Regular readers of this blog, will have come across the mention of the poem ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode.’ This is probably the most important of all the surviving literature about the outlaw hero, and is an attempt by an anonymous author in the early fifteenth century, to string together in an epic poem of 456 four-line stanzas, possibly four, far older ballads. The language is of antique quality and by internal evidence it appears that part of the story might date from about c.1400-1450.
‘Gest’ is taken from the Latin res gestae, things done ‘A Story Of Robin Hood’. But some believe, in this case, it could also mean a ‘guest’ of Robin Hood. No single manuscript copy of this saga exists, but proof of its popularity can be found by the existence of various early printed fragments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, providing us with our earliest sources for the text.
One of the substantial fragments, which only supplies half the text, discovered in Ayrshire in 1785, is now in the National Library of Scotland. Formally known as the Lettersnijder Edition of A Gest of Robyn Hode, it has been attributed to the printing press of Jan van Doesbroch in Antwerp about 1510.
A complete version is preserved in the library of Cambridge University titled, A Lyttel Geste of Robyn Hode Explycit, Kynge Edwarde and Robyn hode and Lytell Johan. Enprented at London in flete strete at the sygne of the sone by Wynken de Worde. This was the work of William Caxton’s apprentice Jan Van Wynken or Wynken de Worde who inherited Caxton’s press on his death in 1491. De Worde did not move his business into Fleet Street until 1500, so by dating his other work of the period it is possible to put his production of the Lyttel Geste to around 1515.
Amongst many various other surviving editions are fragments from early printers such as William Copland, Richard Pynson and Edward White. These printed versions were all derived, directly or indirectly from a single written source, who wrote it is unknown.
The tone of the Gest is elevated, though Robin is described as a ‘yeoman’, his chivalry seems to mock that of King Arthur. He sends his men out on a ‘quest’, he washes and wipes his hands before eating and his courtesy and regard for the Virgin Mary is always stressed.
The first ‘fytte,’ or division opens;
Lythe and Lysten, gentylmen
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tell of a good yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.
Whyles he walked on grounde;
So curteys an outlawe as he was one
Was never none yfounde.
The setting is in Barnsdale and Robin says he will not dine until he has a guest; some bold baron, bishop, abbot, knight or squire who can pay for the best. Little John, Will Scarlock, Much the millers son and the rest are told:
Thereof no force, than sayde Robyn;
We shall do well inowe;
But loke ye do no husbonde harme
That tylleth with his ploughe.
No more ye shall no gode yeman
That walketh by grene wode shawe;
Ne no knight ne no squyer
That wol be a gode felawe.
These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bête and bynde;
The hye sheriff of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.
Little John, Much and Will set off to ‘walke up to the Saylis and so to Watlinge Strete’ to find a guest to dine with their master. They return with a downcast knight who accepts their invitation to dine. He is courteously received by Robin and after a good dinner, he is asked to pay, as was the outlaws custom. But he confesses he has only ten shillings (50p). Little John checks the knight’s bags and finds he is telling the truth.
The knight then tells them his son had killed a ‘knight of Lancashire’ and to buy his pardon, the knight’s lands had been pledged for the sum of £400 to the Abbot of St. Mary’s Abbey in York. He explains that he has no friends, he could only pledge his own word, by the honour of Our Dear Lady.
As the knight had no money, he cannot repay the loan, so Robin lends him the £400, new clothes, a horse, boots, spurs and Little John to be his squire.
In the second fytte the Abbot of St. Mary’s awaits the knight’s return, with a sheriff, high cellarer (Treasurer) and a ‘crooked’ justice. They eagerly await this day as his lands are to become forfeit. Only the prior warned them that it was wrong to despoil a knight wrongfully of his lands.
The knight turns up deliberately poorly dressed and when he asks the justice to support him, he replies:
I am holde with the abbot, sayd the justice,
Both by cloth and fee.
For a while the knight lets them believe they have triumphed and there is a lot of play on the abbot’s lack of charity. Then the knight disdainfully counts out £400 and returns home .
His lady met hym at the gate,
At home in Verysdale.
The knight then starts raising the money he owes Robin. A year later, clothed all in ‘whyte and rede’, he sets off, with a hundred bowman in his retinue, with a present of a hundred sheaves of arrows, a hundred bows together with the loan of £400. But on his way to find Robin in Barnsdale;
As he went at a bridge ther was a wraste-lyng,
And there taryed was he,
And there was all the best yemen
Of all the west countree.
The knight and his retainers save a yeoman from murder ‘for love of Robyn Hode’ over an unfair contest.
We now reach the third fytte, which switches back to Little John ‘that was the knightes man,’ who is involved in an archery contest with the sheriff’s men. Calling himself Reynolde Grenelef of Holderness, he wins and the sheriff, amazed at his kill takes him into his service for a year..
Later a quarrel with the cook ensues and the two of them end up robbing the sheriff of his silver and £300, which they take to Robin Hood. Meanwhile the sheriff is out hunting and Little John finds him and says:
Yonder I sawe a right fayre harte,
His coloure is of grene,
Seven score of dere upon a herde
Be with hym all bydene.
The sheriff is betrayed by his man and led to the outlaws camp.
Sone he was to souper sette,
An served well with silver white,
And whan the sheriff sawe his vessel,
For sorowe he might nat ete.
The sheriff is then forced to eat poached venison, served on his own looted silver plate. After their guests dinner, they remove the sheriff’s furred mantle and rich coat and give him a cloak of Lincoln Green to sleep on, with the outlaws ‘under the grene wode tree.’ After a very uncomfortable night he says:
Lat me go, than sayd the sheriff,
For saynte charite!
And I woll be thy best frende
That ever yet had ye.
Robin Hood extracts an oath from the sheriff on his sword, that he will never harm him.
Shalt thou never awayte me scathe,
By water ne by lande.
So the Sheriff is released and allowed to return home.
Fytte four returns to the story of the knight, where once again Robin sends Little John, Much and Scathelok up to the Sayles and Watling Street to look for a ‘guest.’ They see two ‘blacke monkes’ riding by Barnsdale, with a retinue of fifty two men. Little John with an arrow ready, bids them stand, but the monks’ retinue fled.
With only his page and groom left, one of the monks is led to the outlaw’s lodge. Robin courteously removed his hood, but the monk churlishly leaves his head covered. Robin asks him how much money he has, twenty marks, the monk replies. But after searching his bags they find £800. All the money, declared the outlaws, for which ‘Our Lady’ had stood pledge and the monk, they discovered, was the high cellarer of St. Mary’s Abbey, York.
Robin is relieved, as he thought Our Lady was angry with him, because she had not sent his pay.
Have no doute, mayster, sayd Lytell Johan,
Ye have no need, I saye
This monke it hath brought, I dare well swere,
For he is of her abbay.
And she was a borowe, sayd Robyn,
Betwene a knight and me,
Of a lytell money that I hym lent,
Under the grene wode tree.
Robin took all he had and bid the cellarer farewell.
Grete well your abbot, sayd Robyn,
And your pryour, I you pray,
And byd hym send me such a monke
To dyner every day.
The knight arrived later to find that his debt is already paid. But Robin gave him an extra £400 interest that St. Mary had sent him.
Fytte five describes an archery contest held by the sheriff of Nottingham for the best archers of the north. The prize was an arrow of silver and gold. Robin Hood and his men take part.
Thryes Robyn shot about,
And alway he slist the wand,
And so dyde good Gylberte
Wyth the whyte hande.
Lytell Johan and good Scatheloke
Were archers good and fre;
Lytell Much and good Reynolde,
The worste wolde they not be.
Robin Hood wins the prize, but is recognised and his men are ambushed. Little John is shot in the knee and he begs Robin to kill him rather than let him fall into the sheriff’s hands. But Robin carries him to the castle (double ditched and walled) of the knight they had lent the money to. Who for the first time is given a name-‘Syr Rychard at the Lee.’
The sixth fytte begins with Sir Richard’s castle under siege. The sheriff demands the knight hands over Robin Hood. But he refuses until he knows the king’s will. So the sheriff rides off to London to put the matter to the king.
I wil be at Notyngham, saide our kynge,
Within this fouteenyght,
And take I wyll Robyn Hode,
And so I wyll that knight.
The Sheriff returns to Sir Richard’s ‘double dyched’ castle to find that Robin and his men have eluded him. So, while the knight is out hawking, the sheriff ambushes him.
Toke he there this gentyll knight,
With men of armys stronge,
And led hym to Notyngham warde,
Bounde bothe fote and hande.
Sir Richard’s wife then sets off ‘on a gode palfrey’ to the green wood to inform Robin, who gathers his men together. They find the ‘proude’ sheriff in a Nottingham street.
Robin bent a full goode bowe,
An arrowe he drowe at wyll;
He hit so the proude sherife,
Upon the grounde he lay full still.
And or he might up aryse,
On his fete to stonde,
He smote of the sheriffs hede,
With his bright bronde.
Robin releases the knight, who returns to the greenwood with them.
In the seventh fytte, the king comes to Nottingham and seizes the knights lands.
The kynge came to Notynghame,
With knyghtes in grete araye,
For to take that gentyll knyght
And Robin Hode, and yf he may.
He asked men of that countre
After Robyn Hode,
And after that gentyll knight,
That was so bolde and stout.
The king finds not only the sheriff dead, but the deer in his forests killed. He declares that ‘Syr Rycharde at the Le’s’ lands are forfeit and that he will pass them over to anyone who will cut off his head. But after six months in Nottingham the king is no nearer finding Robin Hood either, until a forester suggests a way in which to do it.
The king is to dress as an abbot and take only five knights with him similarly dressed to lure out the outlaws.
The forester led the disguised king a mile into the forest and soon they were waylaid by Robin and his men.
Robyn toke the kynges hors,
Hastely in that stede,
And sayd, Syr abbot, by your leve,
A whyle ye must abyde.
We be yeman of this foreste,
Under the grene wode tre;
We lyve by our kynges dere,
Other shyft have not we,
And ye have chyrches and rentes both,
And gold full grete plente,
Gyve us some of your spendynge,
For saynt charyte.
The ‘abbot’ explains that he has been at the royal court for a fortnight and it has been an expensive business, leaving him with only £40. Robin divides the money up, with half to his men and the rest given back to the ‘abbot’, who tells him that King Edward bids him to come to Nottingham. After seeing the royal seal, Robin declares:
I love no man in all the worlde
So well as I do my kynge;
Welcome is my lords seale;
And, monke, for thy tydynge.
With a blow on his horn, Robin Hood’s men appear and kneel before their leader, which amazes the disguised king, who declares that the outlaws men are more obedient than his own!
After a feast, they hold an archery contest at which Robin excels. But later he misses the target and has to receive a punch from an opponent. The ‘abbot’ is chosen and reluctantly delivers such a blow that it knocks Robin to the ground.
Robin Hood and Sir Richard suddenly realise who he is.
I trowe thou canst well shete.
Thus our kynge and Robyn Hode
Togeder gan they met.
Robyn beheld our comly kynge
Wystly in the face,
So dyde Syr Rycharde at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place.
And so dyde all the wylde outlawes,
Whan they se them knele:
My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
Now I knowe you well.
Robin asks the king for mercy for his men and himself. The king pardons them on condition that they leave the forest and come to court, ‘and there dwell with me.’
The king and the outlaws return to Nottingham dressed in Lincoln Green liveries. The townspeople panic, believing that the king has been slain.
Than every man to other gan say,
I drede our kynge be slone;
Come Robyn Hode to the towne, i wys,
On lyve he lefte never one.
Full hastly they began to fle,
Both yeman and knaves,
And olde wyves that might evyll goo,
They hypped on theyr staves.
Order is restored when they see the king. After a merry feast Sir Richard at the Lee is summoned by the king and his lands are restored to him.
After little more than a year at court, Robin has spent all his money, ‘to gete hym grete renowne,’ and only two of his men, Little John and Scathelok have deserted him. One day he sees young men out shooting and laments.
Somtyme I was an archere good,
A styffe and eke a stronge;
I was compted the best archere
That was in mery Englonde.
Alas! Then sayd good Robyn,
Alas and well a woo.
Yf I dwele lenger with the kynge,
Sorowe wyll me sloo.
Robin then went to the king and begs leave to go on a pilgrimage, barefoot and wearing a flannel shirt, to a chapel he has built in Barnsdale of ‘Mary Magdaleyne.’
The king gives him leave to be away for one week. But once in Barnsdale, he returns to his old ways.
Robyn slewe a full grete harte;
His horne than gan he blow,
That all the outlawes of that forest
That horne could they knowe.
‘Seven score of wyght yonge men,' flock to him and there in Barnsdale he stayed for twenty two years.
Robyn dwelled in grene wode
Twenty yere and two;
For all drede of Edwarde our kynge,
Agayne wolde he not goo.
The author then briefly tells of Robin Hood’s death, how he was beguiled by the ‘pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of hys kynne.’
For the love of a knyght,
Syr Roger of Donkesly,
That was her owne speciall:
Full evyll mote they the!
Feeling ill, Robin Hood visits Kirklees to be let blood by his relative, the Prioress of Kirklees.
Syr Roger of Donkestere,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe.
Cryst have mercy on his soule,
That dyed on the rode !
For he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god.
This glimpse of Robin Hood, in one of the earliest surviving ballads, throws up more questions than answers. There is no Maid Marian or Friar Tuck. Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire, seems to be the home of the outlaws and places like the Sayles, St Mary’s Abbey and Doncaster are clearly defined.
Although Nottingham is mentioned, the name of Sherwood Forest, Robin’s traditional home does not appear in the text. When Little John, Much and Scathelok are sent up to the Saylis to watch Watling Street and look into Barnsdale– clearly placing the activity in Yorkshire –they are told by Robin to ‘hold the High Sheriff of Nottingham’ in their mind, - this is a strong indication of how different ballads have been meshed together by the author to form the ‘Geste.’. The Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire had no jurisdiction over Yorkshire. Another examples of this can be seen by the knight, who up until the fifth fytte is known only as ‘gentyll’, then suddenly he acquires the name ‘Syr Rychard at the Lee.’
Robin Hood is described as a proud, courteous, ‘yeoman,’ (a rank below knights and squires) who will not dine until he has a new guest, which seems to be a humorous imitation of the knightly tales of King Arthur and his Round Table.
The king mentioned in the 'Geste' is not Richard the Lionheart the monarch of modern day productions, but 'Edwarde, our kynge' and Robin’s devotion to ‘Oure Dere Lady’ (the Virgin Mary) is emphasised throughout this epic saga. Her ‘miracle’ is a major element of the story and this theme, a feature of the Roman Catholic Church, known as ‘the Marian Cult’, reached its peak in Western Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Apart from four other surviving ballads and a couple of fragmentary plays, ( that we shall look at later) this epic poem is about as close as we can possibly get to the ‘original’ medieval legend of Robin Hood. His ancestry, and why he was outlawed are not explained, but his popularity would jettison him in various forms, right into the twenty-first century.
© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007