Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Arms and Armour of Robin Hood

by Steven A. McKay

Picture this:

You’re a well-to-do medieval clergyman quietly making your way from Doncaster to Pontefract, minding your own business, rubbing your hands in glee at the thought of all the money your brothel in Nottingham is making you. Suddenly, almost like magic, from the trees around you half a dozen heavily armed men appear.


It’s a familiar image. One we’ve seen in countless TV shows and movies. How realistic are the celluloid depictions though? What would you actually see if you were suddenly stopped by the “real” Robin Hood? What were his clothes like? His armour, if he wore any? His weapons?

In the movies he’s normally depicted as a dapper, dashing gentleman with an easy smile, but what was the reality like? Was Robin Hood scary?

The clothes a medieval outlaw such as Robin wore would have been green and brown – not the bright, gay, freshly-laundered shades seen in the 1950’s movies, but more natural, earthy, downright dirty hues. Which is why you didn’t notice such large men concealed amongst the foliage until it was too late. Leather boots, simple hose and woolen tunic, possibly a hood and, of course, armour.

In a full-scale pitched battle, soldiers, if they could afford it, would have worn chain or plate-mail, but hiding out in Barnsdale Forest, trying to stay one step ahead of the law, heavy armour was completely inappropriate -- you try running away from the sheriff or swinging from a tree onto the back of a horse wearing a suit of 20 kg plate-mail! Instead, Robin and his men would have worn a lighter and much cheaper gambeson, which was like a long linen vest or cuirass, padded, and with plates of material – metal, cloth or maybe horse hair – riveted underneath to offer basic protection while still allowing freedom of movement.

The outlaw might have carried a basic steel sword in a wood and leather sheath, and a dagger. Some might have favoured the oaken quarterstaff which, in Little John’s case, could have been over 9ft long!

There was no quiver to carry their arrows as these weren’t developed until much later. Instead, the missiles – perhaps as many as eighteen of them – would have simply been stuck in the outlaw’s belt, ready to be drawn and fired quickly.

Gloves and leather bracers would have protected their hands and wrists when using the bow.

And what about that bow? Well, the type Robin Hood would have used, in my opinion, would have been a longbow. In most versions of the legend, usually set around the end of the 12th century, longbows were not widely used in England, but, by the time of my own novel – the 14th century – they were quite common.

The longbow would have been roughly the same height as the man wielding it, made from yew with a hemp string. It was utterly lethal in the hands of a trained archer, offering much more power and range than previous designs.

Capable of firing up to twenty arrows in a single minute, you can imagine what even half a dozen robbers, concealed in the bushes and armed with these weapons could do to an unsuspecting party of travelers…

Firing such a powerful bow even once, never mind multiple times, took an enormous amount of physical strength though. Boys usually began training with the longbow from the age of seven, but often they were even younger. By the time they were adults, these men had developed hugely muscled shoulders and arms – particularly the left arm which took most of the strain. You don’t see that in the movies – Russell Crowe or Errol Flynn roaming around the Greenwood with one arm like Popeye’s and the other like Olive Oyl’s!

So…you’re a medieval clergyman, suddenly surrounded by these hugely muscled violent criminals, some carrying 9 ft quarterstaffs and some aiming bows as big as themselves at your face...What do you think?

Was Robin Hood scary?


Phillips, Graham and Keatman, Martin - Robin Hood, The Man Behind The Myth, Michael O’Mara Books, 1995


Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. He is married with a daughter, Freya, and is currently working on the sequel to Wolf's Head.

Steven's Website


Wolf’s Head brings the brutality, injustice and intensity of life in medieval England vividly to life, and marks the beginning of a thrilling new historical fiction series in the style of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow.

Amazon UK
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  1. Good post, Steven. And yes, I'd be very scared. Having almost finished your excellent book, I'd say that particular bishop should be on his knees about now!

    You mention that 'in most versions of the legend, usually set around the end of the 12th century, longbows were not widely used in England'. Didn't Richard Lionheart specifically include a huge contingent of longbow archers for the Third Crusade in the twelfth century on the basis that the longbow was one of the swiftest and deadliest weapons against the Saracen? I therefore assumed that the longbow was quite well-known and a favoured weapon. I've come across detail of the English longbow archer in the desert on my research for my own novel on Third Crusade. I'd love to know if my research is wrong.

  2. Great post...thanks for bringing us the benefit of your research. I did not know about the lack of quivers. When were they developed? Also, I thought William the Conqueror brought archers with him...they were not using long bows? The Welsh had them and the technology was known, I think.

  3. This is an interesting post and your new novel is a very enjoyable version of the age-old tale. I have studied the earliest Robin Hood ballads and would like to point out that the bold outlaw in those tales of a true medieval origin is not only the 'best archer England did ever see', but he is also the 'finest swordsman' as well. The term longbow did not appear until the fifteenth century and it is doubtful whether he would have used a 'war bow' (longbow) in the dense forest, a smaller hunting bow would have been more appropriate.
    As far as I am aware, Richard I preferred crossbowmen, it wasn’t until Edward I’s welsh wars that the ‘English army’ realised its potential.

  4. Thanks for the comments all! The longbow WAS certainly in use long before the end of the 12th century, but it was not being widely used until later.
    Whether the bows used earlier were true longbows or not is disputed, but, honestly, I'm not a historian so I won't enter that debate, I just followed the research I found!
    Clement, I replied to your post no Facebook already, cheers :-)

  5. Though you can find articles all over the place, my own research, which I did for a novel I am writing set in 1067, suggests the long bow was introduced to England much earlier than the 15th century, possibly before William the Conqueror. See, for example:


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