Across the length and breadth of Britain, one outlaw captured the hearts and minds of a medieval society.
With his feats of derring-do and dashing band of Merry Men, the hero, clad in Lincoln green, stole purses, the occasional heart, and gave his name to one of the region’s villages.
Tales of that villainous rogue Robin Hood have long been associated with the Yorkshire coast, but is there any truth to back up the folklore?
It was in the last years of the 12th Century, during the reign of Richard I, that we first hear of England’s most famous archer.
Shaw Jeffrey, in his Whitby Lore and Legend, said his true name was Robin Fitzooth, with the surname later being corrupted to the more familiar name we now know.
The yeoman was well-known for his ‘steal from the rich, give to the poor’ exploits around Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, but when things got too hot for Robin, it was said he escaped to our neck of the woods.
The settlement of Robin Hood’s Bay was first recorded under that name by John Leland in 1536, and Kai Roberts’ ‘Folklore of Yorkshire’ offers up two possible explanations for this. One legend sees Robin loose an arrow from Stoupe Brow and vow to found a town wherever it landed.
The second reports that the outlaw dodged his pursuers by hiding on the moors, and while here kept a boat at the inlet, so he could escape if necessary.
Roberts, a historian with a passion for local folklore, said: “The ballad Robin Hood’s Fishing, which starts with him retiring to Scarborough and taking up work on a fishing boat, is first recorded in 1631. In the earliest surviving version of this ballad, from 1650, it concludes with the lines ‘for the oppressed, a habitation I will build, where they shall live in peace and rest’, which some writers have supposed to mean Robin Hood’s Bay. Meanwhile a surviving manuscript from around 1670 gives an alternative version of the ballad which ends with Robin vowing to found a chapel near Whitby.”
It appears that while in the region, Robin was partial to firing off his arrows at leisure, as another tale from 1779 puts both Robin and Little John at Whitby Abbey, where one of the abbots challenged them to see who could fire an arrow furthest. Without any concern for innocent bystanders, the two loosed their shafts, which fell on the west side of Whitby Laithes, near the lane leading to Stainsacre, and Little John was recorded as the victor by a margin of some 100 yards.
Jeffrey states that around 1890 these pillars were lying in a ditch of a field bearing their names. They were photographed by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and in 1937 one of the stones was in use at Summerfield Farm, near Hawsker Church, as a field roller.
A pair of stones still stand near a farm on Hawsker Lane, beside a public footpath. One says Robin Hood, the other - a pace or two further on - says Little John. Could these be the stones of legend?
However, at a distance of a mile and a half from the Abbey tower, it is unlikely that the tradition had any factual basis, unless the men were supernaturally strong or stood substantially closer.
Not far from Robin Hood’s Bay it was said Robin had marks set up to allow his men to practice archery, and the locals believed this was the case until 1771, when an excavation into the butt uncovered human remains, believed to be Saxon or Danish.
Such is the case with many of the Robin Hood legends, it would seem. The stories remain popular and grow with the telling, yet when investigated in detail any factual basis crumbles.
Roberts added: “These sources are at least 200 years later than the earliest ballads we know of and there is no reason to think the ballads represent historical accounts. It is more likely that they were the products of some travelling minstrel’s imagination, who during the period of the Robin Hood ballads greatest popularity between the late-15th and mid-17th Century, sought to flatter a regional audience by associating the outlaw with their locality. Apparently, maritime adventures were not an uncommon strand of medieval outlaw ballads and both Eustace the Monk and Fulk Fitz Waryn enjoy similar episodes.”
So it would seem the stories of Robin Hood were a travelling minstrel’s attempts to boost ‘record sales’ while in the area, and debates continue to rage as to whether the outlaw ever existed at all.
Yet it may be the case that some rogue who lived on our coastline adopted the monicker Robin Hood, as Roberts explained: “There exists the possibility that in the High Middle Ages, ‘Robin Hood’ was used as a generic term for an outlaw and there were in fact numerous bandits referred to as ‘Robin Hood’ across the country over several centuries, whose exploits influenced the ballads. There may have been such an outlaw in the Whitby region but as far as I know, nobody has identified any potential candidate in the medieval records. It seems far more likely that the places around Whitby became associated with Robin Hood through the balladeer’s skill and the popular imagination.”