02 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: Robin Hood & the Church

By Carrie Lofty

With the emergence of any profound social or religious movement, the need to secure the willing approval of the populace becomes essential--or else the movement fails. And no movement in English history was as violently contested as the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England, leading to bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant adherents in the realm.

Prior to the Reformation, ballads of Robin Hood's derring-do had existed for centuries. The earliest written ballad is Robin Hood and the Monk, penned in (roughly) 1461, which offers us a complex and nuanced view of how religion filtered through the popular consciousness--and, by comparison, how drastically the later Robin Hood stories worked toward securing popular support for Protestant faiths.

In Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin is a devout follower of Mary. His devotion is so great that he insists on traveling into town to offer prayers at her church. This sparks an argument with Little John, who believes Robin's frequent pilgrimages will get him into trouble. Sure enough, a monk reports Robin to the Sheriff of Nottingham, leading to Robin's arrest. Only after penitent prayers--and the timely intervention of Little John and the merry men--is Robin freed. They humiliate the sheriff, but more interestingly, they murder the monk and his page.

What to make of this?

Obviously, reverence for Mary during the 15th century held a great deal of importance, in that Robin risks capture to act on his devotion. But then he is betrayed by a monk, a man of the Church. After his release, Robin's anger toward the sheriff is relatively mild, warranting a mere bit of humiliation, but he strikes out with violence against the monk. Perhaps this suggests a certain lenience--and even the expectation of corruption--from men such as the sheriff, but a more harsh hatred toward hypocritical church officials.

This dual approach--belief in Mary and the tenants of the Church, but disdain for its earthly officials--may suggest how eager the population was to see corruption purged from the Church. They didn't necessarily want an entirely new faith, but they demanded change. Robin Hood, as an aristocratic hero intended for a yeoman audience, helped them live this fantasy through the creation and perpetuation of his myths.

During Elizabeth I's reign, when she and her government effectively shored up power for Protestantism, popular entertainment favoring Protestant causes proliferated. In the works of Shakespeare and others, bishops became buffoons and priests become villains.

The Robin Hood myths changed as well. Religious figures from the Catholic Church transformed into lascivious and greedy characters, often conspiring with wicked noblemen to deprive Robin's people of a just living. In Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, Little John strips the bishop of his cloak and discovers 300 gold pieces. Eventually the bishop is left with only his boots and his life, and he's thankful for that much. The tone of the ballads changed as well, becoming more lighthearted. Humiliation was the order of the day. Corrupt officials were mocked and exposed, not murdered, thus securing Robin's place as a true and faultless hero. No more pesky ambiguity.

Other characters from the Catholic Church became true villains, again in concert with noblemen who backed either Catholicism or personal gain at the expense of good (Protestant) people. In Of Robin Hood's Death and Burial by Sebastian Evans, an abbess conspires against and eventually kills Robin, which reinforces the notion that a hero as great as Robin Hood could only be killed by treachery--never by a fair contest of skill against skill. This "death by betrayal" became a prominent feature of all post-Reformation retellings.

Popular media (ballads, stories, and eventually movies) since the Reformation have placed Robin Hood and his good deeds squarely against such corruption. While the Sheriff figures prominently in every representation from the late 19th century forward, he is often backed by powerful officials who either finance or influence his villainy.

In this clip from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves--a late 20th culmination of these changes to the myth--the bishop marries Marian to the Sheriff against her will. His villainy is doubly reinforced by his association with the sheriff's pet witch and their reliance on the dark arts, and he pays the ultimate price when he is pushed to his death by Friar Tuck. Tuck offers a pleasing alternative to the corruption, showing that independence and spiritual purity are preferable to fancy clothes, artificial doctrine, and the potential for clerical abuse.

As with all good myths, the stories of Robin Hood are flexible enough to change with the times, finding value in reflecting and reinforcing the timbre of society. Only by taking control of popular moral outlets such as these myths can proponents of social and religious movements hope to find acceptance among the populace and secure long-lasting change.

For more Hood-tastic information, see the invaluable Robin Hood Project.