Keeping Robin at Bay

A traditional image of Robin Hood
Robin Hood’s Bay, whose narrow, cobbled streets were a haven for smugglers of old

One of the prettiest of our North Yorkshire coastal villages has to be Robin Hood’s Bay, with its jumble of houses perched right on the sea cliffs. From above, the higgledy-piggledy collection of red rooves offers a clue to the hidden maze of narrow cobbled streets which were a haven for smugglers of days gone by.

According to legend, pirates could shift huge quantities of goods from their boats up to the top of the cliffs without anyone seeing them at all, thanks to the labyrinth of alleyways and snickets that only those familiar with the area could navigate.

As my dad says in his column from 13th October 1979, there is debate as to whether Robin Hood even existed, never mind whether he actually visited the coastal village that bears his name. But according to local stories, it was one of his favourite hiding places.

Access from land is still pretty difficult, so you can imagine the struggle they had in the 13th century when Robin was said to be active. And of course, there was only sea on the other side, another substantial obstacle for any land-based pursuers!

Robin is said to have kept a boat always at the ready in the bay, should he have to depart in a hurry to find another hiding spot, possibly in one of the many coves dotting the coastline.

Robin Hood is also linked to Whitby Abbey, just five miles up the coast. Apparently, he was travelling with Little John and called upon the abbot for food and lodgings. They were very warmly welcomed and entertained the monks with tales of their exploits. The monks asked for a demonstration of their legendary archery skills, whereupon the two men were led to a high tower in the abbey which faced down the coast towards an area known as Whitby Laithes.

The men shot an arrow each, and the monks were astounded that they flew nearly one and a half miles through the air. The spots where each arrow hit the ground were marked with special stones, and the fields acquired the names ‘Robin Hood’s Field’, and ‘Little John’s Field’, which still exist today. The stones were first recorded in 1540, but had disappeared by 1881. Having said that, two modern replacements were erected, so the myth will continue to be told for many years to come.

One theory is that the character of Robin Hood was never a real person, but derived from another mythical personality, that of the forest imp, Robin Goodfellow, made famous to many generations of English Literature students as ‘Puck’ in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Robin Hood, they believe, is a corruption of the words ‘Robin of the Wood’, or of ‘Robin Hob’ (‘Hob’ being short for ‘hobgoblin’). And if you’ve ever heard someone recount a funny story, or recap something that you both witnessed, then you’ll know how easy it is for details to change the more times the story is repeated, or become increasingly embellished with every retelling.

So it’s easy to imagine that in the days where entertainment involved sitting around a fire and swapping stories, that tales of the exploits of a character called Robin who lived in the woods could have ended up in the myth of Robin Hood.

But there are a number of real people who are contenders for the role, with records going back to the 12th century of men of that name or similar. For example, a 1226 court register from Yorkshire describes Robin Hood as a fugitive, and in 1354, there is a record of another Robin Hood awaiting trial in Northamptonshire. There are many other recorded references, and clearly they cannot all be the same person. In fact old English words like ‘Robehod’ and ‘Robunhod’ were tags commonly attached to criminals.

Having said that, the first of many literary mentions of the character occurs in a 14th century ballad, which talks about a violent leader of men who lived with his bandits in Sherwood Forest and regularly clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. These early literary references all assume that the original character was a real person.

What we do know is that Robin Hood originally had a reputation as a villain, but over time, and many, many retellings of his story, he became a hero fighting injustice and oppression.

Real or not, I know which version of Robin Hood I prefer.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 11th October and the Gazette & Herald on 9th October 2019

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