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Ever since the 1984 ITV adaptation of Robin Hood, the addition of a Muslim warrior to the band of Merry Men has been a staple of the mythology. From a storytelling perspective, the benefits are clear: the Muslim/Western tension provides a modern resonance, and the character itself provides a valuable outsider's perspective on life in 12th century England.

But getting a Muslim warrior to England always seems to require a lot of effort on the part of the writer.

  • How realistic is this in general? Is there any evidence of any Muslims this far north-west in Christian Europe, around this period?
  • What would be the most realistic way for this to happen. Could it be part of a trade mission, a diplomatic mission? Is there any reason captured soldiers might be taken back to Europe?
  • How would the English respond to a Muslim in their midst? Could you walk down the street in London, or would you be in danger of arrest for just looking weird?

Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner image source

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    "Islam has been around in Britain for much longer than most people realise. The world map of the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Idrisi provides evidence of the presence of Muslim traders on the south coast and in Cornwall." - The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800 by Humayun Ansari – called2voyage Sep 23 '15 at 16:35
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    Not sure of the historicity of the above, but given its direct relevance it is probably worth digging deeper into. – called2voyage Sep 23 '15 at 16:36
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    I can only tell that neither a Muslim in 12 century England, nor Robin Hood himself would be dressed in these idiotic Holywood designed uniforms. And second, I am not sure that discussion of movies is a legitimate subject here. Most "hostory movies" have really NOTHING to do with history. – Alex Sep 23 '15 at 18:04
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    @Alex I put the picture in there just to liven up the page. The question isn't about any movie in particular. And so long as the question is asking about the historical facts behind popular fiction, I don't see the problem. – Peter Sep 23 '15 at 18:29
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    Robin of Sherwood was NOT produced by the BBC but by Goldcrest in collaboration with HTV, part of the independent ITV network. You are correct though in identifying it as the source of a Muslim companion. This character was a pure invention by writer Richard Carpenter and not based on history. The Hollywood film Prince of Thieves then stole this character/concept (probably unwittingly) without giving Carpenter any credit. He discusses this briefly on one of the RoS DVD commentaries. – TheMathemagician Apr 13 '16 at 8:34
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There is almost no direct historical evidence that openly-practicing Muslims were LIVING in the British Isles in the decades and centuries after the Norman Invasion. But I guess I'll start this post by highlighting the one prominent fringe hypothesis that would say otherwise (note that I mean hypothesis in a loose scientific sense here, as in a well-researched conclusion that has not gained widespread acceptance). The geneticist and demographer Donald Yates in The Early Jews & Muslims of England & Wales claims that he has discovered distinct pockets of Muslim patrilineage among UK citizens in Wales and Lincoln. According to Yates, these individuals possess the "right" North African genetic markers and surnames to surmise that they are descended from 9th-11th century Moorish merchants. However; Yates is the only resource out there making this claim and it is such a recent one (2014) that there hasn't been a lot of outside investigation by historians that would confirm this conjecture.

On the other hand, the historical record is full of examples of English-Islamic cultural exchanges going back as far as the 8th century. Note that we can't necessarily assume that these cultural exchanges were a product of Muslim traders coming to Britain (many Islamic ideas about science, trade, and jurisprudence came to Britain via contact with the Normans), but the influence was nevertheless significant. Examples include when Offa, the 8th century King of Mercia, ordered the minting of gold coins designed to resemble the dinars of the Abassid Caliphate. The reason for doing so was to apparently facilitate Mercian traders venturing to Muslim Spain and southern France. How about another example: Islamic geographers from the 9th century included Britain on their maps. Also, starting around the time of the Third Crusade, if not earlier, the Latin-translated works of highly-regarded Muslim scholars were also making their way to England and being studied by intellectuals of the period (see writings of Roger Bacon and Chaucer).

As far as hard population numbers and primary source documentation of a permanent Muslim presence in England, you won't get that until the Elizabethan period I'm afraid. For various reasons, these folks also tended to be native English who converted (save the Ottoman diplomatic delegation to the Court of Elizabeth), so it's doubtful they "stood out on the street". Good luck in your search.

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    the entire claim seems more to do with rewriting history than any scientific fact... While Moorish raiders and slave traders are known to have invaded the British isles in the late middle ages, often taking into slavery entire villages and taking them off to north Africa, they weren't there to stay. – jwenting Sep 24 '15 at 6:04
  • @jwenting if you're referring to Yates' claim, you're right. The evidence beyond his original research is flimsy. I included it here however because his book is still considered a legitimate work of peer-reviewed historiography. – Kanapolis Sep 24 '15 at 13:28
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    yes, I meant Yates' claim. While it's probably impossible to disprove there were any muslims living in what's now the UK permanently at the time, his claims are completely unfounded. – jwenting Sep 24 '15 at 14:11
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    How is it possible to have " Muslim patrilineage"? Islam is a religion, not a racial or ethnic group. It's of course possible that there were e.g. Moorish (North African) traders who formed relationships with local women and fathered children, but there's no way to know whether or not those men were Muslims. – jamesqf May 25 '18 at 3:16
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Medieval Lincoln was known for having a Jewish community. Sephardic Jews seem a more likely source for this DNA than North African Muslims. – TheMathemagician May 25 '18 at 8:49
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Since the background of the Robin Hood legend is, in most cases, based on the events surrounding the Third Crusade (1189–1192), the intoduction of the Saracen (as Muslims were called then) character Nasir in the Robin of Sherwood series is very straightforward and plausible:

  • he was taken, as a prisoner, back to England

So it would seem that the British screenwriter Richard Carpenter invested some time to do some research, which is one reason why British series tend to be of a higher quality than their US counterparts.


So it is plausible that some Muslims arrived and remained in England during this time

  • founding families while doing so

The motivation to bring back the Muslim prisoner may have been to serve the feudal Lord as a warrior and therefore could very well have had a high standing.

Since England was a feudal society at the time, a prisoner of feudal Lord would probably not be in danger of arrest for just looking weird?

  • there were no police at the time

A feudal Lord enforced the Kings (or his own) will

  • through those serving him

So it is unlikely that a commoner would ask a servant of a feudal Lord to arrest a prisoner (likely a warrior himself) of that feudal Lord.


Robin Hood is a legendary heroic outlaw originally depicted in English folklore and subsequently featured in literature and film. According to legend, he was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. In some versions of the legend, he is depicted as being of noble birth, and in modern retellings he is sometimes depicted as having fought in the [Third] Crusades before returning to England to find his lands taken by the Sheriff.
...
Through retellings, additions, and variations, a body of familiar characters associated with Robin Hood has been created. These include his lover, Maid Marian, his band of outlaws, the Merry Men, and his chief opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff is often depicted as assisting Prince John in usurping the rightful but absent King Richard, to whom Robin Hood remains loyal.


Robin of Sherwood, Series

  • was produced by HTV in association with Goldcrest, and ran from 1984 to 1986 on the ITV network

Cast and characters - The Merry Men
...
Nasir (Mark Ryan)
A Saracen assassin, he was captured in Palestine by the Baron de Belleme and brought back to England to work as his henchman. After the Baron is killed by Robin, Nasir – having found respect for Robin during a crucial sword fight – decides to join the Merry Men. Throughout the series, he speaks very little.


Saracen is a despective term widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the Middle Ages to refer to Arabs and Muslims. The term's meaning evolved during its history. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Greek and Latin writings used this term to refer to the people who lived in desert areas in and near the Roman province of Arabia Petraea, and in Arabia Deserta. In Europe during the Early Middle Ages, the term came to be associated with tribes of Arabia. The oldest source mentioning the term Saracen dates back to the 7th century. It was found in Doctrina Jacobi, a commentary that discussed the event of the Arab conquests on Palestine.

By the 12th century, Saracen had become synonymous with Muslim in Medieval Latin literature. Such expansion in the meaning of the term had begun centuries earlier among the Byzantine Greeks, as evidenced in documents from the 8th century. In the Western languages before the 16th century, Saracen was commonly used to refer to Muslim Arabs, and the words Muslim and Islam were generally not used (with a few isolated exceptions). The term became gradually obsolete following the Age of Discovery.


Sources:

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Personally, I always hate it when a TV or movie producer takes some famous book and makes major changes to it, like adding a totally new character. Like hey, if you didn't like the story, write your own. Don't put your words into someone else's mouth just so you can piggyback on his popularity. There was certainly no such character in the original Robin Hood story. Whether this really is or will become a "staple of the mythology", we'll see I guess. But that little rant aside ...

To make a Muslim character living in England plausible, you don't have to suppose any large community of Muslims establishing a permanent residency in England. You just have to posit that ONE person could have made it there. And that seems pretty obviously possible. Others have noted that Muslims did visit England and trade with England in this period. You just have to suppose that among the hundreds(?) thousands(?) of Muslims who visited, one decided to hang around and join this particular group.

  • It's not just TV and movie guys that do this, Shakespeare did this too! – Mozibur Ullah May 26 '18 at 21:18
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    Hmm, of course Shakespeare made "historical dramas", took real history and made a fiction play out of it. Usually he was pretty faithful to his sources, though, I don't think he added whole new characters. Did Shakespeare "plagiarize" other writers for fiction plots? – Jay May 27 '18 at 23:00
  • @Jay He added whole characters in his histories Almost all of the characters for the "low" scenes in Henry IV, for example. He also dramatically changed ages and roles of characters from his sources, notably Hotspur in Henry IV and Rutland in Henry VI. – C Monsour Dec 2 at 17:07
  • @Jay Or perhaps the most famous example of a character of standing whom Shakespeare invented for his histories is Philip Faulconbridge from King John, who shares nothing with Philip of Cognac save his name and his identity as a bastard son of Richard I. His mother and his half brother Robert Faulconbridge are entirely fictional. Another example is Sir Piers of Exton, who kills Richard II. – C Monsour Dec 2 at 19:36
  • @Jay More Henry VI examples that are not "low" characters: Sir Richard Vernon and Sir William Lucy. – C Monsour Dec 2 at 19:39

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