The Dramatic Fragment

The Play of Robin Hood and the Sheriff, c. 1475

The surviving part of this early play is contained in a fragment of twenty-one lines, written on the upper half of a single  sheet of paper, that records financial receipts for the years 1475-76. Now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, this leaf of paper may have originally formed part of a larger volume. Historically speaking, this unique fifteenth-century fragment is one of the most important items in the entire collection of Robin Hood literature. Apart from providing us with the only surviving text of an authentic medieval play, it records the first known instance of Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood saga; also it provides us with the only certain evidence that the outlines of the story in the ballad Guye of Gisborne were medieval  in origin.  Francis James Child was the first to point out (Popular Ballads, III, 90), that this fragment was clearly based on a pre-existing ‘ballad’ of Guye of Gisborne. It is probable that it was once part of the famous collection of Paston papers bought by Peter Le Neve from William Paston, the collection was later acquired by Sir John Fenn and William Frere, the early editors of the Paston letters. The mention of the outlaw as a dramatic character appears in the famous letter written by Sir John Paston in 1473. In this he complained that a servant called Kothye Plattyng was on the point of deserting him: ‘I have kepyd hym thys iij (three) yere to pleye Seynt Jorge and Robynhod and the shryff off Notyngham, and now when I wolde have good horse he is goon into Bernysdale, and I wythowt a kepere (am without a keeper)’.(1) FJ Child and EK Chambers (Mediaeval Stage, I, 177) may have been correct in their comments that the following lines should be identified with the play of ‘Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Nottyngham’, presumably acted before the Paston household in the 1470s.

The play begins with an agreement between the sheriff and a knight, who says he will capture Robin Hood in return for ‘gold and fee’. Robin and the knight compete at archery, casting a stone/exaltre and wrestling.  Robin wins the contest, however they fight again. Robin beheads the knight, disguises himself with his clothing, and puts the head in his Hood. There is a sudden change of scene, as two men meet; one asks the other if he has heard anything of ‘gode Robyn’. The reply is that he and his ‘menye’ have been taken by the sheriff. The two men (possibly Little John and William Scathelock) subsequently set off on foot to kill the sheriff. The scene shifts to Friar Tuck, who is shooting  with the bow (he is presumably being watched by the two men). The sheriff tells them to yeild (presumably Friar Tuck, Little John and William Scathelock), and threatens to have them hanged and drawn. The outlaws surrender and are taken away, and at this point  the fragment  comes to an end.

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

Source:  Trinity College, Cambridge, MS. R. 2. 64 (fragment)

Other Editions:  Child, 1888, III, 90-I;  JM Manly, Specimens of the Pre-Shaksperean Drama (London, 1897), I, 279-81;  Facsimile edition under the title ‘Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, A Dramatic Fragment, c. 1475’, in Malone Society, Collections I, Part 2 (Oxford, 1908), pp. 120-4;  Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, 1976, pp. 203-7.