Plays and the May Festivities

It is uncertain as to when Robin Hood first appeared as a character in plays, but there is a reference to a Robin Hood play at Exeter as early as 1427 (see Gazetteer of References to Robin Hood Plays before 1600). Walter Bower records in his Scotichronicon of the 1440s: ‘At this time there arose from among the disinherited and outlaws and raised his head that most famous armed robber Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices. The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies’. (1) Another early allusion to the outlaw as a dramatic character is found in the letter of Sir John Paston to his brother John (16 April 1473) in which he complained that he had been deserted by the servant employed ‘to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Nottyngham’.(2) The text of  three early Robin Hood plays have survived, and all are derived from pre-existing ballads. The dramatic fragment of Robin Hood and the Sheriff c.1475, is followed by Robin Hood and the Friar and Robin Hood and the Potter, both printed c.1560. These two plays appear to have been written for the May Games and are based on the two ballads with the same title. By the end of the fifteenth century it was probably through the games that Robin was most widely known. Many were organized at the local parish or municipality level, and comprised a variety of activities, including dancing, competitive sports, and pageants as well as plays. Stephen Knight tells us that Robin Hood play games were later in the year than May Day, and not directly connected with the maypole or the floral dances associated with the first of May.(3) One of the earliest known reference to the impersonation of Robin Hood in village plays occur from 1476 onwards at Croscombe in North Somerset where ‘Roben Hode’s recones’ were regularly paid to those (including a Richard Willes) who took the part of the outlaw hero(4) Robin also appears in the same county at the borough of Wells in 1498, the ‘tempus de Robynhode’, apparently accompanied by exhibitions of dancing girls and by church ales, subsidized by the corporation.(5) Church ales were also associated with the spring festival (usually of five days duration) in the parish of St Lawrence, Reading, whose churchwardens are to be discovered collecting ‘the gaderyngs of Robyn Hod’ after 1498-99.(6) (see Gazetteer of References to Robin Hood Plays before 1600). The chronicler Edward Hall’s account of the court festivities of the young King Henry VIII give us some information about the origins of royal interest in Robin Hood. The May Games seem to have once again played an important part in the diffusion of the legend. In 1510 Henry VIII’s ‘Maying’ involved entering his queen’s chamber with eleven of his nobles, ‘all appareled in short cotes of Kentish Kendal, with hodes on their heddes, and hosen of the same, every one of them his bowe and arrowes, and a sworde and a bucklar, like outlawes, or Robyn Hodes men’. (7)    

1.  Scotichronicon, by Walter Bower in Latin and English (Aberdeen University Press) Book x, p. 355.

2. The Paston Letters, ed. J. Gairdner (London, 1904), V, 185.

3. Knight (Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, pp. 103-4) gives the following references to Robin Hood play-games: Warner said the activities came ‘ere Pentecost’ (Albion’s England, 1589 ed., chap. 25, p. 121); in 1616 Richard Niccols set them ‘When May did clad the woods with lustie greene’ (London’s Artillery, 1616, p. 87); Stow merely said in the ‘monethe of May’ (Annales of England, 1592, p. 227) but in 1559 Henry Machyn recorded that they took place on 24 June (Diary, 1848 ed., p. 201). The well-attested Yeovil events were at Whitsun (Stokes, 1986, p. 5) and this is the date that Wiles, who knows the records well, associates firmly with the event, saying ‘there is no basis whatsoever for linking early Robin Hood games with celebrations on May the first’ (1981, p. 4). Robin Hood is related to the first phase of full summer, when the hawthorn is white and after the dramatic changes that still overtake the rural landscape so strikingly by the middle of May.

4. Church-Wardens Accounts of Croscombe, ect., 1349-1560, ed. E, Hobhouse (Somerset Record Society, IV, 1890), pp. 4, 10, 11, 14, 20. For a ‘Robine Hood’s All’ or ale at the neighbouring village of Tintinhull in 1513, see ibid. p. 200; and for the impersonation of ‘Robin Whod and Little John’ by tenants of the prior of Worcester in the years after 1518, see Journal of Prior William More (Worcestershire Historical Society, XXX, 1913-14), pp. 87, 293, 309, 332, 405.

5. First Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (London, 1874), p. 107.

6. C. Kerry, A History of the Municipal Church of St. Lawrence, Reading (London, 1883), pp. 226-30. Similarly, in 1497 Willenhall Fair in Staffordshire was attended by the inhabitants of neighbouring townships ‘with the capitanns called the Abbot of Marham or Robyn Hodys to the intent to gether money with ther disportes to the profight of the chirches of the seid lordshippes.’

7. Hall’s Chronicle (London, 1809 edn.)