Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood, Historically Speaking

One of my favorite movies is The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1938 Warner Bros. film starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. I’ve probably seen all or part of the flick at least 50 times, each viewing giving me pleasure. Perhaps I love the movie because my mother adored Errol Flynn. She enjoyed his autobiography, My Wicked Wicked Ways, and let me read it while still an impressionable young teenager. Or maybe it’s because the movie was a full length version of the half-hour Robin Hood TV show starring Richard Greene that I rarely missed as a child of the 1950’s. I’m also a Basil Rathbone fan. His sneering elocution as the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne is masterful, as is his swordsmanship (in evidence with Flynn here as well as in their earlier pairing in Captain Blood).

Whatever the reason, The Adventures of Robin Hood (ARH) enthralls me. I can’t say the same for any of the other Robin Hood movies I’ve seen. Like many, I’m wondering how the new Russell Crowe-Cate Blanchett treatment, directed by Ridley Scott, will depict England’s lovable, mythical or real, superhero. I’m not too caught up in the legend vs. reality debate. But I would like to comment on the historical accuracy of one of the central plot lines in the classic ARH, namely that King Richard the Lionheart returns to England from the Crusades and subsequent imprisonment in Austria and Germany to reclaim his throne from Prince John’s regency.

It is true Richard’s reign was restored. But it is doubtful he came back to England for any time more than a brief moment. You see, back then, less than 150 years after William conquered England in 1066, a good portion of the holdings of the English king lay in France. As a Norman, Richard’s heritage was French, not English. After securing his freedom from captivity, Richard spent most of his time trying to recapture rebellious parts of his empire in France.

According to Wikipedia (, Richard spoke very little English, if any, and spent very little time in England. When not fighting, he mostly lived in his Duchy of Aquitaine in the southwest of France (his mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II).

The English historian John Gillingham says of Richard, “The reputation of Richard ... has fluctuated wildly. The Victorians were divided. Many of them admired him as a crusader and man of God, erecting an heroic statue to him outside the Houses of Parliament; Stubbs, on the other hand, thought him ‘a bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man’. Though born in Oxford, he spoke no English. During his ten years' reign, he was in England for no more than six months, and was totally absent for the last five years.”

History has a way of ruining some good yarns. Just as Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet fame never said to a female witness, “Just the facts, ma’am” (the real dialogue was “All we want are the facts, ma’am”, the story of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart is better in the retelling than in the reality, if it ever really happened in the first place. As the saying goes, never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.