Robin Hood, founding father of noble outlaws across the multiverse, has no secret origin. He doesn’t even have a Year One. William Langland knew some “rymes of Robyn hood” when he wrote Piers Plowman in the late 1300s, but no one can sing those originals now. The original Boy Wonder enters The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as “a youth of eighteen, stout of sinew and bold of heart.”
Howard Pyle’s 1883 readers didn’t need any born-that-way mutations or radioactive arrow bites to explain the kid’s archery skill or endless law-eluding superpowers. No murdered parents, no exploding planet, just a tussle with some unsavory knights and his life of vigilante justice is up, up and away.
Robin Hood, if he existed, was born in the 1100s or so. Scholarly guesswork includes 1110, 1160, and 1210. Personally, I’d go with 1171. No later than September, though possibly as early as December 1170. If you really want to be dramatic, then December 29th. And not for the Christmas themed, Robin-is-our-savior angle.
The 29th is the day a lynching posse of four vigilante knights strolled into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar. Or at least there’s an altar now to memorialize the spot. I found T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral criminally dull when I read it as an undergraduate—except when the knights step through the fourth wall and give a literally prosaic defense of their actions. A make-believe vigilante like Robin Hood would never have done anything so dastardly. Plus the outlaws were serving their King, so not really the break-the-law-to-serve-the-law shtick either.
Becket was sainted as a martyr afterwards. Richard Burton played him in the film version, winner of the 1964 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Peter O’Toole was Henry II. They start out a dynamic duo, the carefree King deflowering local daughters of the peasantry with his trusty man servant as look out. The grinning girl in the window assures us it was just a wholesome romp.
Things don’t go awry till Henry makes Thomas the Archbishop. He’s hoping to get those pesky clergy under control, and has no idea that Thomas is going to take all that religious nonsense seriously. Like when a priest rapes a nobleman’s little girl. Becket is supposed to hand the pedophile over, not shield him under church law. And he’s certainly not supposed to excommunicate the father when another lynching posse exacts vigilante justice on the priest.
The screenwriters cut some corners, but that’s the gist. The historical Becket wouldn’t turn clergymen over to law enforcement. Priests accused of rape are handled in-house. Since Becket is the noble hero of the tale, the film swerves past the crime scene as speedily as possible. Eliot doesn’t even mention it. But church officials protecting pedophile priests are common headlines these days:
“Cardinal’s Aide Is Found Guilty in Abuse Case” (New York Times, June 22, 2012)
“US Bishop Convicted of Covering up Clerical Sex Abuse Pressured to Resign”(The Guardian, 8 September 2012)
“Another Catholic Sex Abuse Cover-up” (Salon.com, Jan 22, 2013)
“Priests face court over child sexual abuse” (ABC New, Jan. 29, 2013)
Last summer, Kansas City’s Robert Finn became the first bishop convicted in American courts of failing to report an abuse. He got two years probation, but kept his job. Philadelphia’s William J. Lynn is the first senior U.S. official of the Roman Catholic Church convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. He’ll serve three to six years in prison. L.A.’s Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and his adviser Monsignor Thomas J. Curry have admitted to conspiring to “shield abusers from police,” with a flood of incriminating church memos revealing dozens of previously secret cases. Curry resigned and Mahony, already retired, was banned from public ceremonial duties. In January, Australian courts charged a retired priest, Lewis Dominic Fenton, for concealing two alleged offenses committed against a nine-year-old. He faces his jury on March 13.
The sons of Becket have gone global.
Though two years probation, 6-7 years jail time, permanently banned from presiding over confirmations, this is hardly the stuff of martyrdom. If this were a comic book, Finn, Lynn, Mahony, Curry, and Fenton would be expecting a visit from some not-so-merry Sherwood Forest men. T.S. Eliot can write their monologues.
But instead of more vigilante justice, I endorse a literary reparation. On behalf of the victims that these later day Beckets further abused, I hereby bestow Robin Hood an origin story:
His mother is that nobleman’s young daughter, and his father is the priest who raped her. She dies in childbirth. He dies at the hands of avenging murderers after Bishop Becket shields him from government prosecution. Raised by his excommunicated grandfather, that stout and bold eighteen-year-old was orphaned by the failures of both Church and State. Of course he was destined to become the most famed and noble outlaw in proto-superhero history.
It’s not a happy story, but origins rarely are.
Illustration by Howard Pyle.