The Bird That Woke Robin Hood

'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne' from Percy's 'Reliques' 

Since moving to the beautiful county of Gloucester I have been astonished by the amount of birds that regularly visit our garden.  My fiancee and her mother are attempting to teach me the various species and their calls. So with my interest in the Robin Hood legend, I decided to ask them if they knew of a bird called a Woodweete. I was greeted by puzzled looks. So I explained to them that it was this bird that woke Robin Hood from a dream in the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. They had never heard of such a bird, so I decided to spend some time investigating this mysterious creature.

First some information about the ancient ballad. It was Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore in Ulster, (1729-1811) who ensured the survival of the original manuscript of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and it was published for the first time in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Percy's collection (including eight Robin Hood ballads) later became known as the Percy Folio.

David Fowler in his Literary History of the Popular Ballad (1968) described the Percy Folio as:
      the most important single document relative to the history of balladry  
Percy explained how, when visiting the home of Humphrey Pitt in 1753, he saw the collection of manuscripts 'unbound and torn, lying on a dirty floor' being used by parlour maids to light the fire! He was already interested in old poetry and rescued the remains of the folio. On closer inspection he discovered that it contained ballads, historical songs, metrical romances and sonnets dating from between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

It had not been treated well, probably because the owners would have found the Middle English and Border dialect used in the manuscript incomprehensible. Many of the pages, Percy explains, were badly 'mutilated and imperfect.'

 Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry'

The publication of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry not only revived scholarly interest in ballad poetry but inspired people like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the brothers Grimm and the whole 'Romantic Movement'. Sir Walter Scott recalled that at the age of thirteen he forgot his dinner because he was so enthralled by his first perusal of the Reliques.

The ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, saved by Percy, only survives in this portfolio. It is written continuously in an early seventeenth-century hand (with possible omissions) but Percy discovered that 'it was a ballad of Robin Hood which had never before been printed and carried marks of much greater antiquity than any of the common popular songs on this subject.' 

Thomas Percy (1729-1811)

Even more damage was done to the manuscripts when Percy had the collection bound together. The bookbinder trimmed off the edges of the pages, losing some of the first and last lines. Not only this, but being compliant with the age he deemed it important to 'correct' and edit the ballads he published, sometimes even re-writing, conflating and softening the text for his eighteenth century readers. This is something he would later be criticized for by scholars. One of the alterations he made was the name of the bird that awoke Robin Hood from his dream in the forest. The original seventeenth century manuscript has:
The woodweele sang and wold not cease
Percy does not hesitate in altering woodweele to woodweete (as seen in the image at the top of this post) and describes the bird as:
a Golden Ouzle, a kind of Thrush.
But when John Hales and Frederick Furnivall edited the Reliques in 1868 they suggested Percy's 'woodweete' as :
a Witwall, the Great Spotted Woodpecker
Later, the great American ballad collector Francis J Child in his English and Scottish Ballads (5 vols. 1882-98) printed the ballad with woodweele but in his glossary has woodweete.

Confused? It doesn't get any easier! The Romaunt of the Rose, a French allegory partially translated by Chaucer, seems to refer to the same mysterious bird :

Can we assume that this poem in Middle English is referring to the same bird? If we do than what do the Chaucerian experts think the bird was?

John Urry in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1721) explains in his glossary that wodwale is 'witwall' known as the golden ousel a bird of the thrush-kind.

Fifty four years later Thomas Tyrwhitt's glossary to The Canterbury Tales (page 645) has:
WODEWALE: n. of a bird. Widewael. BELG.Oriolus. Killian . According to Ray, our Witwall is a sort of Wood-pecker.
The famous English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835-1912) admitted the great confusion in these names:

North of the border, John Jamieson in his Etmological Dictionary Of The Scottish Language (1818) has:

Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) in his Oxford Book of Ballads (1927) describes the 'woodweele' in the ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne as:
                       woodweele]woodlark, thrush?

In modern times there has been a surge in research into the legend of Robin Hood. In 1976 R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor reproduced a collection of  thirteen ballads with accompanying notes known as the Rymes of Robyn Hood. In their glossary of the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne  (p.141) they explain that 'woodweete: woodwall, is usually identified with the golden oriole, noted for its singing voice.' 

Other current experts on the legend like Professors Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren go with woodwall (golden oriole).

I decided to consult the RSPB site on the golden oriole and was frustrated to see that this beautiful singing bird only colonizes on the south or east coasts of England in the summer. Nowhere near Sherwood Forest or Yorkshire's Barnsdale, where the ballad is set. Whereas the green woodpecker, like the song thrush, is a resident across all of England's ancient woodland.

But what I did not take into consideration was the 'medieval warm period' or the Medieval Climatic Anomaly. This, I learned, ran from about 950 AD to 1250 and would have encouraged the golden oriole's breeding range in north west Europe. The bird is a great wanderer, especially the males in their first two years. So it is possible that during the 13th Century the golden oriole could have visited the forests of central and northern England.

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne is (as Percy mentioned) of great antiquity and has many ancient motifs, notably Guy's horse-hide and head, which seem more like ritual costume. Was the 'woodweele' chosen for it's traditional mythical elements or as a metaphor? 

It seems - from all this - we have at least three possible candidates for the 'woodweele' in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. These are the song thrush, golden oriole and green woodpecker. Down the centuries, birds like these have established a substantial amount of folk-lore about them. 

Golden Oriole

The golden oriole is known in ancient lore as a 'transfigured magical image of the blackbird.' Like the blackbird, the oriole's flute-like calls make it a piper of the dawn and its cheerful notes have been described as 'merry as its clothing.'

This beautiful, but secretive bird, spends a lot of its time aloft in tree tops. It is known in legend for its healing virtues and when looked upon by a person with jaundice, it cures the sufferer-but sadly dies during the process.

Song Thrush

The song thrush, meanwhile, has been described as the 'very spirit of spring' and likes to nest in forests with good undergrowth. The male's distinctive song has musical phrases (sometimes over a hundred), which are repeated two or three times interspersed with grating noises and mimicry (including other birds and man-made objects). The song thrush has a unique voice box, known as a 'syrinx', which enables them to sing two notes at once and blend them beautifully. For its weight the song thrush also has one of the loudest bird calls.

Many famous poets have celebrated the song thrush in verse. Including Robert Browning in his Home Thoughts, from Abroad:
That's the wise thrush, he sings each song twice over
Lest you think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture. 

Green Woodpecker

The green woodpecker would also have had a song loud and persistent enough to awaken Robin Hood. The 16th Century antiquarian John Aubrey noted that this particular bird was used for divination. In Norse mythology, the green woodpecker was the bird of Thor, god of thunder and lightning and was able to cure illness and prolong life.

This haunter of forests was described as a 'living barometer' by our ancestors and can become very vociferous when a storm approaches. Did the poet include the woodpecker's 'ceaseless calling' as a warning to Robin of his imminent brutal confrontation with Guy of Gisborne?

Below are three clips of the birdsong of our possible candidates, the green woodpecker, song thrush and golden oriole.

Green Woodpecker

Song Thrush

Golden Oriole

After a great deal of consideration, I believe it was the green woodpecker (with its 'joyous laugh') that woke Robin Hood in the greenwood. 

What do you think? 


The Golden Oriole by Paul Mason, Jake Allsop
Fraser's Magazine by Thomas Carlyle
Popular Music of the Olden Time... by William Chappell and George Alexander Macfarren
Chronicle of Scottish Poetry from the Thirteenth Century... by James Sibbald
British Birds in Their Haunts by Charles Alexander
An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language by John Jamieson
Notes and Queries February 1855
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by Thomas Percy
Bird Life and Bird Lore by Reginald Bosworth Smith
RSPB Handbook of British Birds by Tim Cleeves and Peter Holdern


Richard Todd and Joan Rice

Richard Todd and Joan Rice

Above is a publicity still for Walt Disney's live-action movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men which starred Richard Todd, Joan Rice and a whole host of celebrated British actors and actresses. It is one of my favourite images from the film and I think you will agree that their passionate clinch is unusual for a Disney production.

The Story of Robin Hood had its world premiere in London on March13th 1952. On the back of the picture is the date June 18th 1952.  This is possibly an indication that it was used as promotional material for the films release in New York.

By this time, Richard Todd (1919-2009) was already a popular actor. He had received an Oscar nomination for his role as 'Lachie' in The Hasty Heart (1949) and recently finished Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) and King Vidor's Lightning Strikes Twice (1951). 

But for Joan Rice, the former 'Nippy' from a Lyons tea house, this was her first big break. Joan had spent her childhood in a convent in Nottingham and had often played amongst the oaks of Sherwood Forest. So it must have been like a dream come to be personally selected by Walt himself to play the part of Maid Marian in his British production. 

To read more about the life of Joan Rice please click here.

Joan Rice in 'His Majesty O'Keefe'

I was thrilled to receive this exclusive copy of a photograph from Joan Rice's niece recently. It shows her aunt in Fiji during the filming of His Majesty O'Keefe in 1952.

Joan Rice in Fiji

Filming of His Majesty O'Keefe began in Fiji on June 21st 1952 (it was eventually finished six months later). Joan Rice (1930-1997) played the part of Dalabo aki Darbi alongside Burt Lancaster as O'Keefe. She had previously been personally chosen by Walt Disney for the role of Maid Marian in his second live-action movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, so this former Lyons waitress was experiencing a huge amount of popularity. But this would sadly be the pinnacle of her brief film career. Below is some interesting information about the making of His Majesty O'Keefe:

"According to Lancaster biographer Ed Andreychuk, initially Fred Zinnemann was slated to direct the film adaptation of His Majesty O'Keefe, with Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings assigned to the script. Byron Haskin, the film's eventual director, recalls that the production encountered troubles early on. Warner cancelled the project at the last minute, after the crew had already arrived at the Fiji Islands, but Hecht somehow managed to rescue the situation. 

In order to take advantage of frozen film funds in Britain, Hecht brought in some British crew and cast members. Warner Brothers built a virtually self-contained studio on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji, complete with a soundstage, sound recording studio (postsynchronization was done onsite), administrative offices, and a Technicolor lab. Since there were limited accommodations on the island, Warner took over the entire Beachcomber Hotel at Deuba and constructed additional rooms to house the cast and crew. They also rented the entire village of Goloa and constructed new buildings, which they turned over to the villagers once shooting was finished. 

Shortly before shooting began, Hecht brought in Borden Chase and James Hill to rewrite it at the last minute. Chase - a talented screenwriter who had worked on the script for Hawks' Red River (1948) - expressed frustration at the lack of organization and constant distractions, including story conferences during which Lancaster would wildly act out the scenes. Eventually Hill and Chase separated themselves from the rest of the crew and sent the finished script pages each day by messenger, after which Hecht would rewrite them. Shooting was interrupted almost daily by rain showers, and the crew encountered all sorts of problems from finding their clothing covered in mildew to fending off dengue fever. According to biographer Kate Burton, Lancaster later remarked: "There were times when the only thing idyllic about it was the Nadi airport where fast and comfortable planes took off constantly in a northeasterly direction for Hollywood." 

Ultimately the film's production costs totaled $1.55 million, well over the $1.1 million per film stipulated by the contract with Warner Brothers. (Similarly, The Crimson Pirate [1952] had cost $1.85 million). As a result Warner offered to renew the contract only for lower budget films, so Hecht and Lancaster decided to sign up with United Artists instead. Still, according to director Haskin, His Majesty O'Keefe turned out to be one of the most profitable films of his career, thanks to TV sales. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions even proposed at one point to spin it off into a television series, together with some of their other properties.

Joan Rice during a break in the filming of His Majesty O'Keefe

And below is Joan Rice's own truly revealing article in Picturegoer Magazine of September 13th 1952 (sent in by Neil). It details her experiences of home-sickness, stage nerves, height problems, swimming, engagement, plans for marriage and the preparations for film production of His Majesty O'Keefe:

Fiji-bound, Joan Rice stopped off at Hollywood..... and found time to write 'Picturegoer' a letter....

“It was 8 a.m. when the big B.O.A.C plane circled over Idlewild Airport. I was awake and well. I am usually very airsick, but I took plenty of ‘anti’ tablets.

It was my first sight of New York. I had no idea there was so much water round it. One doesn’t think of New York that way.

The Press photographer who came to meet the plane was a very tall man. In the corner of his mouth he had the longest cigar I had ever seen. He kept smoking it, even while taking pictures.

But he didn’t ask me to “hoist the hemline a few inches, kid.” As I am told they usually do. I don’t consider myself the pin-up type-even though I have to wear sarongs for my half-caste role with Burt Lancaster in ‘His Majesty O’Keefe,’ the film for which I am making this trip.

America amazes me. On the drive to Manhattan from the airport I was impressed by all the labour saving devices in this country-even to the machines that wash your car in sixty seconds. And the roads! The city is so well planned that I found my way around quite easily.

Armchair Travel

But I wouldn’t swap an English car for an American. The U.S. jobs are too big and over sprung. You have no sensation of travelling, and might as well stay in your armchair and have removal people move you.

I had nothing but £. s. d. In my bag, because this is a Fiji and Elstree film and I am being paid in pounds. But Warners gave me fifty pounds and I made straight for a drugstore. Haven’t you always wanted to go into a drugstore? They’re just as we see them in American films

asked for a cup of white coffee. Without uttering a word the man gave me a cup of black coffee. I said: “No, I want white coffee.” He went away and put it in a waxed container so I could carry it away. I said : “No, white coffee. I want to drink it here.” He just looked at me. We just couldn’t seem to understand each other.

I said: “This is the first time I have done this. In England we ask for black or white.”

He put some cream in my coffee and when I paid, the man at the cash desk sold me nearly everything in the store. I bought colour films and a travelling iron and asked for a British brand of milk chocolate. But they had only American chocs., and I bought a pound; but they were not so good as ours. They just didn’t taste the same. At home I eat my month’s ration the first week, but here I had some of that pound left a week later.

I hadn’t anything to do that evening in New York, so I went to bed and watched television. The hotel people apologized for my room as “only temporary, Miss Rice,” But really it was palatial – lamps and television and everything. More like a big living – room.

There was wrestling on television and it kept me awake. Finally I had to turn off the set, or I’d never got off to sleep.

Landing at Los Angeles at eight o’clock the next night was unforgettable. There was still daylight, but the lights were coming on all over the city. With its coloured houses and the miles of neon lighting in such delicate shades, the town looked like a gleaming model.

There was some difficulty at the Roosevelt as they had no room ready for me; so the photographer who met the plane took me dancing in the hotel’s Hawaiian night club.

At first they wouldn’t let me in. They said I was under age. I’m only five feet four in my stockinged feet- I know because Carl Schafer, head of Warner’s international office in Hollywood, measured me against a studio door. I initialled the mark.

Next day I spent by the hotel swimming pool. I had only six days’ notice to leave London, but my bathing suit was one thing I wouldn’t forget!

I can’t swim, so I didn’t go in the water until the evening, when I could be alone. Then I dunked myself in the shallow end and tried floating. For a few seconds I actually stayed up.

I reported to the studio on Monday, and the week became a whirl, with fittings, hairdressing, still pictures, make-up, interviews and more fittings.

Model Of My Figure

Fabulous is the word for the way Hollywood production is organized. They had a model of my figure already made, and much of the clothes-making was already done. (Their sending to London for my measurements was the first tip I had that they might take me.)

‘His Majesty O’Keefe’ is a period picture, and as well as sarongs I am going to wear two lovely gowns. One is lavender lace and velvet wedding dress with a bustle.

I hadn’t seen the script then, but I knew there’s an amusing scene where I try on the dress and then refuse to wear it, because I have got it on the wrong way round and I don’t like that “hump” (that is the bustle) in front.

The studio hairdressing department is like a Bond Street salon. Even in the waiting rooms the appointments are magnificent. Hollywood really tries to make its stars feel good.

And the clips they used for waving hair are better than ours. They give a softer wave without risk of breaking or making a “line” in the hair.

I Sat On Stars

They had to build me up on the chair because I am rather short in the body. I didn’t quite reach the dryer. They piled cinema magazines under me, so I really sat on the stars. I noticed the picture on top was of Ava Gardner.

Some of the Warners stars very kindly came to say “hallo” to me as I spent those long hours in the make-up and hairdressing chairs. I couldn’t talk to them (ever tried to talk with your head in a dryer, or while a man’s painting your lips?), but it was all very friendly. Steve Cochran was particularly charming.

Kathryn Grayson and Joan Rice in Hollywood in 1952

Friendliness is one of the things about Hollywood. Leroy Prinz, the director, said I was to come back to Hollywood and he’d put me in musicals. I don’t know about that. I only know I’m booked for four months on this film, in Fijii with Burt Lancaster, whom I’ve met only once – at a Royal Film Performance. (I was very nervous-it was my first stage appearance. Afterwards he grinned and said: “Well, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”) I think the really surprising thing about Hollywood is that it’s just what you would expect. If you’ve seen it in the pictures-you’ve seen it. People do just the same things, in the same way, as on the screen. Of course, the sunshine is indescribable-there just aren’t the words. It’s sun, sun, sun. You almost expect it to blaze all night.

And remember I was there for only eight crowded, busy days. I went to a few night clubs-they’re rather like ours, but with more stars about. I tried Mexican food, made especially not-to-hot for me. Those beans of theirs-grand! Little brown beans in brown gravy. I couldn’t eat enough of them.

I tried driving a left-hand drive car- an English model, I’m glad to report!-and nearly rammed a big American thing on a turn. But in a couple of hours I got used to it, even on their eight-lane speed- highways.

I think it takes time to understand Hollywood. I want to go back-even though one can be hopelessly homesick there.

I was like that one evening that first week. It was so bad I just had to talk to somebody at home. I phoned Joan Rees, my friend and first agent who got me into films. It took until 3 am. to get through. The transatlantic circuits were always “out” or something. I told the hotel operator it didn’t matter how late it was, she was to connect me.

Just talking to somebody in England was a relief. I asked about my cat (A tabby) and things like that.

When I hung up, the operator rang back. She said: “Are you feeling better now, dear?” I know how it feels. I came out alone twenty-three years ago, I’m from Guildford.”

She sent me up a pot of tea. The waiter wouldn’t take my money. He said: “It’s on the house.”

Yes, I’d like to see Hollywood again-maybe on my honeymoon. Martin Boyce-he proposed to me over the phone just before I left Britain-and I plan to marry as soon as I get back, perhaps in the little old church at Denham.”

Joan Rice as Dalabo aki Dali in His Majesty O'Keefe

Joan Rice sadly passed away on January 1st 1997. This blog is dedicated to her memory. To read more about her life, please click here.

The image of Joan Rice at the top of the page is private property.