William Wallace 'sparked Robin Hood myth'

STEALING through Sherwood Forest with a feather in his cap and his band of Merry Men, outlaw Robin Hood is a towering figure in English folklore.

But it seems the origins of the mythical hero may lie in the form of Scottish arch-Anglophobe William Wallace, who carved his place in history by fighting English oppression.

A best-selling writer claims Wallace was the inspiration for the Robin Hood legends, after carrying out research for his latest novel. Jack Whyte, who specialises in historical fiction, explores the stories that surround the Scot in his new book The Forest Laird.

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One of the building blocks of his theory is The Lubeck Letter, which Wallace sent to the German city in 1297, a month after his famous victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, to persuade European traders that Scotland was still open for business. The artefact holds the only surviving example of Wallace's seal.

Whyte said: "The seal shows his personal emblem is a long bow. There, I thought, is the evidence that Wallace was a bowman. And when you dig into the research, it shows he worked for his uncle Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, Renfrewshire, and that he was a woodsman, the medieval equivalent of gamekeeper. He was accused of poaching and outlawed, so he spent much of his youth hiding in Selkirk forest.

"So here's this guy, an outlaw, a bowman, living in a forest, who has a girlfriend called Mirren, which is Scots for Marion. She is abducted and supposedly killed, as suggested in the film Braveheart, by the Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrigg."

Heselrigg was an Englishman appointed by "The Hammer of the Scots" Edward I and Whyte said his research suggests the sheriff did not kill Mirren but rather held her as a pawn to force Wallace's surrender.

He added: "Wallace being an archer, and this is my speculation, could easily have joined the ranks of the English disguised as an archer, killed William Heselrigg, which he most definitely did, and then went back into the forest where every right-thinking Scotsman in the south of Scotland joined him in the green wood.

"You don't have to be a rocket science to figure out the connections. You don't have to be a genius to add up two and two and get Robin Hood. And I firmly believe that this man, as a young man, was the archetype from which the legend of Robin Hood grew."

Whyte, 70, has published 14 novels over the past 20 years. He was born in Renfrewshire and left Scotland in 1959 for Canada, where he still lives.

He began work on The Forest Laird in the mid-1990s just before the release of the Hollywood hit Braveheart, which brought with it a wave of academic study into Wallace.

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He said: "Wallace is like Jesus in a small way. They came on to the stage at advanced stages in their lives. Both emerged fully formed into the public platform, had brief incandescent careers before suffering very public, prominent and notorious execution. Nobody knows what shaped the boy into the public figures each became.

"What I tried to do in this book was use newly published material, much of which is speculative but founded on known facts.

"All academics can do is deal with what has been empirically demonstrated. I write historical fiction, so I'm at liberty to take these historical nuggets and construct them into a feasible narrative."

Connections between Scotland and Robin Hood have been made before, although not involving Wallace. It has been claimed David of Scotland, the Earl of Huntington, was a possible template.

However Dr David Crook, a Robin Hood expert at the University of Nottingham, said he believed the figure was a real thief whose story has been embellished over the years.

He said: "It happens all the time. None of the theories I've ever heard of are on to anything as far as I'm concerned."

Dr Fiona Watson, a Wallace expert and senior lecturer at Stirling University, was also cautious about drawing any links between Wallace and Hood. "Nobody can definitely say ‘it isn't', just as they can't say definitely ‘it is', because you're dealing with an old culture you can't trace," she said.

"There are a lot of parallels between Wallace and the Merry Men in the sense that he certainly was an archer and it was quite likely that he potentially served in an English army at some point. It's a big leap of the imagination to say ‘therefore he is Robin Hood', but as a plot device in a novel it's as good as any."

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Watson said that the poet Blind Harry, who first documented Wallace's life, had taken liberties with his story to create a ‘magazine version', filling in gaps and fabricating other parts to give people what they wanted to hear.

"It says a lot more about the 1470s than it says about the early 1300s," she said.

However, Whyte said he did not pretend to be an academic historian. "I write speculative fiction based on the most thorough research I'm capable of pulling together," he said. "I'm drawing my allusions from bona fide, well-researched papers published by academics."