Robin Hood’s Death

This ballad survives in the British Library (Additional MS. 27, 879, fols. 9-10) and was first printed by Hales and Furnivall, in their Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, where it is given the title Robin Hoode his death by the unknown seventeenth-century scribe (see also, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne). As Dobson and Taylor tell us, the manuscript of Robin Hood’s death is in a fragmentary state ‘as approximately a half of each page in this section of the Percy Folio has been torn away, only twenty-seven stanzas of a probable total of more than fifty remained when the manuscript was rescued from complete destruction by Bishop Percy in the early eighteenth century. At three separate sections of the ballad (between stanzas 8 and 9, between stanzas 18 and 19, and at the very end) there are accordingly omissions of such length that it has proved impossible to speculate at all convincingly upon their content.’ (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 133). Even in its mutilated state, it can be seen that Robin Hoode his death is quite similar to the brief outlines of Robin’s death in the closing verses of the Gest, where he is murdered by the ‘pryoresse of Kyrkesly’ and her lover ‘Syr Roger of Donkester’ (see, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (Joseph Ritson). In Robin Hoode his death, his murderers are the ‘dame Prioresse’ of ‘merry churchlees’ and ‘Red Roger’ (see, Robin Hood his death (Percy Folio). Near the end of the Sloane manuscript ‘life’ of Robin Hood, his murderers are mentioned as the ‘priores of Kyrkesly’ and her lover ‘Sir Roger of Dancastre’ (see, The Sloane Manuscript ‘Life’ of Robin Hood).

Robin Hoode his death, known as the A version, is a valuable record of the last hours of Robin’s life, and as Hales and Furnivall point out: ‘The opening scene, which gives an interesting picture of the affection and the independence of the merrymen towards their master, is new. The black water, and the plank across it, and the old woman kneeling on the plank and cursing Robin Hood as he with Little John approaches, and the other dark presage that meets them, are all new. What passes at the Priory is here given more fully and with a more life-like presentment. The part which Red Roger took in the murder, just referred to and no more elsewhere, is here described fully, with the just vengeance that followed it. In a word, this version, tattered and torn as it is, must be counted a very valuable addition to the Robin Hood cycle of ballads.’ (Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, p. 50). It is quite possible that Robin Hoode his death retains the memory of the ‘tragedies’ mentioned by Walter Bower in his chronicle of the 1440’s: the Scotichronicon. Richard Grafton gives some details of the story in his Chronicle at Large, 1569 (see, Robin Hood’s Grave).

The Garlands

1. The garlands of Robin Hood’s Death are known as the B versions. One version appears in Ritson’s Robin Hood (first printed in 1795), and according to Ritson ‘This very old and curious piece is preserved solely in the editions of “Robin Hood’s garland,” printed at York, where it is made to conclude with some foolish lines, (adopted from the London copy of the preceding ballad,*) in order to introduce the epitaph. It is here given from a collation of two different copies, containing numerous variations’. See, Robin Hoods death and burial (Joseph Ritson).

* The ‘preceding ballad’ is Robin Hood and the valiant Knight, where in the closing stanzas, a monk bleeds Robin and he dies (see, Robin Hood and the valiant Knight (Joseph Ritson).

2. A garland version appears in Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1888, vol. 3, pp. 106-7). Child notes two garlands as his source (p. 102): ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial.’ a. The English Archer, Paisley, John Neilson, 1786: Bodleian Library, Douce, F. F. 71 (6), p. 81, and b. The English Archer, York, printed by N. Nickson, in Feasegate, n. d. : Bodleian Library, Douce, F. F. 71 (4), p. 70.

3. Dobson and Taylor’s version (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 137-9), which they say is ‘one of the earliest and least corrupt’ is noted as: B. Garland version: The English Archer; or, Robert, Earl of Huntington, Vulgarly call’d Robin Hood. York. Printed by N. Nickson, in Feasegate. Price Fourpence (c. 1767). (Bodleian Library, Douce F. F. 71, no. 4). This is one of the garlands noted by Child (see no. 2 above). Although Child’s version and Dobson and Taylor’s version each contain some different wording and additional stanzas when compared to Ritson’s – all three are inherently similar. However, in Dobson and Taylor’s version there appears at the end (noted by Child):

 Robin Hood’s Epitaph, set on his tomb by the Prioress of Kirkley Monastry, in Yorkshire.

Robert Earl of Huntington
Lies under this little stone.
No archer was like him so good:
His wildness nam’d him Robin Hood.
Full thirteen years, and something more,
These no(r)thern parts he vexed sore.
Such out-laws as he and his men
May England never know again! (see also, Robin Hood’s Grave 2)


Dobson and Taylor also tell us that ‘Robin Hood’s Death was included in only a small minority of garlands and seems to have been much more popular in the north than the south of England. Most of the surviving copies were printed at York’. They further add: ‘In the late eighteenth-century garlands, Robin Hood’s Death is not only a shorter but also a much more simplified poem than was the work known to the copyist of the Percy Folio: Will Scarlet, the old woman ‘banning Robin Hoode’ and Red Roger have all disappeared, together with the doom-laden atmosphere that pervades the whole of the earlier ballad. On the other hand, the author of the chapbook version* has introduced into the story of Robin Hood’s death two apparently new incidents. It is by the traditional three blasts of his horn that Robin brings Little John to his rescue, a theme common to a great number of popular ballads, including Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar and Robin Hood and the Shepherd. Much more striking – and one of the most celebrated episodes in the entire Robin Hood saga – is the dying outlaw’s determination to shoot one last arrow to mark the site of his grave; but exactly when this legend began, and whether it preceded or was invented to justify the discovery of a grave of Robin Hood within the Kirklees Estate, remain among the more insoluble of the Robin Hood mysteries (Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 134).

* See also, Robin Hood Chapbooks.

4. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren present a version of ‘The Death of Robin Hood’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Medieval Institute Publications, 1997). As they point out in the introduction: ‘The text printed here combines the two earliest texts, using the structure of the garland to fill out the Percy version where the pages have been torn’. In their first note to the text they write: ‘This text is constructed from Percy’s folio and, where the folio pages are torn, the 1786 English Archer version, as follows: Percy, lines 11-78, 95-126; English Archer, lines 1-10, 79-94, 127-46; editorial linking is provided in lines 42-43 and 97-98’.

It should be mentioned that the only location named in the Percy Folio manuscript of Robin Hoode his death, is ‘Church Lees’ (Kirklees), and this also applies to the garlands, where it usually appears as ‘Kirkley’ or ‘Kirkly’. For another tale about the death of an outlaw see, The Hermit and the Outlaw.

Editions of B: J. Ritson, Robin Hood: A collection of all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads, 1795, vol. 2, pp. 183-7, and editions of 1820, 1832, and 1846; Thomas Evans, Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, 1810, vol. 2, pp. 262-5; J. M. Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1847, vol. 2, pp. 312-16; F. J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1888, vol. 3, pp. 106-7; A. Quiller-Couch, The Oxford Book of Ballads, 1910, pp. 635-9; Faber Book of Ballads, 1965, pp. 94-6; S. Knight and T. Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, 1997.