Study Guide

Robert Fitzwalter in Magna Carta

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

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Robert Fitzwalter

The Real Robin Hood

Okay, take a deep breath. This may be upsetting, but you need to know something important.

Robin Hood wasn't real.

Yeah, it was all made-up, like the Tooth Fairy, Rudolph, and the Easter Bunny. Robin Hood is just a lie people tell to children. It's a mean, cruel world and you should definitely have yourself an ugly cry about it later…but right now you should read about someone who was real, and who may have been a kinda-sorta inspiration for Robin Hood.

Who Knows If He Could Even Shoot An Arrow

Robert Fitzwalter didn't steal from the rich and give to the poor. He was actually rich, having at least two castles and the title of baron, which meant that he had lots of people working for him, and paying him taxes, and occasionally paying his ransom when he was being held hostage. He also didn't spend his days lounging in a forest trying to impress his friends with the archery skills of Katniss Everdeen.

In addition to managing his estates, he was an attendant to the king, which is kind of like the king paying people to follow him around, be his friend, and hand him stuff. It sounds sad, but all kings used to have attendants and it was actually a coveted position that nobles fought for.

Remember that these weren't people who typically got much of a formal education. If you wanted to get ahead in life, you needed to suck up to royalty and attendants were in the perfect position to do that. The kings got lots of servants/guards and the feeling of importance, so it was win-win.

But He Was An Outlaw (For Awhile)

Fitzwalter followed King John around for a while in his groupie role, but at some point became so completely fed up with the king's frustrating behavior that he went home and started plotting revenge.

It isn't exactly clear what set Fitzwalter off. It may have been simply over taxation—which was a very common complaint among the barons at the time because King John was unapologetically money hungry. Or it may have been that King John was hitting on one of Fitzwalter's daughters, which was also a common complaint among the barons because King John was a sleazebag.

Whatever the reason, it lead to a skirmish where the king exiled Fitzwalter, burned down one of his castles, and took one of his forests for himself. The incident got the king so riled up he demanded each noble family send him a child hostage to insure their loyalty in the future. Yeah, King John's strategy for dealing with rebel barons was to hold a knife to the throat of their children just in case they might feel like disagreeing with him.

And He Did Go Around Fighting Sheriffs Over Forests

Fitzwalter was eventually let back into England where he joined up with other barons who had been wronged by King John's policies of basically taking whatever he wanted from everyone, and together they swore to change things.

This is where his story gets all Robin Hood-like. Fitzwalter was elected general of the rebel barons and they all started riding around England causing problems for the king. They weren't big battles; they were just generally a nuisance and involved a lot of breaking King John's unfair rules.

All the while the barons (with the help of the clergy) were preparing a list of demands so that when King John finally agreed to meet with them at Runnymede, they'd be ready. The clauses about not exiling or punishing people without a fair trial and the king not seizing lands are based on Fitzwalter's experience of unfair treatment.

After negotiations, the king did agree and Fitzwalter was to become one of the twenty-five barons who'd enforce the document.

But it turned out the king was just kidding around. So they all went back to fighting each other in what is known as the First Barons' War…where Fitzwalter didn't really do so great. He lost some battles and got taken hostage, but overall he survived and returned to his barony.

As an old man in 1225 he even got to witness King Henry III signing the new version of the Magna Carta—this time without the looming threat of war or any false pretenses. It must have felt good knowing that his suggestions to better handle the crimes of the privileged elite would actually be realized.

He may not be as inspiring as the Robin Hood myth, but he did stand up to a king (not too shabby). And he's also a big part of why we have juries and witnesses in courtrooms along with eminent domain laws.

So maybe it's time they stopped making movies about Robin Hood and started making them about Robert Fitzwalter, Baron of Little Dunmow. (No, on second thought maybe the name change was necessary.)

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