Sean McGlynn: In search of the real Robin Hood
Sean McGlynn, a lecturer in History at the University Of Plymouth and at Strode College, Street, discusses his claim that he has discovered the real-life inspiration behind the Robin Hood stories...
So Robin Hood was from Kent, then? Well, there’s a bit more to it than that, but the national and international press reported it as such – and it does make a good headline.
My recent research into Robin Hood, published this month, puts forward a chap called William of Kensham as the most likely real-life inspiration behind the Robin Hood stories.
Nicknamed “Willikin of the Weald” (it probably sounded rather more dashing in early 13th century England), William was the original disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells; in fact, he was so disgruntled he took to the forests and waged daring war on his enemies.
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As will be explained, he really does have a strong claim to be the leading Robin Hood contender.
Within a few days the internet had ensured that Robin Hood of Kent went around the world. Understandably this has not gone down too well in Nottingham and its environs. I have been too busy – that’s my excuse – to read some of the negative responses posted on the internet, but never mind: my friends have gleefully forwarded to me all the worst and most disparaging comments they could find after extensive and dedicated trawling of the net.
My favourite response has been the Monty Python inspired: “Fwee Willikin of the Weald!”
I don’t know how many times that I have heard the “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen” song as the introduction to interviews with me over the last week. This offers a musical weapon for detractors, someone called “Foz” offering this version:
Sean McGlynn, Sean McGlynn riding through the glen,
Sean McGlynn, Sean McGlynn with his merry pen,
He steals Hood from Notts,
And gives him to Kent,
What a ****!
Alarming, perhaps, but still very amusing. As was entering my class to find all my undergraduate students sporting home-made Robin Hood hats, complete with large feather.
I had never intended to look for Robin Hood; he ambushed me in the forest when I was searching for something else.
It happened as I was writing my book on the forgotten French invasion of England in 1216, Blood Cries Afar. This episode has been widely overlooked by historians despite it being England’s greatest moment of peril since 1066. This also explains why William himself has been overlooked.
In fact, it came very close to being a second Norman Conquest: over one-third of the country was occupied by the French; London was their headquarters for 18 months; and their leader was recognised by many Englishmen as King Louis of England. That’s right – King Louis.
It was a period of dramatic and violent military engagements, and two unsung battles that rank among the most significant in British history: the Battle of Lincoln in May 1217 and the naval Battle of Sandwich later that year – a victory of even greater importance than Nelson’s Trafalgar and the Spanish Armada.
Had the English lost either of these in 1217, we might now know King Louis as the second William the Conqueror.
It was also a period of amazingly colourful characters: Bad King John (and yes, he really was that bad); William Marshal (called “the best knight in the world”); Eustace the Monk (the worst monk in the world: a cross-dressing, foul-mouthed, wind-breaking pirate); and, a great unsung English hero: William of Kensham.
William was a heroic resistance fighter, operating deep behind enemy lines in the French-occupied south-east. Time and again he launched daring attacks on the French who feared him greatly; they were scared to travel on the roads between bases for fear of his frequent attacks. But how does this fit in with the Robin Hood stories?
Robin Hood is most probably a figure of legend. However, medieval tales such as his were frequently based on real people; over time, the deeds of these people were developed, rather like the plots in a TV series, and usually greatly exaggerated. What struck me as an historian was how William’s story offers – uniquely among other candidates previously presented as the real Robin Hood – the combination of factors with which we associate Robin.
William is the only historical contender explicitly associated with the bow: the best informed contemporary English chronicler of the invasion writes of William and “his band of archers” who live in the forest ambushing their enemies.
He is from the yeoman class and, crucially becomes a legend not just within his own life-time, but almost instantly; so much so he earns the affectionate nickname of “Willikin of the Weald”. No less than three contemporary chronicles write about him. Such fame for a non-noble was extremely rare. Even the king wrote to him, thanking him for his loyal service.
He balances the paradox of being both a hero and an outlaw: as an English freedom fighter against the invaders he was a genuine English hero; as an opponent of the new French regime he was also deemed an outlaw. (Most of the other contenders tend to be out-and-out villains.)
And he can be associated with Nottingham. Nottingham was the northern HQ of the royalist English, close to the frontline city of Lincoln. As a master strategist and guerrilla fighter, and as someone with first-hand intelligence of the enemy, he would have been an invaluable military and propaganda asset in Nottingham, where the royalists operated in Sherwood Forest close to French-held Lincoln. Over the 18 months of the French invasion, it is almost certain that the famous Willikin was called to Nottingham to brief the king’s senior commanders there.
These factors alone are far more than any other real-life contender can boast, but there are plenty of other intriguing and telling associations, too, not least that the timing is perfect. We may never find the real Robin Hood, but I do not think we will come closer to the real-life inspiration behind the legend.
Sean McGlynn is author of Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 (The History Press), out in paperback this month.