Robin Hood is the archetypal English folk hero, an outlaw who, legend has it, stole from the rich to give to the poor. This redistributionalist form of philosophy in action anticipates the work of writers such as Proudhon and Karl Marx by many hundreds of years.
The stories relating to Robin Hood are apocryphal, verging on the mythological. His first appearance in print is in the 1377 manuscript of Piers Plowman in which Sloth "rhymes of Robin Hood." This is likely a reference to ballads, plays, and games that originated in the 14th century or earlier.
Printed versions of Robin Hood ballads appear in the early 16th century -- shortly after the advent of printing in England. In these ballads, Robin Hood is generally a yeoman which, by that time, means an independent tradesman or farmer. It is only in the late 1500s that he becomes a nobleman, the Earl of Huntington, Robert of Locksley, or later still, Robert Fitz Ooth.
His romantic attachment to Maid Marian (or "Marion") (originally known as Mathilda) is also a product of this later period and probably has something to do with the 13th century French pastoral play Robin and Marian.
The late 1500's is also the period when the Robin Hood story is set in the 1190s, when King Richard is away at the crusades. One of the original Robin Hood ballads refers to King Edward (Edward I, II, and III ruled England from 1272 to 1377). The idea of Robin Hood as a noble Saxon fighting Norman Lords originates in the 19th century, most notably in the part Robin Hood plays in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
He allegedly was deprived of his lands by the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham[?] and became an outlaw[?]. The Sheriff does, indeed, appear in the early ballads (Robin kills and beheads him), but there is nothing as specific as this allegation. Robin's other enemies include the rich abbots of the Catholic Church and a bounty hunter named Guy of Gisbourne[?]. Robin kills and beheads him as well. In the early ballads there is nothing about giving to the poor although Robin does make a large loan to an unfortunate knight.
He is said to have taken up residence in the verdant Sherwood Forest. This is a matter of some considerable contention. The original ballads speak of his being in Barnsdale[?], some fifty miles north of Sherwood. Others argue that if this were true he would have nothing to do with the Sheriff of Nottingham who operated two days ride to the south.
In the ballads, original "Merry Men" (though not called that) included: Friar Tuck[?], Will Scarlet or Scathlock[?], Much the Miller's Son[?], and Little John[?] who was called "little" because he wasn't. Alan-a-Dale is a later invention in Robin Hood plays.
Songs, plays, games, and, later, novels, musicals, films, and tv series have developed Robin Hood and company according to the needs of their times, and the mythos has been subject to extensive ideological manipulation. Maid Marian, for instance, something of a warrior maiden in early Victorian novels was reduced in demeanour to passivity during the period of the women's suffrage movement. As the media power of the modern feminist movement gathered momentum, Marian reacquired an altogether more active role again. Robin Hood himself has been transformed from a bandit with an occasional element of generosity in the original tales, to the contemporary reading where he is depicted more as a medieval Che Guevara leading a small rebel force fighting a guerrilla war against Prince John and the Sheriff on behalf of the oppressed and King Richard I.