The third and fourth born sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine became central figures in another defining British legend. Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother Prince (later King) John became immortal as characters in the stories of Robin Hood. The real King Richard I was generally beloved as a great warrior, though he spent a scant six months in England as King. He was a successful general who achieved many victories in the Crusades, but left affairs of state to his brother, who he had fought against in prior territorial squabbles.
By the 14th century, Robin Hood’s tale had him stealing from the rich to provide for the poor, downtrodden by Prince John’s bad rule and King Richard’s absence. The characters of Little John and Will Scarlet had already been introduced, but Maid Marian and Friar Tuck were added later. Sherwood Forest, Merry Men, and a distaste for the Sheriff of Nottingham were all established elements of the tale.
One of the first books printed in England was Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” or Death of Arthur. It had its first printing of 40,000 books in 1486. Within six weeks, 10,000 copies had sold. It was the first best seller, in a time of low literacy outside of the noble classes. Death of Arthur was a sweeping tale of a golden age destroyed, of a worthy king betrayed by his queen and closest friend, of mythic quests and Christian piety.
That year, King Henry VII of England, who took his throne by force, named his eldest son Prince Arthur in an effort to legitimize his family’s rule. The legends of Arthur were useful tools for creating a sense of British identity, showing royalty in a positive light, and in medieval and later tellings, uniting Celtic and Anglo-Saxon identity with Christianity. Prince Arthur died before assuming the throne, but his younger brother Henry VIII adopted Arthurian imagery including a round table depicting himself as King Arthur.
Both of these literary heroes, King Arthur and Robin Hood, captured different aspects of Brtitish identity. Where King Arthur was pious, Robin Hood despised the clergy. Where Arthur left Camelot to go on faraway quests, Robin Hood fought for his own small forest community. Arthur represented a golden age and Robin one in turmoil. Each appealed in their own way and to their own audience.
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