Robin Hood and the English Longbow – History Fact Friday

It might surprise you to discover that “Robin Hood” is not a name at all. In the 13th-16th centuries, it was relatively common for the authorities to refer to any itinerant criminal as a Robinhood or Robehood. The name might be tied to either the word rob (as in stealing) or robe (as in a cloak). The word hood actually derives from the same German origin as the word hat.

The earliest appearance of the term is around 1250, and the first written sources date from around 1380 in Piers Plowman. There was plenty of time for the term to be associated with an individual, but it could just as easily have been an amplification of the term. During that time period, there was a lot of brigandage in Europe and Britain. Outlaws roamed the hills and forests – usually mercenaries who were currently unemployed and needed to make ends meet.

Then, the English longbow was developed during the early 1300’s. These weapons had a 200-lb pull, which required enormous strength and lifelong practice and training. Studies of the skeletons of archers actually revealed bone spurs caused by their overdeveloped musculature.

The English longbow had a range greater than two football fields (over 200 yards) and could send an arrow through most plate armor. Only the finest quality armor was effective at stopping them, but even then the kinetic energy of an arrow fired from a longbow was sometimes sufficient to unhorse an knight. The arrows easily pierced leather jerkins and chainmail.

That the longbow could kill both peasants and knights alike allowed the English King Edward III to win resounding victories at the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers.  The longbowman was considered an unchivalrous but effective weapon.

Unfortunately, someone who wielded a longbow had to commit his life to his art. That meant that when there was not a war to fight, he often became a brigand. This probably gave birth to the myths of Robin Hood and his ‘merry men.’ (By the way, the term merry did not mean laughing and jocular as it means today. It actually meant ‘companions of an outlaw’.)

More than likely, Robin Hood was a composite image of the yeomen (archers) who roamed the English countryside during the long periods of peace in the Hundred Years’ War. It is very unlikely that he actually existed, and the image that history gives us is somewhat less appealing than the ‘noble outlaw’ of later stories.

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