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Robin Hood: Robbin' History

I had many questions before I went to see Robin Hood.

Would it be entertaining?  Yes, it was!

Would the acting and special effects be good? Yes, they were!

Would this be a fun way to learn about English history? Umm…

As I left the theater I was slightly disappointed because the story was really good (except for Cate Blanchet fighting the French dressed like a knight), but I felt it would have been better had it taken place in a world less burdened with history.  Perhaps Middle-earth.  As entertaining as it was, I couldn't help but be appalled by how badly English/French history had been mangled.

I immediately did my own wiki-research to compare Ridley Scott's version of history with the real story to determine if there was any historical accuracy in Robin Hood.

Ridley's Fable

King Richard the Lion-hearted returns from the unsuccessful Third Crusade sacking every French city he can on his way back to England.  At one castle, a cook picks up a crossbow and shoots him through the throat.  He asks for wine and dies.

Meanwhile, Godfrey, a traitorous but powerful Englishman, plots with King Philip II of France to assassinate Richard.  The assassination fails because Richard has already died and with the help of Robin Hood, the crown returns to London where Prince John is immediately made king on the dock. Because the assassination attempt failed, Godfrey makes new plans to destroy England for the French king…

The young King John has inherited great debt from the expensive Crusade of Richard and Godfrey says that free hunting must stop, taxes must be raised and collected and debtors who are unable to pay must be put to death.  The trusted William Marshal, chief advisor to the king, says that the people are already taxed to death and that Englishmen should not be killing Englishmen.  William Marshal is summarily dismissed from his post and Godfrey takes his place, swiftly carrying out the tax plan in Northern England.

Godfrey visits each noble in the name of King John.  When they are unable to pay, the people are killed, the churches plundered, and their buildings burned.  This clears the way for France to invade from the North and incites other nobles against their king.  The remaining nobles gather together an army with plans to march on London, but when King John learns of Godfrey's ruthlessness and discovers that he's been working with King Philip II, he rides out to meet the nobles.  They agree to a truce under the guidance of William Marshal and King John agrees to sign a document giving the nobles certain rights and freedoms if they fight against the French with him.

The united English army rides to the coast and in a Normandy-like invasion they quickly defeat the French.  A pathetic King Phillip and a handful of ships return to France.

At the signing ceremony in London King John has second thoughts about the document and burns it in front of the nobles.  All the heroes become outlaws and good people suffer under the tyrannic King John.

The Real Story

1194 AD:  On his way back from the unsuccessful Third Crusade, King Richard and a few attendants are shipwrecked and forced to travel on foot through Northern Italy disguised as pilgrims.  The king's identity is discovered and he is captured and held ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI.  The ransom is 150,000 marks: three times the entire annual income of England.  The sum is ultimately raised by Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who collects this amount by instituting high taxes on everyone (including churches).

When news reaches King Phillip II of France that Richard has finished his Crusade and been captured, Phillip entices Prince John to work with him in taking back French territories that had previously been conquered by Richard.  Working together, they offer Henry VI 80,000 marks to continue holding Richard so they will have more time to retake the lands.  The offer is refused, but the French manage take back most of Normandy from the English before a temporary truce is made.

1196-1198AD: King Richard wastes no time gathering his forces to begin a reconquest of Normandy.  Regretting his alliance with Phillip, John hands over some of the French lands to Richard, who forgives John for his treachery and declares John as his heir.  Phillip's army loses much ground and sustains many losses.  In an act of revenge, Phillip attacks John's army and captures his baggage train. 

By this time, both the English and French forces are tiring so they sign a temporary treaty, but Phillip quickly breaks the treaty and war continues for three more years.  During this time Richard regains almost all the land that had been lost.  In a dramatic encounter involving two kings shouting at each other from their respective ships, a five-year peace is agreed to.

1199AD: While putting down a revolt in central France, a man (some sources say a boy) with a crossbow and a frying pan for a shield fires a well-aimed shot into Richard's left shoulder.  The wound is grave and unskilled removal of the arrow causes so much tissue damage that gangrene sets in and Richard's death is imminent.  He forgives the boy of his crime, puts his affairs in order and dies in the arms of his mother within two weeks.  His entrails are buried at the site, his heart in Rouen, and the rest of his remains are put with his father's in Anjou.

1200-1206AD: The informal peace agreement between Richard and Phillip II is finally formalized by Phillip and King John who is now recognized by France as the king of England and duke of Normandy.  However, while peace exists on the surface, Phillip continues plotting against John and eventually incites such civil unrest against him that he is forced to flee his home in Normandy and return to England.  With King John removed from France, Phillip II is able to retake Normandy over the next two years.

To continue financing the war in France, King John is forced to raise taxes, but funding is difficult because he has lost so much revenue with the fall of the Norman territories.  He institutes a heavy income tax, raises the feudal payment (money paid by nobles to be released from military service), and regulates hunting.

1215AD: The many failures of King John at home and abroad lead the powerful English Barons to find a way to limit his power.  They draft a document, the famous Magna Carta, which gives them veto powers over the King's decisions.  The Barons forcibly enter London with their troops and King John, seeing no alternative, signs the document.  But as soon as the Barons leave London, King John renounces the Magna Carta plunging England into a civil war known as the First Barons' War.

1216AD: Supported by Prince Louis of France, son of Phillip II, the Barons march on London.  Prince John sees the French and English troops and flees the city.  When he reaches the city-center, Prince Louis is proclaimed (though not crowned) king.  “King” Louis quickly conquers most of England with the Barons but an unexpected win by King John against the rebels in Rochester forces the Barons to surrender.

King John dies shortly thereafter leaving his nine-year-old son Henry as the rightful heir to the English throne.  With part of England supporting Louis and part supporting Henry, William Marshal (who had always remained loyal to John) rallies support for Henry who is crowned king with Papal approval.  When a revised Magna Carta is drawn up, the remaining support for Louis quickly dwindles.  In a series of military victories William Marshal (who is named the regent of England and protector of Henry), now 70, drives Louis out of England.  A new treaty is drawn up between France and England and Louis renounces his claim on the thrown and returns to France.

The Summary

There was no Godfrey and no sea invasion, no dramatic burning of the Magna Carta.  Prince John and Phillip II worked together to betray Richard and the Barons worked with the French to defeat King John.  There was a Normandy-like invasion, but it actually took place in Normandy and it was the English in the boats –  though not the ones shown in the movie.  That style of landing craft was not invented until 1920

One part of these stories does agree though… you're not allowed to kill the King's deer.

Go ahead and see the movie, but don't think you're learning anything about history.

Fr Eric
Fr Eric

Did not Pope Innocent III excommunicate King John of England for a short period of time, and this gave the barons increased leverage to organize the Magna Carta with the military help of France?

One aspect of the Robin Hood story that I came across is that Prince John in his taxing of everyone, including churches, to raise ransom for King Richard.


Fr. Eric,

Not only was King John excommunicated, a sacramental inderdict was placed on England because he refused to recognize the legitimate Archbishop of Canterbury. Between 1208 and 1213 the only sacraments allowed would have been baptism and the annointing of the sick. Talk about leverage!

Nathaniel C.
Nathaniel C.

I'm not sure why you're expecting the story of Robin Hood to be so historically accurate. After all, the "classic" tale that we all grew up with (and that Ridley Scott has "reimagined") is itself an ahistorical conglomeration. Take, for instance, that jovial, rotund (if a bit tipsy) Friar Tuck. Not only was Francis still a spoiled rich brat at the time of King Richard's death, but the Order of Friars Minor had only just gotten off its feet in time for John's death in 1216. Ergo, there could not possibly have been a friar (especially one whose characterization owes much to the anti-fraternalism of a century later) at the time Robin put the screws to John's evil taxes.

Jerald Franklin Archer
Jerald Franklin Archer

Thanks for this article as it prompted me to thinking. As a history buff myself, I am always flabbergasted at the poor judgements that Follywood constantly makes when they hire writers or directors and producers. It reaks havoc for history teachers in general, as they have to literally convince their students that the movie version is not as good as the real thing. I have encountered some young people who see old newsreel film footage as terming it "the Dark Ages" or the "George Washington's time"! This is not a good sign. Why is this happening now? I think many of us have an idea. Much of the trash on the Internet has killed the museum and the library as being the place to get facts-real life historical data and evidence.

Few movies are ever historically correct, often to the point of being absurd, when one understands the period with it's political situations, fashions, music and language use that was really happening at that time. It may be entertaining to "create" a history that never happened, just to sell tickets, but if one looks at the real damage that is done to the average persons understanding of history one can quickly see the long term results. It is known that an error, if propagated enough, soon becomes a truth. This is a scary thought. Sadly, for example, this "fact fabrication" is most evident in movies that portray the Church (although little history is attempted at being explained or portrayed) and leaves the impression in the ignorant mind that it is evil and corrupt. The History Channel is the worst place to get the real story on anything historical, so if one thinks that is bad, imagine the impact that a typical "historical" movie today can produce in those who refuse to read a history book itself.

Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. I would hope that is more of a overall theory than futuristic fact, but it can and does happen and we see it happen in history itself.

Fr Michael Cotone
Fr Michael Cotone

Thank you! Now I won't have to watch this latest monstrosity in order to explain to family and friends, who ask me about it, how badly Ridley Scott has had to distort history this time. Whenever his movie-making wanders off onto a historical subject, e.g., "Gladiator" and "Crusades", his disdain for his audience, viz., that they are utterly ignorant of history, his fondness for violence, and his hatred for the Church stand out like monumentally sore thumbs. It's comforting to know, without watching it, that "Robin Hood" is like "Gladiator" and "Crusades", viz., best described by the title of another of his works, "Body of Lies."

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