Monday, October 2, 2017

Gamelyn vs. Robin Hood

By A. E. Chandler

The most famous English outlaw is Robin Hood, but he was by no means alone in the forest. Other outlaws, both fictional and real, can be traced throughout medieval England. Some of these outlaws influenced Robin Hood’s legend, whilst others have faded from history. Gamelyn’s story shares many similarities with Robin’s; it’s also its own kind of animal.

Image I - Sons robbing travellers in the forest

Gamelyn is the youngest son of a knight who bucks tradition and on his deathbed divides his land amongst his three sons, rather than giving all to the firstborn. Growing up as his eldest brother’s ward, Gamelyn develops incredible physical strength, though he must stand by and watch as his lands go to waste. At last he gains control over his inheritance following an argument with his brother. Soon after, Gamelyn competes in and wins a wrestling match, inviting everyone at the fair to follow him home to celebrate at his brother’s hall. When his brother bars the gate, Gamelyn is able to kick it in and break the defiant porter’s neck with one blow, throwing the body down the courtyard well. The other servants, knowing Gamelyn to be a friend to themselves and his tenants, don’t try to resist his wishes. The guests feast for seven days and nights, at the end of which Gamelyn’s brother manages to chain him up in the hall. The brother holds a feast for some wealthy churchmen, all of whom refuse to help Gamelyn. Instead he is freed by a servant named Adam the Spencer, and the two beat everyone with staffs, breaking the brother’s back and placing him in Gamelyn’s chains.

The sheriff gets involved and, after initially driving him off, Gamelyn and Adam flee to the woods where they meet the King of the Outlaws and his seven-score men. The brother heals, becoming the new sheriff. Gamelyn’s lands are confiscated, and he becomes King of the Outlaws when the former man is pardoned. At the shire court, Gamelyn is imprisoned, but his middle brother Ote comes and bails him out. Gamelyn returns to the forest, stealing from passing churchmen. On the day of the assize, the eldest brother declares that Ote will hang, as Gamelyn has not fulfilled his court date. Gamelyn then makes a dramatic entrance, freeing Ote and placing the corrupt sheriff, justice, and jury on trial, hanging them all. The King pardons Ote, Gamelyn, and all the outlaws, making Gamelyn Chief Justice of the Forest.

The historical note at the end of my novel, The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood, borrows from my academic research when it discusses why we can date the existence of Robin Hood’s legend to the early to mid thirteenth century, whilst the first written stories we have of him come from the fifteenth century. Gamelyn’s story was composed in the mid fourteenth century, in between Robin’s origin and his first known extant written tales. From the dialect used, Knight and Ohlgren have speculated that Gamelyn’s story was likely written in Leicestershire, or perhaps Lincolnshire, both of which are near Robin Hood’s territory of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and both of which have connections to Robin’s legend.

The Tale of Gamelyn is found in twenty-five early manuscripts, whereas four of the five medieval tales we have of Robin Hood survive in only one. (The fifth, A Gest of Robyn Hode, survives in five fragmented copies, and these are all printed, rather than handwritten. No handwritten copy of Gest is known to exist.) Gamelyn owes this larger number to a vague association with Geoffrey Chaucer, suspected by some of intending to include a version of Gamelyn in The Canterbury Tales. As a side note, William Shakespeare later wrote the play As You Like It based on Thomas Lodge’s 1590 Rosalynde, which was in turn based on Gamelyn.

Image II - Decorated border& initial,
beginning of the Reeve's Tale

Some of the similarities between Gamelyn’s story and Robin’s are due to their shared genre of medieval outlaw literature, whilst some are due to one story influencing the other. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to tell which way the influence flowed, due to the scarcity of source material. One instance where we do know that it was Gamelyn’s story affecting Robin’s comes from the modern period. J. C. Holt, the leading expert on Robin Hood, has argued that Gamelyn is the inspiration for the character of Gamwell, who was added to early modern rhymes of Robin Hood. Gamwell merged with Will Scarlet, creating a relative of Robin’s who is on the run from the law after killing his father’s disrespectful steward with an overzealous blow to the head. The medieval Gamelyn’s vaunted strength, and the emphasis placed on his high-born familial ties seem to have been incorporated into Robin Hood’s legend in the person of Will Gamwell.

The early modern Robin Hood is closer to Gamelyn than the medieval Robin Hood, though whether this is due to direct influence by Gamelyn is up for debate. As Maurice Keen notes, Gamelyn is loved by the lower classes in his Tale - his tenants, servants, the spectators at the fair, the outlaws - and he in turn consistently earns this love. The medieval Robin Hood is more nuanced; when it comes to the lower classes he has allies, such as the uncle of Much the Miller’s son, as well as opponents (such as the potter, and fellow-outlaw Guy of Gisborne). In Gest when the people of Nottingham see Robin leading his band toward the city they try to flee, even old women on crutches, convinced they will all be massacred. The more universal love from the peasantry that Robin experiences in post-medieval tales comes after the idea of robbing the rich to feed the poor was introduced to his legend in the sixteenth century. The sixteenth century also saw Robin elevated to become the Earl of Huntingdon, which inevitably made him a landlord, like Gamelyn, with an automatic obligation of good lordship toward his peasants. The medieval Robin Hood is not a nobleman but himself a peasant, though anyone calling him that likely would receive a punch in the face, as he is a type of high-ranking peasant called a yeoman, and takes every opportunity to remind his audience of his status. The medieval Robin is fiercely proud to be a yeoman, and is just as disinclined toward raising his social status as he is toward lowering it. Gamelyn is constantly struggling to affirm his status, whereas Robin’s is always secure. As the son of a knight and as a landlord, Gamelyn’s station is much above the medieval Robin’s, and so the social issues dealt with in his tale are different.

Image III - scribe dipping his quill

Gamelyn and the medieval Robin Hood legend do, however, share much in common. One example lies in both Robin and Gamelyn rebelling against corruption, to fight for the preservation of the established social order. Gamelyn hits its audience (and not infrequently its characters) over the head with this theme, whilst in Robin’s tales it is used with greater skill. Gamelyn and his eldest brother are stuffed into the roles of outlaw king and sheriff respectively halfway through their story. At its climax, Gamelyn turns the officials of justice into the defendants at their own biased trial, convicting and hanging them as they had already intended to do to him. Robin Hood behaves like a corrupt forester, overzealously enforcing forest law where it should not exist. At the same time, he shows himself to be “the criminal who upholds justice better than the Sheriff . . . the robber who can be more generous than the gentry . . . the excommunicant who shows more devotion than the clergy . . . preserv[ing] what they claim to love by being [his] own hypocrite” as his wife tells him in The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood. In a similar vein, when Gamelyn is faced with cold-hearted clergymen, he simply attacks them at the first opportunity; the medieval Robin Hood is known to rob monks, but he is also extremely devout, especially with regard to the Virgin Mary, and is often shown praying and attending mass. He even (with disastrous results as it turns out) entrusts his life to a nun.

Whilst Gamelyn’s character is simplistic, the medieval Robin Hood’s is more complex. Perhaps this is why The Tale of Gamelyn is concluded to be fictional, whilst the truth about Robin’s tales is still up for debate.

Images (British Library) attributions: 


A. E. Chandler holds a Master of Arts with Merit from the University of Nottingham, where she wrote her dissertation on the social history behind Robin Hood. When not teaching or volunteering with the Glenbow Museum’s military collection, she writes historical fiction as well as contemporary fiction concerning history. Chandler has had stories, poetry, and articles published, in addition to a book of collected non-fiction entitled Into the World, and her new novel The Scarlet Forest: A Tale of Robin Hood.


  1. An interesting post - I vaguely remember reading Gamelyn for English at university. It was part of something called the "male Cinderella", as I recall. And yes, I have heard of the connection with As You Like It. It does sound a bit violent, but so were the Robin Hood ballads - Robin Hood And The Monk especially so. On the other hand, there were lighter ones, in which Robin meets a jolly potter, tinker, butcher or whatever, is soundly beaten and says, "You're a good bloke, want to join my band?" There's the one where he diddles the Sheriff but is courteous to Mrs Nottingham, who thinks it's hilarious when her husband is fooled.

    Did you notice that some of the Robin Hood ballads were sneaked into the Richard Greene TV series? There was an episode called The Knoght Who Came To Dinner, which was inspired by the first part of the Geste Of Robin Hood.

    1. Thanks. I love that you mention the Richard Greene TV series. (I watched every episode whilst writing my dissertation on Robin Hood.) The series definitely made use of the "ballads," as did the Errol Flynn movie.

      We have around three dozen extant Robin Hood "ballads," and the lighter ones are mostly post-medieval. No one dies in Robin Hood and the Potter, making it the only one of the five medieval "ballads" without multiple deaths. Potter is the story with the Sheriff's wife that you mentioned, and it does come off as the cheeriest of the medieval tales.

      --A. E. Chandler

    2. Hi, I'm wondering why you write "ballad" rather than ballad ...

      Is it because of the theory that most or all of these Robin Hood ballads were never sung historically, or for some other reason?

      Nice piece also.
      Ian Cumpstey

    3. Hi, Ian, and thanks.

      Originally, ballads were songs to accompany dances, but the term was expanded to include any popular verses in broadside form (cheaply printed on one sheet, starting in the early 1500s). (Dobson and Taylor)

      Now we use "ballad" to describe the Robin Hood verses, even though only some of them are technically ballads. For example, the medieval "ballad" A Gest of Robyn Hode is actually a (probably) early fifteenth century compilation of earlier stories, divided into eight parts, and about six times as long as the other medieval "ballads" - very different from the above definition.

      --A. E. Chandler

  2. An excellent article! I had never heard of Gamelyn. It's interesting how these outlaw stories sprung up during those centuries.

  3. Actually, splitting up the land to all your sons was typical. All that "only to your oldest" nonsense was practiced hardly at all, even by the aristocracy, in the middle ages. It took a couple more centuries before it became popular -- and yet still, was not practiced that often.

    It is extremely easy to find information about this, there are dozens and dozens of references. Hell, just browsing in the bathroom at an older historical reference "Life in a Medieval Village" by the Gies has many examples of just such practices. But it is littered in historical references all over.

    This notion of "all to the oldest son" is mostly recent, mostly fictional, and propagandized by our current fiction so heavily that people begin to believe it's actually true.

    It's nice drama for a story. But unfortunately not very accurate history.

    1. Hi, Jennifer.

      You bring up a good point. Fiction does colour, and can even distort, our perception of history. It certainly is more dramatic to think of parents giving everything to one son and leaving the others with nothing, but it would be difficult to find parents actually willing to do this.

      Re-reading the article, I did oversimplify when summarizing the part of The Tale of Gamelyn to which you refer. When Gamelyn’s father, a knight, is lying ill, he asks some wise knights to help divide his lands evenly between his three sons. The wise knights want to give all of the land to the eldest son, but decide to compromise by dividing the land between Gamelyn’s two older brothers. Gamelyn’s father, however, insists that the land be split into three, so that each brother will have something. From this we can see that the expectation was usually that most of the land would go to the oldest, but that in practice fathers probably tried to provide for each of their sons. Another complicating factor in The Tale of Gamelyn is that Gamelyn is a minor when his father dies – a fact that further complicates his inheritance in this medieval, fictional example, and that his father acknowledges when speaking to the wise knights.

      For a real life example of this type of situation, William the Conqueror had three living sons when he passed away. Though he spent his life trying to unite the lands he controlled, he had to make a difficult decision based on his sons’ characters. He gave the territory he had inherited (Normandy) to his rebellious eldest son, the territory he had conquered (England) to his more capable second son, and a monetary inheritance to his youngest son. Each received something, but it was not the ideal situation that William had wanted. Primogeniture (most of the inheritance going to the eldest) became more the norm after the Conquest, and was a contributing factor in such major events as the Crusades. The Gies books acknowledge the medieval practice of primogeniture (Village, Castle, Knight . . . ), though of course people had the right to make wills that specified what would be given to who, and widows were provided for, not just their eldest sons. (As you allude to, peasants such as those in the Gies Village book, in this as in other things, could have more flexibility in what they did, as they had less of value, and so there were not as many people affected by their decisions.)

      One of The Tale of Gamelyn’s underlying themes is fairness. The fourteenth century writer or writers are siding against the custom of primogeniture, and advocating for the also practiced alternative of dividing inheritance more equally among heirs. From here, you can get into an examination of whether it was more beneficial to divide land equally, or keep an estate and its tenants together under one, prosperous lord – it’s definitely an interesting and complex issue, and one that, as you say, is by no means as black and white as some current fiction portrays it to be.

      --A. E. Chandler