18th century

The Birth of Robin Hood

The ballad The Birth of Robin Hood is of uncertain date, and never appeared in Joseph Ritson’s influential Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). It came to the attention of Robert Jamieson in 1800, who heard a Mrs. Brown, of Falkland, singing the song. Jamieson later published it in his ballad anthology Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). Mrs. Brown contributed two songs to the Robin Hood tradition: The Birth of Robin Hood, and Rose the Red, and White Lily. The latter song also came to the attention of Sir Walter Scott and was included in his ballad collection The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott’s influence over the Robin Hood legend in 1819 would be immeasurable.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).

Thomas Bewick, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).

The story of The Birth of Robin Hood concerns a man called Willie who goes to serve as a retainer in the household of an Earl Richard. Whilst there, he falls in love with Earl Richard’s daughter, who remains nameless. Knowing her father would probably hang his steward if he found out about their relationship, the couple carry on their relationship in secret. Eventually she falls pregnant with his son, and the couple go out to the woods so she can give birth without her father knowing. Back at Earl Richard’s home, he thinks his daughter has gone missing and organises a search party to find her. The men search everywhere, and eventually Richard finds his daughter in the woods nursing a young boy. Moved with compassion, he picks up in the infant:

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

The language indicates that it is clearly a ballad of Scottish origin, and the account of Robin Hood’s birth that it gives seems to many scholars to be improbable. It is certainly not a ballad of medieval origin. For these reasons this song has not always been popular among ballad collectors and Robin Hood scholars. The antiquary J. M. Gutch in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847) said that ‘little historical credit may be due to it’ due to the fact that it seems to ‘fit’ the legend almost too well, assigning Robin Hood a birth of noble degree, when in fact the earliest texts such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450) state that Robin was not an Earl but a yeoman (the Earl of Huntingdon storyline only came in 1598 with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon). Similarly, the folk song scholar Francis J. Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898) did not include it in his collection of Robin Hood ballads, instead assigning it the title of Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. It is only Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in The Oxford Book of Ballads (1947) that this ballad was placed alongside other ballads.

Whilst many events of Robin Hood’s life recounted even in the later seventeenth-century ballads seem to have been incorporated somehow into the legend via film and television (i.e. the fight which Robin and Little John have when they first meet), this ballad seems not to have had a great impact, which is a shame because it is one of the most singable, infectious tunes of all the Robin Hood ballads which I have come across.


The Lyrics – Unaltered from Mrs. Brown in 1800.

O WILLIE’s large o’ limb and lith,
And come o’ high degree,
And he is gane to Earl Richard,
To serve for meat and fee.

Earl Richard had but ae daughter,
Fair as a lily-flower,
And they made up their love-contract
Like proper paramour.

It fell upon a simmer’s nicht,
Whan the leaves were fair and green,
That Willie met his gay ladie
Intil the wood alane.

‘O narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont to be sae wide;
And gane is a’ my fair colour,
That wont to be my pride.

‘But gin my father should get word
What’s past between us twa,
Before that he should eat or drink,
He’d hang you o’er that wa’.

‘But ye’ll come to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun gaes down,
And kep me in your arms twa,
And latna me fa’ down.’

O whan the sun was now gane down,
He’s doen him till her bower,
And there, by the lee licht o’ the moon,
Her window she lookit o’er.

Intill a robe o’ red scarlèt
She lap, fearless o’ harm;
And Willie was large o’ lith and limb,
And keppit her in his arm.

And they’ve gane to the gude green-wood,
And, ere the night was deen,
She’s born to him a bonny young son,
Amang the leaves sae green.

Whan night was gane, and day was come,
And the sun began to peep,
Up and raise the Earl Richard
Out o’ his drowsy sleep.

He’s ca’d upon his merry young men,
By ane, by twa, and by three:
‘O what’s come o’ my daughter dear,
That she’s nae come to me?

‘I dreamt a dreary dream last night,
God grant it come to gude!
I dreamt I saw my daughter dear
Drown in the saut sea flood.

‘But gin my daughter be dead or sick,
Or yet be stown awa’,
I mak a vow, and I’ll keep it true,
I’ll hang ye ane and a’!’

They sought her back, they sought her fore,
They sought her up and down;
They got her in the gude green-wood,
Nursing her bonny young son.

He took the bonny boy in his arms,
And kist him tenderlie;
Says, ‘Though I would your father hang,
Your mother’s dear to me.’

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

And mony ane sings o’ grass, o’ grass
And mony ane sings o’ corn,
And mony ane sings o’ Robin Hood
Kens little whare he was born.

It wasna in the ha’, the ha’,
Nor in the painted bower;
But it was in the gude green-wood,
Amang the lily-flower.


Lyrics in Modern English

Oh Willie’s tall, and Willie’s strong
And he is born of high degree,
And he has gone to Earl Richard
To serve obediently.

Earl Richard had one daughter dear,
The fairest to be seen,
And Willie fell in love with her
All in the garden green.

Well, the summer’s night was warm and still
And brightly shone the moon,
When Willie’s met his sweetheart
In the garden, all alone.

“Oh narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont be so wide,
And gone is all my fair colour
That wont to be my pride.

“But if my father should find out
What’s passed between us two,
Before that he would eat or drink
He would hang you over that wall.

“But come up to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun goes down,
And catch me in your two strong arms
And let me not fall down.”

So when the sun was setting low
He has gone up to her bower,
And by the pale light of the moon
Her window she looked over.

All in that robe of red scarlet
She jumped, fearless of harm.
And Willie was tall and Willie was strong,
He caught her in his arms.

When night was done, and day was come
And the light began to creep,
Well up and rose the Earl Richard
From out of his drowsy sleep.

“Well I dreamed a dreadful dream last night,
God grant it come to good:
I dreamed I saw my daughter dear
Drowning in the flood.”

So he’s called to him his servant men
By one, by two, by three,
“Oh what’s become of my daughter dear
That she’ll not come to me?”

“Oh if that she’s been stolen away
Or taken from this hall,
Well I’ll make a vow and I’ll keep it true:
I’ll hang you one and all!”

So they searched east and they searched west,
And they searched up and down.
They found her in the merry green wood
Nursing her bonny young son.

Well he’s taken the baby all in his arms
And kissed him tenderly,
Saying, “Although I would your father hang
Yet your mother is dear to me.”

He kissed him once, he kissed him twice:
“My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in the merry green wood
That shall be your name.”

There’s many that sing of green, green grass
And sing of golden corn,
And there’s many that sing of Robin Hood
Know not where he was born.

Well, it wasn’t in the lofty hall
Nor in the painted bower,
But it was in the merry green wood
All among the lily-flowers.

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