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Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009
A prince among thieves?

By Alex Hudson
Today programme

Jonas Armstrong as Robin Hood
The most recent Robin Hood drama will return to BBC One later in 2009
He is famous for robbing the rich to feed the poor but Robin Hood may not have been, in reality, the hero he has become in legend.

A newly-discovered English chronicle, dating back to the 1400s, says that Robin "infested" parts of England with "continuous robberies" rather than being revered.

The most commonly told version of the story is that the outlaw Robin Hood was at odds with the corrupt Prince John, while King Richard the Lionheart was in the Holy Land, fighting the Third Crusade.

From Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, he - along with his band of Merry Men - robbed rich, dishonest noblemen of their wealth to distribute among those who needed it most.

With a price on his head from the Sheriff of Nottingham, dressed in green and armed with his longbow, he would invite those he met to feast with him and his men in the forest.

If they were honest when asked about their wealth, they would be allowed to keep it - after a suitably-sized donation, of course. If they were not, they would be stripped of money, clothes and belongings and then be ridden back into Nottingham in shame.

There are many versions of the tale. However, it is widely agreed that Robin Hood lived in either the Sherwood area of Nottinghamshire or the Barnsdale region of South Yorkshire sometime in either the 12th or 13th Century.

But further historical facts are limited. His first appearance in text is in 1377 - in the opening of William Langland's medieval poem Piers Plowman - as a passing reference to the "rymes of Robyn hood".

From then on, the Robin Hood story is built on in ballads, written over the centuries.

According to the Robin Hood project at the University of Rochester, it is in the early days of printing that he finally comes into his own as a literary figure. From the 1550s onwards - and particularly in the 19th Century - the legend of Robin Hood is given a fillip by poets and writers.

Academic Allen W Wright says: "By 1600, there are over 200 references to Robin Hood. Scottish historians write about him. People name stones, caves, and ships after the outlaw.

"Officials called real outlaws 'Robin Hoods' and other outlaws took on the names of Robin and his men."

Academics even argue whether Robin Hood was one man or a variety of outlaws who lived at the same time.

The one truth that appeared to remain constant throughout the stories, was that he was revered by all those who were honest, truthful and good.

Well, not quite.

He's anti-establishment and lives in the forest - it's a life we all fantasise about
Adam Thorpe

It seems as though the romantic, generous figure of Robin Hood is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Medievalist Professor Julian Luxford says Robin Hood was not necessarily noble-minded. "Robin did have these causes that he fought for," he says, "but I'm not sure if they're establishment or anti-establishment."

He has discovered a 23-word note in the margins of a document Polychronicon, written in Latin around 1460. It paints him as a persistent thief, infesting a law-abiding area.

It shows a monastic perspective which "does reflect an anti-Robin Hood bias among the clergy in the late Middle Ages", Prof Luxford explains.

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the monks disliked Robin Hood. In the earliest tale involving the character "Little John cuts off a monk's head and Much the Miller's Son murders a pageboy in the same way", he explains.

Author Adam Thorpe, who has written a book about the character, believes Robin Hood "fulfils a need" as "the ultimate romantic hero".

Mr Thorpe says: "He's anti-establishment and lives in the forest - it's a life we all fantasise about."

The problem he found during his research was that the further back he went, "the romance fell away and you end up - in the earliest ballads - with a gangster and a cutthroat".

In his fictional account, therefore, which reads as a translation of a Latin document, Robert Hodd - as he is called - is an "extremely unpleasant madman who believes he is greater than God and beyond sin".

Hero or villain?

And it now seems as though even Hollywood is changing its vision of Robin Hood, once epitomised by the dashing Errol Flynn.

Film director Ridley Scott is creating a revisionist version of the legend, reportedly starring Russell Crowe as both central characters - Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham - to show the similarities between the two.

Over the centuries, Robin Hood has been turned from a violent criminal - beheading the Sheriff of Nottingham and fighting with Little John - into a hero of the people.

It seems only fair to be redressing the balance.


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