Robin Hood: Benevolent Thief or Resistance Fighter?

Robin Hood is widely known as a benevolent thief who roamed Sherwood Forest stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Maybe not.

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(AP Photo / Warner Bros.)

Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio portray Robin Hood and Maid Marian in a scene from the 1991 movie "Robin Hood Prince of Thieves."

We all think we know Robin Hood — that benevolent renegade who roamed Sherwood Forest, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, hanging out with Friar Tuck and eventually being portrayed by Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

But that characterization may be even more inaccurate than we think: one historian now argues that the fabled woodsman may in fact have been modeled on a medieval guerrilla fighter who terrorized the French forces that occupied southern England in 1216.

The character of Robin Hood is generally acknowledged to be a fictional one, based on one or several of the numerous well-known outlaws of the early 13th century — such as Roger Godberd, a robber who is said to have evaded the authorities in Sherwood Forest for four years, with 100 men under his command.

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But writing in the magazine History Today, British historian Sean McGlynn suggests that the real inspiration for Robin Hood may have been William of Kensham, whose band of archers attacked the occupying French forces of Prince Louis in the forests of Kent, some 180 miles south of Sherwood Forest during the First Baron’s War. Other supposed inspirations for the character, such as Godberd, were around at the wrong time, and lacked Robin’s “hero” status, said McGlynn, according to the Daily Mail.

Robin Hood is known as both a criminal and a man of the people — and William fits the bill better than any other, wrote McGlynn.

“It’s hard to find another contender for the Robin Hood story from this age or afterwards who is both a hero and an outlaw. In William we have both: a feted resistance fighter, loyally protecting the crown, but also, from Louis’ perspective, an egregious outlaw defying the righteous rule of the imposed new regime.”

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But McGlynn admits that the Robin Hood myth is most likely a mix of various stories.

“The most probable truth behind the Robin Hood legend is that over time storytellers incorporated and conflated various characters from a range of stories and settled on the instantly recognizable name of Robin Hood as the woodsman,” he wrote.

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