History is debunked

Now it's Robin and the Hoodies, as another legend dies. Cole Moreton and Ian Johnston report

Sunday 15 March 2009 01:00

So Robin Hood didn't just rob the rich to give to the poor; he robbed poor monks as well. Friar Tuck would be dismayed at yesterday's revelation that a 550-year-old Latin note hidden in the library at Eton debunks the myth of the men in green.

Brief but brutal, it trashes the reputation of the outlaw portrayed by Errol Flynn and, sadly, Kevin Costner.

"Around this time," say the words of an unknown monk in the margins of a medieval history book, "according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood with his accomplices infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies."

The comments have been dated to 1460 and are unusual in their negativity. Dr Julian Luxford, of St Andrews University, who made the discovery, said Robin may have benefited from later rewriting of history. "Rather than depicting the traditionally well-liked hero, the article suggests that Robin Hood and his merry men may not have been 'loved by the good'," he says.

"The new find contains a uniquely negative assessment of the outlaw and provides rare evidence for monastic attitudes towards him." This note, the only historical record of Hood's life written in England (although three Scottish medieval writers also mention him), suggests that he lived during the time of Edward I.

The use of "with his accomplices" is evidence that he did indeed have a group of followers, and the mention of Sherwood is also significant. But its central message is one of hostility towards a much-loved figure.

While Robin may never have existed, this find means that he now joins the ranks of famous figures who may not be quite what we think.

Robin Hood

Daring do-gooder or arboreal bandit?

A Latin inscription written in 1460 says the folkloric hero and his band of men "infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies", with no mention of giving his swag to the poor.

Mother Teresa

Caring saint or dictators' friend?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and byword for goodness. But The Lancet criticised her Calcutta hospice and Christopher Hitchens pointed out her association with the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

King Canute

Arrogant drip or wise ruler?

Cnut the Great knew the waves wouldn't stop. His point was to get wet, proving to his courtiers that no one could take God's place as ruler of the elements. Or else a historian made it up.

Hedy Lamarr

Siren or scientist?

A film star from 1930 to 1958, playing roles like Delilah in Samson & Delilah, her brains were overlooked. Yet in the 1940s she co-invented a form of radio communication so far ahead of its time, the US military didn't use it until 1962.

Isaac Newton

Genius or sarcastic snipe?

In 1676, Newton wrote to Hooke: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants." This takes on new meaning when you know they were in dispute over optics, and Hooke was short, hunchbacked – and very touchy.

Mama Cass

Glutton or crash dieter?

At 17-stone, Cass Elliot (of the Mamas and the Papas) is widely believed to have choked to death in 1974, while gorging on a ham sandwich. But her demise from a heart attack may have been caused by a crash diet.

Florence Nightingale

Angelic nurse or prissy bureaucrat?

She cut death rates at Scutari hospital for injured soldiers in the Crimean War, but not with her bedside manner. She was an administrator who insisted on cleanliness.


Roman fiddler or smear victim?

The extravagant emperor wanted to rebuild his capital in greater glory, so he had it burnt down. Seeing the flames made him play the fiddle in joy. Only fiddles weren't invented, and he was in Antium at the time.

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