Who’s That Guy? The Origins of Robin Hood’s Foe; Guy Of Gisburne

I’m currently rewatching Robin of Sherwood, Richard Carpenter’s retelling of the Robin Hood legend which was made by HTV/Goldcrest from 1984 to 1986. For my money, this is the perfect adaptation of the Sherwood outlaw and his merry men, with each part beautifully played by a very talented cast. One of those actors, the late Robert Addie, was cast in the role of Hood’s nemesis, Sir Guy of Gisburne, the gamekeeper of Sherwood and chief military commander in Nottingham. A development in later series revealed that Gisburne was in fact the illegitimate son of the Earl of Huntingdon, which mean that he was in fact the half brother of the series second Robin Hood, Robert of Huntingdon played by Jason Connery.

This set me thinking of all the different ways that the character of Gisburne has been presented throughout the ages. Often he is interchangeable with the Sheriff of Nottingham, cast as his second in command and even a blood relation, whilst in others he is removed from the tale entirely. His villainy remains his constant characteristic, but he has also been depicted as a rival for Marian’s affections since the 19th century.

One of the most fascinating depictions of the character exists in his very first appearance in the Robin Hood myth. Found both in the Child Ballads (305 traditional ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the latter half of the 19th century) and the Percy Folio (an anthology dating from the 17th century), Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (note the alternate spelling, this occurs a lot throughout the legend and relates to the geographical issue inherent in the character – more on that later) this tale is considered to be one of the earliest in the Robin Hood canon, dating arguably from the 1400s.

In this story, Robin and Guy are both depicted as yeoman, and therefore a pair of commoners situated below the aristocracy but above the free tenant farmer class on the social ladder. The difference between them, as the tale outlines, is that Hood is an outlaw and Gisborne is a bounty hunter tasked by the Sheriff of Nottingham with his assassination for the sum of forty pounds in gold. Gisborne is therefore a yeoman betraying his upbringing, a fact that Robin does not let pass; “Thou have been a traitor all they life”. In observing Gisborne’s mercenary life and the lack of principles or kinship that allows him to hand his own over for punishment by the corrupt establishment, Robin Hood is effectively denouncing him as a class traitor in the same way in which some working class communities view the police today – especially in these present tumultuous times.

The tale is set in Barnsdale, South Yorkshire with Hood announcing himself as “Robin Hood of Barnsdale”. In terms of geography, this is rather helpful with Gisburne’s background. It could be that the hired killer has travelled from Gisburn, a village that was once known as Gisburne or Giseburne and was situated in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but which is now part of the red rose county, Lancashire. Then again, he may hail from Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It’s difficult to ascertain, primarily because Gisburn – and other similar spellings – were often used for Guisborough too, with Gisburn village often referred to as Gisburne in Craven – Craven being the nearest district – to avoid further confusion.

The tale opens with Robin and his friend Little John, the former telling the latter that he has suffered a nightmare in which two men wished him ill. Little John reassures Robin that dreams pass swiftly as wind over the hills, but the outlaw remains determined to locate the two foes who have so tormented his subconscious. On their travels, they come across a heavily armed yeoman dressed completely in horse’s hide with the beast’s head still attached.

A sword and a dagger he wore by his side,

Of manye a man the bane;

And he was clad in his capull-hyde,

Topp and tayll and mayne

Gisborne’s attire in this ballad is as intriguing as it is sadly inexplicable. As a fan of Carpenter’s adaptation, I’m immediately drawn to the pagan implications, recalling as it does the author’s decision to incorporate the legend of Herne the Hunter into the Robin Hood canon – a forest dwelling deity who wears the head and antlers of a deer atop his own crown and is said to be the father of Robin Hood; spiritually, rather than biologically. Unfortunately, the exact implications and meanings of Gisborne’s horse hide has been lost to the mists of time.

Immediately suspicious of the stranger, Robin sets out to confront him despite John’s pleas. With Robin’s mind made up, and determined not to appear cowardly before friend or foe, John is left to ruminate on his friend’s impulsive, stubborn nature. He heads into Barndale and into the path of the Sheriff of Nottingham who is pursuing some of the merry men. Two of John’s companions are slain, whilst a third – Will Scarlett; though his Christian name is not actually given – is at large. John attacks, killing one of the Sheriff’s soldiers before he too is captured.

Meanwhile, Robin is conversing with the stranger in horse hide. He learns that he is Guy of Gisborne and that he is a ruthless bounty hunter charged with seeking out the outlaw known as Robin Hood.

‘I dwell by dale and downe,’ quoth hee,‘

And Robin to take I’me sworne;

And when I am callèd by my right name

I am Guy of good Gisborne.’

Wisely, Robin keeps his counsel and his identity secret. He challenges Guy of Gisborne to an archery contest which Robin naturally wins. Triumphant, he reveals himself to be the very outlaw Gisborne is seeking and the pair in engage in a duel to the death. Gisborne manages to stab Robin, who offers up a prayer to the Virgin Mary (a common characteristic in the early folk tales was Robin’s devotion to Christ’s mother), before landing the decisive blow that murders Gisborne.

What follows will be quite shocking for those of us weaned on 20th and 21st century interpretations of the Robin Hood character on film and TV or in books. Robin Hood shows his contempt for his slain enemy by decapitating his head and disfigures his face with his ‘Irish knife’ before planting the bloody, severed head upon the end of his bow. Robin has a plan you see and, donning Gisborne’s distinctive horse hide he sets off to put it into practice.

He tooke Sir Guys head by the hayre,

And sticked itt on his bowes end:

“Thou hast beene traytor all thy liffe,

Which thing must have an ende.

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,

And nicked Sir Guy in the face,

That hee was never on a woman borne

Cold tell who Sir Guye was.

Finding the Sheriff, Robin discovers Little John his prisoner, tied to a tree. The Sheriff, thinking that the horse hide wearing figure is Gisborne and that the unidentifiable head atop his bow belongs to the murdered Robin Hood, allows the newcomer to approach Little John, assuming he means to kill the second outlaw for him. Of course, Robin cuts the bonds that had contained John and, realising his mistake, the Sheriff flees in panic. The freed Little John takes aim with his bow and loosens off an arrow that fells the Sheriff, “cleave(ing) his heart in twain” Again, in just one ballad, the depiction of Robin Hood and his band of outlaws is more bloodier than most adaptations that have followed in living memory. When it comes to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, it’s clear that the outlaw’s view is very much ACAB – all coppers are bastards. You can read more about this ballad at the University of Rochester’s Robin Hood project here and the ballad itself also on the University project’s website here.

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