So how accurate is the portrayal of Medieval England in the new in Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood? It certainly has elements that ring true regarding the era making use of real historical figures including King Richard I (the Lionheart), his brother John (later King John) and William Marshal. The movie puts Robin in the heart of historical events with the story taking up the action shortly after the Third Crusade. In order to understand the friction between Normans and Saxons in England of middle ages you have to go back even further. (this is a brief and very simplified version of events)
Britain was settled and invaded many times and was most probably first inhabited during the ice age. The best known monument to the ancient inhabitants is Stonehenge. Fast forward several thousand years to around 1000BC when the Celtic tribes from central Europe settled at the start of what has become known as the Bronze Age. Britain has no real written history prior to the coming of the Romans, in fact the name Britain is derived from Britannia the Latin name for the Island. They first invaded unsuccessfully under Julius Caesar in 55BC then again in 43AD under reign of Claudius. Large parts of England and Wales where controlled by the Romans but they never developed a foothold in Scotland. In 122AD Hadrian’s wall was erected to keep the Picts out (See the recent movie Centrurion). After the Romans departed the country returned to the Celtic tribes who began fighting each other for control. One Chieftain had the bright idea of bringing the Germanic tribes the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes in to help them defeat the other tribes. It worked, however they decided not to go home and throughout the 5th and 6th centuries The “Anglo-Saxons” stayed and gained power in England with the Celts retreating to Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. From this time England was split into Kingdoms, this is how it stayed for several hundred years.
In the later part of the ninth century Britain was invaded by The Vikings (mainly Norwegians in Scotland and Ireland – Danes in England). Around this time (911AD) Other Danes invaded France and took Paris. They were known as Normans (north-men) and the lands they held became Normandy. The Kings of Wessex (Saxon) defeated the Danes in England (possibly the origin of the King Arthur Legend that really needs a descent movie made about it) Edmund II became king of England but was defeated by Canute the Great (king of Denmark and Norway) in 1016. He was succeeded by his two sons who in turn were succeeded by Edward the Confessor. This is the bit everyone remembers from school. Edward nominated William duke of Normandy (William the conqueror) his successor but after his death Harold Earl of Wessex crowned himself. William invaded; battle of Hastings, arrow in the eye and all that. This period was the start of Norman rule and the Norman – Saxon animosity you see in Robin Hood set just over a hundred years later. That is really the crux of this story and many other versions of Robin Hood. The oppressed populace are Saxon but the ruling class are Norman, this could be interpreted in many ways but as western (mainly American and British) armies have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
The House of Norman remained in power until Henry II in 1154, he was the first Plantagenet king but don’t let the name fool you he was a direct descendent of William (grandson) and very much a Norman. He was succeeded by his son Richard I, so we are nearly up to date with the start of the movie. Richard was born in Oxford but lived mainly in Aquitaine (southwest France) and spoke very little if any English. His Reign as Kind of England only lasted for ten years from 1189 to 1199. Known even before he became king as a great military leader, he spent a lot of his reign at war and set off on the Third Crusade within a year of taking the throne. (Incidentally the purpose of the Third Crusade was to retake Jerusalem from Saladin. The fall of Jerusalem to Saladin was depicted in Ridley Scott’s 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven. The epilogue for that movie says: “nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive”). He was accompanied on the crusade by Philip II of France (seen in the movie plotting to invade England), this was an alliance of convenience for both men knowing that as long as they are together in the Holly land they wouldn’t be plotting to invade each other’s country.
After two years it was became clear to Richard that even if he took the city of Jerusalem he could not hold it so retreated and agreed a truce with Saladin. As he returned to England Richard was shipwrecked and forced to return via land. Travelling with just four men all disguised as Knights Tamplar he was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria (see the 1952 movie Ivanhoe). A ransom of 150,000 marks (about 3 times the annual income for the English Crown as mentioned in the movie). Richard’s brother John, and King Philip of France offered 80,000 marks for Richard to be held for longer. The offer was refused and after more than a year in captivity Richard was released (This time is the most likely setting for other Robin Hood movies such as Prince of Thieves (1991) when Richard shows unexpectedly at the end (with a Scottish accent that goes well with the Californian Robin Hood )). Despite his treachery Richard forgave John and named him heir (for political reasons involving another claim to the throne far too complicated to explain). The death of Richard in the movie contains a grain of truth but appears to have been somewhat sexed-up. He was shot by a man with a crossbow and a frying pan but survived the injury for nearly two weeks. It did take place during a siege in France but at a poorly defended castle, Richard was believed to have been walking around without his chain mail at the time. This isn’t the first time Robin Hood has started with the death of Richard. Robin and Marion (1976) started at the same point but using a different story. In that movie the usual events involving Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham have already happened and in Robin’s younger days, he then went off to fight in the crusades and is now back as a middle aged man (incidentally at 46 Sean Connery is was the same age as Russell Crowe is now).
John ruled for 17 years in what is looked upon as a disastrous spell for the country. As seen in the movie the crown relied on the Barons to rule and collect taxes throughout the country. John was never popular with the Barons, he lost even more support when he was Excommunicated by the Pope. He eventually settled his differences with the church and the Barons and signed the Magna Carta (Great Charter). He did so under duress and later reneged starting The First Barons war (possible material for a sequel?). He also lost a lot of territory to France and was seen to lack of prowess in battle resulting in the epithet “Softsword”, again as seen in the movie. It has been suggested that John introduced taxation to England, this is unfair as the country had been heavily taxed for many years. The Saladin tithe was a tax collected by his farther Henry II for a crusade to retake Jerusalem. Interestingly Henry’s crusade didn’t happen and the money was believed to have been spent on the war with Richard, his own son and heir who had struck an unlikely alliance with Philip II of France. The other document of the time that related to the Magna Carta was The Charter of the Forest, (although the name isn’t used to the best of my memory) this is the document Robin proposes that John adopts in the movie that he later reneges on at the end, like the Magna Carta it was eventually issued under the following king Henry The III. Prior to the charter the general populace had no rights in what were considered Royal forests. The Charter gave “freemen” real rights for the first time in what amounted to real and significant constitutional reform.
If you listen to any of the interviews Russell Crowe has given supporting the movie it is clear that the movie is something he is passionate about. The way he talks implies that Robin Hood was a real historical figure, who there are no records of because we don’t know his real name. Whist this is a plausible (and convenient) argument I would take a slightly more pragmatic approach. Clearly there would have been architects of the charter and people who stood against the tax collectors. It is perfectly plausible that one such person lived in or around Nottingham. It is also known that people lived in the forests both before and after the charter. With all the legends that have grown up around him it makes perfect sense some of them could have been based on a real person like or even known as Robin Hood. It is quite probable that a person who would stand up to the government tax collectors had a military background. What I would suggest is pure fantasy is to bring all these elements together and attribute them to one man, one man who has been rewritten throughout history to suit the ideals of the time.