I have always found the mediaeval ballads of Robin Hood rather disappointing, with nothing like the quality of the best border ballads. It is a bit of a tragedy that our great rich-robbing redistributive national hero has never been given quite the literary apotheosis he deserves. Yes, there has been a cameo appearance in Sir Walter Scott, and another rather engaging one in T.H.White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (‘stop leaning on your bow with that look of negligent woodcraft’), and see also G.K.Chesterton’s fine effort in week 37, but it’s not enough, nor do any of the innumerable film versions really capture the myth – Errol Flynn too debonair, Russell Crowe too stolid, Kevin Costner too Kevin Costner, while a TV series some years back actually had me rooting for Richard Armitage’s Sheriff of Nottingham instead of for Robin. How one wishes one could go back in time to a certain playwright. ‘Look, Will, forget this faffing about with fairies in a wood near Athens, you’ve got the chance to do something with a real English hero in a proper English forest – don’t blow it!’. Ah well, perhaps in some parallel universe a fully realised Robin Hood is stalking the boards nightly and declaiming magnificent soliloquies against a background of brooding oak-trees; meanwhile I think that this one, which is Child ballad 120, is about the best of an unsatisfactory bunch. I give the version (sadly a bit damaged) found in the Bishop Percy folio; there is a later, more complete but to my mind inferior version.
The Death of Robin Hood
‘I will never eat nor drinke,’ Robin Hood said,
‘Nor meat will do me no good,
Till I have been at merry Churchlees, Kirklees
My veins for to let blood.’
‘That I read not,’ said Will Scarlet, read=counsel
‘Master, by the assent of me,
Without half a hundred of your best bowmen
You take to go with ye.
‘For there a good yeoman doth abide
Will be sure to quarrel with thee,
And if thou have need of us, master,
In faith we will not flee.’
‘And thou be feard, thou William Scarlet, and=if
At home I read thee be:’
‘And you be wroth, my dear master,
You shall never hear more of me.’
‘For there shall no man with me go,
Nor man with me ryde,
And Little John shall be my man,
And bear my benbow by my side.’ good bow
‘You’st bear your bow, master, your self, You should
And shoot for a peny with me:’
‘To that I do assent,’ Robin Hood said,
‘And so, John, let it be.’
They two bold children shotten together,
All day their self in rank,
Until they came to black water,
And over it laid a plank.
Upon it there kneeled an old woman,
Was banning Robin Hoode; cursing
‘Why dost thou bann Robin Hood?’ said Robin,
. . . .
[Nine stanzas missing; contents unknown. This ‘washer at the ford’ prophesying death is a very old idea, though, that crops up in the Irish saga telling of the death of Cuchulain.]
. . . . .
‘To give to Robin Hoode;
We weepen for his dear body,
That this day must be let blood.’
‘The Dame Prior is my aunt’s daughter,
And nigh unto my kin;
I know she would me no harm this day,
For all the world to win.’
Forth then shotten these children two,
And they did never lin, tire, give up
Until they came to merry Churchless,
To merry Churchlee[s] with-in.
And when they came to merry Churchlees,
They knocked upon a pin;
Up then rose Dame Prioresse,
And let good Robin in.
Then Robin gave to Dame Prioresse
Twenty pound in gold,
And bade her spend while that would last,
And she should have more when she would.
And down then came Dame Prioresse,
Down she came in that ilke,
With a pair off blood-irons in her hands,
Were wrapped all in silk.
‘Set a chaffing-dish to the fire,’ said Dame Prioresse,
And strip thou up thy sleeve:’
I hold him but an unwise man
That will no warning leeve. believe
She laid the blood-irons to Robin Hood’s vein,
Alack, the more pity!
And pierced the vein, and let out the blood,
That full red was to see.
And first it bled, the thick, thick bloode,
And afterwards the thin,
And well then wist good Robin Hood knew
Treason there was within.
‘What cheer my master?’ said Little John;
‘In faith, John, little good
. . . .
[Again nine stanzas are missing; content unknown. Robin is evidently set upon by an enemy called Red Roger.]
‘I have upon a gown of green,
Is cut short by my knee,
And in my hand a bright brown brand
That will well bite of thee.’
But forth then of a shot-window window that opens
Good Robin Hood he could glide;
Red Roger, with a grounden glave, sharp sword
Thrust him through the milk-white side.
But Robin was light and nimble of foot,
And thought to abate his pride,
For betwixt his head and his shoulders
He made a wound full wide.
Says, ‘Lie there, lie there, Red Roger,
The dogs they must thee eat;
For I may have my housle,’ he said, Eucharist
‘For I may both go and speak.
‘Now give me mood,’ Robin said to Little John,
‘Give me mood with thy hand; burial
I trust to God in heaven so high
My housle will me bestand.’ avail
‘Now give me leave, give me leave, master,’ he said,
‘For Christ’s love give leave to me,
To set a fire within this hall,
And to burn up all Churchlee.’
‘That I read not,’ said Robin Hood then, counsel
‘Little John, for it may not be;
If I should do any widow hurt, at my latter end,
God,’ he said,’ would blame me;
‘But take me upon thy back, Little John,
And bear me to yonder street,
And there make me full fair grave,
Of gravel and of grete. stones
‘And set my bright sword at my head,
Mine arrows at my feet.
And lay my yew-bow by my side,
My met-yard wi . . .
[The last few lines are missing.]