a bit later in the evolution of the Robin Hood stories.

There are a number of other Merry Men who are named once or twice. Alan-A-Dale, the minstrel, is probably the only other one worth mentioning who makes a good number of appearances and has become a frequent character in Robin Hood stories. The best example of this character in my opinion is the narrator of the Disney Robin Hood film (oodilally, oodilally golly what a day) the enormous cock. Although he wasn’t a rooster in any of the earlier stories.

The last character I’ll mention is the Moor, or Saracen, most famously played by Morgan Freedman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Since this, there have been similar characters in many films. This has no historical precedent beyond the last 30 years.

bottom of page