Robin Hood and the Huntington Connection

8th September 2013

arrrrrThe tale of Robin Hood never fails to intrigue and the historical puzzle is a knotty one. There have been many attempts to unravel the conundrum and identify a person who could be  THE Robin Hood.

There are some very good overviews of the legend, for instance, the University of Rochester’s exhibition Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero on the development of the legend and their Robin Hood Project website has a selection of the Robin Hood texts, ballads and images.

Alan W Wright’s site The Search for a Real Robin Hood discusses the various theories on Robin Hood and Robert Fortunaso’s site Robin Hood – The Facts and the Fiction gathers together a wealth of information and source material on the historical Robin Hoods.

It has long been recognised that the story of Robin Hood evolved over a long time as a ballad or song and retold to different audiences in different locations by minstrels and bards. To make the story interesting specific local  details would be used to create a connection with the tale and aspects of the stories of  local “Robin Hoods” or characters would be woven into each retelling. However, as with any legend there has to be a starting point, an original prototype.

JC Holt first argued in 1982 that the Robin Hood story was already well known in 1296 when a “Gilbert Robynhood” was recorded as a minstrel at Fletching in Sussex, and suggested that Gilbert was given the nickname of Robynhood for telling tales of the outlaw. He also argued that these Robyn Hood tales originated from the Yorkshire estates of Thomas of Lancaster, grandson of Henry III,  who also held the “Liberty of Leicester” in the Sussex  manor of Fletching. Through his marriage to Alice de Laci,  Thomas also held extensive estates in Lancashire and the legend migrated to the Laci estates in the Honour of Clitheroe.

Early candidates for Robin Hood have included many rebels who fled to the forests after Simon de Montfort’s defeat in 1265 at Evesham, which on the surface does not appear to be connected to the Laci collection of estates. However,  Simon de Montfort’s estates became forfeit to the crown and were inherited by Thomas of Lancaster in 1296. Tales from the 1260s, told in Sussex, merged with tales from the 1320s after Thomas of Lancaster’s defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, and were told and retold on estates once belonging to the de Lacis, de Montforts and Thomas of Lancaster. It is this dynastic link between geographically separate estates that links the many early tales of Robin Hood.

Once popular the tales could be reworked to suit the interests of rich patrons. Anthony Munday wrote two plays at the turn of the 17th century equating Robin Hood with the Earl of Huntington, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and the Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington. In 1601, Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen had still not named her successor, and there were many contenders for the heir to the throne. Munday’s patron, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was connected through Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, to the then current Earl of Huntingdon, George Hastings who may have had aspirations to the throne.

In 1601 George Hastings married Lady Elizabeth Stanley the youngest daughter of Ferdinando Stanley who did have a claim to the throne. Ferdinando Stanley was the great-grandson of Mary Tudor, the youngest sister of Henry VIII, and had long been a focal point for Catholic plots against Elizabeth, before his death in 1596. In fact if the terms of Henry VIII’s will  had been followed in 1603 his eldest daughter, Anne, would have become queen.

Although his wife could claim cousinage to the Queen,  George could also claim royal ancestry. George was descended through his grandmother, Catherine Pole, from George Duke of Clarence, brother to Richard III, the last Yorkist King. Moreover, through his 13th century male ancestor, John de Hastings, George could claim descent from the Scottish royal family including King David I and David, Earl of Huntingdon. Indeed in 1292 John de Hastings was one of 12 competitors for the Scottish throne.

Anthony Munday is the first to locate the Robin Hood legend, as the Earl of Huntington, in the reigns of King John and Richard the Lionheart. It is curious that he does so in 1601, a time of unsettled succession, when Elizabeth I had only 2 more years to live and courtiers were vying for position. The succession of James VI of Scotland, descended from the older sister of Henry VII, was not  a certainty in 1601. George Hastings could claim an older right to the Scottish throne than James VI, and an older claim to the English throne than Elizabeth. George’s wife, Elizabeth, was a cousin of the Queen, and their marriage and subsequent offspring would unite all three royal claims.

Whatever the origin of Robin Hood, his association with the Earldom of Huntington in 1601 by Munday appears to be  attempt to suggest an alternative line of succession to that of James VI of Scotland, who eventually succeeded to the English throne as James I in 1603.