Chapter 3. And in Conclusion

The historicity of Robin Hood has long been contentious (see for example, M. H. Keen, “The Outlaws of Medieval Legend”). The ballads and stories of the exploits of Robin Hood first appeared about the middle of the fourteenth century ( The Gest of Robyn Hode ) and were surely based, even if very loosely, upon some real historical events and people. They were certainly set in real geographical places, Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Barnsdale. Robert Hode of Barnsdale, a rebel and refugee from the battle of Boroughbridge has been suggested as a model for the fictional Robin Hood, and the case is certainly well worth consideration. Unfortunately this identification removes all stress from the Sherwood Forest and Nottingham areas where most of the action of the Merry Men occurred. What is also seriously lacking in the Barnsdale story is solid evidence of the activity of the hero, Robert Hode, as an outlaw with a prolonged and successful career of taking from the rich, gathering a band of adherents, and winning the support of the locals, both peasants and gentry.

The evidence we have assembled about the activities of the Coterel Gang, although quoted from Bellamy, comes almost entirely from presentments in the courts, and as such is likely to be of high probity and unlikely to be seriously in error. The Coterel Gang did exist and did have major support from the poor, the gentry, and the church. The Sheriff of Nottingham was very seriously handicapped in his attempts to control their activities, and was only rarely able to effect any arrests. On one occasion the sheriff had to ask for three postponements of a hearing because he was unable to arrest James Coterel and three others (Bellamy, p.701).

I suggest that the career of James Coterel and his gang, operating with very considerable success at that time (1328-1333) in Sherwood Forest provides a much better model for the ballads and legends that followed. I propose that the entire collection of stories, legends and ballads about the exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry men is based upon the exploits of James Coterel and his gang in Sherwood Forest in the period 1328-1333.

Nowhere in the records of the Coterel Gang do I find any mention of Maid Marion. In 1321 Robert Hode of Wragby, a few miles south of Wakefield, married a Matilda from nearby Wooley. Munday (see Chapter 1) claims that Maid Marion's name was originally Matilda, the daughter of Lord Fitzwater. I suggested earlier that Robert Hode might well have been a member of the Coterel Gang, and it is known that his wife Matilda joined him in the forest during his period of outlawry. If Robert Hode of Wakefield was a member or associate of the Coterel Gang of Sherwood Forest, perhaps Nottingham is justified in erecting the signs about entering Robin Hood country on the M1. Also possible is that a Robert Hode gang of outlaws in Barnsdale came under the protection of the Coterel Gang, just as the Folvilles retreated to Sherwood Forest and the Coterel Gang when things got too hot for them in Leicestershire. Whatever the details of the association between James Coterel and Robert Hode, the Gest clearly links the activities of Robin Hood's gang to both Barnsdale and Nottingham.

There are two separate problems of identification: were the stories of the fictional exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry men based on the activities of the historical Coterel gang, and was the fictional character of Robin Hood based upon a historical person, James Coterel or Robert Hode. I believe it is eminently reasonable to suppose that the exploits of the Robin Hood gang were based on the exploits of the Coterel gang; the date, the location, the activities and the general support and respect of church, peasants and gentry are all appropriate, and no other similar source has been identified to date. Whether the character of Robin Hood was based upon James Coterel is more speculative; certainly James must have had the dominant character and the organisational ability required to lead a big operation, to inspire respect from the populace and to avoid the law, but the name of Robert Hode is obviously much closer to Robin Hood then is James Coterel. Tentatively I suggest that by 1350 the name of James Coterel might have become too respectable to be linked with outlawry, and the author of the Gest adopted the name of Robin Hood from one of James's captains, Robert Hode of Wakefield.

James Coterel's close companion in most of his escapades was his brother John. Whether John was big enough to be “Little John” I have no idea.

With the retirement of the leaders of the Coterel Gang into private and often public life after 1333, the spate of criminal activity in the midlands was notably arrested. The memory of the earlier lawless period was enshrined in the stories of Robin Hood.

You can read the original Gest of Robyn Hode at:

'Who is thy maister?' sayde the knyght;
Johnn sayde, 'Robyn Hode.'
'He is gode yoman,' sayde the knyght,
'Of hym I have herde moche gode.'

--Anonymous, ca. 1350, Gest of Robyn Hode, 101-4

Unfortunately “James Coterel” would not rhyme with “moche gode”. So how about

'Who is thy maister?' sayde the knyght;
Johnn sayde, 'James Cotrel.'
'He is gode yoman,' sayde the knyght,
'Of hym I have herde mon telle.'

--Anonymous, ca. 1350, Gest of Robyn Hode, 101-4 amended 2007

Some of the other early ballads about Robin Hood can be read in original form on the web

Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne.

Robin Hood and the Monk.

Robin Hood and the Potter.