Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Robert Hood of Wakefield

by Chris Thorndycroft

Much has been written on the possible historical basis of the Robin Hood legends and the search is problematic to say the least. Even if we accept the idea that England’s famous forest-dwelling outlaw was a real person and not a literary character or a mythological archetype, the name Robin/Robert Hood was hardly an uncommon one in medieval England. To even be in the same ballpark we need to look for specific Robin Hoods whose lives bear at least a passing resemblance to the figure of the legends. And the search has turned up some interesting candidates.

First of all we need to reacquaint ourselves with the Robin Hood of the medieval ballads in which he makes his first appearance. Forget Prince John trying to usurp the throne while his brother King Richard the Lionheart is a prisoner on his way home from the crusades. The only king mentioned in the early ballads is an unspecified King Edward. There were three Edwards who ruled in succession in the Middle Ages which indicates a timeframe of 1272 to 1377; a good hundred years after the Lionheart’s reign. Sherwood Forest also has to go. The stomping ground of Robin Hood in the ballads is Barnsdale which once took up a sizable portion of West Yorkshire.

With the aforementioned facts in mind, a possible candidate has been put forward in the form of Robert Hood of Wakefield who lived during the reign of Edward II. Aside from his name and era, there is one other thing about him that makes him a possibility; his hometown.

Wakefield was a manor ruled by Earl John de Warenne until around 1317 when Earl Thomas of Lancaster took it from him as a result of a bitter feud. The previous spring Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacy, was purportedly abducted by de Warenne’s men (although rumour had it that she and de Warenne were lovers). Immensely powerful and more or less ruler of the north, Lancaster also had a falling out with his cousin, King Edward II. Lancaster drew support from the Marcher Lords who resented the king and his relationship with the hated royal favourites; the Desepnsers. What began as an attack on the Despensers’ lands soon turned into open rebellion and ended with the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and the subsequent execution of Lancaster for treason.

It is interesting to find a Robert Hood living in Wakefield at this time because the forest of Barnsdale encroached upon that very manor and was a natural hiding place for any outlaw on the run. The antiquarian Joseph Hunter was the first to put Robert Hood forward as the real Robin Hood and his findings were largely culled from the Wakefield Court Rolls(1). Subsequent historians like J. W. Walker(2) and J. C. Holt(3) found additional entries and bolstered his brief biography. What follows is a basic outline of Robert Hood’s life according to Hunter, Holt and Walker.
  • On Jan 25th, 1316 Robertus Hood, son of Adam Hood (who hailed from nearby Stanley and was a forester for Earl de Warenne) and his wife Matilda gave 2 shillings for leave to take one piece of the lord's waste on Bichill (the market place in Wakefield) between the houses of Phillip Damyson and Thomas Alayn.
  • In 1316, Robert Hood's handmaid was fined for taking wood from Old Park. In the same year, Hood himself was fined 3d for not obeying Earl de Warenne’s summons to join the forces of Edward II's Scottish invasion.
  • After the Battle of Boroughbridge and Lancaster’s execution in 1322, his followers were outlawed and their properties seized. One property seized in 1322 was a ‘building of five rooms of a new construction on Bichill, Wakefield’.
Hunter’s hypothesis is that Robert Hood was outlawed after taking part in Lancaster’s rebellion against the king and fled to nearby Barnsdale to begin his life of crime. But that’s not all. Hunter also found a ‘Robyn Hode’ serving in the chamber of King Edward II not long after. That these two people could be one and the same sounds highly unlikely were it not for the events in the earliest ballad; A Gest of Robyn Hode. In this story, King Edward travels to Nottingham and, furious at the poaching of the deer in his royal parks, tracks Robin and his companions down. Impressed by his honour and skill, the king takes Robin into his service where he remains at court for ‘twelve months and three’. Then, longing for the greenwood, Robin returns to Barnsdale and lives there for a further twenty-two years until his death at the hands of the treacherous Prioress of Kirklees.

King Edward II did indeed tour the north of England after the defeat of Lancaster’s rebellion and was particularly interested in the state of his forests such as Pickering and Knaresborough which had seen many trespasses during the war. He stayed at Nottingham in November, 1323 and Hunter remarks that from April, 1324, several payments were made to a porter of the chamber named Robyn Hode. On the 22nd November, 1324 – a year after the king visited Nottingham – Hode is given five shillings as a gift because he is ‘no longer able to work’ and nothing further is heard of him.

Later research by J. C. Holt shows that Robyn Hode was already in the king's service from June 27th, 1323, a good five months before the king arrived in Nottingham. This has weakened Hunter’s hypothesis in the eyes of many but it is interesting to note that on June 27th the itinerary of King Edward II places him at Chapel Haddlesey; a village roughly ten miles east of Barnsdale.

Hunter calculated the year of Hood’s death as 1347; twenty-two years after he left the service of the king. Interestingly there is a grave at Kirklees Priory (in the Wakefield manor) inscribed with Hood’s name and the date of 1247; exactly a century earlier than Hunter’s prediction. The grave is a relatively recent replacement for a previous monument and its inscription makes it clear that Robin Hood of legend is meant. That the date is a century earlier than Robert Hood of Wakefield’s death (according to Hunter) either means that the Robin Hood buried at Kirklees is not Robert Hood of Wakefield or, it is and a scribal error was made on the part of the engraver.

It’s tempting to consider Robert Hood of Wakefield (and possibly Robyn Hode of the king’s chamber) as the real life Robin Hood. After all, he has the right name and lived in the right place at the right time. However, not only is it pure conjecture that Robert Hood of Wakefeld and Robyn Hode of the king’s chamber are the same man but there is also no evidence that either were ever outlawed. Nevertheless, of all the possible candidates for the historical Robin Hood, Robert Hood of Wakefield provides both name, location and a tantalising correspondence to the Gest ballad in the appearance of a similarly named man in the chamber records of King Edward II who is also known to have been in the area at the right time. Coincidences maybe, but intriguing ones at that.

In my recent novel Lords of the Greenwood, Robert Hood of Wakefield, or more correctly, his son (also called Robert), is the Robin Hood of legend. Robert Hood the Elder (the one who was married to a Matilda in the Wakefield court rolls) was killed by the Scots at the Battle of Myton as a result of Lancaster’s treachery. His son, Robert the Younger, finds himself outlawed for murder and has only his bitter enemy Will Shacklock for company in the woods of Barnsdale (the Wakefield court rolls show a Schackelock family living at nearby Crigglestone at this time(4) and the name bears a similarity to the variants of Will Scarlet’s original surname in the ballads). Robert and Will learn to put aside their differences and begin recruiting a band of outlaws fleeing the chaos of Lancaster’s rebellion. Their actions eventually draw the attention of the king himself who comes to them with a proposition…
  1. Joseph Hunter. The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, “Robin Hood”: His Period, Real Character, Etc. Investigated, and Perhaps Ascertained. 1883
  2. J. W. Walker. Robin Hood Identified in The Yorkshire archaeological journal vol. 36 (1944)
  3. J. C. Holt. Robin Hood. 1982
  4. P. Valentine Harris. The truth about Robin Hood : a refutation of the mythologists’ theories, with new evidence of the hero’s actual existence. 1952

Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. His first novel under his own name was A Brother’s Oath; the first book in the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy. He also writes under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.

His recent novel, Lords of the Greenwood, blends history with medieval ballads. This is the entwined saga of two men, separated by a generation and united by legend, who inspired the tales of England’s famous hooded outlaw. Lords of the Greenwood is available through Amazon.

For more information, please visit Chris Thorndycroft’s website. You can also find him on Twitter and Goodreads.


  1. Interesting commentary on the theme, I do love Robin Hood. However I do think this is too late in date to account for the Robin Hood legend in its entirety. The first recorded use of the name was in 1225 and the assizes of York so the concept of a Robin Hood pre-dates this by some time. And that has to be preceded by some kind of legend or myth, some ideal, else this man of 1225 has to be the original, whoever he was, and let's face it, the location is feasible.

    I personally think that Robin Hood is a collection of ideas, of popular beliefs, rumours and idealism, even maybe rooted in the pre-Roman pagan religions, a dash of Hereward the Wake passed down through verbal tradition and embellished, a figurehead for the poor to believe that maybe life could be better. I think it highly unlikely to be just one man but the actions of many, real and imagined, intertwined.

    A medieval urban myth.

    1. Yes, I definitely think Robin Hood is an amalgamation of the mythic and the historical. The 1225 entry you refer to was for a Robert Hod who later appeared as 'Hobbehod' which suggests a potential link to Hobb the Robber; a 14th century personification of thievery. Difficult to know if Robert Hod was his real name or an epithet. Robert Hood in my novel is descended from Robert Hod/Hobbehod and is named after his scandalous ancestor, eventually following in his footsteps.

      It's certainly possible that the ballads themselves may have incorporated the deeds of many real outlaws like Hereward and Roger Godberd and attributed them to a 'Hobbehod' or 'Hooded Hob' archetype.


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