1508) Variously described as a folk ballad, tale, ryme, or talking, A Gest of Robyn Hode was, in its original form, orally recited or chanted by a minstrel. The poem survives in seven printed editions of the late 15th and 16th centuries, the most famous of which is the London edition by Wynkyn de Worde (ca. 1508). No manuscript survives, if one existed at all, and some scholars speculate that one of the early printers (perhaps Richard Pynson) may have composed the present text from preexisting literary and historical materials, including a miracle of the Virgin Mary, chronicles, romances, and other ballads. Also uncertain is the historical time depicted in the poem. Although the king in the last two parts is identified as "Edward our comly king," four different King Edwards reigned between 1272 and 1483. Some of the sources and analogues suggest the time of Edward II (1307-27), while others point to Edward III (1327-77) and possibly even to Edward IV (1461-83).
The 1,824-line poem is composed of 456 four-line stanzas, rhyming abcb, arranged in eight parts, or fyttes. The tale consists of three interwoven episodes of Robin Hood: the protagonist with a knight, with the sheriff of Nottingham, and with the king. A short epilogue describing Robin's murder by a prioress concludes the poem.
In the first episode, Robin helps a knight, later called Sir Richard at the Lee, to recover his mortgaged lands by lending him 400 pounds. After redeeming his lands from the scheming abbot of St. Mary's York, Sir Richard returns home to gather the money to repay Robin. He sets off a year later for Barnsdale in Yorkshire, but is delayed when he stops to rescue a yeoman at a wrestling match. While Robin is impatiently waiting for the knight to arrive, members of his band, Little John and Much, waylay a monk from the abbey that tried to steal the knight's lands and take him to Robin. After failing to tell the truth about how much money he is carrying, the monk is robbed of 800 pounds, twice the amount owed to Robin, who believes that the Virgin has repaid the debt twice over. When the knight finally arrives, Robin refuses the knight's payment and gives him half of the money taken from the monk. While the exact source has not been found, a miracle story about the Virgin Mary aiding a knight likely influenced this adventure, which is cleverly interlaced among three of the eight fyttes.
In the second episode, Little John, disguised as Reynold Greenleaf, takes service with the sheriff, and, together with the sheriff's cook, robs the sheriff of 300 pounds while he is hunting. Upon meeting the sheriff in the forest, Little John entices him into a trap by promising him a stag and a herd of deer. After being captured, the sheriff swears an oath that he will not harm Robin or his men if they release him, but later he attacks them following an archery tournament in Nottingham, and Little John is wounded. They escape to Sir Richard's castle, where they are offered sanctuary. Sir Richard is subsequently captured by the sheriff while he is out hawking; his wife pleads for Robin's help. Robin goes into town, shoots the sheriff with an arrow, and frees the knight. Since the first half of this section focuses on Little John, some scholars suggest that it was derived from a separate cycle of Little John tales, now lost.
In the third episode, the king, upon hearing of Robin's outlawry, goes to Nottingham to capture him and Sir Richard, but he searches in vain for six months. Upon the advice of a forester, he disguises himself as an abbot and is soon captured by Robin, who robs him of 40 pounds. When the disguised monarch shows Robin the king's seal, Robin exclaims that he loves no man in all the world as well as his king. After feasting together, Robin loses an archery game and receives a buffet or blow from the king, whom Robin finally recognizes and begs for a pardon. The king agrees on the condition that Robin and his men will enter his service and give up their outlawry. Robin serves the king for 15 months at court; then, on the pretext of visiting his chapel in Barnsdale, he returns to Yorkshire, where he spends the rest of his life until he is treacherously murdered by the prioress of Kirklees abbey. This section was likely adapted from a popular cycle of tales known as the "King and the Subject," in which the monarch tours his domain in disguise in order to find out what the commoners think of him.
A Gest of Robyn Hode marks a crucial stage in the social and economic transformation of late 15th-century England, when the urban yeomanry began to eclipse the lesser aristocracy in power, prestige, and wealth. As the designated hero of this emerging social class, Robin Hood proves his superiority to the knightly class, as represented by Sir Richard, by lending him the money to redeem his property; he also exposes and punishes the corrupt abbot and scheming sheriff.
See also "Birth of Robin Hood, The"; Robin Hood ballads; "Robin Hood's Death and Burial."
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