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Matter of the Greenwood: Maid Marian - Origins

An investigation into the roots of Marian's role in the Robin Hood legend.

Content note: sexual harrassment; abduction.

Image: tomb effigy traditionally identified as Matilda Fitzwalter (in fact probably a later member of the Fitzwalter family).

In the modern imagination, Maid Marian (nearly always referred to as such) is as famous as Robin Hood himself, and completely inseparable from him. It therefore often comes as a surprise to modern readers to find that she is entirely absent from the Gest and other early ballad sources: indeed, she is absent almost altogether from the ballad tradition. The lone exception, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, dates to around the 1660s, and was not collected in any garland until Joseph Ritson published his extensive collection of Robin Hood ballads in 1795.

This does not mean that Marian is a late invention: merely that she belongs to a different strand of the mythos. Extensive though the field of Robin Hood studies is, there is a phenomenon in the development of the legend that has attracted surprisingly little study: namely, the existence of a dramatic tradition somewhat independent of the ballads, with its own, overlapping but distinct, cast of characters. Plays tend to be treated as offshoots of ballad and chronicle, rather than as possessing a coherent tradition of their own; and it is on the stage that Marian developed.

Even there, she does not certainly appear in surviving Robin Hood literature until c. 1590, though she was one of Robin's followers in at least one pageant several decades earlier. The roots of the two characters' association, however, may in fact be even older than the legend itself.

In 1283, long before any chronicle or ballad reference to Robin Hood, the French poet Adam de la Halle wrote a courtly pastoral opera, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion – believed to be the first musical drama on a non-religious subject written in French. The eponymous protagonists are not outlaws, but a shepherd couple. The plotline de la Halle appropriated for his opening scene was already a familiar one in pastoral song: a knight attempts to woo a shepherdess, who rebuffs him because she already has a lover of her own station. The shepherdess was conventionally named Marion, Marot, or some other diminutive of Marie; the name "Robin" seems to have been chosen so that de la Halle could open the drama with the popular song "Robin m’ aime", not hitherto directly associated with the "faithful shepherdess" plot (though perhaps also as a tribute to his patron, Count Robert of Artois).

De la Halle developed the plot far beyond the knight Aubert's failed wooing. Robin arrives with other shepherds, and expresses his jealousy of Aubert; the knight returns, beats Robin and carries off Marion; Robin cannot persuade his cowardly relatives and neighbours to help rescue her. Eventually, however, realising that his suit is hopeless, Aubert releases Marion, who returns to the village and in the end marries Robin, after a village festival in which bawdy folk-plays are staged. The whole is interspersed with songs of the day, and became very popular: it is easy to see how it may have influenced the Robin Hood legend, in later retellings of which love triangles and the abduction of Marian are common themes. Neither Aubert himself, however, nor any of Robin and Marion’s peasant friends, survives under the same name in stories explicitly connected with Robin Hood; and any such direct influence remains a matter of conjecture only.

Indirect influence, however, is more likely. The pairing of the names Robin and Marion seems to have become commonplace in subsequent French pastourelle and in the French May Games, and it appears that these names were known as archetypes of rusticity in England by the 1370s. (De la Halle himself may even have introduced them to England on his visit to Edward I's court in 1306.) It is not until 1503, however, that we hear explicit reference to "Maid Marian" as a figure in the English May Games: and even in the seventeenth century, she frequently appears without Robin, often as a figure in the Morris dance (itself a fourteenth century innovation, though probably drawing on much older English traditions). Morrismen being by definition male, this Marian was conventionally played by a man in female costume.

The Marian of the May Games may have begun as a euhemerised or Christianised pagan goddess, though her name also suggests an association with the Virgin Mary, to whom Robin in the very earliest ballads is particularly devoted: and it was very possibly through the May Games, with or without de la Halle’s influence, that she came to be thought of as the lover of Robin Hood.

(It is worth remarking that Blind Harry's epic The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace (1477), which seems to have both drawn on and subsequently influenced the Robin Hood legend, names Wallace's wife as Marion Braidfute: in the 1995 film Braveheart, based quite closely on Harry’s poem, her name was rendered as "Murron" specifically in order to avoid confusion with Robin’s Maid Marian.)

Around the beginning of the 1590s, Marian burst full-formed onto the stage in George a-Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (possibly by Robert Greene), and George Peele's Edward I (in which the original outlaws do not appear, but the Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his followers assume their identities). But the key works in this story, looking both backwards to possible historical origins for Marian, and forwards to the future development of the character, were Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (both 1598, the latter with Henry Chettle).

For Munday, who cemented in popular consciousness the 1190s setting that has become traditional, directly identified Marian with a specific historical figure. He did not originally intend to: the first play has been partially rewritten, and it is apparent that the character's name was originally Marian Clare. But, inspired by a plotline in which Prince John lusts after her, and looking forward to his sequel, he changed his mind: and "Maid Marian" became the outlaw alias of Matilda Fitzwalter (chosen to indicate that she will remain a virgin until Robin is pardoned).

Matilda was the eldest daughter of Robert Fitzwalter, baron of Little Dunmow in Essex. Very little is known about her historically, save that the King's alleged, unwelcome attempt to seduce her in 1212 was one of the various grievances which pushed her father into rebellion, ending with him becoming a surety for Magna Carta and a leading figure in the First Barons' War (1215-17). However, later legend - beginning with the Chronicle of Dunmow, likely begun before 1300 and possibly containing genuine local tradition - elaborated on this, saying that Matilda had fled the King's advances, retreating to Dunmow Priory, where the vengeful John later had her poisoned. This was the basis for Michael Drayton's 1594 poem Matilda the Fair and Chaste Daughter of Lord Robert Fitzwalter, which almost certainly inspired Munday's decision to incorporate Matilda into his plays.

Whether or not there is any truth in this story, there was before Munday no recorded association between Matilda and Robin Hood. Moreover, she fits badly with his dating of Robin's outlawry to the period 1189-94, when she would have been in her infancy if not unborn. However, the 1210s are a period rich in candidates to fit other characters in the legend - notably Robert Deyville. And though the Fitzwalter surname and the Prince's lust have long outlived the specific identification in popular tradition, the possibility that Matilda had influenced the legend before 1598 remains intriguing. When Joseph Hunter, in 1852, proposed a fourteenth century origin for Robin Hood, he eagerly pointed out that his candidate's wife was named Matilda: though this is surely coincidental, the name being extremely common. Much more interesting is the possibility of confusion between Matilda Fitzwalter and the wife of Fouke FitzWaryn.

FitzWaryn is one of the most Robin Hood-like real outlaws known, although both his name and his principal area of activity, the Welsh Marches, seem likely to disqualify him. A perennial enemy of King John, he was outlawed from 1200-03 and rebelled again in 1215, and became the subject of an Anglo-Norman romance which shares many features and even whole episodes with the Gest, but long predates it (c. 1330 in its current form, perhaps originating as early as c. 1260). His wife, Matilda Vavasour, was said in the romance to have been desired by the King; this may have been due to a confusion with the unrelated Matilda de Caux, whose husband Ralph fitz Stephen had been Steward of Sherwood under Richard I - but there is also the fact that her first husband, Theobald, usually called le Boteler or Butler, was a member of the Walter family. It is therefore highly possible that she could have been known before her marriage to Fouke (c. 1206) as Matilda Walter.

Marian remains, from an historical perspective, even more shadowy than Robin himself. Searching for proof, or even enough evidence to construct a plausible hypothesis, that she was based on a real person, is a doomed effort; all we can find are tantalising glimpses of people who just may have influenced the early development of her legend. The story of how the character was subsequently developed, and rose to the centrality that she enjoys today, is another matter, for another article.

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