Robin Hood Plays on Dartmoor - Max Quick

Churchwardens’ records tell us that Robin Hood plays were held in two Dartmoor locations, Ashburton in 1526-7 and 1541-2 and Chagford from 1555-64. The Ashburton records refer to 19s.11d being paid for tunics for ‘Robert Hode and his followers’ in 1541-2 (see image below), and an earlier reference was made to 3s.10d. being spent on a new tunic for ‘Robyn Whode’.

Mark Beeson (1998) points out in ‘A History  of Dartmoor Theatre’ that these sums of money were considerable compared with what Ashburton churchwardens were spending on other plays at the time, so the Robin Hood plays must have been considered important.   The lack of further expenditure in other years on costumes may simply mean that the costumes lasted!   However, Chagford churchwardens’ records contain numerous detailed references to Hood plays, and a number of payments for staging are recorded.   From his consideration of the churchwardens’ records, Mark Beeson deduces that in all probability, ‘the mystery play tradition was stronger in Ashburton and the Robin Hood play tradition stronger in Chagford.’

robin hood play
robin hood maz quick dartmoor

Reference to Hood play at Ashburton

The earliest reference to a Robin Hood play taking place is in Exeter in 1427, when 20d. was paid to actors.   Between then and 1600 there are over 130 references to performances of the Robin Hood legend taking place around the country – ‘more references than to any other kind of British folk drama’ (Wright, A.W.).   S. Knight and T.H.Ohlgren stress a similar point –

‘….Robin Hood plays were the most popular form of secular dramatic entertainment in provincial England for most of the sixteenth century…….This is generally unrecognised by both literary and theatrical historians, many of whom assume that the Tudor reformation quickly put an end to such pastimes …….But there are other reasons for overlooking Robin Hood spectacles: few ….scripts survive (folk plays were rarely written down and published) and only in the past few years have…..historians…..begun to document in a systematic way records of theatrical entertainment in early modern England.’

Although no scripts survive locally we can work out the nature of the plays from the few existing early play scripts. ‘Robin Hood and the Sherriff of Nottingham’ is the earliest play text, dating from around 1472-5, probably performed in East Anglia.   This consists of twenty-one lines on one side of a single sheet of paper, now stored in Trinity College Library, Cambridge.  Other early titles were ‘Robin Hood and the Friar’ and ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’.   The plays involved a great deal of mock combat.   Actions tended to speak louder than words, and the limited script would be punctuated with much activity.   This was initiated by the stage directions, and might involve wrestling, archery, sword fighting, stone throwing, or fighting with a staff.  An outdoor space would be an ideal venue.  On occasions the audience would be invited to join in, and the plays were sometimes referred to as games.

There is a strong link between Hood plays/games and May games, performed during Pentecost and Whitsuntide, and with May Day celebrations and Morris dancing, marking the coming of Spring – a big event before central heating and supermarkets provided year round warmth and plentiful food supplies.   In medieval England, Robin Hood had a mythological presence as King of the May.   He would lead a procession from one town to another and collect money, which often went to support the church.   It has been suggested by A. W. Wright that the money was distributed to the poor, giving rise to the expression that Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor.  Mark Beeson points out that,

‘Hood events at Chagford, although they claimed expenses for equipment, contributed more money to church funds than they took out, perhaps by collecting from anyone who refused to wear the Hood livery, and on at least two occasions by selling ale.’(Beeson, 1998).

Reference to Hood company at Chagford: [image to be inserted]

(From the Chagford Churchwardens’ accounts 1555, photographed by permission of the Devon Record Office – reference to a Hood company)

Exeter’s first recorded May games were just a few years before their first record of a Robin Hood play.   Professor Lorraine Stock has noted that Exeter cathedral is filled with ‘Green Man’ imagery, as is the chapter house of Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire), which used to be within Sherwood Forest (A.W. Wright).  Stock’s view is that the ‘Green Man’ tradition had an influence on the development of the Robin Hood legend.

Although Dartmoor references to May celebrations are thin – the setting up of a maypole in Okehampton in 1641 (Wright,W.H.K.,1889) and the continuing tradition of crowning a May Queen annually in Lustleigh are two examples – nevertheless the fact that these activities were widespread throughout England makes it safe to assume that Dartmoor was no exception.

May games could involve the sort of contests which were also in Robin Hood plays, e.g. archery, as well as tossing the pole (or in Scotland the caber).   Mark Beeson draws attention to,

‘a reference to a silver arrow in the (Chagford) church inventory for 1587 which Wasson (1986, xxv) believes to have been the prize for an archery competition held at the culmination of a Hood play’ (Beeson,1998).

Maid Marion probably entered the Robin Hood legend through the May games.   She was not present in the early Robin Hood ballads of the 14th century.   Her first appearance was in a French romance in 1280, ‘Jeu de Robin et Marion’.   The French Robin was not the one we know, but was a shepherd, and Marion was his shepherdess.

In England as Queen of the May, dressed in white, Marion personified the end of the winter, the fertility of the soil and the spirit of the fields.   Celebrations involved bonfires, a maypole and ritual dancing.   Her male equivalent in the early games was Robin Goodfellow (a huntsman) and Jack-in-the-Green.   In medieval England, Hood and Marion were King and Queen of the May.  By the end of the 16th century Marion’s character was established as a member of Robin Hood’s gang, regularly appearing in plays as his girlfriend.   As such she was no shrinking violet, but a woman who could hold her own in combat.   In one ballad, in disguise, she has a sword fight with Robin Hood, also disguised.   After a long fight, Robin concedes, and is delighted to welcome her as an equal in his band.  

Consideration of the various forms of Robin Hood’s name give rise to interesting speculation about the origins of this character.   The Ashburton records in 1526 use the name ‘Whode’.   Woods are traditionally hiding places for outlaws or rebels – and a hood is also something to hide behind.   (Perhaps if Robin Hood was a modern creation his Merry Men would have been ‘Merry Hoodies’?)    In America the word ‘hood’ is still used to refer to an outlaw or gangster.  It could be that the addition of the Christian name ‘Robin’ to the character of ‘Howde’, as mentioned in the Chagford records, ‘may be a secular addition to a much older mythical character’ (Beeson,1998).  Wood implies a link with the spirit of the forest, similar to the Green Man face carved in medieval churches.

Mark Beeson notes that,

the Dartmoor folk tale of Jan Coo, in which a boy is lured into the forest of the Dart Gorge by a voice calling his name contains an echo of this pre-christian belief.   A variant of this tale told to Tom Greeves by John Hamlyn (1883-1985), who was born at Bellever on the East Dart, refers to a voice calling ‘Jan Oo’ which on Dartmoor is another way of saying John of the Wood, Wood passing in dialect from Ood to Oo’ (Beeson, 1998).

It would appear that May games originated from pre-christian fertility rituals, and Hood plays probably descended from religious ceremonies.   Mark Beeson points out that ‘it would be wrong to think of them, as they have sometimes been thought of, as merely secular entertainment.’  He makes an intriguing chain of connections starting with the folk custom of the Hodening or Hoodening horse, recorded in Kent.   A man wore a wooden head of a horse, or a horse’s skull and led a group of revellers to visit people’s houses at Christmas time.   A Mari Lwyd custom existed in Wales.   There groups visited houses for a contest of rhymes and songs, ‘with the impromptu composition of uncomplimentary verses’.   This type of contest was sometimes included in Hood plays (Hole, 1976).    Mari Lwyd is sometimes said to mean ‘Grey Mare’ or ‘Grey Mary’ which leads us in two directions, one to Hood’s partner – Marion, the May Queen or Mary, and the other to Tom Pearce’s grey mare, borrowed by Tom Cobley’s group of revellers to take them to Widecombe Fair in the well known song.    ‘The fact that the grey mare in the song came back as a skeleton suggests that the words may have been based on the vague recollection of a folk custom similar to those in Kent and Wales which once existed on Dartmoor’ (Brown, 1993).  Beeson’s final thought in this chain is the possibility that Lustleigh May Day and Widecombe Fair have ‘a common ancestor’ with the Hood play’ (Beeson, 1993).

Evidence of Robin Hood plays on Dartmoor provides us with snapshots both of the history of theatre on Dartmoor and of a period in the development of the portrayal of Robin Hood.   ‘The Robin Hood legend has…been subject to numerous shifts and mutations throughout history.   Robin himself has evolved from a yeoman bandit to a national hero of epic proportions, who not only supports the poor by taking from the rich but heroically defends the throne of England itself from unworthy and venal claimants’ (Wikipedia).

Throughout the many versions of the legend there is one common factor – Robin Hood’s enduring popularity as a folk hero.   In the first literary reference, in William Langland’s (or some say Bishop Grandisson’s) ‘Piers Ploughman’ (c.1362 – c.1386), Sloth, a lazy priest admits,

‘I know not perfectly my Paternoster as the priest it singeth

But I know the rhymes of Robin Hood.’

It is worth noting the discussion about whether Bishop John Grandisson (b.1292, d. 1369) of Exeter was the author of Piers Ploughman.   Stella Pates in ‘Who wrote Piers Ploughman?’ concludes: ‘It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anybody in fourteenth century England better equipped to be the author of the poem’ (Pates, 1999).

The character has appearered in work by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Tennyson (Wikipedia), and continues to be featured in films and television series.   There is something about the character which has wide appeal.   It is not difficult to imagine our local ancestors, before the invention of film or television, enjoying the enactment of Robin Hood stories in the ideally suited rugged and atmospheric settings of Dartmoor.


Beeson, M. (1998) ‘A History  of Dartmoor Theatre Part One: 1325-1660’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 130, 137-177.

Brown, T. (1993) ‘Tom Pearce’s Grey Mare: A Boundary Image’, in Davidson, H.E.,ed., Boundaries and Thresholds (Thimble Press, Woodchester, Stroud), 76-83.

Hanham, A., ed. (1970) The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Ashburton (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, New Series, 15).

Hole, C. (1976) A Dictionary of British Folk Customs (1995 edn, Helicon, Oxford).

Icons web site – – Maid Marion – Robin Hood.

Knight, S. and Ohlgren, T.H. (1997) ‘Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notyngham – Introduction’, originally published in Robin Hood and the Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, Michigan, Medieval Institute Publications) –

Nottinghamshire County Council web site – .

Osborne, F.M., ed. (1979) The Church Wardens’ Accounts of St Michael’s Church, Chagford 1480-1600(privately published).

Pates, S. (1999) ‘Who wrote Piers Ploughman?’, Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries38,Pt 6, 186 – 190.

Sherwood Forest Trust web site –

Wasson, J., ed. (1986) Records of Early English Drama (University of Toronto Press).

Wikipedia –  – Robin Hood, 4, Ballads and tales – web site.

Wright, A.W. (n.d.) ‘Wolfshead Through the Ages,The History of Robin Hood – The Early Years’  –

Wright,W.H.K., ed. (1889) ‘Journal of John Rattenbury, Town Clerk’ in Some Account of  the Barony and Town of Okehampton, etc (Tiverton).