Matter of the Greenwood: Friar Tuck - Origins

I examine the literary, folkloric, and perhaps historical origins of one of the most iconic characters in the Robin Hood mythos.

Image: a Victorian painting of St Robert.

Credit: I'm afraid I've lost my record of where this image came from. Are you the photographer? Let me know!

Like Maid Marian, though not quite to the same extent, Friar Tuck is remarkable by his absence from most of the ballad tradition, originating instead on the stage. He is, however, named in considerably earlier sources than any mentioning Robin’s lady love.

The first direct association between Friar Tuck and Robin Hood is in the earliest surviving May Games play, one of very few secular English dramas from the Middle Ages still extant: Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, known to have been staged in Norfolk in 1473. It appears that, by then, it was taken for granted that the friar and outlaw were associates: but, interestingly, when Robin is captured, Tuck – who has not appeared hitherto – mounts his own rescue attempt before the other outlaws arrive. He might not be a member of Robin’s band, but an independent well-wisher. Notably, when he becomes the star of a folk play (Robin Hood and the Friar) a few decades later (perhaps c. 1520), he begins as an antagonistic rival outlaw and is only reconciled to Robin at the end. It is not until Peele’s Edward I – and, considering that Peele’s characters are imitators rather than the actual outlaws, not really until Anthony Munday – that Tuck is explicitly made a Merry Man.

This has led to suggestions that Tuck was an originally independent May Games figure, who entered Robin’s orbit as the increasingly popular outlaw character came to dominate the festivities. However, there is no surviving mention of any independent appearance of the friar – in striking contrast to Marian, who regularly appeared without Robin in May Day celebrations as late as the seventeenth century.

What, then, of Friar Tuck before 1473? If he was indeed a friar, he cannot have flourished before 1209, when the Franciscans – the first order of friars, and the one with which Tuck has become associated – were founded in Italy; they did not reach England until 1224. However, he is also traditionally linked (since the ballad Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, c. 1630) to Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian house founded in 1132. It is perhaps not too anachronistic to refer to a hermit, or a monk who for whatever reason did not live a cloistered life, as “friar”: although many modern fictions have cheerfully disregarded history to make Tuck a Franciscan (or occasionally a Dominican, an order founded in 1216) in the 1190s.

The specific name is first found in 1417, as an alias for the chaplain-turned-bandit Robert Stafford. Those who recorded his depredations had not heard the name before: perhaps, like “King Lionel”, “William Wither”, and other pseudonymous outlaws, he had invented it, and was the only original Friar Tuck – in which case there can be no direct association with Robin Hood, who had already long since passed into legend. However, it is equally possible that he was using the name of an established folkloric figure, like the many rebels and criminals who had by then taken to calling themselves “Robin Hood”. Certainly the personal name Tuk or Touk, derived from the Norse Toki, was real enough, and may well have belonged to any number of friars.

Certainly Stafford was far from the only outlawed cleric. Hereward the Wake had numbered a deacon, a monk, and a priest among his followers. Eustace the Monk, occasional enemy of King John and hero of an early outlaw romance which certainly influenced legends of Robin Hood, haunted the Bois de Boulogne in 1204-05, before turning pirate, and ultimately being killed in a sea battle in 1217. A monk named Robert, arrested for poaching, was rescued from the custody of the Steward of Sherwood by twenty outlaws in 1277. Richard Folville, Rector of Teigh – a member of a notorious family who prided themselves on “Folville’s Laws”, a very Robin Hood-like rough justice claimed to be better than the unjust laws of the Crown – was killed in his own church by the Keeper of the King’s Peace in 1340/1.

Although none of these men was a friar, the mendicant orders in fact had a particularly bad reputation as a result of their itinerant lives – although whether it was deserved is another matter. (Possibly their greater visibility simply made their vices harder to conceal than those of cloistered monks?) In the Tudor era – both before and after the Reformation – Tuck was associated with contemporary anti-clerical jokes about the excess and lechery of friars.

But perhaps the most intriguing figure of all in this context is a man who certainly had no such unholy reputation, and was never himself outlawed. The Yorkshire hermit St Robert of Knaresborough was, early in King John’s reign, accused by William de Stuteville, Constable of Knaresborough Castle, of sheltering thieves and runaways; he was actually forced to flee his settlement at Rudfarlington in fear of arrest. (This seems to have happened shortly before de Stuteville bought the office of Sheriff of York in 1201.) Robert’s hermitage was destroyed, and he returned to the limestone cave where he had begun his career. Well known for raising money to redeem prisoners and for his willingness to defy authority when it acted unjustly, Robert may well have been guilty of associating with outlaws.

Although he had taken his vows at Newminster, and had since left the Cistercians to found a small Trinitarian house, Robert was linked to Fountains Abbey. Shortly before his death in 1218, the monks had tried to entice him to retire there, but he had refused, believing that all they wanted was for him to die in their abbey so that he could be buried there and his grave used to attract pilgrims. He even warned his followers that, when he did die, the monks of Fountains might try to steal his body – and enjoined them to resist if necessary.

Robert’s family name was Flos, Floures, or Flowers. However, in an age when surnames were far from established, and patronymics remained in common use, it is significant that his father’s given name was Touk. It was certainly possible that he was known as Robert Touk or some variation of it. His name, location, time period, and associations are thus all strongly suggestive of the legend; but suggestion is all we now have.

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