Robin Hood's Death [Child 120]

DESCRIPTION: Robin Hood, feeling ill, travels to (Kirkly-hall) to be blooded. The prioress sets out to bleed him to death. Only as he nears death does Robin realize what is happening; he calls to Little John. It is too late to save Robin; he arranges for his burial
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1786 (garland, The English Archer); also in the seventeenth century Percy Folio, and the basic plot is in the "Gest of Robyn Hode" from 1534 or earlier
KEYWORDS: Robinhood death burial medicine betrayal
REFERENCES (15 citations):
Child 120, "Robin Hood's Death" (2 texts)
Bronson 120, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 version)
BronsonSinging 120, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 version)
Davis-Ballads 30, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text, 1 tune entitled "The Death of Robin Hood") {Bronson's [#1]}
Leach, pp. 349-352, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 345, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text)
OBB 125, "The Death of Robin Hood" (1 text)
Niles 43, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gummere, pp. 90-93+322-323, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text)
Hodgart, p. 94, "Robin Hood's Death" (1 text)
Bell-Combined, pp. 69-73, "Robin Hood's Death and Burial" (1 text)
BBI, (no number; perhaps should be ZRN23?), "When Robin Hood and Little John"
ADDITIONAL: R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, _Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw_, University of Pittsburg Press, 1976, pp. 134-139, "Robin Hood's Death" (2 texts, corresponding to Child's A [Percy folio] and B [English Archer] versions, but independently edited)
Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, editors, _Robin Hood and Other Oudlaw Tales_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2000, pp. 592-601, "The Deat of Robin Hood" (1 text, a composite of the Percy folio and English Archer versions)

Roud #3299
Art Thieme, "The Death of Robin Hood" (on Thieme02) (on Thieme06) [with introductory verses from other Robin Hood ballads]
cf. "Robin Hood and the Valiant Knight" [Child 153] (subject)
Robber Hood's Death
NOTES: This is considered by J. C. Holt (following Child and others), to be one of the five "basic" Robin Hood ballads. (For more details on chronology see the notes on "A Gest of Robyn Hode" [Child 117]). The earliest known copy (from the Percy folio) is very defective, but seems to be at least two centuries older than the manuscript -- the basic story of the betrayal of Robin Hood by the prioress of Kirkless is also in "A Gest of Robyn Hode," which was first printed no later than 1534 and was probably written more than half a century before that. And Richard Grafton's chronicle of 1569 reports that he was killed at "a certein Nunry in Yorkhire called Bircklies" (for text see Knight/Ohlgren, p. 29).
Holt, pp. 200-201 n. 12, points out that Fowler suggested the "Death" was derived from the material at the end of the "Gest" rather than used as a source of the "Gest." Chronologically this is of course possible, but -- as Holt points out -- this is highly unlikely. There is too much in the "Death" which is not found in the laconic story in the "Gest." It is possible that both are derived from a common legend, but if there is dependence, the "Gest" is surely dependent on the "Death."
This is perhaps the most popular of the basic Robin Hood ballads (note that it is one of only eight Robin Hood pieces for which we have an authentic tune, from Davis); fragments have been found in America as recently as the twentieth century. Still, none of the early ballads was widely known; the popularity of Robin Hood in song seems to derive from the early garlands, which omit this and all the other medieval Robin Hood stories.
Much of the early Robin Hood legend has parallels in the romance of Fulk FitzWarin, and the tale of the death may be an example. In the ballad, it is Red Roger/Roger of Doncaster who helps arrange Robin's death, and stabs Robin after he has been bled; Robin then decapitates Roger.
Fulk, in one of his innumerable conflicts with King John, finds himself in a fight. Sir Ber(n)ard de Blois attacks him from behind; Fulk spins around and kills him -- nearly cuts him in half, in fact (Cawthorne, pp. 145-146). The similarity to this story is obvious, although the general idea is so common that it might be coincidence. In any case, Fulk survives, which Robin does not.
The Percy version of this is very long, and badly defective, meaning that we are missing many details. Much that remains is confusing -- e.g. we meet an old woman "banning" Robin Hood. Why? We don't know. Most authorities assume she is cursing him -- but Knight/Ohlgren, p. 592, point out that it properly means "lament" -- possibly she is forecasting his death.
The tale in the "Death" goes far toward discrediting one modern "reconstruction" of the Robin Hood legend, which would have us believe that Robin died in 1247 at the age of 87. Ignore the fact that sick old men of 87 who are bled have a tendency to spontaneously die, so that murder is a gratuitous assumption (a point made on p. 86 of Hole). The key point is that Little John is still around and capable of breaking down locks. Every legend of Robin includes John. He may have been a few years younger than Robin, but not much. If Robin is 87, Little John is also too old to play the role he does in the "Death." So this reconstruction simply does not fit this ballad.
Child in his notes on the "Death" suggests a parallel to "Sheath and Knife" [Child 16], where the girl asks her brother to shoot her and bury her at a spot she chooses. It seems to me, however, that this in fact reverses the motifs. In "Sheathe and Knife," she chooses the spot, and the bow is relatively incidental (perhaps he uses the arrow so that he does not have to slay her with his own hand). In the "Death," the bow and arrow is essential and the spot trivial. If anything, the analogy is to something such as "John Henry" [Laws I1], who dies with his hammer in his hand.
Phillips/Keatman, p. 5, suggest another analogy, to the death of King Arthur in which the king returns his sword -- the gaining and losing his sword representing, presumably, the gain and loss of his power. One could see such a beginning-and-ending motif arising in the case of Robin Hood also, but it seems to me that it is in fact lacking. We have no knowledge of how Robin became either outlaw or archer, and while the last arrow of some versions of this song is highly symbolic, it isn't found in the earliest text. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 4.1
File: C120

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.