In HEMA, we spend a lot of time combing through manuscripts and cultural documents to better understand the context that surrounds the systems we study. So today, I would like to shine a spotlight on a story surrounding a famous outlaw and his friar friend. Like many of us, they too sought to see who the best swordsman was.
Today we will analyze the duel between Robin Hood and Friar Tuck in the ballad Robin Hood and the Curtail Friar. This particular tale of Robin Hood may be as old as the late 15th century and has countless retellings throughout history.
One of the books that helped tremendously in this research is Robin Hood by J.C Holt. This book is a great read that tries to identify the real Robin Hood and collects much of the history we know regarding the poems, ballads, and potential identity of the outlaw. I have also chosen to use the 1888 translation of the ballad From The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child because I find it one of the easiest to follow.
Updated 5/9/2023 - Added a discussion on the types of swords and bucklers they may have used during the duel.
The ballad begins in the summer while Robin Hood and his Merry Men are competing and showing off their feats to best one another in different activities. Then Robin Hood proudly asks who can best him. Will Scarlet alludes to a friar that is better than himself and Robin Hood.
5 'God's blessing on thy heart,' said Robin Hood,
'That hath [shot] such a shot for me;
I would ride my horse an hundred miles,
To finde one could match with thee.'
6 'That causd Will Scadlock to laugh,
He laughed full heartily:
'There lives a curtal frier in Fountains Abby
Will beat both him and thee.
Robin Hood then prepares to meet the Friar and arms himself with his sword and buckler.
9 Robin Hood put on his harness good,
And on his head a cap of steel,
Broad sword and buckler by his side,
And they became him weel.
Once Robin Hood met with the Friar, he notices that the friar was also prepared with his sword and buckler.
12 The fryer had on a harniss good,
And on his head a cap of steal,
Broad sword and buckler by his side,
And they became him weel.
From there, calamity ensues and the duel begins. Robin would fire an arrow at the friar who deflects the incoming projectile with his buckler.
21 One of his best arrows under his belt
To the frier he let flye;
The curtal frier, with his steel buckler,
He put that arrow by.
Robin Hood would then fire all of his arrows, failing to strike the friar. He then would turn to his trusty sword and buckler.
22 'Shoot on, shoot on, thou fine fellow,
Shoot on as thou hast begun;
If thou shoot here a summers day,
Thy mark I will not shun.'
23 Robin Hood shot passing well,
Till his arrows all were gone;
Theytook their swords and steel bucklers,
And fought with might and maine;
There sword and buckler duel continued for six hours until Robin Hood asked to call for aid. The Friar allowed it which allows Robin Hood to summon his merry men to aid him.
24 From ten oth' clock that day,
Till four ith' afternoon;
Then Robin Hood came to his knees,
Of the frier to beg a boon.
The tale continues as each duelist continues to match each other’s skill. The tale ends with Robin Hood recruiting the friar to his band of merry men.
Analyzing the Duel
This ballad is believed to be at least from the 15th century. It is possible that the poet behind the ballad envisioned Robin Hood and the curtail friar using 15th-century arming swords with simple crossguards. Likewise, they could have been envisioned using falchions and messer-like swords, which were common swords in England in the 15th century. However, if we assume that this ballad is as old as the Robin Hood legend, dating back to possibly the 13th century, then it is safe to assume that Robin Hood and the curtail friar were using arming swords with simple crossguards similar to what is shown in I.33 and other medieval manuscripts from the 13th and 14th century. Likewise, the buckler would be a simple round buckler, possibly made of leather, wood, metal, or a combination of the three.
Robin Hood and the curtail friar, who is later known as Friar Tuck, appear to be great sword and buckler duelists. I have a hard time imagining this telling of Friar Tuck as the fat and jolly friar commonly depicted. To be able to duel for six hours straight is no small feat, even for a legend!
Friar Tuck also seems relatively agile to evade or deflect an entire quiver of arrows launched by Robin Hood. It is interesting to see bucklers deflecting arrows in the poem. It makes me wonder if that is intended to show the audience just how skilled he is or if there is some cultural reference that has been lost to time the use of bucklers to deflect arrows. As a last-ditch effort, I suppose a buckler is better than nothing against arrows.
Nothing in the way of technique for swordsmanship is expressed in the poem, but there is a great takeaway modern sword practitioner can take from this: be calculated. In six hours of fighting, neither Robin Hood nor Friar Tuck performed a technique that would lead to getting hit. This shows great poise to not double and not to perform a suicidal action that would put themselves at risk. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck both recognized it was better for both combatants to live than to have two dead idiots. Plus, it would not be much of a tale if Robin Hood or Friar Tuck did not live to see the next adventure.
Of course, this is just a story and not necessarily representative of a real duel. However, the idea that a legendary sword and buckler duelist can fight for hours without getting struck is a goal we modern sword practitioners can strive for. Want to be a great sword and buckler fencer? Fight like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.
Robin Hood and the Curtail Friar is one of my favorite Robin Hood Tales. It is the story of how Friar Tuck, one of my favorite characters in the Robin Hood stories, joined the Merry Men. Ultimately, it is a tale of how Robin Hood showed up and started a fight with Friar Tuck, only to find his equal and make a friend out of it. It reminds me of how I made one of my best friends in high school (A tale for another day).
This also highlights some types of people who would be seen using swords and bucklers. Both rogues and friars alike are classic archetypes in the fantasy genre.
I hope you enjoyed this tale of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck and learning about sword and buckler from a less-than-common source in the world of HEMA.