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Robin Hood's Day: A Medieval May Day Festival

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,

That be of freeborn blood;

I shall you tel of a good yeoman,

His name was Robyn Hood.



Robin Hood is not a man, though many men have called his name. He is the spirit of the wildwood in its budding time, Jolly Robin in the Green, the force that makes the green shoots grow, that hisses in the foliage like love's electricity, that sizzles and crackles with the laughter of life, with the joy of the blossoming of the Earth's goodly store.

He is the spirit of the Maytime in its fruitfulness and splendour, the spirit of England, the Summerlord, King of the Summerlands, where summer's sun always shines. The spirit of mirth and playfulness, of sport, of dance, of jest, of love. He is there with the lovers in their secret tryst, with the dance of the birds in the merry air, with the players of sports in their triumphs and losses, with all that is light and lively and fanciful and free.

His day begins on the first of May and continues through to Whitsun, and is accompanied by music and laughter, games, feasts and festivities. Dances and plays are performed in his honour, jests and japes and buffooneries. Not for nothing is his name Jolly Robin. Jolly as the sunshine. Jolly as the Noontime. Jolly as the Moon in May.

May Eve, the young men and women light fires, while the young men make bowers in the woods out of bent sticks interwoven with leaves and decorated with flowers for their lover's tryst. Robin Hood's bower. Later, in the dead of night, the lovers will steal away, to embrace, to kiss, to delight each other in their youthful beauty. Children born of these marriages - Greenwood Marriages, no need for the clergy's permission - are called the Children of the May, or Merrybegots, and especially honoured, as blessed by Robin Hood.

At the dances Old Fat Friar Tuck lifts his cassock to reveal a monster phallus strapped to his groin, as he dances obscenely with a Maid. This is the song he sings as she runs away screaming delightedly:

Here is an huckle duckle,

An inch above the buckle.

She is a trul of trust,

To serve a frier at his lust,

A prycker, a prauncer, a terer of sheses,

A wagger of ballockes when other men slepes.

Go home, ye knaves, and lay crabbes in the fyre,

For my lady and I wil daunce in the myre,

For veri pure joye.

— (From Robin Hood and the Friar)

Bishop Latimer, writing in the 1580s, tells of a day that he came to preach in a certain parish. "I found the church door fast locked," he says. "I taryed there half an houre and more, and at last the key was found, and one of the parish comes to me and sayes, Syr, this is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; it is Robin Hoode's day; the parish are gone abroad to gather for Robin Hoode."

Such was affection the common people felt about Robin, that they would refuse to attend church rather than miss his day.

As a man Robin becomes an Outlaw, a man who, moved by pity and a love of humanity, rights wrongs, corrects misdeeds, turns the world upside down. He is the Lord of Misrule, the Abbot of Unreason. His enemies are the corrupt officials of the Establishment, the greedy clergy, the tax-gatherers, the cowardly soldiers who obey orders, not because they are right or just, but because they fear the Tyrant's weapons. Robin is a fighter for social justice, a friend to the poor, to the common people. Indeed he is one of them. A free born Englishman, a yeoman, not a slave or a serf, but not a Lord either. Not Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, but Robin of Loxley, who fights with the staff and the bow, skilfully fashioned from oak and yew, gathered from the greenwood that is his home. With Maid Marion and his Merry Men, Will Scarlock and Allen-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, Little John and Much the Millar's Son, he sports and carouses, drinks and eats and laughs until, called to action, he leads his band to the high road where the enemy's convoy flounders, and by courage and by stealth steals the stealers riches, to return them to their rightful owners.

His religion is the cult of the Virgin Mother, whom he loves to the point of death. When he steals from the clergy he calls it a gift from the Virgin.

There is not one Robin Hood, but many. Anyone can be Robin Hood. All you have to do is wear his mantle and call his name. He is the Earth's rebellion against greed and corruption and the desecration of her beauty. Whenever a man was driven to theft by the forces of Old Corruption, to the life of an Outlaw, he would change his name to Robin Hood. And in times of great rebellion, when many men were Outlaws, many bands would roam the land giving themselves the names of Robin Hood and the Merry Men.

The Robin Hood story is always the same. It goes like this. Robin is out in the woods where he meets a foe, usually on a bridge across a stream. Little John, Much the Miller‘s Son, Will Scarlock or Friar Tuck. So a battle ensues and Robin Hood loses. Robin Hood always loses the battle against his Merry Men. Always it is he who falls in the water and who struggles out, laughing and wet. And then, having won the battle, the foe falls to his knees and calls Robin "Lord". Thus Robin is the loser whom everyone calls Lord. What does that mean?

Or he is standing, leaning beneath the oak on a sweet May morning looking mournful. Little John will come up to him. "Are you sad, my Lord?"

"Not sad, bored. I want company."

And he will give instructions to the Merry Men to go up to the High Road and to kidnap a passer-by, so that Robin can have company.

And they will go to the High Road and kidnap a "guest", and then treat him with all honour, and feed him, and carouse with him as the day is long. And when the guest is fed, Robin will speak. He will ask for payment for the celebration. "What do you carry in your bag?"

And if the guest is greedy and conceals his riches, Robin will take it. But if the guest is honourable, and tells the truth about his wealth (whether he is rich or poor) Robin will reward him with more. And if the guest is in trouble and in need of help, then Robin will help. And if the guest has been dishonoured or had his lands taken away or his money stolen, or if he loves a maiden who is held captive by a Lord, then Robin will move all his forces in aid of the guest, and he will restore the honour or take back the land, he will restore the wealth, he will free the maiden, he will be a friend for life.

His heart is generous and true and his Englishness is not exclusive. He shares equally to all who come to these shores, for it is England herself, the landscape, the hills and valleys, the rivers and the trees, its gorgeous greenery, its abundance and beauty, which gives Englishness its special quality. And if the English themselves have grown sad and separate down the years, it is because they have forgotten the spirit that moved them, the spirit of laughing kindness, the spirit of bawdy revelry, the spirit of rebellion and fair shares for all, the spirit of Robin Hood. For, though Robin is as English as English can be, his is the Merry England of old, and he can be worshipped anywhere, so that even the Scots and the Welsh (who have had cause to hate the English at times) have always loved Robin Hood.

And since Robin Hood was born in England, and is spoken of and written of in English, in the first new flowering of the Nation's language - in the Maytime of English - and since English is now the common World language, spoken and written in every nation on the globe, we give you all Robin Hood. Robin Hood of the Greenwood, of the heathlands and fells, who redistributes wealth, who takes from the rich to give to the poor. For this nation which first gave birth to the scourge of capitalism and the factory system, also gave birth to its opposite too, to the idea of socialism, to the idea that the Earth should be a common treasury for all.

This is Robin Hood's contribution to the Earth. He is our herald of the return to the Summerlands, where we can dance and sport and play like freemen again.

Jolly Robin. Under the Greenwood Tree.

Description of a Medieval Mayday.

"First of all, the wild heads of the parish flocking together, choose them a grand captain of mischief, whom they ennoble with the title of Lord of Misrule; and him they crown with great solemnity, and adopt for their king. This king anointed chooseth forth twenty, forty, threescore or a hundred lusty guts, like to himself, to wait upon his lordly majesty, and to guard his noble person. Then everyone of these men he investeth with his liveries of green, yellow, or some other light wanton colour, and as though they were not gaudy enough, they bedeck themselves with scarfes, ribbons, and laces, hanged all over with gold rings, precious stones, and other jewels. This done, they tie about either leg twenty or forty bells, with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across over their shoulders and necks, borrowed, for the most part, of their pretty mopsies and loving Bessies. Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby horses, their dragons, and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipers, and thundering drummers, to strike up the devil's dance withall. Then march this heathen company towards the church, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs fluttering about their heads like mad men, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng: and in this sort they go to the church, though the minister be at prayer or preaching, dancing and singing like devils incarnate, with such confused noise that no man can hear his own voice. Then the foolish people they look, they stare, they laugh, they flee, and mount upon the forms and pews to see these goodly pageants solemnized. Then after this, about the church they go again and again, and so forth onto the church yard, where they have commonly their summer-halls, their bowers, arbours, and banqueting-houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet, and dance all that day, and paradventure all that night too; and thus these terrestrial furies spend the sabbath day."

From Phillip Stubbes: Anatomy of Abuses


© 2009 Christopher James Stone

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