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Robin Hood

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2014-06-12. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2019-02-14.

"Robin Hood" has occasionally been used as a common noun. It may mean a lie or tall tale or it may be used as a generic term for a rebel.

Robin Hood = a lie

Apparently "Robin Hood" has been used as a noun meaning "a daring lie". John S. Farmer notes in his edition of John Heywood's Dialogue that "[...] the story of Robin Hood ultimately grew so misty and traditional that the name became a generic byword for the marvellous that was not believable. Thus Robin Hood, subs. = a daring lie [...]".[1] Unfortunately he cites no source or example, neither is this particular use of the name instanced in Heywood's Dialogue.

Brief mention


Robin Hood = a rebel

During the 1590's, the name "Robin Hood" enjoyed a brief vogue as a synonym for a rebel, traitor, enemy or criminal in the English state correspondence that was occasioned by the so-called Tudor conquest of Ireland. This use is characterized not so much by the implied negative attitude to the outlaw – for that is by no means rare – as by "Robin Hood" functioning as a common noun: it may be put in the plural or preceded by an article or pronoun as in "a Robin Hood", "their Robin Hood" etc.

While it is highly debatable whether any of the English historical Robin Hoods deserve to be considered the original historical Robin Hood, it can be said with certainty that about a handful of late 16th century Irish patriots were officially labelled Robin Hoods by English authorities.


1593 - Atkinson, Anthony - To Robert Cecil

Informations about priests in the north. In the bishopric of Durham, Medcalf, a priest, said mass at Claxton's, a recusant [...] Particulars of other harbourers of priests in Yorkshire, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Cumberland. [...p. 378] On 10 Sept. 1593, took John Boost, the priest, who said mass at the Water house, when Lady Margaret Neville and Adelin Claxton,her maid, and Mrs. Claxton, now in Bransby castle, were present [...] Davie Engleby has married Lady Ann Neville, second daughter to the Earl of Westmoreland, and having many friends in the north., hopes for a day of alteration, and rides in Yorkshire and the north part, like Robin Hood, and so do Joseph Constable and his wife and others.[2]

1596 - Fenton, Geoffrey - To Robert Cecil (1)

The Earl of Clancarty being dead, and Florence M'Carthy, by marrying his heir general, having an apparent pretence to the earldom, fears some alteration will grow in those parts by the said. [IRHB: sic] Florence, who is more Spanish than English. Has received advice from Munster that he "begins already to stir coals," and considers some special letter should be sent to the Vice-President of that Province to lay hold of Florence M'Carthy, or to see him assured upon good pledges. Without one of these two preventions, looks that he will be a dangerous Robin Hood in Munster. — Dublin, 1596, February 14.[3]

1596 - Fenton, Geoffrey - To Robert Cecil (2)

[...] Wishes that now, whilst there is time, the troubles of this realm were compounded in all the parts thereof, but especially Feagh M'Hugh taken in, according to Her Majesty's late pleasure signified; for he, being the only disturber of Leinster, which is the heart, has, if he be not stayed, more means to endanger the whole kingdom, than any of the rest, who are but remote "lymmes" [limbs]. If Feagh is suffered to be the Robin Hood, it will encourage even some of the late submitters to break loose again. Prays for some speedy direction to the State that he may be taken in, otherwise, besides the ground that the foreign enemy will have to work upon by him, and by his example other corrupt parts of the kingdom be kept in disorder, the poor subjects of the English Pale will be undone through his nightly spoils, and be driven in the end to quit their dwellings, or to run into action with him.[4]

1596 - Fenton, Geoffrey - To William Cecil

[...] If Feagh M'Hugh might now be taken in, with any honourable provisions, it would do much to appease the general storm of the realm, or at least to make suspicious to the Spaniards, the hopes and promises that have been made to them by Ulster and Connaught. It might easily have been done, before the present prosecution of Feagh began. Doubts not that it will be objected, that it is not honourable for Her Majesty to have him taken in. In respect of himself, Feagh is worthy of no favour, but, inasmuch as the iniquity of the time straineth the State [in Ireland] to do unworthy things, the indignity of this point is avoided. By his taking in, the safety of Ireland is assured, and, contrariwise, if he be suffered still to live as a Robin Hood, he will be a ground of a great desolation in the English Pale, if not the whole ruin thereof. The staying of Feagh will break the combinations of the north.—Dublin, 1596, September 30.[5]

1597 - Burgh, Thomas - To Privy Council of England

[...] A remnant of traitors of the Feagh M'Hugh faction still on foot in Low Leinster. They are capital persons, and men of action, who being left as Robin Hoods, may be dangerous disturbers of the whole state of Leinster, especially to kindle a new fire upon the borders. It is thought expedient to prosecute these men, and that the Earl of Ormonde have the charge committed to him. His good services, which deserve acknowledgment from the Privy Council, as they have been done at his own expense, without entertainment from Her Majesty. [...][6]

1597 - Cecil, Robert - To Thomas Burgh

[...] The restraint on the making of knights. "Her Majesty is much troubled with the late knights that were made, and surely not well contented that the head of such a base Robin Hood [Feagh M'Hugh] is brought so solemnly into England. It is no such trophy of a notorious victory, and yet of it his friends make here great advantage; but if it be true that his son be still out, his youth will better his father's age." — The Court at Greenwich, 1597, May 26.[7]

1597 - Fenton, Geoffrey - To Robert Cecil (1)

[...] There are come within two days into Leinster certain Robin Hoods, set on and enabled by Tyrone, namely, Brian Reogh O'More, and the two sons of the late Feagh M'Hugh, who yesternight made some small burnings in the Queen's County and borders of Kildare, and are now passed over to the Glynns, their old den. Doubts not they have a large confederacy amongst the Kavanaghs, the O'Mores, and O'Connors, with other septs in Leinster. This is a beginning of the unsoundness of Leinster, which he has so often touched upon in his former letters. It is not known yet what the number is of these new disturbers. Thinks they do not exceed 200, and that they have not done much, beside some petty burnings, which might have been prevented if the country had shown themselves as they ought to have done.—Dublin, 1597, October 5. Signed. Endorsed: —"Received at Whitehall the 9th of November."[8]

1597 - Fenton, Geoffrey - To Robert Cecil (2)

Upon the late return of the Earl of Ormonde from Dundalk to Drogheda, he wrote to the Lord Justices for some assistance of councillors to be sent to him for a second meeting, which he had appointed with Tyrone about to-morrow, or the next day, at which time it seems that O'Donnell and the residue of that wicked confederacy are expected, to assemble near Dundalk. [... p. 474:] Besides, I doubt specially that the whole rabble of them will not come to the meeting, but that some one or two will be left behind, of purpose to be Robin Hoods, to the end to keep things still in garboil, which I have still observed hath been usually done by them in former times, and then in that case there can be no assurance that the agreement will hold."—Dublin, 1597, December 17.[9]

1597 - Norreys, John - To Robert Cecil

[...] His brother [Sir Thomas Norreys] has happily cut off, both by prosecution and justice, many of the most dangerous rebels in the province; and lately had the head of Rory M'Murrough, brother to Murrough Oge, brought to him. He doubts not to have the other's head very shortly, "but as fast as they are consumed, there springs up an ill in their places; there continuing a malicious disposition in most of this country to have still some Robin Hood to seek to weed out and extirpate the English; and the canker of this humour will not be cured but by a sharp corsey." [...][10]

1598 - Jones, Thomas - Report on Captain Thomas Lee

On Monday, the 13th of this instant, as I was walking in Sir Robert Gardener his garden, Captain Thomas Lee came into the garden booted, and after salutation passed between us, I told him I did hope, now that he was set at liberty, he would bestir himself in Her Majesty's service better than other Captains had done. He answered me that his durance had much hindered Her Majesty's service, but now that he was at liberty, he would lay down a plot to be revenged upon the Lord of Ormonde, who had been the procurer of his trouble, and who (as he said) was also the author and worker of all this rebellion in Ireland. {...} I will undertake to plague him well enough; for Ormonde, Tipperary, and Kilkenny shall pay for this gear.' 'Why,' said I, 'but how can you devise to hurt my Lord of Ormonde, so long as he hath the command of all Her Majesty's forces?' Mr. Lee answered me, saying, 'Let him and them alone. I will undertake to give him his handful.' 'Why, how cans't thou do it ?' quoth I. 'Content yourself' said Mr. Lee, 'I must not be seen in the matter; but I will turn out one that shall do all this; and that shall be James FitzPiers; he shall be the Robin Hood. And I will also have Mountgarrett, and Donnell Spainagh, and Onie M'Rory and the Moores, at my command and direction; and, unless Mr. Phelim M'Feagh will also be under my disposing, I will knock him. And for myself, I will presently give over my band of foot to my Lieutenant Goldsmith, and my horse to Mr. John Sarsfeld, and I will keep only my kern, and will travel up and down with them; and I do not mean to come much at you after this in haste. But I will still have five thousand men at my command.' [...][11]

1598 - Privy Council of Ireland - To Privy Council of England

Lastly, if we should have suffered these broken bands to be made up with Irish, it would little or nothing have strengthened the army, for that so many of the Irish as should by this means have been entertained in Her Majesty's pay, would have diminished so much of the strength of the country, for that by their ordinary tenures they are bound to the defence thereof, which they cannot answer as they ought, being otherwise employed under Captains in Her Majesty's 'solde'; and so by this means the ordinary forces of the country would be much weakened, and Her Majesty's army greatly endangered, by such a multitude of Irish, rather doubtful than to be trusted. And yet in the end, when they shall come to be discharged out of pay, they will be apt instruments to run to any Robin Hood that will entertain them, to make new stirs and alterations in the kingdom. We have acquainted the Lord Lieutenant General with this order, and the reasons whereupon we grounded it, who we hope will yield thereunto, though we found him inclined to raise up these broken bands with Irish, and had already appointed some Captains of this country birth for the same; humbly praying your Lordships to vouchsafe to countenance our doings in this point, if any opposition shall be made; the rather because that we have done was to stop apparent inconveniencies, and prevent future dangers.[12]

1599 - Anonymous - History of Tudor Conquest of Ireland

[...] James FitzPiers, of the county of Kildare, the son of an honest gentleman and true servitor to Her Majesty, Sir Piers FitzJames, [...] was made Sheriff of that county, kept much company with Captain Thomas Lee, who was a great favourer of the Earl of Tyrone (and then in question and disgrace therefore); and, as it may be gathered, infected with that company, underhand this James practised a long time with the Earl of Tyrone, but at length broke out, and his practices were revealed to the Lords Justices. Captain Lee and he making merry together, said Lee, 'James, thou and I will be shortly McRustelyns, 'that is to say Robin Hoods, 'for we can get nothing as we are.' These words were brought to the Lords Justices. They were both sent for by a pursuivant. Lee appeared, was charged with treasons, and was committed to the Castle; but James would not shew himself. [...][13]

1600 - Carew, George - To Robert Cecil (1)

"The speediest way to end this rebellion is to send James FitzGerald unto me, although he remains a prisoner in my custody, so as it may be known that, upon the extinguishing of this war, that (sic) he shall be restored to honour and blood, without the which I see no possibility to determine this defection in Munster in any short time. For, although James FitzThomas were executed, yet such is their desire to have an Earl of Desmond, as that they will evermore find a Geraldine to make their Robin Hood rather than to want a head to lead them. And therefore I do most humbly beseech you to 'intercesse' Her Majesty for her own benefit's sake to be gracious unto that gentleman, and forthwith to send him unto me. Which if she will be pleased to do (although it be with all the limitations that may be most for her security), yet I doubt not but in a short time after his landing to finish this rebellion, which is as firmly rooted as any combination ever was against their natural prince.[14]

1600 - Carew, George - To Robert Cecil (2)

In what sort I found this province of Munster when I first entered into my charge, I need not trouble your Honour with repetitions thereof; [it] being evidently known to all men that since the conquest of Ireland the same was never so much distempered. For noplace was free from rebellion, even to the very gates of the cities, and the enemy evermore master of the field, so as Her Majesty's garrisons (being in no better condition than besieged) did but lie in towns for their safety, and the towns so forgetful of their duties, as in them Her Majesty's troops were not well assured.[... p. 390:] Whoso knoweth this kingdom and the people will confess that to conquer the same and them by the sword only is opus laboris, and almost may be said to be impossible. And I do verily believe that all the treasure of England will be consumed in that work, except other additions of help be ministered unto it. The fair way that I am in towards the finishing of the heavy task which I undergo, I am afraid will receive some speedy and tough impediment, unless my advice in sending of the young Desmond hither may be followed. The good which by his presence will be effected hath been by me so often declared, as I hold it needless to trouble you with reiterations of the same. The danger that may ensue if he should prove a traitor (which I suppose to be the motive of his detention) is no more than the malice of a weak rebel, who can never be so great by reason of his education, which hath been in simplicity unaccustomed to action, together with his religion, as this counterfeit Earl, nourished in villainy and treasons, and the greatest pillar (Tyrone excepted) that ever the Pope had in this kingdom. And farther, if this traitor were taken or slain, yet the rebellion is not ended; for these Minister rebels will establish another Robin Hood in his room, and so in sequence, as long as there is a Geraldine in Ireland. As soon as the bruit was divulged that he should be sent unto me, I found such an alacrity in his followers, as an immediate sigh of a present quiet did represent itself unto me; but since that time, they having notice that yet he is in some degree a prisoner, and persuaded by the traitorly priests that there was never no intention to enlarge him, and that that which was done was only to abuse the world to breed distractions to ruin the Catholic cause, which they call a just war, they do again begin to decline, and the best I can expect from them is to stand as neutrals, and that but for a time, until they grow farther desperate of his coming. Sir, believe me all the persuasions in the world will not prevail to induce them to serve against James McThomas, much less to do anything upon his person, before they see his face. For this incredulous nation measure the like falsehood in others which they know to be in themselves; and therefore I wonder that stay is made of him, since his coming may do so great good. [...][15]

1600 - Cecil, Robert - To George Carew

I have not heard from you since Arthur arrived with too news [sic] of your good success in Kerry. You have been supplied with all you ask. Desmond is to be sent to you forthwith, unless some advertisement dissuade it. A patent is drawn and ready to be signed for his earldom; you are to deliver it to him if you "see a party likely to come to him." Her Majesty is doubtful "whether he may not prove a Robin Hood as well as the other, of whose abatement there is hope [p. 435:] by your labour, though this gentleman should never be sent;" and whether by sending and creating him she may not "run the danger of a scorn" if no great matter should follow. Use him as you think good. "Although it seems you could have been content to have only had him as a prisoner, yet my Lords, out of desire to ease your works, have won some better conditions of her Majesty, for he shall go... well accompanied, and some gentleman (not as a jailor, but as his friend) shall bring him to you."[16]


  1. Heywood, John; Farmer, John S, ed. A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue concerning Marriage (London, 1906), p. 191.
  2. Green, Mary Anne Everett, ed. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1591-1594 (London, 1867), pp. 377-78.
  3. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 232.
  4. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 124.
  5. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 130.
  6. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 302.
  7. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 300.
  8. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 414.
  9. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), pp. 473-74.
  10. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1596, July — 1597, December (London, 1893), p. 313.
  11. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1598, January — 1599, March (London, 1895), p. 373.
  12. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1598, January — 1599, March (London, 1895), p. 255.
  13. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1599, April — 1600, February (London, 1899), p. 52.
  14. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1600, March — October (London, 1903), p. 263.
  15. Atkinson, Ernest George, ed. Calendar of the State Papers, relating to Ireland, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1600, March — October (London, 1903), pp. 389-90.
  16. Brewer, John Sherren, ed.; Bullen, William, ed. Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts, Preserved in the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth. 1589-1600 (London, 1869), pp. 434-35.