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Matter of the Greenwood: Will Scarlet

A look at the most shadowy Merry Man. Image: Patric Knowles as Will in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).


Perhaps the least well defined of the famous characters in the Robin Hood mythos is Will Scarlet. Most people have a fairly clear idea of who Robin, Marian, Little John, Tuck, etc., are, but Will’s character and appearance are whatever a given creator chooses to make of them. Yet his name is almost indispensable to any Robin Hood story; from the sixteenth century on, “three merry men” are routinely cited in the ballad tradition as “Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John”.


He is first mentioned by that name in The Death of Robin Hood, one of the very earliest ballads – conventionally dated to c. 1450 but possibly even earlier. It is notable that, at this point, the name is already “Scarlet”, and none of the forms often cited as earlier; and it already seems to be taken for granted that the listener will expect to find him in Robin’s band. This lends plausibility to the suggestion that “Scarletecross”, a location in Sherwood first mentioned around 1280, might be connected to him: but this we will probably never be able to confirm. Attempts to identify an historical Will Scarlet associated with outlaws have so far come to nothing.


The supposedly older forms of the name first appear in the Gest of Robin Hood, which was most likely compiled into its current form circa 1465, though linguistic analysis suggests that much of the text existed (probably as separate ballads which were later stitched together) by about 1430. There he begins as Scarlocke – only for the name to metamorphose into Scathelock halfway through. This laid the foundation for centuries of confusion as to how many men these names referred to – before we even bring Will Stutely and Will Gamwell into the picture.


Ah, yes, Will Gamwell. This is first used as an alternate name for Scarlet in Robin Hood Newly Revived, one of the explosion of Robin Hood ballads that appeared around 1660: but as we shall see, the character’s roots go back much further. Going to the greenwood before dinner, Robin meets “a deft young man… His doublet it was of silk, he said, / And his stockings like scarlet shone”. Seeing the stranger shoot a buck dead at forty yards, Robin offers to take him into his band, but the young man spurns him and threatens violence. They draw arrows on one another but Robin talks the hot-tempered stranger into fighting him with sword and buckler instead of shooting.


After each has wounded the other, Robin asks the stranger’s name. “In Maxfield was I bred and born; / My name is Young Gamwell,” he replies, adding that he has been banished for killing his father’s steward, and has come to the woods to seek his maternal uncle, Robin Hood. Robin welcomes his nephew (or first cousin in some later versions of the story), introduces him to Little John, and gives him the name “Scarlet” – explicitly linked to the colour of his clothes for the first time, surely an impractical shade for hiding in the greenwood. Adaptations of this ballad appear in a few of the eighteenth and nineteenth century compilation novels which stitch ballad stories together to create a “life” of Robin Hood; notably, Alexandre Dumas’ second Robin Hood novel, Robin Hood the Outlaw (published posthumously in 1873) begins with this story.


Gamwell’s particular crime, in conjunction with his name, makes it almost certain that he derives from Gamelyn, the hero of the oldest outlaw romance in English: The Tale of Gamelyn, dating to c. 1360, decades before any surviving Robin Hood material.


Gamelyn’s story is as follows. Sir John of Bounds, after an attempt by his elder sons John and Ote to cut their youngest brother Gamelyn (in origin gamoling, “son of the old man”) out of his inheritance, makes Gamelyn his principal heir, then dies; John takes over the estate and mistreats Gamelyn, finally shutting him out when he returns from a wrestling match. Gamelyn forces his way in, killing John’s porter (not quite a steward), and is in punishment chained to a post and exhibited to his brother’s guests (including an abbot and a prior who show no sympathy for his plight). Eventually his father’s servant Adam the Spencer releases him and they escape together into the forest, where they join a band led by an unnamed “master king of outlaws”, to whose position Gamelyn at length succeeds; meanwhile John has become the local sheriff.


Ote’s attempts to bring about a reconciliation fail, and he stands bail for Gamelyn, who returns to the forest to rob senior clergy, to whom the poet shows a savage antipathy. Ote is nearly hanged when Gamelyn is late in returning, but Gamelyn’s men rescue him and hang John and his justice; Ote’s representations to the King then secure his younger brother’s pardon and they are appointed as justices.


The poem’s anticlericalism, and use of a sheriff as principal villain, foreshadow the very earliest Robin Hood texts, even if it would take a few more centuries for the two to become explicitly connected. Though perhaps it did not take quite so long. Around the same time as The Death of Robin Hood, in the mid fifteenth century, appeared a ballad called Robin and Gandelyn. The titular Robin is never named “Hood” (indeed, a misreading of the opening line “Robin lieth in greenwood bounden” led to the misconception that he was called “Robin Lyth”, which in turn led to confusion with a legendary smuggler from eighteenth century Yorkshire), nor do any of the usual characters appear: but he is an outlaw. He and his “knave” Gandelyn are “strong thieves” and “bowmen good”. (The name Gandelyn does evoke not only Gamelyn but Gandalin, a character from the Spanish romance Amadis de Gaula: but although a now lost version of Amadis did precede the famous sixteenth century version, there is no evidence that it was known in England this early.) While they are hunting deer, Robin is shot dead by “a little boy” called Wrennock of Donne; Gandelyn lets Wrennock shoot at him too before sending an arrow back which kills the young assassin.


The name “Wrennock” is also evocative of earlier outlaw romances. It was the name of the elder son of Fouke FitzWaryn’s rival, Meurig of Powys: probably a corrupt form of the Welsh Goronwy or Gronw. Wrennock does not appear in Fouke’s romance in person, but the name is so unusual that it is unlikely to be a coincidence. Perhaps, therefore, Robin and Gandelyn represents a very early attempt to draw together the different strands of the greenwood tradition, as would become relatively common by the nineteenth century.


What is certain is that The Tale of Gamelyn provided Thomas Lodge with the opening and much of the plot of his prose romance Rosalynde (1589), explaining how his hero Rosader came to be banished to the forest: though there is no Rosalynde, and indeed barely a mention of any woman, in the original. In 1599, Shakespeare adapted Rosalynde into As You Like It, which has been called “a Robin Hood play without Robin Hood” and was probably a response to Anthony Munday’s 1598 diptych The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon: Rosader / Gamelyn became Orlando de Boys (du Bois, “of the Wood”, the name commonly given to Robin Hood in French), and the “master king of outlaws” became Rosalind’s father Duke Senior, “in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him, and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England… as they did in the golden world”. As You Like It too would feed back into the Robin Hood tradition.


But after three hundred years of dancing around the similarities between Gamelyn’s story and Robin Hood’s, Newly Revived brought them firmly together, within the already very popular “Robin Hood meets his match” format, and used the occasion to provide an origin story for one of the best known but most elusive Merry Men. Around the same time, “Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage” – one of the most influential ballads – introduces a whole Gamwell family. Robin’s mother is a Gamwell of Gamwell Hall, sister to the Falstaffian Squire George; the ballad opens with George entertaining them to a feast on Christmas Eve and declaring Robin his heir. He also provides his nephew with a page – Little John. This George Gamwell apparently has no children of his own: but Pierce Egan, in his 1838 novel, would make him Will’s father. This relationship, the feast at Gamwell Hall, and Robin’s connection to the family, have cropped up frequently.


A few years later, “The Bold Peddler and Robin Hood” would rehash the story of “Newly Revived”, in which the titular peddler turns out (after defeating Robin) to be his cousin Gamble Gold, banished for killing a servant of his father’s estate. The name Gamble Gold crops up in a few later adaptations, but not in connection with the Gamwell story: but clearly it is the same. The actual name “Gamelyn” is not directly used in a Robin Hood story until 1820, when Leigh Hunt, in Songs of Robin Hood, turned George Gamwell into Gamelyn de Vere, whose decision to leave his estate to the Church instead of his nephew is the beginning of Robin’s misfortunes. Scarlet shows up as the nom-de-guerre of an unrelated character, Will Nokes.


“Newly Revived” was the first time the ballad tradition had provided an origin for Scarlet: but not the first time he had had one. In Munday’s Downfall, Scarlet and Scathelock are separate characters, half-brothers, already outlawed years before Robin, and whom he rescues from the gallows in a scene that appears to be an early version of what later became the ballad “Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires”.


It may also have been influenced by the ballad “Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutely”, whose first appearance is undated but based on the language was probably Elizabethan. Stutely’s status as an independent character has varied from writer to writer, many conflating him with Will Scarlet; perhaps he always was a variant – certainly it appears to be assumed that the hearer will be aware that Robin had a follower of that name, and a pageant some decades earlier had included a Will Stukeley (but no Scarlet) in the band. In this ballad, the forest appears to extend almost to the gates of the Sheriff’s castle, so that when the captive Will is brought out to be hanged, the Merry Men are able to hide in the nearby bushes and leap out at a critical moment, Little John cutting his friend’s bonds and arming him so that they can fight their way to freedom.


Very shortly after Munday’s play, around 1600, the Sloane Life of Robin Hood was written. It drew on many earlier sources, probably including some that have not survived – and it included Will Scarlocke as the hero of a story which later acquired an entirely different protagonist. For Scarlocke appears as the lovelorn minstrel whose beloved is promised to an elderly knight, and has to be rescued from the wedding through Robin’s trickery – in other words, as Alan a-Dale, whose ballad with precisely this plot would not appear until circa 1660. Alan, in his own ballad, first appears clad in scarlet.


This version of Will did not survive (though Sara Jane Lippincott, writing as Grace Greenwood, did use this story in her 1855 miscellany Merrie England); but the Gamwell version did, cropping up frequently over the years. Other writers have added new elements. Paul Creswick, in his 1903 novel Robin Hood, ditched the young Gamwell to make Scarlet an older mentor figure, outlawed before Robin: he also introduced the idea that Robin is not the outlaws’ original leader, instead succeeding the mystically inclined Will o’ the Green. The predecessor figure has proven popular, and is frequently named Will: J. Walker McSpadden reused Will o’ the Green the following year, while Robin succeeds Scathelock in the 1955-60 TV series Adventures of Robin Hood and Scarlet in 1975’s Legend of Robin Hood. The ageing Will has not, though Roger Lancelyn Green in his 1955 novel split the character into fatherly Scathelock and youthful Gamwell.


However, he has never had a particularly consistent characterisation. In Leonard MacNally’s operetta Robin Hood (1784), he is a vain, lecherous coward willing to betray his comrades. The vanity and the philandering streak – the latter arguably going back to Munday’s play – are occasionally seen again, but not enough to be essential to the character. They do feature in the 1955 Adventures (Scarlet, a.k.a. Will of Winchester, being played on his first handful of appearances by Ronald Howard, who would go on to play Robin in Richard the Lionheart (1962-63); and by Paul Eddington, who had already appeared in dozens of parts over the years, when the character became regular in 1959); and the vanity at least is hinted at in Patric Knowles’ wise-cracking, dandyishly-clad Will a’ Gamwell in the 1938 Errol Flynn movie (a role originally intended for Flynn’s close friend David Niven). Owen Teale’s elegantly witty Scarlet in the 1991 Patrick Bergin movie is a carbon copy of Knowles, who undermines the climax by somehow managing mid-duel to convince the hitherto villainous Baron Daguerre that Normans and Saxons should live at peace.


In 1964’s gangland update Robin and the 7 Hoods, Sammy Davis Jr plays Will as a sharpshooter in love with his gun, singing it the ode “Bang Bang”; but the first really individual Scarlet to break from the Knowles / Eddington mould was Ray Winstone’s hard-edged and dangerous characterisation in Robin of Sherwood (1983-86). (Here, Scathelock is his real name, but he has adopted “Scarlet” because of his wrath and grief at the murder of his wife.) Christian Slater’s Scarlet in 1991’s Robin Hood Prince of Thieves clearly owes his anger issues to Winstone, but owing to poor writing and direction comes across as whiny and brattish and entirely out of place, his American accent somehow feeling more inappropriate than Kevin Costner’s as Robin, perhaps because his dialogue is more anachronistic.


Matthew Porretta in 1993’s Men in Tights swashbuckles gamely as Will Scarlett O’Hara – before, like Howard, returning to the legend to play Robin, in 1997’s The New Adventures of Robin Hood. Stephen Lawhead named the second novel of his King Raven trilogy (which relocated the legend to eleventh century Wales) Scarlet in 2007, telling it from the viewpoint of Will Scatlocke, one of the few Englishmen among the outlaws: but he adds little memorable to the character.


Ultimately, Will is a cipher to whom almost any characterisation can be attached. Even if Will the dandy is common enough to form something of a pattern, it isn’t enough for versions that differ radically from it to feel wrong or subversive – Winstone’s Scarlet is the diametric opposite of Eddington’s in everything but swordsmanship, but is still Will Scarlet. It seems unlikely that a standard characterisation of the kind the other main outlaws broadly have will ever be pinned down.

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