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R Prasannan
R Prasannan


Was Robin Hood a Magna Carta baron?

  • Rebel with a clause?: Robin was the rebellious archetype. It is, therefore, not surprising that he was set in the period that witnessed the first political rebellion for rights | Getty Images
  • A poster of Russell Crowe-starrer Robin Hood, the first movie to have a direct reference to Magna Carta | Getty Images

There are several theories about the outlaw's existence, one of which says he was modelled on the leader of the rebel barons

Did Robin Hood lead the barons against King John and force him to sign Magna Carta?

There is a theory that the legendary character of Robin Hood was drawn on Robert Fitzwalter, the leader of the rebel barons. And that Maid Marion was actually Fitzwalter's daughter Matilda, whom King John tried to seduce.

Another theory is that the real Robin Hood was Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. This Anglo-Saxon earl was dispossessed of his lands by the Norman ruler John.

King John appears in several Robin Hood stories as Prince John, who was then the regent to the real king, Richard the Lionheart, who had gone away to the Holy Land to fight in the Third Crusade.

The first mention of Robin Hood in literature was in the 14th century book Piers Plowman. In 1521, Scottish writer John Major placed him in Richard's (and thus John's) reign, and his adventures as having taken place during Richard's absence.

England was being 'mis-ruled' by John and his corrupt officers. One such corrupt officer was the Sheriff of Nottingham who is the principal villain in the Robin Hood tales. There is at least one Robin Hood tale in which Robin conducts a raid on the sheriff's premises when the sheriff is entertaining the King (presumably Prince John).

In the early 19th century, Walter Scott presented Robin Hood in his celebrated novel Ivanhoe as Robin of Locksley Hall, the son of a Saxon landowner who had been disinherited by England's new Norman kings. Scott's novel has, as its background theme, the clash between the land ownership laws which the native Saxons followed and the new system imposed by the Norman conquerors. Magna Carta is also very much about land laws.

Scott also presented Robin as a guerrilla who fought for the cause of Richard, thwarting the attempts by John to usurp the throne when Richard was away. Robin's actions, and those of the other guerrillas like him, are finally rewarded when Richard returns incognito to claim his rightful throne. (Ivanhoe has inspired a host of writers all around the English-speaking world, including India. One of the first novels written in Malayalam, and one of the finest historical novels written in that language till date, C.V. Raman Pillai's Marthanda Varma, was directly inspired by Ivanhoe.)

From the Robin Hood stories we also get an idea of what constituted law and justice those days and what constituted their breach. For instance, Robin is an outlaw who lived in the Sherwood Forest and hunted the king's deer, an illegal act. Interestingly, Clause 47 of Magna Carta says: “All forests that have been created in our [John's] reign shall at once be disafforested.” This means the king had created reserve forests as royal or state property, which had been distressing the people. The charter forced John to de-reserve them.

The Robin Hood tales often refer to the Sheriff of Nottingham forcibly taking away horses and carts from the people. Clause 30 of the charter says: “No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.”

Most of the Robin Hood movies were inspired by the Scott novel, portraying Robin Hood as a political guerrilla fighting for Richard's cause. In the 1938 Errol Flynn-starrer The Adventures of Robin Hood, John is shown hiking taxes to raise the ransom money to rescue Richard from his European captors.

Interestingly, Clause 12 of the charter says: “No 'scutage' or 'aid' may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent, unless it is for the ransom of our person, to make our eldest son a knight, and (once) to marry our eldest daughter. For these purposes only a reasonable 'aid' may be levied....”

The first Robin Hood movie to have a direct reference to Magna Carta was the 2010 film, Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. Robin's father is shown as a mason who was beheaded for his support of a charter that would guarantee rights for all Englishmen. Later in the film, Robin unifies the nobility by persuading John to sign this charter.

Robin was the rebellious archetype. He robbed the rich and the corrupt officers of the government. He hunted in the Sherwood Forests where the game was reserved for the king. He fought injustice and tyranny. It is, therefore, not surprising that he was set in the period that witnessed the first political rebellion for rights.

Many others believe that the Robin Hood tales were inspired by a real rebel, William Fitz Osbert, who actually lived during this period and rebelled against John and his corrupt officers. Osbert did go to the crusades with Richard, but returned early. When Richard was taken hostage in Europe on his way back to England, John imposed taxes for the ransom of the king. Osbert objected that the tax was not proportional—the rich were taxed less than the poor.

Richard, by now released, was camping in Normandy, France. When John's justiciar, Hubert Walter, moved to arrest the rebel, Osbert escaped to Normandy and presented his case before the king himself. Richard sent him back to England with his pardon.

Back in England, and armed with the king's pardon, Osbert's rebellion grew. Walter moved to arrest him. He 'bribed over' a few of Osbert's followers. Osbert still put up a good fight, and killed two of Walter's 'policemen'. Then he took refuge with his lover in the Church of St Mary-le-Bow. Walter lit fires at all the doors of the church to smoke them out. Finally a wounded Osbert was arrested, taken to the Tower of London and tried for treason. He was dragged by horses through the city and hanged on April 6, 1196.

Osbert remained a folk hero for a while. It is said the chain that was used for hanging him was used as a cure for fever.

Osbert's rebellion was against the 'oligarchs' and not against the 'lawful' king. So was Robin's. The Magna Carta barons, too, rebelled against the unlawful acts of the king.

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