Number 114, June 2003
Forest Resources, Land Rights and Civil Conflict in Olde England,
James R. Lee
Environment Conflict Overlap
Robin Hood was more than a thief. He was a revolutionary who led an uprising against the royal priveledge and expropriation of common forest lands and their resources by peasantry. He was no doubt an amalgam of many people, real and fictional.
Robin Hood is remembered as a thief who stole from the rich and gave to the
poor. He lived in Britain in Middle Ages around the area of Nottingham and the
Sherwood Forest. While he did rob the elite who transported goods or traveled
through the forest, at the heart of the dispute is the forest itself and its
resources. Robin and other vagabonds lived in and hunted in the royal forest,
which was forbidden. The Sheriff of Nottingham was in charge of enforcing local
royal law and thus became Robin’s antagonist. By this time, Britain’s
forest cover was mostly converted to pasture or agricultural land. This meant
that deer, which lived in the forests for cover and left to browse on grasses,
became rare. Sherwood forest was a sort of Medieval theme park.
“Actual Robin Hood texts first appear in the fifteenth century, initially as fragments of verse, then in a handful of complete tales.” Robin Hood was probably an amalgamation of many Cumbrian outlaws who lived in the 1400s. Robin Hood’s emergence as a myth also is surely the offspring of the larger social movements and discontents of the time. The Peasant’s revolt of 1381 “held that the discontent expressed was that of the lower stratum of the gentry, petty landholders who were affected by rising labour costs and other economic changes in the fourteenth century.” Robin Hood games, fetes of archery to support public causes, lasted from the 1500s to about 1600. With time, it invigorated the myth of the Robin Hood legend, including the Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marion and Friar Tuck.
Robin the poacher preceded Robin the robber. “Interpretations of Robin Hood’s greenwood have focused heavily on the Forest Laws and royal ownership of the forest. These elements are present in the legend, yet they are ultimately a structural feature. Robin is undeniably a bold poacher of venison, and doubtless his violation of the Forest Laws colored the audience response to his adventures, yet his infringements of the royal prerogative is very rarely mentioned in the ballads. The significance thus is not legal but practical.” Robin demands social rights and a type of social contract. “His poaching of deer likewise impinges on royal prerogatives, and his antipathy to the Sheriff sets him at odds with the enforcement of royal policy.
The forest itself provided a cover that allowed Robin Hood’s guerilla movement to continue and flourish. This is not so different from the use of forest covers in warfare that occurred in the U.S. Revolutionary War (the Appalachian Trail) and the Vietnam War (the Ho Chi Minh Trail). Mughal armies in India also cut down forests around cities they were about to siege as did Europeans armies who attempted to storm castles (see earlier Mohenjo-Daro case). The lines of transportation in these environments run through heavily forested areas. Abilities to destroy these supply lines are often hindered by the forest. Robin Hood used the forest as cover to raid the supply lines of the royalty.
“Robin Hood the national fiction is not a simple product; like all the other versions of the outlaw, from local play-game leader to renaissance pastoral figurehead, he is contrasted in a set of interlinked sometimes contradictory maneuvers across a range of places and times. The process starts around 1800 in a context of raised socio-cultural awareness, when political and industrial revolutions are in the forefront of the minds of writers.”
Region: Western Europe
Country: United Kingdom (England)
The royal right to the forest and its resources often imposed great hardships on the people who lived in or near the areas. Robin Hood is known for his crime of stealing deer, but there were also bans in differing places on hunting boars and even smaller animals such as birds and rabbits. Felling of timber was also restricted in some places.
Robin uses a longbow as his weapon (his bow was made of the English “ewe" (or “yew”) tree. This was the same type of wood used thousands of years before by Osti, the frozen iceman). It was important to be skilled at the bow and arrow in the 13th and 14th centuries because it was the means of hunting and survival and the means of protection (similar to the gun in the American west of the 1800s). Because Robin became a mythical legend, he was the greatest archer. One story that demonstrates his archery skill is the Golden Arrow contest set up by the Sheriff to bring Robin out of hiding. This is similar to the William Tell legend. “The myth of yeomanry is reflected symbolically in the outlaws’ choice of weapons. One of the most consistent elements in the legends is Robin’s prowess as an archer, and the practice of archery figures prominently in many of the early ballads.” British excellence at archery was one of their advantages over the French in the Hundred Years War.
The myth of Robin receded with the growth of the British Empire, but revived during the Industrial Revolution. At this time, some thought that taking from the rich through progressive taxation, should be state policy.
Jeffrey L. Singman, Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend, Westport and London:
Greenwood Press, 1998, p. 5.
Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1998, p. 51.
J.C. Holt, in “Past and Present” (Hilton, ed., 1976).