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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.

One comment

  1. Please let me know when the The Parish Book of Chant is available. Thank you.

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