One of the reasons for the longevity of the Robin Hood legend is the fact that, in the original medieval ballads, his origins are not stated. He is simply there, in the forest. No one knows why he is an outlaw, he just is. This state of affairs allowed later writers such as Anthony Munday to ascribe to him the grandiose title of Earl of Huntingdon. However, we do know how the ballads tell of Robin Hood’s death.
In the ballad ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (published in printed form c.1470), Robin, after living as an outlaw in the forest a full twenty-two years, begins to feel ill. His cousin is the Prioress of Kirklees, and in addition to her spiritual role, is also something of a nurse. He decides therefore that he will go to his cousin to be bled (bleeding was believed to be a cure for a range of ailments from the medieval period down to the 1800s). Yet his cousin was a devious woman and, conspiring with her lover, Roger of Doncaster, bleeds Robin excessively so that he dies:
Yet he was begyled, I wys / Through a wycked woman / The pryoresse of Kyrkesly / That nye was of his kynee.
For the love of a knyght / Syr Roger of Donkester / That was her own speciall / Full evyll mote they fare.
Syr Roger of Donkestere / By the pryoresse he lay / And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode / Through theyr false playe.
Later ballads such as ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ (a ballad that is perhaps 18th/19th century origin) would embellish his last moments even further. Little John his lifelong companion is by his side. Robin shoots a final arrow out of the window and asks to be buried wherever it lands:
These words they readily promis’d him / Which did bold Robin please / And there they buried bold Robin Hood / Near to the fair Kirkleys.
There is a grave stone close to the site of the former Kirklees priory with the following epitath:
Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick [such] utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.
To my fellow Yorkshire folk, it is doubtful that there was ever a Robin Hood who was buried here. Firstly, the grave was “discovered” in the eighteenth century, and even the “Old” English wording is inconsistent with the Middle English that Robin Hood and his men would have spoken. Thomas Percy, who in the eighteenth century collected many old ballads, including ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, was sceptical about the grave:
This epitath appears to me suspicious. However, a late antiquary [Will Stukeley] has given a pedigree of Robin Hood, which, if genuine, shows that he had real pretensions to the earldom of Huntington.
Percy was right to be sceptical, the genealogy provided by Stukeley was nothing more than an invention of an eighteenth-century Robin Hood enthusiast.
Evidence suggests that the ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ was not very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even more so, only one movie in the last 100 years, Robin and Marian (1976) has shown a scene with Robin Hood dying – that movie wasn’t popular either! It seems people don’t like seeing/hearing/reading about the outlaw’s death.