The Gest of Robin Hood

Countless words have been written about the Gest, Lytell Geste, or Merry Geste of Robin Hood. It is widely accepted that it is a compilation of earlier tales, put together by a person (or persons) unknown. Like the other early ballads, the Gest it is in essence, an entertainment, but who did they entertain? J. C. Holt states: ‘One thing is certain: by the date from which the written versions first survive the story already had a diverse social appeal, to knights, to yeoman and to husbandmen’ – he also accepts the possibility that ‘the tales originated in oral tradition’ (Robin Hood, London, 1982, p. 111). No manuscript version of the Gest has ever been found, but in 1432, in the return of members of parliament for Wiltshire, a humorous clerk included ‘Adam, Belle, Clyme, Ocluw, Willyam, Cloudesle, Robyn, hode, Inne, Grenewode, Stode, Godeman, was, hee, lytel, Joon, Muchette, Millersson, Scathelok, Reynoldyn’. The clerk’s mention of Little John, Much the Miller’s son, Scatheloke and Reynolde, suggest he may have known of a version of the Gest Little John calls himself ‘Reynolde Grenelef’ in his encounter with the sheriff (stanza 149) and ‘Reynolde’ appears as a character distinct from Little John in stanza 293 (see, no. 14 in Robin Hood Timeline). The Gest is the only early surviving ballad in which these four merry men are mentioned. This could mean that a manuscript version existed in 1432.

Dobson and Taylor tell us that the Gest is divided into three main sections: 1) the story of the knight and the repayment of his debt (fyttes I, II and IV); 2) the story of Robin Hood and the sheriff of Nottingham (fyttes III, V, VI); and 3) the story of Robin Hood and the King (fyttes VII and VIII), and ‘a number of subsidiary themes, together with a concluding section on the death of Robin Hood’ (R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, London, 1976, p. 74).

There must have been an audience that listened to the Gest, which is divided into stanzas of eight sections called Fyttes.

The first fytte begins with:

Lythe and listin gentilmen
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman
His name was Robyn Hode


The third fytte begins with:

Lyth and lystyn gentilmen
All that nowe be here
Of Litell Johnn that was the knightes man
Goode myrth ye shall here


The fifth fytte, stanza two, begins with:

Lyth and lysten gentil men
And herken what I shall say
How the proud sheryfe of Notyngham
Dyde crye a full fayre play


The sixth fytte begins with:

Lythe and lysten gentylmen
And herkyn to your songe
Howe the proude shyref of Notyngham
And men of armys stronge


The Gest is addressed to Gentlemen, but whether this meant knights, yeomen, and the lower rung of the social ladder, the husbandman, it is impossible to say. There is a definite plebeian aspect; tales or songs of Robin Hood were heard in the tavern (see, no. 5 in Robin Hood Timeline). It is highly unlikely that a tale the length and complexity of the Gest (it contains some 13,900 words) was ever an oral tradition, a recitation. The most likely scenario I believe, is that it was written for the purpose of being read aloud to the audience, whoever that may have been. It is quite possible that the Gest was read in parts, with a rest taken between some of the fyttes. (1) Was it written for a special occasion, was there only one copy? (2) This could explain why no manuscript has survived; perhaps it was mislaid by one of the early printers, after they used it for printing. See also, The Rhymes of Robin Hood 9 and The Early Editions of the Gest.

(1) Masa Ikegami states: ‘the provenance of Gest is Northeast Midland’ – ‘There seems no doubt that the author of Gest was familiar with Northern and Eastern pronunciation’, – ‘The Northeast Midland dialectal area includes Barnsdale in South Yorkshire, which is one of the main settings of Robin Hood tales’ – and ‘the author of Gest was “almost certainly a Yorkshireman’” (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. 96, No. 3 (1995), p. 278).

(2) According to Thomas Ohlgren: ‘Given the mercantile ideology embodied in the Gest, it seems probable that the poem was commissioned by one of the fifteenth – century guilds – possibly the Drapers or the Merchant Tailors in light of the numerous references to cloth and liveries – to commemorate Edward III not only as the protector of the English Channel but as the founder of seven of the twelve Great Livery Companies’ (Edwardus redivivus in A Gest of Robyn Hode, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), p. 28).

The author of the Gest must have been educated and had knowledge of the locations such as Barnsdale, Wentbridge, Watling Street, and the Sayles (see, Barnsdale and Sherwood). There can be no doubt that he borrowed from other earlier tales. I will concentrate on the romance of Fulk fitz Warin and the Tale of Gamelyn:

1. In the Gest, two of Robin’s merry men, his fellow outlaws, are Little John and William Scarlok or Scarloke – In the romance of Fulk, two of his fellow outlaws are his brothers John and William.

2. In both the Gest and Fulk, John intercepts a party of wealthy travellers then takes them back to the outlaw’s camp to dine. In both tales, the captives dine with the outlaws and are made to pay with their belongings. Both Robin and Fulk set their captives free and tell them to thank their masters for the proceeds of the robbery.

3. In the Gest, Little John goes to Nottingham in disguise to trick the sheriff by becoming one of his men. In Fulk, John goes to the White Town in disguise to trick Sir Moris in exactly the same way.

4. In the Gest, the sheriff questions Little John about his origins. In Fulk, Sir Moris also questions John about his origins.

5. In the Gest, Little John is wounded by an arrow in his knee while fleeing from the sheriff’s men; he is carried to the castle of Sir Richard at the Lee. While fleeing the king’s men, Fulk is wounded by a sword thrust into his side; John leaps onto Fulk’s horse to hold him up and they race for the coast.

6. In the Gest, Robin made a chapel in Barnsdale dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Fulk founds a priory in the honour of our lady St. Mary of the order of Grandmont near Alberbury, in a wood, on the river Severn, called the New Abbey.

1. In the Gest, Robin’s outlawry is never explained, and there is no mention of land ownership. In the Tale of Gamelyn, he is outlawed due to the scheming of his brother John, and his lands are seized.

2. In the Gest, Robin’s antagonist is an unnamed sheriff. Gamelyn’s antagonist is his brother John, who becomes the sheriff.

3. In the Gest, Robin has his ‘mery men’ (fourth fytte, stanza 205). Gamelyn also has his ‘mery men’ (line 774).

4. In the Gest, there is a wrestling match ‘at a brydge’ (probably Wentbridge); the prize is a white bull, a saddled horse and gold-burnished bridle, a pair of gloves, a red-gold ring and a cask of wine. A knight (later identified as Sir Richard at the Lee) declares a yeoman the winner. Subsequently the knight gives the yeoman five marks for the cask of wine, and orders that it should be tapped and set running for all to drink. In Gamelyn, he easily wins a wrestling match; the prize is a ram and a ring. After the wrestling match, Gamelyn brings a company of men back to his home, and offers five barrels of wine for all to drink.

5. In the Gest, Robin’s retinue consists of ‘Seven score of wyght yemen’ (fourth fytte, stanza 229). In Gamelyn, he encounters ‘Seuene score of yonge men’ in the forest (line 628), and towards the end of the tale they are referred to as Gamelyn’s ‘wighte yonge men’ (line 893).

6. The King, Sheriff, Porter, Justice, Prior and Abbot, are characterized in both the Gest and Gamelyn.

7. Like the Gest, the audience for Gamelyn is called to attention:

Litheth and lesteneth and herkeneth aright (line 1)
And ye schulle here a talkyng of a doughty knight (line 2)
Litheth and lesteneth and holdeth youre tonge (line 341)
And ye schul heere gamen of Gamelyn the yonge (line 342)
Now lytheth and lesteneth so god yif you good fyn (line 551)
And ye schul heere good game of yonge Gamelyn (line 552)
Litheth and lesteneth and holdeth you stille (line 769)
And ye schul here how Gamelyn hadde al his wille (line 770)


There are some points about the Gest that should be mentioned:

1. Robin finds the Sheriff ‘in the strete’ in Nottingham and he promptly cuts off his head with a sword. P. V. Harris tells us that only one sheriff of Nottingham is recorded as having died during his term of office between 1323 and 1354 – John de Vaus, who died on 1st October, 1349 ‘but there seems to be no suspicion that he was killed by outlaws’ (The Truth About Robin Hood, London, 1951, pp. 83-4). On the other hand, David Crook states that ‘no real medieval sheriff of Nottingham is known to have died while in office’ (Robin Hood: Legend and Reality, The Boydell Press, 2020, p, 230).

2. The king is called ‘Edwarde our comly kynge’ – possibly a reference to Edward the second, however there were three king Edwards in succession; Edward the first, second, and third (see, The Legend 5).

3. The only other persons given a name other than the outlaws and the king, is the sorrowful knight, Sir Richard at the Lee,* and Robin’s murderer, Roger of Donkesly or Donkester, names that are impossible to trace.** Other characters who could be traced, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Justice of England, the Abbot of St Mary’s, and the Prioress of Kirklees are representations. The king represents the ultimate authority, the sheriff and the justice represent the corrupt system of the law, and the abbot of St Mary’s and the prioress of Kirklees represent the corrupt church (see, The Early Ballads 3).

* A rather bizarre theory concerning Sir Richard at the Lee is presented by Thomas Ohlgren, who states: ‘it is possible that the Geste, at some stage of its evolution, was also performed on a specific occasion in honor of another lord mayor of London, Sir Richard Lee’ (Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 2007, p. 168). Ohlgren’s theory continues with his suggestion that: ‘the Geste was recited at one of the feasts given in honor of a newly elected lord mayor of London, and the minstrel playfully incorporated the name of one of the prominent members in attendance. My candidate is Richard Lee, a prosperous London merchant and high-ranking member of the Grocers’ Company. He served as one of the twelve aldermen of London from 1452 to 1472, and was twice selected as lord mayor in 1460 and 1469’ (Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 2007, p. 169).

** See also, The Many Robin Hoods 10.

4. Sherwood is not named in the Gest, but there is an allusion to this famous forest. After competing in an archery contest in Nottingham (in the fifth fytte), Robin and his fellow outlaws are forced to flee from the sheriff and his men. Little John is wounded with an arrow in his knee, and he is carried ‘well a myle’ (stanza 308) to a ‘fayre castell, a lytell within the wode’ (stanza 309, see also, Annesley Castle). If we take this literally, Robin and his men are now in Sherwood Forest – Barnsdale is some fifty miles from Nottingham. In stanza 310, the sorrowful knight is named for the first time – ‘Syr Rychard at the Lee’ and this ‘fayre castell’ is his dwelling. However in stanza 126, the knight’s home is ‘in Verysdale’. Dobson and Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 88, n. 2) state that this is probably a reference to Wyresdale in northern Lancashire. Holt (Robin Hood, 1982, p. 96) describes this place as the hamlet of Lee in Wyresdale, ‘The most likely legendary home of the knight whom Robin befriended’. As Dobson and Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 77) point out, ‘There is also the problem of the identity of Sir Richard and the unnamed knight of the first section. One commentator has suggested that the two knights are not the same person and that ‘for the sake of unity the compiler identified Sir Richard with the unnamed knight of the first section”. This demonstrates one of the inconsistencies in the Gest. It could be that the author of the Gest did not want to confuse the audience by naming Sherwood, thus ensuring that the outlaws are firmly connected to Barnsdale in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire cycles are stamped into the legend.

5. For the theory that Edward III is the ‘Edwarde our comly kynge’ in the Gest, see, Edwardus redivivus in A Gest of Robyn Hode, Thomas Ohlgren, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 1-28.

6. For the mercantile themes in the Gest, see, The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Adventure in A lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, in Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560, Texts, Contexts, and Ideology, Thomas H. Ohlgren, University of Delaware Press, 2007, pp. 135-182.