Last Thursday (2nd July 2015), I and the other delegates to the International Association for Robin Hood Studies got the chance to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.
According to the legend, in old age Robin Hood fell ill and went to visit his cousin, who was the Prioress of Kirklees, so that he could be bled. However, his cousin conspired with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. So she opened a vein, locked Robin in the upper room of the gatehouse, and let him bleed to death. This is how the story is recounted in one of the earliest Robin Hood texts, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450):
Yet he was begyled, I wys, through a wycked woman, the pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of kynne.
For the love of a knyght, Syr Roger of Donkester, that was her owne speciall, full evyll mote they fare.
They toke togyder theyr counsell, Robyn Hode for to sle, and how they myght best do that dede, his banis for to be.
Than bespake good Robyn, in place where as he stode, to morrow I muste to Kyrkesley, craftely to be leten blode.
Syr Roger of Donkestere, by the pryoresse he lay, and there they betrayed good Robyn Hode, through theyr false playe.
Cryst have mercy on his soule, that dyde on the rode, for he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.
Later Robin Hood texts would expand upon the story of the death even further. The ballad Robin Hood’s Death and Burial says that in his dying moments, Robin sounded his bugle horn and Little John came running. John wanted to burn down the priory in revenge for Robin’s death, but, noble to the end, Robin commands him not to, for:
I never hurt woman in all my life, nor man in woman’s company.
Instead, Robin wishes John to help him fire one last arrow, and where the arrow falls, says Robin, is the spot that should mark his grave:
Lay me a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, and lay my bent bow by my side, which was my music sweet, and make my grave of gravel and green, which is most right and meet.
The arrow falls over a mile away from the priory, and the spot, legend has it, is now marked by the grave that now stands to this day.
On the grave itself there is an epitaph which reads (in a text which is supposed to resemble Middle English):
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 utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.
You may be able to see this epitaph on the accompanying picture, though you may have to enlarge it.
Now, there have been doubts about this grave for a great number of years. The earliest reference to the existence of this grave is in the year 1610 – quite a few years after Robin Hood, if he ever existed, actually lived!
Thomas Percy, the editor of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), admitted that the grave and the epitaph was suspicious.
Joseph Ritson, on the other hand, in his Robin Hood (1795), seemed to think that it was genuine enough.
The current structure around the grave actually dates from the 1850s, so what you’re seeing in the picture is not a medieval structure.
Whether there is a Robin Hood buried under there cannot be said. It’s around the right location for a grave of the famous outlaw (if he existed), and no one has ever disturbed the soil to see if anyone is buried under there.
Most modern researchers tend to take the grave with a pinch of salt, unless they’re a big part of the ‘real Robin Hood’ industry (a bit like the Jack the Ripper industry).
All doubts aside, it was an enjoyable visit, and it’s nice to see where Robin might have died, had he existed.