Matter of the Greenwood: Little John: Origins
From the very beginnings of the legend, one name is more inseparable from Robin Hood's than any other: Little John. But was there a real person behind the name?
Before even the Little Gest of Robin Hood, the Scottish historian Andrew Wyntoun wrote in his Original Chronicle of Scotland (c. 1420) that:
“Little John and Robin Hood
Woodmen were commended good:
In Inglewood and Barnsdale
They used all this time their travail.”
(Inglewood, in Cumberland, is associated with the other outlaw hero Adam Bell but not elsewhere with Robin Hood.)
John is the only follower of Robin mentioned by name in the chronicles. They tell us little that could point to a real man. A smattering of men with similar names have been found in historical records, some of them vaguely adjacent to outlawry, but few with much detail recorded. There is an interesting clutch of Northern references from the era of Joscelin Deyville: a burglar in Wakefield in 1318; a captain of archers who served the Earl of Lancaster (and likely fought alongside Deyville in Lancaster's 1322 rebellion); and a poacher active in the Archbishop of York's park in Beverley in 1323, were all named John le Litel or Littel John.
However, even if these were all the same man, the period is surely too late for the origins of the Robin Hood legend; and there is no reason at all to believe that John could have been an independent character drawn into Robin's orbit (as one might plausibly argue for Tuck or Marian, and as is actually documented for e.g. Adam Bell). This is where the occasionally seen suggestion that Wyntoun meant that Little John operated in Inglewood and Robin Hood in Barnsdale falls down - the association between the two is simply too strong. If anything it is more likely that the historical Little Johns adopted the name in honour of an already famous outlaw, like the many Robin Hoods of the later Middle Ages. Many popular "real Robin Hood" candidates have associates named John, but none with the appellation "Little", or any known link to the localities associated with John in later legend: and as it was one of the most popular names in Europe, the association is not particularly suggestive.
But it is from poems and songs, not chronicle histories, that the legend largely derives. The Gest, the first detailed account of Robin's career, took shape around the 1460s. The eight fyttes of the poem link into a continuous narrative five different stories, probably deriving from originally separate ballads: Robin’s aid to an impoverished knight; the service of an outlaw calling himself "Reynold Greenleaf" in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s household; the famous silver arrow story; the King’s pursuit and pardon of the outlaws; and Robin’s death.
The Reynold Greenleaf story, contained in the third fytte, is of interest here. Little John wins an archery contest in Nottingham, and enters the service of the impressed Sheriff under the name of Reynold Greenleaf. (While the hiring of strangers into a noble’s or official’s service was possible throughout the Middle Ages, it was rather more common after about 1350 than before.) Elsewhere in the Gest and other medieval references, it appears that Reynold is a separate character from John, but this is not addressed. (As early as 1432, a mischievous scribe added the names of several legendary outlaws to a Wiltshire Parliament Roll; "Reynold", without surname, appears three places lower than Little John. Anthony Munday, in The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598) mentions that "How Greenleaf robbed the Sheriff of Nottingham" has already been the subject of an otherwise unknown play. In the modern age, the 2009 graphic novel Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood makes Reynald Grenelefe a real person, cousin to Eleanor of Aquitaine no less, whom John impersonates to get a message to Marian.) Later, after fighting with the Sheriff’s cook, Reynold / John recruits him to the outlaw band; they steal the Sheriff’s silver plate, and lure him into the forest, where Robin captures him, feeds him off his own plate, and make him swear not to molest the outlaws.
This, as we've glanced at in the articles on the Sheriff, appears to be cribbed from the earlier romance of Fouke le Fitz Waryn, telling of the eponymous Marcher noble's outlawry in the reign of King John. The Gest repeats almost verbatim an episode in which the disguised Fouke beguiles and captures the King, extorting a similar oath from him; this is also similar, though less exactly so, to a story told of Eustace the Monk, another thirteenth century outlaw hero. Nor is it the only episode lifted from Fouke: when John is wounded fleeing from the Sheriff's men after the silver arrow contest, he begs for death rather than risk capture, but Robin carries him to safety - precisely as Fouke had done in the same circumstances for his brother, also named John.
Two locations became strongly associated with Little John: Hathersage in Derbyshire, identified as location of both his birth and his death (a large grave in the town's somewhat inaccessible cemetery is supposed to be his), and Clifton upon Calder in West Yorkshire. (There is also a Clifton very near Nottingham, balm to the souls of the vociferous group of partisans who argue that every element of the legend must belong within the bounds of Nottinghamshire. In his "Reynold Greenleaf" persona in the Gest, John claims to have been born in Holderness, but this does not seem to have stuck. Interestingly, Henry de Fauconberg - intermittently Sheriff of both Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire for various terms between 1318 and 1330, and a royalist commander during Lancaster's rebellion - also hailed from Holderness.) In the long narrative poem Robin Hood and Queen Catherine (c. 1635 in its earliest surviving form), John goes by the pseudonym "Clifton" when shooting against the King's archers on behalf of the Queen, even as Robin calls himself "Loxley".
Clifton upon Calder was traditionally supposed to have been where Robin and John first met: a story whose earliest known record is in the notes of the antiquary Roger Dodsworth, written in 1621 but not published until the nineteenth century, and hence certainly unknown to the author of the ballad. Since the eighteenth century, the Naylor family of landholders at Clifton have claimed Little John as an ancestor. As spurious as this is, Dodsworth, who is also first to mention the Hathersage birthplace, does link John to the aristocracy, declaring that "Mr Long saith that Fabyan saith, Little John was Earl Huntley's son" - apparently confusing the Scottish earldom of Huntly, founded in 1445, with the English earldom of Huntingdon, which by his time had become associated with Robin Hood. ("Fabyan" appears to mean Robert Fabyan, a London draper who wrote a chronicle of English history in 1511, and who does not say any such thing.) The Hathersage story is backed up by Elias Ashmole, writing shortly after Dodsworth in 1625, who records that the town laid claim to Little John's grave and displayed part of his bow in the church. Unlike Clifton, whose claim to the outlaw is largely forgotten today outside enthusiasts' circles, Hathersage as Little John's home remains a popular staple: but in neither case has any evidence before the seventeenth century been advanced. (The tombstone on his alleged grave is much later.)
What is perhaps most surprising is that one of the most famous "facts" about Little John - that his name was an ironic transposition of "John Little", given by Robin precisely because he was unusually tall and brawny - is not part of the early legend at all. It is first mentioned in the ballad Robin Hood and Little John, thought to have been new when the oldest surviving copy was printed in the early 1680s. This ballad is the first account of what became the famous story of their first meeting: having left his men to seek “sport”, Robin finds his way across a bridge barred by the seven foot John ("A jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade"), and vows to show him “right Nottingham play”: an unusual instance of the outlaw identifying with the city of his enemies, and further indicative of the late date of the ballad. He draws an arrow, but John dismisses this as cowardly, so Robin agrees to fight him with his own weapon, the quarterstaff. (Although the Potter of the early ballad had used a staff, this is the first time that Robin himself wields one in the surviving literature.) They deal many heavy blows, and eventually John pitches Robin into the water; clambering out, Robin blows on his horn and summons his men. Will Stutely (whose presence is unusual – outside his own ballad he was not a regular character) suggests pitching John into the river as revenge, but Robin forbids it, and offers to take John into his band and teach him to shoot. John accepts and gives his name as “John Little”: Stutely announces that he shall be rebaptised, and the names are transposed to the familiar form.
This scene has featured in so many modern Robin Hood stories that its absence from the early legend is something of a shock. Prior to this, there is no first meeting because every story begins with the two already companions; in Munday, John is Earl Robert's squire, but elsewhere even so much explanation is dispensed with. Nor is the early John a giant: Munday contrasts "my small fellow John" with "my big fellow, honest Master Much". As late as 1678 The Noble Birth and Gallant Achievements of that Remarkable Outlaw Robin Hood (the first printed prose romance of the outlaw, essentially a paraphrase of selected existing ballads) had declared that he was called Little "by reason of his low stature". Indeed, the idea of "Little" as a coincidentally inappropriate surname depends on the modern phenomenon of surnames as fixed. A twelfth or thirteenth century English commoner saddled with the family name "Little" would be unlikely to keep it long if it obviously did not suit him - unless, of course, the irony was the point of retaining the name, in which case Stutely's joke would be one John himself had already made.
The character of Little John was long in the making, but what historical reality lies behind him is now impossible to discern. The association of various Johns with historical "real Robin Hood" candidates tells us nothing without either an appellation meaning "little", or perhaps a link to Clifton or Hathersage - none of which has yet been found. The fourteenth century John may have contributed to the character but surely lived too late to be the original, who, if he existed, is likely to remain the most mysterious of the Merry Men.