“The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode” (2015)

Review: Mark Olly, The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode (Winchester: Chronos, 2015) 213pp. £9.99 978-1785350597

For serious Robin Hood scholars, it is usually with a sense of foreboding that they open a book which purports to tell anything about a ‘real’ Robin Hood. Whilst James C. Holt in Robin Hood (1982) made a serious analysis of the possible figures in medieval court rolls who could have been the original Robin Hood, even that great historian was forced to concede that we will never identify an original medieval outlaw due to the lack of evidence. [1]

This fact does not seem to have deterred Mark Olly in his latest book entitled The Life and Times of the Real Robyn Hoode (2015). Olly is not an historian or literary critic, but instead holds a Certificate of Ministry (Ct.Min.AP) and Diploma Of Biblical Studies (Dip.BS.AP) from what looks like a Pentecostal Church in Manchester called El Shaddai International Christian Centre.

In the beginning of the book, Olly projects himself as a serious antiquary – one who has been scurrying away in dusty archives like the antiquaries of old:

This book constitutes a modern examination and adaptation of primarily original Late Medieval source material found mainly in ‘A Gest Of Robyn Hode’ and its variants, the earliest ‘Garland’ collections of stories and ballads, the ‘Percy Folio’, and a host of Medieval, antiquarian & archaeological publications covering 500 years of research, most not readily available to today’s public (viii).

However, this is slightly misleading. Most of the Robin Hood ballads he works from are readily available to the public: Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) has been reprinted dozens of times; Percy’s Reliques (1765) are available in facsimile reproduction from Cambridge University Press; the Garlands are also available in facsimile reprints and can be had for as little as £10 from Amazon. Finally, if you do not want to pay for these reprints, all of the Robin Hood ballads and tales are available free online from TEAMS website, and the later broadsides have also been scanned by both the USCB Broadside Ballad Online Archive and the Bodleian Broadsides. It is of course possible that Olly did not know these resources were at his disposal, and that he did carry out painstaking  archival research, but it is unlikely.

Olly says that his work:

Represents the first ever full archaeological assessment and survey of the oldest remaining Robyn Hoode material to survive (with a special emphasis on anything before 1650), the first ever attempt to reach a workable and authentic chronology that fits known historic facts from other recognized and contemporary sources (p.5).

This sounds rather grand but it really is not. What he wants to do in reality is to ‘fit’ facts to the Robin Hood tales. It is a methodology so fraught with dangers that serious scholars do not attempt it. For example, in the seventh and eighth fyttes of A Geste of Robyn Hood, the King travels into Sherwood and meets Robin. But the ‘King and Commoner’ motif was very prevalent in medieval and early modern poetry and literature, and hence this event cannot be assumed to have actually ever happened – my good friend Mark Truesdale has in fact just written his PhD thesis on the King and Commoner ballad tradition, and we are co-authoring a forthcoming paper on these ballads in the nineteenth century.

What Olly proceeds to give us is a chronological diary account of the life of the supposed real Robin Hood. He first gives a completely unnecessary chronology of events in England after the Norman conquest, before going on to state that Robin Hood was born in the year 1129, or perhaps 1130:

1129 or 1130 (Winter): The birth of Robyn Hoode takes place in the reign of King Henry the second – although the exact location for this is unknown it is most probably the medieval village of Loxley in Staffordshire on the lands of the Earls Of Chester (p.12).

The source he cites for this completely groundless assertion is the ballad Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, and Valour. It is a ballad which does not appear until the seventeenth century, long after the events he describes here! And the ballad never even actually gives a date for Robin Hood’s birth!

The rest of the book follows in this manner, after which Olly goes into the history of some of the characters in the Robin Hood legend. This is what he says of Marian, Robin’s love interest:

Marian is a lesser daughter of the Marmion family who owned lands around Chartley Castle, Abbots Bromley, and the Needwood Forest, the location where Robyn grew up (adopted by Earl Hugh) and where Ranulf VI then built his castle (p.124).

This is another completely groundless assertion. Marian does not figure in any of the early ballads of Robin Hood. Instead all we know is that she figured in Tudor May Games, and from thence made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98)…where on earth he got the Marmion association is quite beyond me. The only other Marmion I know of is a poem by Sir Walter Scott, which incidentally has nothing to do with the Robin Hood tradition.

Olly anticipates his book’s reception from scholars, saying that:

I have no doubt that this book will be taken apart by ‘experts’ and applied to various fields of specialty to test its ‘validity’ (p.6).

We forgive eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquaries for making mistakes in their work, but nowadays anyone professing to be an historian must be held to rigorous standards of scholarship. Oddy’s book fails, and I will conclude by saying that no serious scholar would pick this book up. It might make it into my thesis literature review, but only as an example of how we should not approach the study of the Robin Hood legend. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to reading James Holt and Stephen Knight.


[1] See James C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982).