English Folk Heroines: Maid Marian

Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938 Warner Bros. [Public domain]

Maid Marian  

Maid Marian, famous as the legendary girlfriend of Robin Hood, took on many roles and personas over the centuries, changing greatly with the times.  Although she is absent from the earliest known ballads of Robin Hood she later appear in many plays, ballads and stories. Her character and role varied greatly, sometimes appearing as a noblewoman at other times as a commoner or shepherdess.  From her early beginnings which can be found in folklore she evolves through literature from a simple medieval shepherdess and May Day Queen, to the girlfriend of the famous Robin Hood.

Folklore is dynamic and changes with the ages reflecting changes in attitude and circumstances by society. This can be seen in action with Maid Marian and how she became a folk heroine.  Over time she becomes a deeper, more complex character and much more than just the love interest of the famous Robin Hood and more than just an important character in someone else’s adventure.  It is in comparison to her and her character and traits that much of the morality of these stories comes out, making her an important ingredient to the overall plot, exposition and denouement of the story through the ages.  The overall impression is of a strong, independent lady in a relatively equal relationship with Robin. Her qualities of loyalty and compassion mixed with boldness make her a popular figure in the Robin Hood canon of literature providing a strong folkloric tradition.  There is also more than a hint of her dangerous side when she is found in a role of noble woman covertly undermining the patriarchal and ruling order by passing information on to Robin. The fact that she has male suitors in high society and chooses Robin rather than them underlines her independence of mind and action.

Marion and Robin in France

In the  pastourelle songs of France, Marian became Marion and she and Robin are found together but not in the way that we are familiar with.  In these songs Marion is a shepherdess who rejects the romantic attention of a knight to stay faithful to Robin who is a shepherd.  From this, Marion and Robin appeared in Jeu de Robin et Marion, a French play by Adam de la Halle in the later part of the 13th century. 

Later they became connected to spring festivals and traditions in both France and England to celebrate the passing of winter and welcome the new growth of spring.  These were often outside events enjoyed by the community with lots of feasting, singing, dancing, games and all sorts of fun activities and entertainment.

Marian as the May Queen

Maid Marian also has associations with the rustic figures of the May Queen and Lady May the personifications of May Day, springtime and summer connecting her with renewal, new growth, fertility and abundance.  With the figure of Robin Hood becoming increasingly popular appearing in plays, games and ballads especially during Whitsun, Robin and Marian eventually became integrated into new roles as the King and Queen of the May Day.  

The Virgin Mary

It was not Marian in the early works that was Robin’s important female interest but the Virgin Mary.  However, society changed and England became more protestant. With Marian’s strong associations to nature and fertility she complemented the forest environment and was a good partner for the outlaw of Sherwoos, eventually taking on the role of his lover.  However social attitudes modified her behaviour making her become much more modest, ladylike and virtuous rather than the lusty, rustic figure of fertility, vitality and renewal. 

As Marian  became more integrated in the Robin Hood stories her character, social status and circumstance change and evolve considerable.  She is not just a damsel in distress in need of rescue by some bold heroic male, she evolves into a much more complex character. Some of the tales portray her as a robust woman of action, her fighting expertise matching, or even surpassing male counterparts and even that of Robin in some stories.

At times when she is found within the stately and highly patriarchal confines of Norman society within Nottingham Castle she is the  secret rebel passing on information to Robin in Sherwood Forest. She can move between the two worlds of Norman and outlaw society while remaining true to her own values and personal beliefs and her love for Robin.

Nineteenth Century Marion

In the nineteenth century Marion loses much of her power becoming a highborn, chaste and delicate noblewoman of high birth and very much an archetype of the Victorian lady.  Her love story with Robin becomes central but she is now a supporting character to her lover rather than one in her own right. Perhaps to please Victorian audiences she and Robin are married by King Richard the Lionheart in St Mary’s Church in Edwinstowe making the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marion more romantic  and sanitized.

Modern Marian

From the early days to the present we can see how the changes in society and attitudes to women have evolved and expressed at different times through the ages. Her character and her role are reflections of those times and the attitudes that prevailed towards the male and female role models.  We have seen her evolve from the rustic mysticism of the May Queen to the archetypical lady of high society with a secret lover, to a more competent, confident and assertive female whose history in many ways reflects the lot of women through the ages. Marian stands out as one of the strongest female characters in folklore and literature and there is ample potential for further interesting developments in the modern age.   The potential for further development for her is also seen in modern times with the greater freeing of women from their traditional archetypes.

© 07/01/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright January 7th, 2020 zteve t evans

The Outlaws of Inglewood Forest


Public Domain

The medieval outlaws Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of Clough of Inglewood Forest in Cumbria may not be as famous as Robin Hood, Little John and Will Scarlet of Sherwood Forest but their story is still a good action packed yarn that deserves greater recognition.

Inglewood Forest, Cumbria

Today the Inglewood Forest in the county of Cumbria, which was called Cumberland, is an area of fertile of arable and dairy farm land with patches woodland. The name means “Wood of the English or Angles.”  After the Norman Conquest the area was made a Royal Forest.   The hunting of certain animals such as deer and boar was strictly reserved for the King and there could be severe punishments for offenders.  Certain other activities were also restricted though yeomen did have some rights.

Popular narratives

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries outlaw narratives were popular often appearing as ballads. The adventures of Robin Hood, Little John and the rest of his Merrie Men are the best known examples set in or around Sherwood Forest that have come down through the ages.  Inglewood Forest was home to Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly, and Clym of Clough.  Although this trio are not so famous as the Sherwood outlaws is still a worthy narrative of the age.  The Child Ballad 116 entitled Adam Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee, tells their story focusing on William of Cloudsley as the main hero of the story.  The ballad also has a parallel with the Swiss story of William Tell who shoots an apple from the head of his son. Presented here is brief comparison with Robin Hood and an edited version of the story from the ballad.

Robin Hood

Many areas in England and Wales have a claim to Robin Hood, possibly with some justification, but his most widely accepted home is  Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, another Royal Forest.  Though maybe not as famous as Sherwood Forest, Inglewood had its share of hero outlaws in the semi-legendary trio of Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of the Clough.

Similarities with Robin Hood

As with Robin Hood they have mentions in the Child Ballads and appear to have much in common. For example they were outlaws and expert archers roaming a forest and setting right what was wrong portrayed as honest yeoman who had suffered injustice at the hands of the authorities.  In Adam, William and Clym there are three local heroes swearing allegiance and brotherhood to each other forced to live by breaking the laws of the forest in much the same way as Robin Hood and his band of outlaws did.  Like them, they made their base in the wilds living off the fruits of the forest.

Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of Clough

Of the three, only William of Cloudesly was a married man and he dearly loved his wife and three children, but he was forced to leave them in Carlisle.  Being separated from them broke his heart and one day he told his two friends that he would go into Carlisle to visit them.  Both Adam and Clym warned against this fearing that he may walk into a trap or be captured by the authorities.  Nevertheless William tells them he sorely misses his family and must take a chance on seeing them no matter what the risk.  He reassures his friends that he will take every precaution and that he would be alright and goes off to Carlisle to visit his family.

William and Alice

Taking the utmost care he steals through the streets under the cover of darkness until he reaches his family home.  Using a pre-arranged code of knocks upon the window his wife, Alice gladly opens the door and throws her arms around her husband. Great is there joy at their reunion and Alice tells him that she had kept the house  ready for his return for the last six months since he went away.  He hugs and kisses his delighted children and insists his wife tell him of all their doings, which of course she does.  Indeed, this is a very happy scene but there is also one other in the house who is interested in the return of William to Carlisle.


Also present in the house when William returned was an old woman who had been made homeless seven years previous.  William, being a kind hearted man had taken pity on her and had let her live in his home with his family seeking no recompense but giving her free food and lodging for all that time.  Now this woman seeing William had returned crept out of the house and went to the Sheriff and the Magistrate to tell them the news.  The Sheriff and the Magistrate were delighted with the news and reward the old woman with a scarlet dress.

William is taken

They then raise a crowd of men to arrest William.  They besiege his house as he and his wife defend their home against them.  Finally the besiegers set the house on fire and William is forced to let his children down through the upper windows with tied sheets.  Alice wants to stay and fight to the death with William but he insists she leaves or the children would have no one in the world to take care of them.  Reluctantly she agrees and he lowers her to the ground with the sheets.

Now alone, William shoots arrow after arrow into the crowd until he has none left.  Resolving to face death fighting he draws his sword and leaps out at his attackers.  Although he puts up a fierce fight he is eventually overpowered and chained hand and foot and dragged to the gaol.  The Sheriff, even though he has William in chains is still fearful of his escape and orders that all the gates to the city of Carlisle be locked and barred and no one is to enter or leave.  He orders his carpenters to build a gallows from which he planned to hang William.

Adam and Clym

Not all the people of Carlisle had taken part in the attack on William’s house, it was only a small minority, and one who had a small son sent his boy through a small breach in the city walls to find Adam Bell and Clym of Cloudesly and warn them of their friend’s danger.  The boy was a swineherd who spent time in the forest with his pigs and looked after Alice’s at times.  William would leave game where he could easily find it as payment.

Adam and Clym found the boy, rather than he finding them, and he told them of the plight of their friend and how the sheriff had ordered the city gates to be barred.  So they set off to Carlisle but when they arrive they find all the gates to the city barred and locked allowing no one in or out, just as the boy had told them.  But Adam had a plan.  He had on him an official looking letter.   Guessing that the gatekeeper was no scholar he proposed they make out they were the King’s messengers on his business with orders to be given directly by them to the Sheriff of Carlisle and no one should hinder them or answer to the King’s anger.  The two men banged on the gate.  A flustered gatekeeper arrived and told them the gates were barred because the hanging of an outlaw was to take place no one was allowed in or out until the man was dead. He told them to go away and come back tomorrow.

Deceiving the gatekeeper

Adam brandished the letter in front of his face and told him that they had carried this direct from the King in London.  They been instructed by the King himself to give it into the hand of the Sheriff of Carlisle and no man must hinder them on pain of death.  The gatekeeper hesitated and looked closely at the letter.  He saw what he assumed was the King’s seal and not being an educated man knew no different and decided it would be safe and prudent to let them in.  As soon as they passed through the gates Adam and Clym attacked him, bound him hand and foot and gagged him leaving him upon the floor in his guardroom.  Taking the keys of the gates from they prepared their bows and entered the city to find their friend.

The fight for William

Finding their way to the marketplace they see a new gallows had been completed and their see their friend bound hand and foot in a cart nearby waiting the arrival of the sheriff and the magistrate to carry out the execution. William sees his friend and hope returns to him.  As he is stood on the cart with the rope around her neck awaiting the order from the Sheriff, Adam and Clym take aim and shoot the Sheriff and the Magistrate simultaneously preventing the order to be given.  Both suddenly fall to the ground dying causing the gathered crowd to flee in panic and disorder.   In the confusion Adam and Clym race to their friend and cut the ropes which bind him.  Now free William attacks one of his guards managing to wrest a battle axe from him and killing him with it.

Fighting their way out


Public Domain

Now armed he and his companion attack the remaining guards who flee in disarray. Clym and Adam shoot all their arrows at them then draw their swords and fight hand to hand with any remaining.  But horns blow and bells ring and the Mayor of Carlisle is warned of the events.  He quickly gathers a large body of armed men and the three companions have to fight their way back to the gates and William kills the Mayor in the process.  They make the gates and unlock them to let themselves out then quickly relock them to keep their pursuers in.   They then melt into the fastness of Inglewood Forest which they know so well, leaving their pursuers locked in the city of Carlisle.

Alice and the children

After William had let her to the ground from their burning home she had gathered the children about her and made her way through the dark streets of Carlisle to the gates.  She and the children managing to sneak out just before the order came to bar entry and exit to all.  Stealthily she lead her children into the depths of the forest.  Her intention was to finding Adam and Clym and tell them all that had befallen.  She hoped that they would be able to perform a rescue but she thought at least that they should know what had happened to their comrade and ask them for help for her and the children.  With these thoughts she made her way to the place of the trysting tree in the hope of finding them.  Of course she had no idea that they had been forewarned of events. To her despair she did not find them there as they had gone to the succour of William.

The trysting tree

The three friends made their way through the forest until they come to the trysting tree where they planned to camp for the night.  There, knelt in a huddle with her arms around her weeping children was Alice, herself weeping thinking that William had been killed.  Pure delight was the feeling of that loving family to be reunited again.  Adam and Clym took leave of the happy family leaving them to be together while they went hunting bringing back game to feed all.

While eating they all talked together about their future trying to form a plan of what to do next.  They knew that the king would be angry about the killing of his Sheriff, Magistrate and Mayor as well as all the others who fell in the battle.

A decision is made

William tells the others that he thinks they should go to the king before he hears the news and ask for clemency.  He takes Alice and the children to a nunnery who will give them food and shelter and takes his eldest son with him.  Adam and Clym also go with saying they are brothers and brothers should stick together.

The King

So William and his son, along with Adam Bell and Clym of Clough make their way to London to ask clemency from the King.  Arriving in London they make their way to the palace and enter its gates and proceed into the hall ignoring the sentries, the ushers the porters, and kneel  straight before the King and beg clemency for killing his deer.

The King asks them who they are and when they tell him he immediately rejects clemency and tells them they must hang.  Adam points out that they had come to ask for clemency of their own free will and asks again for clemency, or else to be set free with the weapons they carry and that they will then never in 100 years again ask for grace.  The king is unmoved and tells them again that all three will hang.


Public Domain

The Queen is sitting next to him throughout all this and decides to intervene on behalf of the men of Inglewood.  She reminds her husband that when they were wed he promised her a wedding gift of her choice which she had never yet asked for.  Now she asked him to spare the lives of these three yeoman as her wedding gift.

The King reluctantly agreed to his wife’s request but no sooner had he done so when messengers arrive from Carlisle with news of the deaths of the Sheriff the Magistrate, the Mayor and others of his men some fifty in number who were killed  in the fight. The king is grieved and looking woefully at them he wonders what kind of fighters they were and just how good was their archery.  To test the proficiency of the three outlaws of Inglewood he calls his best archers who set up a series of tests and targets.

William shoots an apple on his son’s head

William, Adam and Clym easily pass every test and prove themselves better archers than the King’s men.  William suggests that the targets were too easy for a good bowman and sets up three hazel rods in the ground twenty paces distant from each other.  He then turns to the King and says that it is a good archer who can split even one of these.  The King doubtfully tells him such a feat is impossible and no archer could possibly do it.  William proves the King wrong splitting the hazel down the middle.  The King now is greatly impressed telling him he is the best archer he has ever seen.


Public Domain

William says to the king that he can better that and will place an apple upon his seven year old son’s head and split it in two with an arrow fired at 120 paces distant.  The king now tells William that he would like to see such a feat of archery and warns him that if he misses or fails, or if the arrow so much as touches his son’s head, or clothes then he, along with Adam and Clym would be hung.

So William fixes a stake in the ground and ties his son to it.  He tells the boy to turn his head so he cannot see in front of him and places an apple upon his head.  William measures the one hundred and twenty paces and begs the onlookers for complete silence.  Taking careful aim he lets fly an arrow which splits the apple in two leaving his son or his clothing untouched and unharmed.  The king now is most impressed by William’s prowess as an archer gives him eighteen pence a day as one of his bowmen and makes him his rider in chief over the North country.

The queen is also highly impressed making him a gentleman of the cloth and makes Adam and Clym yeoman of her chamber,  She also gives William’s son a place in her wine cellar as a porter.  Alice is brought from the nunnery with the other children and is made the governess of the Royal children and also the Queen’s chief gentlewoman.

William, Adam Bell and Clym of Clough give thanks to the king and queen and go to the church to be absolved of their sins.  They spend the rest of their lives serving the king and queen and all three eventually die good honest men in the service of their monarch.

Happy ending

This ballad has a happy ending which many others of its type and time do not get.  It shares many common elements with Robin Hood and the shooting of the apple from the head of William’s son is similar to the story of William Tell.  It is an action packed tale yet somehow not as famous as those of Robin and his Merry Men.

© 01/03/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 1st March, 2016 zteve t evans

The Enduring Appeal of Robin Hood

The legendary adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Men are among the best known and popular folk tales of the British Isles.  In different forms of adaption they have won worldwide fame and popularity.  As well as the swashbuckling action there is the popular appeal of a hero with the highest ideals and integrity who robs the rich to give to the poor.

Public Domain Image

Medieval forest

A working class hero

In earlier versions of the legend his status was that of a yeoman who had fallen foul of the law through injustice.  In this role as a working class hero he successfully cocks a snook at the law and authority, gaining much sympathy and support from the peasants and yeomanry who saw themselves as oppressed by an all powerful royal hierarchy.

Sherwood Forest

In Robin’s day Sherwood was one of the Royal Forests and was subject to the Forest Laws.  These were designed to protect the game such as deer, boar, wolves or hares and game birds for the benefit of the king.

The penalty for breaking them was notoriously harsh. People living in or around a Royal Forest were subject to these laws and they were believed to be the cause of much resentment.  The forest and everything in it belonged to the king and he alone could give permission for its use.  This would only be given to his barons and noblemen on license and at a price.  Ordinary people could not hunt, clear or cultivate land within in its bounds.

Although not all of their former rights were taken they were much more restricted in what they could do.  Punishments for breaking the law included being blinded in both eyes or to have the hands cut off.  Not surprisingly, this would probably be a cause of massive resentment among the ordinary people who would have wanted to supplement their meagre livelihood from the free forest resources of meat, wood and land.

In Robin Hood the people found a hero who was one of their own and who successfully stood up against their oppressors.  Robin not only broke the law and got away with it he made the authorities look foolish.

Robin of Loxley

In later versions he becomes a lord who had been dispossessed by the notoriously unjust King John for his support of King Richard who was away on the Crusades. This also had the appeal of the righteous lord who in loyally upholding the true monarch’s law in his absence is wronged by the usurper King John.

The Merry Men

The Merry Men were his followers and fellow outlaws.  Their number varies from 20 to 140 over time. Any one who wanted to join had to fight Robin and beat him.   Most of what we know about them comes from the ballads about Robin Hood. The term ‘Merry Men’ is a generic term used to describe followers of leaders such as outlaws or knights.  ‘Merry Men’ were followers of any one who commanded a following.   Little John, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck are the most well known of Robin’s Merry Men.   Maid Marion was his famous love interest.

Robin’s enemies

His arch rival was the Sherriff of Nottingham aided and abetted by Sir Guy of Gisbourne.    Under the cover of Sherwood Forest he and his Merry Men rang rings round these two as they tried their hardest to capture them.

The monarch of the time is generally considered to be King John while his brother, King Richard was absent at the Crusades.  In the ballad ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode,’ the king is named as ‘Edward.’   As the legend of Robin Hood seems to have grown over centuries it is difficult to be exact.  Who ever was the king they would have been expecting and pressing the Sheriff of Nottingham to capture and punish Robin Hood.

The Royal Forests were huge and not just areas of woodland, but included heath and scrub lands, often with human settlements within or around its boundaries.  Conversely, preserving these wild areas for game also provide perfect cover for outlaws to hideout in while living off the land by poaching the King’s deer and game.

Robbing the rich and giving it to the poor is one thing, but robbing the King’s deer would be unforgivable, especially if it was King John’s who was notorious for his tyranny and cruelty.   The Sheriff would have been under enormous royal pressure to capture Robin.

“Depiction of a medieval hunting park” from The Master of Game Public Domain Image

The origin of the Robin Hood legends

It is very difficult to find any real evidence relating to the origins of the Robin Hood legends.  He is briefly mentioned in ‘Piers Plowman’ written 1377, by William Langland.  Most of the legends are mentioned in ballads from the 15th – 16th century. The oldest are ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode,’  ‘Robin Hood and the Monk,’ and ‘Robin Hood and the Potter.’

Another source is the Percy Folio which is a collection of English ballads compiled by Thomas Percy in the 17th century.    Many of these ballads are believed to go back to the 12th century.  There are also many other later ballads that have Robin Hood as the central figure or mention him in some way.

Where was Robin based?

Where Robin Hood was based is a matter of contention. Sherwood Forest is the most cited place but there are other areas that also have a claim to be his territory.  Barnsdale in Yorkshire also has strong associations with him and many places in England have places names and public houses that bear his name as do Scotland and Wales.  It may be that he could have actually travelled to other districts as a fugitive to escape the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham and places he stayed at were named after him.

Was Robin Hood a real person?

The Roll of the Justices in Eyre, Berkshire record that in 1261 a gang of outlaws, including someone named as William, the son of Robert le Fevere was seized without warrant.  This cross references with another official document of 1262 records in the King’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Roll of Easter that pardons the prior of Sandleford for the seizing of the chattels of a fugitive named William Robehod without a warrant.    William, the son of Robert le Fevere and William Robehod are widely thought to be the same person, though not necessarily the legendary Robin Hood, though many think it possible.  Some scholars think ‘Robin Hood’ may have been a generic nickname for medieval outlaws.

Robin Hood as a forest spirit

There is also the theory that Robin Hood was actually a part of a much older tradition.   Some theories associate him with mythological figures such as Robin Goodfellow.  In later times his character appeared in some May Day festivities the May King along side Maid Marion.  In folklore the May King was a male youth chosen for his physical perfection who would be given rights to impregnate the females of his choice in the community.  His reign lasted from one year or seven years after which he was ritually sacrificed in the belief that this would bring fertility to the people and their crops.

Green Man from Southwell Minster Public Domain Image Author: MedievalRich

Robin Hood and the Green Man

He is also associated by some people with the ‘Green Man.’   The ‘Green Man’ is a term first used by Lady Raglan to describe an emblem carved in stone on the walls of her local church  Since then many other such Green Men have been found carved in the wood and stone of other old churches and ancient buildings.

No one is certain of its meaning but it is often found in churches in or around the edges of forests and woodlands. It is usually a face or head with leaves or branches sprouting from the mouth and entwining the head.   Many people think it was a pagan symbol representing a spirit of nature.  It is also thought to go back to Celtic times and may be a representation of the god Cernunnos.

There are a number of representations of the Green Man in the Chapter House of Southwell Minster which was built around 1100. and well within Robin’s Nottinghamshire territory.

The enduring appeal of Robin Hood

It is likely that unless other reliable evidence comes to light that Robin Hood will remain as elusive as was in medieval times.  Nevertheless his appeal and popularity are enduring and his legend continues to evolve into modern times.

Maybe we all need someone to stand against authority, steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Paradoxically, despite his outlawry he still maintains a reputation for purity of intent and honesty. He is seen as someone who is bold and courageous and a beacon of hope to the oppressed.  Some how, law breaking seems more forgivable if there is a noble and just cause behind it, carried out by someone with a pure and honest disposition.


Robin Hood

Merry Men

World Wide Robin Hood Society

BBC Robin Hood and his Historical Context By Dr Mike Ibeji

The Enigma of the Green Man – Theories and Interpretations

Experience the Robin Hood Legend in Nottinghamshire, UK