Ladies of Legend: Maid Marian

References: “Robin Hood”, Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, originally aired 18/10/2003), Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd, publication date unknown) by E. Charles Vivian, Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Dean & Son Ltd., publication date unknown) by author unknown,

Maid Marian is not the hero of this story. She didn’t even appear in it at the start – Little John has a longer history in the ballads about Robin Hood than she does – and her role varies from one version to another. I’m going to start with a pair of storybooks, to show how different her narrative can be depending on who is telling it.

Version A is from Robin Hood and His Merry Men. In this one, Maid Marian is a young heiress, the daughter of the Norman knight Sir Richard of Lea. She is described as being ‘slim and fair…with great blue eyes and hair of gold’. When her mother dies, Sir Richard decides to channel his grief into (period appropriate xenophobia) patriotism by joining King Richard the Lionheart on Crusade. To finance his journey and thus speed up his departure, Sir Richard borrows five hundred marks from Hugo de Rainault, the very wealthy abbot of the Abbey of St. Mary’s, at a rate of fifty marks interest per annum and with his manor house staked as surety. He also leaves Marian under Abbot Hugo’s guardianship.

Sir Richard promptly dies at sea.

Except, not really – he survives the shipwreck and washes ashore near home, where he is found and taken to the abbey. Hugo sees an opportunity to loan out his cake and eat it too. His local ally is the notorious baron Isambart de Belame, a man so hated by the local people that his castle is known as ‘Evil Hold’ and who is perfectly happy to throw the dazed, wounded Sir Richard into his dungeons, to be kept a prisoner until the four years of the loan have expired and Hugo can legally claim the manor. Richard has no idea where he is, only ever seeing Isambart’s friend Roger the Cruel.

Meanwhile, Marian is placed with the Abbess at Kirklees. Hugo intends to make a nun of her, thereby getting the rest of her inheritance for the church (read here: himself). Unfortunately for him, his habit of taking other people’s land has finally backfired. Robin of Locksley, a Saxon freeman with a defiantly philanthropic bent, flouted the game laws that declare all deer the property of the king – not by killing the beast himself, but by defending the starving serf who did it – and Hugo’s enthusiastic enforcer Guy of Gisborne seized the excuse to crack down on him. Robin turned outlaw.

The thing is, he’s really, really good at it and gains followers fast. The road through Sherwood Forest, which is the main route into Nottingham, is no longer safe, so Hugo has to strike a deal with Isambart for a squad of men to go clear Robin’s gang out of the forest. What Isambart, already once widowed, wants in return is a wife and Hugo concedes to his demand for Marian’s hand in marriage. Marian herself, still under Hugo’s guardianship, does not get a say; if she did, it would be a definite no.

Isambart sends his men, but it doesn’t do the least bit of good against Robin, who is a master strategist at guerilla warfare. Hugo tries to renege on his deal but can’t afford to make an enemy of Isambart and reluctantly dispatches the eternally incompetent Gisborne to go fetch Marian from Kirklees. Of course, they have to travel through Sherwood. Robin is fiercely indignant on Marian’s behalf, despite her being a total stranger to him, when his spies tell him who she is expected to marry, and he ambushes the party on their way through the forest.

Gisborne is more than willing to abandon his charge to the outlaws. Disgusted, Robin packs him off with his men, before turning to the problem of what to do with Marian now. She points out that if she goes back to Kirklees, Hugo will just figure out another way to send her to the man she describes as ‘the fiend who rules Evil Hold’. Having taken a strong fancy to Robin – well, he did just rescue her, plus he effortlessly bested Guy of Gisborne in a showy sword duel, he’s made a pretty good first impression – she asks to remain in Sherwood and pay for the shelter when she comes into her inheritance. Her skills with medicine will be put at the outlaws’ disposal and she offers to cook and sew for them as well. Little John immediately takes her side, pointing out that Will Scarlett’s wife already lives in the camp.

Robin, as taken with Marian as she is with him, proposes to make her Queen of Sherwood, and they are married by Friar Tuck. Marian never does end up doing any of the cooking, Tuck handles that himself, but she is an instant hit with the outlaws. Robin later helps another woman out of an unwanted wedding, barging into the church where Eleanor of Warsop is about to be married off to the elderly (but very wealthy) Sir Ralph. Robin pushes aside her bridegroom, her father and the priest so that he can personally give her away to Alan of Meden Dale, the sweetheart of her choice. The young couple become frequent visitors to Sherwood.

Another friend of Robin’s, Will Scarlett, is captured by Isambart. Disguised, Robin tricks his way into Evil Hold and distracts Isambart’s knights with weaponised beehives – I did say he’s really, really good at this – while he breaks open the dungeons. Among the escaping prisoners is Sir Richard at Lea, who politely and very formally thanks Robin for deliverance and helps him get Will to safety.

Robin is shocked to learn he just rescued his father-in-law. Marian is overjoyed and though he has doubts about Robin’s side of the law, Sir Richard is too grateful to make an issue of it.

Being something of a local hero, Robin follows up the attack on Evil Hold by going to the aid of a Saxon nobleman under threat from pirates. While Robin is away, however, Isambart strikes. Another escaped prisoner turns traitor against the outlaws, leading Isambart’s men to the forest camp. It is burned to the ground and Marian is brought back to Evil Hold, where Isambart tries to compel her into signing away her lands to him. Marian, however, is made of stern stuff. Tied to a chair, captive to the man who made her believe her father was dead, she refuses to give up her inheritance.

Robin is quick to come after her. Accompanied by a mystery knight in black, who insists on helping out, Robin uses the keys he stole to slip in a back entrance. He frees Marian and sends her across the moat to safety while the battle rages. The knight in black – who is none other than King Richard in disguise – kills Isambart in a duel and Robin, implacable in his fury, burns the place to the ground. An eye for an eye.

He then turns his attention to Abbot Hugo. Sir Richard at Lea goes to the abbey to plead for more time to repay his loan, but he has the money – Robin is a generous friend – and it’s entirely a charade to prove to King Richard (once again disguised) how bad the situation is. Abbot Hugo is put on notice. Sir Richard reclaims his lands. Robin, pouncing on Hugo as he travels through Sherwood, reclaims his money, plus some nice fabric that he thinks Marian will like.

Though Robin is pardoned by King Richard and made warden of Sherwood, the change of status doesn’t last long. The king leaves the country and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is Hugo’s brother, gets Prince John’s permission to declare the whole band outlawed again. Bitterness builds and builds until it all comes to a head in a vicious run of confrontations that leaves both the Sheriff and Gisborne dead at Robin’s hand and Abbot Hugo too frightened to keep up the feud.

But Isambart’s crony Roger the Cruel survived the fall of Evil Hold and he never lets go of the grudge. Many years pass. Roger is an old man when he finally comes to Abbot Hugo with a plan. Masquerading as a peasant, he talks a trusted pedlar into taking him to the camp, intending to return with armed men – but Marian sees him, and recognises him. When she starts to cry out a warning, Roger stabs her.

Her scream brings Robin to her side. He shoots down Roger and takes Marian in his arms, though they both know there’s nothing he can do. She’s quite peaceful, telling Robin that there is no better way to die than ‘in the heart of the greenwood with [his] arms round her, and the evening light fading’.

The outlaws never recover from the loss of their queen. Robin can’t bear to go on living the same way without her; he settles each of his people with the wealth they’ve accumulated and travels aimlessly about the country with Little John, reminiscing on good times past. When Robin falls ill, he goes to Kirklees Abbey, where the Abbess Elizabeth is his aunt and he thinks he will be safe. He is not. Hugo has got to her; under the pretence of healing, she bleeds Robin to death.

Little John realises what she’s doing too late to save Robin’s life. Towards the end, Robin dreams of Marian and asks for his bow, shooting an arrow through the window and asking to be buried where it lands. Marian’s name is his last word.

Version B is from Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and introduces Marian earlier in the story, meeting Robin while they are still children. She is not Sir Richard of Lea’s daughter in this one; she is Robin’s cousin Will’s cousin – presumably not on the same side of the family as Robin – and comes to stay with them at Gamwell Hall. She likes to play with the boys, proving to be a good archer herself. They remain good friends even as Robin’s confrontational personality earns him the enmity of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has to take to the forest, where he rapidly gathers a circle of friends and insists on them all wearing poncy green uniforms.

Not that he has a monopoly on resisting authority. There’s a battle at Gamwell Hall when the squire is accused of shooting the king’s deer and the people there put up a fight against the Sheriff’s men. Marian’s father is staying at the Hall at the time and is killed. Squire Gamwell manages to keep his lands and adopts Marian, but that safety is only temporary. The next time Squire Gamwell is attacked, he is killed too, and Guy of Gisborne claims the hall. To Robin’s alarm, Marian vanishes entirely and when he goes to confront Gisborne, she’s nowhere to be found. He’s terrified that she died in the attack.

Fortunately, she was away with Will Gamwell, visiting relatives. Upon their return, they quickly see how bad things are and take refuge with Robin. He’s delighted and relieved to see them, and when he sees how happy Marian is in Sherwood, he asks her to marry him. Their wedding is rudely interrupted by the Sheriff’s men, who are quickly repelled by Robin’s outlaws.

Robin continues to antagonise the Sheriff, more for fun than anything else. He wins a silver arrow at the Sheriff’s shooting contest, eluding the trap set for him, and gives the prize to Marian as a gift. He also intervenes when Marian learns from Alan-a-Dale that Lady Ellen is going to be married against her will and Marian gets really indignant on Ellen’s behalf.

When doing random acts of social justice gets a little old, Robin and Marian take a trip to the seaside, where Robin’s cover as a fisherman gets called by their elderly hostess. She needs someone to stand up to the fishermen crewing her dead husband’s boat, who cheat her of her rightful share in the catch. Robin is terrible at fishing but good at fighting pirates and bestows half the booty of his victory on the old lady. Marian finds these antics rather amusing.

King Richard also finds him amusing, and admirable enough to pardon and take into his service. Patriot that he is, Robin is happy to go, but court life proves toxic and on a visit to Sherwood his men ‘kidnap’ him so that he need not go back. He and Marian live long and happily in the forest, until he decides – please note, he decides – that she should go into a nunnery, because she’s getting too old to live this way. He stays in Sherwood. At last he calls Little John and they set off for Kirke Hall Priory to see her. It’s too late; saddened to be away from the greenwood, she died three months after her arrival. Robin dies there of old age, in Marian’s former room.

Of course, this kind of legend has countless variations. Sometimes Marian is the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter, other times she is the ward of the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John. Some stories have her as Norman while in others she is Saxon. One ballad introduces her as Robin’s sweetheart who dresses as a boy to come into the forest and find him. Both disguised, they don’t recognise each other and engage in a sword fight so fierce that Robin, acknowledging her as his equal, calls for peace between them and asks her to join his band. She knows him by his voice and kisses him delightedly. They feast together to celebrate and she becomes as trusted a lieutenant to him as Little John.

The earliest ballads of Robin Hood don’t actually come from Nottingham, but from Barnsdale in Yorkshire. In those stories the famous outlaw is a violent and unpredictable yeoman instead of a rebellious, idealistic nobleman. Among the variety of historical candidates that exist for a real-life Robin Hood, there’s a 14th century forester called Robert Hood from Wakefield who was married to a woman named Matilda. She joined him in the forest when he was outlawed. Many stories of Robin Hood have him betrayed by an aunt or a female cousin – Matilda’s cousin Elizabeth de Stanton was prioress of Kirklees in 1346.

Whoever really inspired the character of Marian, if in fact it was just one woman, she has gained a foothold that is no longer easy to dismiss in this very masculine legend. While her place in it varies from one version to another, and her relationship with Robin ranges from chastely long-distance to a full partner in crime, she is always – in spirit, if not in name – the Queen of Sherwood.

This is the last Lady for 2016 but I’ll be returning next year with more remarkable women of myth and legend!

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!


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