written by Victoria Howell

Ask anyone to list members of Robin Hood’s Merry Men and the odds are that Will Scarlett’s name will come up. Maybe not first – that’ll probably be Little John or Friar Tuck, let’s be honest! – but he’ll definitely be in the top three.

That’s Will – Who Now…?

Though this character from the Robin Hood legend is now firmly established as Will Scarlett, in the original ballads he seems to have had a bit of an identity crisis… Known variously as Will Scarlock, Scadlock, Shacklock, Scatheloke and Scathelocke, he has also been called Will Gamwell, Gamewell, Young Gamewell and Gamble Gold. And sometimes, just for good measure, he is not Will anything, but morphs into a hybrid character with Allan-a Dale!

His origin stories are also diverse. In the earliest ballads, Will is already part of Robin’s gang, although a very minor character. One ballad has Will as the fiance to a bride that Robin rescues, while later ballads give him a backstory as Young Gamwell who killed his father’s steward. In this version, Robin finds him walking in the woods dressed in fine red silks, which is where he gets his name. Robin challenges him and Will proves himself an expert swordsman. He then turns out to be Robin’s nephew and joins the outlaws. Though sometimes he’s Robin’s cousin and sometimes his half-brother.

Anyhoo…! Whatever name he’s known by and whatever his backstory, Will is one of the oldest characters in the legend, appearing in three out of the four earliest surviving ballads. Not that he gets much to do in those early tales, he just wanders around with Robin, doling out advice or in the background of adventures. During the 18th and 19th centuries he starts to solidify as Will Scarlett, but is still not widely featured in the stories. 

Will On Film

As with the ballads, Will Scarlett has also been a character in the films from the very beginning – and like the ballads he initially doesn’t have much to do beyond supporting Robin and giving advice.

The triple Oscar winning 1938 film ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, which set the template for early 20th century film and television depictions, features Will as a scarlet-clad character called Will O’Gamwell, played by Patrick Knowles. Here he’s an already established member of Robin’s gang, a fashionista who likes to play the lute, and it’s this merry sidekick version that persists throughout the TV versions of the 1950s and 60s. It’s not until the 1980s and beyond that Will really starts to have his own arc within the stories, though the versions of his character remain more diverse than any others from the original legend.

In the TV series ‘Robin of Sherwood’ (1984-86), Will, played by Ray Winstone, is a mercenary; a damaged, dangerous man, known as Scarlet for the amount of blood he’s spilt revenging the death of his wife, he is hot-headed and questions Robin’s leadership. Christian Slater’s version in ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (1991) has a similar combative attitude towards Robin, though in this case it’s because he’s Robin’s outcast half-brother. In the BBC’s 2006 series ‘Robin Hood’, on the other hand, Harry Lloyd’s Will is a shy, mild-mannered carpenter who supports Robin; while in the latest film version, ‘Robin Hood’ (2018), with Robin away at war, Will, now played by Jamie Dornan, is Marian’s love interest and later becomes the Sheriff of Nottingham.

However, like many of the characters, he does have a real-world grave! In the churchyard at Blidworth in Nottinghamshire, the cornerstone of a previous building acts as an unofficial marker to the grave of Will Scarlett. According to the ballads, he did not live past his youth, being killed in a battle with the Sheriff’s men – that is unless we go by the ballad that says he was pardoned and rode off into the sunset having married a princess and been reconciled with his father, the Earl of Maxfield, or is that Mansfield?… Like all things Will related, there are variations. 

Our Version and His Role in the Story

In keeping with tradition, our Will is also a departure from the legend – although he does retain his predecessors’ sense of style…!

Born and raised in the Outer Circle, Will has seen everything and everyone he loves taken from him. His mother died of a very curable illness, due to lack of medical care; his twin sister Kate has disappeared, and Will believes she is being held at the castle. Outraged by the wall and the inequality it stands for, he is now head of a rebellion, living out in Greenwood, a heavily fortified derelict industrial site, which has become a haven for those cast out from the city. From here he plans his campaigns against the king and the sheriff, and combats the propaganda put out by state news channels with regular appearances on the Outlaw Radio channel, run by rebel tech whiz Bucky.

When we meet him, our Will is, in many ways, a proxy Robin Hood. Seen as a terrorist by the Inner Circle, to the poor he is a hero, taking from the rich to provide for those in the Outer Circle and Greenwood. Without him, many would have starved long ago. 

But he is also responsible for a large number of bombings around the city and although he does not target civilian or occupied sites, there has been inevitable collateral damage and several casualties. Will genuinely believes that everything he does is for the good of the people and towards a fairer, more equal society. But he is a blunt instrument and his violent tactics are only making things worse – which is beginning to splinter his support. And with the return of People’s Champion, Robyn Loxley, Will is very aware he’s no longer the only option for the poor of Nottingham.

Sound Off

Do you think Will’s actions are justifiable? Is it ever right to use violence to achieve a goal? How would you fight back against an unfair regime?