Robin Hood by Stephanie Stephenson

Robin Hood as depicted in Joseph Ritson's Robin Hood
Robin Hood as depicted in Joseph Ritson's Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw (1795).



There are a host of images of Robin Hood and his men in various forms. One of the most famous, Daniel Maclise’s Robin Hood currently hangs in the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Other representations include the familiar battle between Little John and Robin Hood, which together with many others can be found at the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections Online database.

There are a variety of websites which make accessing images of Robin Hood easier than ever before, such as that compiled by Alan Wright and referenced below. It is significant however that most of these images are developed from the later story books, novels and films based on the legend, for no medieval depiction of the outlaw survives. The woodcut for example which prefaces the Lettersnijder printed edition of the Gest and is perhaps the image most frequently associated with the ‘medieval’ outlaw, is not directly applicable to Robin Hood, having been taken from a pre-existing source.

If Robin has a distinctive image in our imagination then this is, once again thanks to the Victorians, who were the first to create the outlaw in ‘medieval’ dress, an iconography which perseveres even now.

Film and Television

Perhaps the most popular way to enjoy the legend of Robin Hood is through film and television productions. These now have a long history in their own right, indeed it has been said that the Robin Hood films have been in existence for almost as long as there have been films.

In the same way that it has been previously suggested that Robin Hood has maintained his popularity throughout the ages by updating the central theme of his legend to suit the needs of the current audience, each new graphic production seems to be specifically relevant to its age. This is a concept which is discussed in depth by J. Richard’s article ‘Robin Hood on Film and Television since 1945’ in Visual Culture in Britain 2:1 (2001), but below I will outlined the key trends and how they have altered the themes, relationships, adventures and characters upon which the drama is based.

In the 1950s chivalry was an important part of the film industries’ motivation, so Robin Hood tended to be a member of the gentry, loyal to the Crown, as in Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. There is also a strong concern with social justice and what could be translated as lower/upper class conflicts, with a potential connection to the rise of the welfare state.

The 1970s film Robin and Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn can be seen in terms of post-1960s, post-Vietnam Britain, where it was fashionable to be young and working-class. Thus we see Robin Hood as a peasant disillusioned with the crusades, who returns home as an old man to face the death of his dreams and ideals. 

The 1980s television production Robin of Sherwood features a significant amount of ecology and nature mysticism, with appearances from some quite fantastical characters, including a werewolf. Robin Hood is portrayed as something of an English socialist and the character is a peasant rebel. There is also less of the Royalist tradition – Richard is a tyrant who ultimately betrays Robin; a potential link to the Thatcher government which was in power at the time?

The films of the 1990s were more Hollywood spectacles, as with the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves but very much in a modern context. Robin Hood, although a noble, is all for equality and is quite a ‘new man’ who thinks nothing of attending a birth.

The most recent production, the 2006 television series Robin Hood starring Jonas Armstrong, is described on the BBC website as “a unique blend of exhilarating action adventure, wit and romance. Robin Hood’s striking new look, coupled with the sharp scripts, updates the popular legend for a sophisticated contemporary audience.”

As such the outlaws’ clothes are modernised to make them more accessible to the audience, introducing hoodies to the legendary greenwood. It may be worth a visit to Nottingham Castle’s exhibition Robin Hood Up Close for a fuller picture. Overall we are presented with a Robin Hood who, though still loyal to the Crown, is disillusioned with the Crusades and believes that the King should return home, instead of concerning himself with foreign goals; a reference perhaps to current affairs? As a result of his previous experience of war, this Robin Hood does not kill; a dramatic divergence from the medieval Robin Hood. It seems likely that this stance is influenced by the pre-watershed programming schedule, suggesting a high proportion of intended viewers will be children – testament to the enduring appeal of the outlaw to this audience.

There are also many articles and books, both scholarly and more informal which discuss the various screen representations of Robin Hood:

Video Games

It is even possible to find our hero depicted in video games. There are seven of which I am aware: