Will Scarlet is a legendary character believed to be one of the outlaws under the rule of Robin Hood. Will appears in the earliest surviving ballads of Robin Hood, and is often portrayed as the son of a noble who escapes into Sherwood. There is some confusion regarding Will Scarlet’s character, as some ballads list a character named Will with an alternate last name beginning with the letter S. Most modern literary traditions accept all of these other men as personifications of Will Scarlet.
Will Scarlet’s origin is believed to be first told in the story Robin Hood Newly Revived, written at an undetermined time. In this story, Will Gamwell is a nobleman who has run away after killing his father’s steward. He also claims that Robin Hood is his uncle. Robin chooses to take him in, renaming him Scarlet.
Whereas commoners rarely received sword training, the nobleman Will Scarlet would have been trained. He is often depicted as an excellent swordsman, sometimes fighting with two swords at once. In a variation, the 2006 British Broadcasting Company series Robin Hood Will is portrayed as a carpenter who fights with two axes.
In traditional stories and modern interpretations, Will is usually portrayed as being much younger than the rest of the Merry Men. This may stem from the original tale marking him as Robin’s nephew. The earliest stories that exist of Robin Hood often show Will as particularly concerned with justice and caution. In the very first existing tale, A Gest of Robyn Hode, Will convinces Robin to provide a poor and honest knight they have captured with a horse and clothing that befits his station. In another tale, Robin Hood’s Death Will wants Robin to take a bodyguard with him on his next adventure, which Robin refuses to do.
Will is often considered one of Robin’s best allies and friends. The earliest ballads mention Robin, Little John, and Will as primary companions, undertaking many adventures with just the three of them. In William Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, Part II, a ballad of Robin, John and Will are mentioned. Yet other than his natural wisdom, very few character traits are known about the original Will.
Perhaps because of the name “Scarlet,” which he is given for wearing bright red stockings, Will is frequently portrayed in literature and film as a clotheshorse or dandy. In the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn as Robin, Will dresses in red, objects to having to sleep outdoors, and plays the lute, and sings.
This version may be the result of a combination of Will’s character with the later introduced bard of the Robin Hood ballads, a lovelorn singer named Alan-a-dale. In one ballad, Alan appears begging for Robin’s help rescuing the girl he wishes to marry. A similar, earlier story exists, of which the lover is not Alan-a-dale but Will Scarlet.
Because so little is truly known about the character, authors and filmmakers have taken a variety of approaches to his personality. Occasionally, as in the 1980s television show Robin of Sherwood, Will is portrayed as a battle-sick soldier, tired of the crusades. In comical adaptations, the character is often flamboyantly dressed and somewhat ridiculous. A famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation places the Klingon Warf as Will Scarlet, horrified with his part. In the farcical Robin Hood: Men In Tights Will is a swordsman from Georgia whose full name is Will Scarlett O’Hara.
There is no conclusive evidence linking the character of Will Scarlet to any real person. Some records exist of a William Schakelock in the Nottingham area, contemporary with Robin Hood. Experts tentatively conclude that this may be the source for the historical Will. The outlaw is traditionally believed to be buried at the Church of Saint Mary, in a town that was once part of Sherwood forest.