King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin Hood, The [Child 151]
DESCRIPTION: King Richard, impressed by Robin's reputation, seeks him. Disguised as an abbot who is the king's messenger, he hears Robin's declarations of loyalty to king and of spite to clergy. Well treated for the king's sake, he reveals himself and pardons Robin.
EARLIEST DATE: 1777; c. 1670 (Forresters Manuscript)
KEYWORDS: Robinhood royalty disguise clergy
1189-1199 - Reign of King Richard I
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Child 151, "The King's Disguise, and Friendship with Robin Hood" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Stephen Knight, editor (with a manuscript description by Hilton Kelliher), _Robin Hood: The Forresters Manuscript_ (British Library Additional MS 71158), D. S. Brewer, 1998, pp. 108-116, "Robin Hood and the King, or, Robins Death" (1 text, the central portion being largely the same as the garland text printed by Child, but with an introductory stanza plus a long ending describing how Robin was murdered)
cf. "King William and the Keeper" (theme)
NOTES [430 words]: Robin Hood is often portrayed as a loyal servant of King Richard I against his vile brother John. However, it should be noted that Richard was a rotten king (especially for England, where he spent only six months of his ten year reign -- and used those six months solely to gather money). Richard was rash, brutal, and often too abrupt in decision-making -- Runciman, p. 75, sums him up as follows, "He was a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier."
What's more, John never really rebelled against him -- he merely tried to overturn the already rather shaky government Richard had left behind when he went on crusade, from which John probably did not expect Richard to return (Warren, pp. 40-43). To be sure, he tried to keep Richard in bondage when he was captured in Germany (Warren, pp, 43-45), but when Richard returned, John eventually came to Richard and begged forgiveness -- which was granted (Warren, p. 46), as would hardly have been likely had John been a true rebel.
The gimmick of a king in disguise is of course far older than the song itself. In the Bible, King Ahab tried it in the wars with Syria (1 Kings 22:29-37) -- but it didn't work, he ended up being killed by an arrow shot "at a venture," i.e. at random.
In English tradition, we in fact find a story of King Alfred the Great of Wessex sneaking into the Viking camp in the guise of an entertainer to spy out their plans (Hindley, pp. 192-193). This is, however, a late anecdote -- and even if King Alfred would take such a risk, and even if he had the musical skills to pull it off (unlikely), there is the non-trivial problem that Old English and Old Norse, while related, were distinct languages by this time; a Norse army would not be likely to want to hear an English singer.
It is interesting that it is certain that Richard I, the supposed king in this song, definitely did use disguise as he tried to sneak through Germany on his way home from the Crusade (Gillingham, pp. 223-224). I also read, somewhere, a report that, after his return from the Crusade, he disguised himself to recapture Nottingham. The attempt to sneak across Germany was, however, a complete failure; Richard was captured and held for ransom.
The account of Richard's incognito travels may have suggested this song, but it should be noted that Richard I can hardly be the king of the original Robin Hood legend. For background on the legend, including much speculation on which king actually reigned when the legend took its basic shape, see the notes on "A Gest of Robyn Hode" [Child 117]. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.6
- Gillingham: John Gillingham, Richard the Lionheart, Times Books, 1978
- Hindley: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons: The Beginnings of the English Nation, Carroll & Graf, 2006
- Runciman: Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades, 1951 (I use the 1999 Cambridge paperback reprint)
- Warren: W. L. Warren, King John, 1961 (I use the 1978 University of California paperback edition)
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