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Was Robin Hood beheaded on the King’s orders?

David Keys
·9-min read
<p>Robin Hood may have become a key target for King Henry III and his powerful justiciar Hubert de Burgh</p> (Getty)

Robin Hood may have become a key target for King Henry III and his powerful justiciar Hubert de Burgh


Remarkable new research suggests that England’s most famous outlaw, Robin Hood, may have been beheaded on the orders of the Crown – and that his decapitated body was then strung up in chains.

A reassessment of all the historical evidence, carried out by a prominent British historian, suggests that Robin may have become a key target for King Henry III and his powerful justiciar Hubert de Burgh.

Dr David Crook, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and the National Archives, is proposing that the original Robin Hood may have been a Yorkshire outlaw called Robert of Wetherby, who the Crown perceived as a threat and commissioned a posse to capture and kill.

But shortly after Wetherby had been decapitated and hung in chains, the Crown claimed all the money that had been seized from a Yorkshire outlaw called Robert Hod (also spelt Hood).

Because both events occurred in the same county in rapid succession and because both were outlaws, Dr Crook has suggested that Robert of Wetherby and Robert Hod may have been the same person. If that were the case, he could have been referred to by both names (Wetherby merely being the town he or his father had hailed from).

<p>The world’s favourite medieval outlaw, Robin Hood, as portrayed in a 17th-century woodcut</p>CC via Beleg Tal

The world’s favourite medieval outlaw, Robin Hood, as portrayed in a 17th-century woodcut

CC via Beleg Tal

Crucially, if Robert of Wetherby and Robert Hod had been separate individuals, then the Crown would have been entitled to the value of the former’s seized goods, as well as the latter’s – but, perhaps tellingly, there is a record of Robert Hod’s goods/cash being claimed by the Crown, but no separate Crown claim pertaining to Robert of Wetherby. The absence of a separate claim strengthens the case for the two Roberts being one and the same individual.

But even if they were the same person, what evidence is there to indicate that he was the Robin Hood of legend, normally associated with Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire and with the Sheriff of Nottingham (not Yorkshire)?

Although Sherwood Forest is associated with the legendary Robin Hood, so is Yorkshire’s Barnsdale woodlands – just 40 miles north of Sherwood.

What’s more, Dr Crook’s recently published research has now established that the Sheriff of Yorkshire, who (on royal orders) hung Robert of Wetherby’s corpse in chains had, in fact, been Deputy Sheriff of Nottinghamshire until just a few months earlier. Indeed, it is therefore likely that for much of Robert’s career as an outlaw, the man who presided over his demise had been the Deputy Sheriff of Nottingham.

Robert Hod/Hood was the first outlaw who is known to have borne that name (or to have been referred to by it) – but, significantly, he wasn’t the last.

From just a generation later, a whole series of criminals started to be dubbed Robert or Robin Hood – and by sometime in the 13th century or the following one, Robin Hood evolved into a semi-legendary character, celebrated in largely fictitious folk ballads. Robin was merely a diminutive nickname for Robert.

It is perhaps significant that the tradition of writing folk ballads about popular heroes is a poetic genre that seems to start in the 13th century – and it is therefore likely that now long-lost ballads about Robin Hood, potentially written shortly after Robert of Wetherby/Robert Hod’s demise, helped popularise the name as a nickname for outlaws and as an element of place names. Interestingly, research over recent years has pushed back the date of the earliest known Robin Hood place name (Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire) by some 200 years to at least the 14th century.

But, if the original Robin Hood was beheaded and hung in chains, why do none of the ballads lament their hero’s potentially gruesome fate?

“The answer to that question is very straightforward,” says Dr Crook, author of the newly released book, Robin Hood: Legend and Reality. “On the whole, medieval people didn’t like their heroes’ enemies to succeed in killing them.”

Even the legendary arch hero, King Arthur, never actually dies – but merely falls asleep ready to ride to the nation’s assistance when need arises.

But even if Robert of Wetherby/Robert Hod was Robin Hood, why was King Henry’s government so obsessed with hunting him down and displaying his corpse.

In the whole of the 13th century, there is no other known example of the Crown commissioning a posse (perhaps even a bounty hunter) to arrest and behead a specific named outlaw.

<p>Obeying royal orders: the Sheriff of Nottingham (depicted here in an early 20th-century artist's impression) publicly displayed the headless body Robert of Wetherby (potentially Robin Hood). The sheriff even invoiced the Crown for the metal chain used to display the corpse</p>CC Via Blue Ribbon Books

Obeying royal orders: the Sheriff of Nottingham (depicted here in an early 20th-century artist's impression) publicly displayed the headless body Robert of Wetherby (potentially Robin Hood). The sheriff even invoiced the Crown for the metal chain used to display the corpse

CC Via Blue Ribbon Books

What’s more, there is no other known case in that or indeed the following century in which the Crown ordered that an ordinary criminal’s corpse should be hung in chains or publicly displayed in any other way. Indeed, Robert is one of the earliest known people to be hung in chains in England.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, publicly displaying executed people’s corpses or body parts was usually reserved for political rebels like William Wallace (the famous leader of Scotland’s first great revolt against England), Dafydd ap Gruffydd (the last independent ruler of Wales) and William de Marisco (accused of ordering an attempted assassination of Henry III). Indeed, there are only a tiny number of cases known for the whole of the 13th century. It was a very rare event.

So was Robin Hood (Robert of Wetherby/Robert Hod) a thorn in the side of the government, as well, as being an ordinary criminal – and what might have been the political and economic background to that situation.

The Crown’s hunt for Robert took place immediately after two periods of rebellion and civil war.

Between 1215 and 1217 (immediately after Magna Carta), much of England – including London – had been occupied by rebel barons and their French allies. Indeed, the French king’s son had himself declared King of England in St Paul’s Cathedral – and made London his headquarters.

Then in 1223, a second period of tension broke out between rebel barons and the Crown. The King was even forced out of London – and the rebels tried to seize control of the Tower of London.

But at the very time that the Crown ordered the hunt for Robert, England’s government had begun to rapidly re-establish its authority.

In the summer of 1224, the Crown used extreme force to defeat the last rebel baron – and executed virtually the whole of his military force.

Then, in early 1225, the Crown decided to try to recover vast tracts of lost territory in France – and, in order to achieve that militarily, the government decided to use taxation to raise the modern equivalent of around £500m.

So the year 1225 would have seen unusually vast quantities of silver coinage being extracted from the population and then transported through often remote areas to local and county collection points, before being delivered to the royal treasury in Westminster.

It is precisely at the time that those cash transports were occurring that Robert of Wetherby is thought to have committed the crime that so infuriated the government and triggered an ultra-rare Crown-command manhunt for him.

It is therefore conceivable that his offence involved some sort of physical attack on that year’s almost unprecedentedly large Royal revenue operation.

Certainly any armed attack on the Crown’s tax operation would explain why he wasn’t treated like an ordinary criminal – but instead like an armed insurgent, with his corpse being put (in chains) on public display.

<p>Getting tough: Shortly before Robert of Wetherby (potentially Robin Hood) was hunted down and beheaded, the Crown had hung virtually the entire rebel garrison of Bedford Castle</p>CC Via Chronica Majora

Getting tough: Shortly before Robert of Wetherby (potentially Robin Hood) was hunted down and beheaded, the Crown had hung virtually the entire rebel garrison of Bedford Castle

CC Via Chronica Majora

What’s more, if Robert of Wetherby was indeed Robin Hood (or even if his story simply contributed to the legend), attacking tax collectors would certainly have explained how he became such a folk hero. It might conceivably even have been the origin of his reputation as a friend of the poor.

Certainly, it’s known that in the previous tax operation (18 years earlier), there was substantial resistance to tax collectors – and in the 1240s, revenue collectors were physically attacked.

If Robert of Wetherby/Robert Hod was the original Robin Hood, then England’s favourite green-clad outlaw formed part of a wider historical story which included the birth of key inter-related aspects of the English state – the beginning of regular taxation, the genesis of what would soon become England’s Parliament and the birth of statute law (with the 1225 issuing of the definitive version of Magna Carta).

Henry III, the king at that time, was only 17 and was therefore too young to legally exercise power. As a result, England’s Great Council of the nobles had become more important – and had chosen the teenage king’s ministers. But, in order to function and indeed regain at least some of the King’s lost French lands, those ministers needed a larger government structure and more cash.

In turn, that required taxation which needed the Great Council’s cooperation and thus further enhanced its quasi-parliamentary power and its ability to extract a definitive reissuing of Magna Carta from the King. Later in the century, it was that more powerful Great Council institution which gradually mutated into England’s first Parliament. What’s more, it may potentially have been its authorisation of (and the Crown’s implementation of) the 1225 taxation operation which formed the immediate context for the birth of the Robin Hood legend.

That period was also the time that probably saw the birth of the English ballad – and it is through one of those ballads that it’s possible to get a glimpse of the potential proto-Robin-Hood.

That potential glimpse comes from what is arguably one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, about Robin and a man called Guy of Gisborne.

The common distinguishing feature about many of the dozens of Robin Hood ballads is the way in which the storyline is counterintuitive – revealing the opposite of what one might expect reality to be.

And in the Gisborne tale, what could be the story of the death of Robert of Wetherby (potentially Robin Hood) is reversed in exactly that way.

In reality, “Robin Hood” (if he was Robert of Wetherby) was hunted and captured by a hired killer (sent by the sheriff) who then beheaded him.

But, in the ballad, a hired killer (again sent by the sheriff) is still sent to hunt down and kill Robin Hood – but, in a typical narrative reversal, it is the hired killer who ends up being beheaded by Robin.

“All the new research opens a fresh window onto the origins of the Robin Hood legend and the political circumstances that helped create it,” said the author of the major recently published biography of Henry III, Dr David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London.

Research into the world’s favourite medieval outlaw may well now accelerate but Robin’s definitive story won’t ultimately emerge unless or until new, till now undiscovered, mediaeval documents emerge.

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