According to legend he’s annoyed the sheriff, sneaked into St Mary’s Church and maybe even propped up the bar at the Olde Trip. Now an author and historian tells ERIK PETERSEN about his research into the possible real life behind the Robin Hood story
IT can be safely assumed that, if Robin Hood really existed, he didn’t sound much like Kevin Costner.
In this parish, however, there’s always the somewhat more contentious issue of whether his accent had more in common with Arthur Seaton or, say, Geoff Boycott.
The conundrum of “Robin: Notts lad or Yorkshireman?” is just one of the mysteries of the man believed by some to have not existed at all, believed by others to have been an amalgamation of several people, and believed by others still to be a real person whose details have been lost to time and distortion over the years.
Now a writer and historian has waded into the debate with a book that offers a unique take on who this Robin fella really was.
Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar is John Paul Davis’ contribution to the body of work devoted to the question of whether that famed re-distributor of wealth actually existed. As the title indicates, Mr Davis posits the theory that the hero was a member of the powerful order of knights that fell out of favour with Rome, effectively turning many of its members into outlaws.
His theory, he said, is plausible but not definitive.
“The information we have – some of it’s open to interpretation as well,” he said.
Mr Davis’ interpretations put Robin Hood squarely in the camp of another group that has over the centuries been the subject of numerous legends and stories, but that most certainly did exist.
The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful Christian military organisations of the Middle Ages. It’s the time of their disbanding in the early 1300s that intrigued Mr Davis.
After being a dominant force for two centuries, the order suddenly found themselves out of favour across Europe. Spurred on by King Phillip of France, Pope Clement V turned to outlawing, arresting and in some cases torturing and burning at the stake members of the order.
In England however, Edward II enforced the Vatican’s orders more halfheartedly. There was little torture, and some members of the order simply fled and melted into the countryside.
But they still fled.
Mr Davis writes that “hundreds, if not thousands, of men became fugitives practically overnight and disappeared from the records for ever … It seems very possible that, hunted by Church and county officials, former Templars who had obeyed the strict code of the Order continued to do so, only now as outlaws, dwelling among the trees of England’s forests.”
That’s the point, suggests Mr Davis, where Templar history might converge with Robin Hood legend. Robin and his Merry Men were, after all, possessed of a military sense of respect for rank and leadership, not to mention superior skills for battle. So were many others who fought in the Crusades, but the Merry Men’s skill in battle was tempered by a pious religious order’s commitment to doing good with the spoils.
In other words, a band of former Knights Templar would have had the skill to take from the rich and the moral fibre to give to the poor.
But Mr Davis is quick to add that with so many puzzle pieces missing, there is no definitive narrative of Robin Hood. If any historian believes he or she has the one, the only, the definitive can’t-miss answer as to whether or not Robin was a real person and what the details were of his life, they can sell it to somebody else.
“Some people like to say this guy was Robin Hood, this was where he was born, this was where he went to school, this is where he learned to ride his bike, this is where he married Maid Marian,” Mr Davis said.
“Unfortunately the information we have for Robin Hood is pretty scant.
“We’re doing the best with what we’ve got.”
Mr Davis said that unlike some historians, he didn’t enter the fray with any particular point to prove. It’s simply a subject he finds fascinating.
“I didn’t start anything with an agenda,” he said. “I wasn’t out to prove anything.”
Over the years the Robin Hood legend has been mangled and cobbled into all sorts of personas. Much of what we now know of the legend comes from 20th-century film interpretations. But the re-inventing of Robin began earlier. A bit.
“That might just have made the 19th Century,” he said, citing Ivanhoe as one crucial beginning of Robin Hood’s depiction as a clear-cut Good v Evil character from Richard the Lionhearted’s day. “The 20th Century’s really where it develops.
“A lot of the stuff’s been exaggerated in recent years – don’t underestimate the power of the movies in that regard.”
Even before that, though, the various stories and ballads of the man had a unique propensity of changing with the times. Mr Davis has an idea why.
“There’s a saying: ‘Robin Hood means all things to all men.’ It’s a particularly old saying. Even in the early days of Robin Hood, this guy is definitely a good outlaw. And that is incredibly rare.”
An outstanding archer, fair leader, great swordsman, model paramour to Maid Marian – these were rare traits at a time when highwaymen and thieves of legend were likely to be depicted as rapists, murderers and general rough customers.
And what about that old Robin Hood chestnut, Notts v Yorkshire?
“I’m probably one of these guys who can sit on the fence,” Mr Davis said. “I live in Warwickshire; I’m not from either Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire.
“If we’re to go on the early balance alone, I’d have said it’s probably reasonably even. If he were a historical Knights Templar, he may have been based in the south of Yorkshire, where the order had a stronger presence than in Nottinghamshire.
“But Nottinghamshire in those days wouldn’t have been that far away. Sherwood spanned 100,000 acres.”
If he was fleeing through the wood, Mr Davis said, “he would have been pretty close to Nottingham before too long.”
And anyway, if there was a real Robin and he did spend a bit of time in Yorkshire, Mr Davis doesn’t think that should worry people here too much.
“Robin Hood and Nottingham, they go together like peaches and cream,” he said. “They’re inseparable.”