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Robin Hood's Enemies
Sheriff of Nottingham
The hatred between Robin Hood and the Sheriff forms a fundamental part of the tales. The Sheriff veers between serious and comedy roles. He's a seriously dangerous opponent in Robin Hood and the Monk who commands a powerful body of men to capture Robin at St Mary’s Church in Nottingham. Yet he's also a comic foil, often being humiliated as seen in Robin Hood and the Potter.
Sheriff's were powerful men in medieval society. They were the King’s representative in each county and were charged with keeping the peace and upholding the law. Outlaws were hunted down without mercy.
So who was the real Sheriff? Eustace of Lowdham, Sheriff of Yorkshire is the most likely candidate to form the basis of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He was the Sheriff of Yorkshire 1225-6, Forest Justice north of the Trent 1226, and Sheriff of Nottinghamshire 1232-3. He covered all the right jobs to trouble Robin. He also lived in the right time and place to deal with Robert Hode, our possible original Robin.
Guy of Gisborne
A bounty hunter, Guy has one of the original tales all to himself, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. Contrary to popular belief, Guy of Gisborne was not a knight working for the Sheriff.
Guy is Robin's enemy from the very start. Mainly because they're on opposite sides of the law. In a time when there wasn't a police force, the law needed all the help it could get. Often the Sheriff had to raise a temporary posse of armed men to enforce the law. He would've been glad to use freelance bounty hunters to capture outlaws and bandits 'dead or alive'.
He was not originally an evil knight who was particularly close to the Sheriff or Prince John. He was just a man making a living, who was of similar rank to Robin Hood. The fact that this involved hacking off the head of an outlaw resisting arrest - to prove that you had done your job - would not have bothered anybody at the time. The price received for their capture was the same as that for a dangerous wolf. 'Wolfshead' became an alternative name for an outlaw.
We now accept that Robin Hood lived at the time of Richard the Lionheart. And while the King was fighting in the crusades his wicked brother Prince John wreaked havoc at home taxing the people of England.
The modern tradition linking Robin with King Richard and Prince John comes thanks to a Scottish writer called John Major who wrote a History of Greater Britain in 1521. He claimed that Robin was active in 1193-4 when Richard had left the crusades and was being held prisoner in Germany. Modern historians on the trail of the original Robin are getting ever closer to the date Major claims for the legendary Robin, so he may be right after all.
Portrait images: Louis Rhead, 'Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest'. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1912. Courtesy of The Robin Hood Project, The University of Rochester.