Friar Tuck is a considered to be a main member of Robin Hood’s legendary band of outlaws. Although not mentioned in the earliest surviving stories, the friar has become an integral part of Robin Hood Lore. He is often represented as a nature loving man who could not survive the rigors and rules of life in a monastery.
The introduction of Friar Tuck into the historical legends is tricky, as the time period of Robin Hood is believed to predate the arrival of friars into England. Only one surviving ballad of Robin Hood mentions the friar. In Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, Robin does battle with him until the friar summons wild dogs to help him fend off Robin’s outlaws. At a stalemate, Robin invites him into the band. In later tales, Will Scarlet introduces Friar Tuck to Robin when the band helps a bard rescue his sweetheart and needs a religious man to marry them.
Friar Tuck is believed to have originated like Maid Marian, as part of traditional May Day festivals. May Day plays from 1475 and 1560 tell a story much like Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, where Tuck has been thrown out of his order for lack of respect. He is a lover of food and drink, and joins the band to become their minister.
In the original story and many subsequent versions, Robin and Tuck engage in a battle of wits. Usually, by threat or trickery, Robin forces Tuck to carry him across a river. These tales almost always conclude with the friar tossing Robin into the water, often resulting in a swordfight. This tradition leads to two distinct versions of the character: the lazy, ale-quaffing, comical Tuck, and the angry, rebellious master swordsman.
Possibly because of the origination as May Day characters, Friar Tuck is sometimes portrayed in relation to Marian. Often, he is her chaplain or long-time confessor, and sometimes he is essential in helping Marian escape to Sherwood. In some versions, Tuck is called upon to marry Robin and Marian.
The character often serves as a link between the outlaw band and the outside world. While he is often portrayed as living with the outlaws, there are also interpretations that show Friar Tuck as maintaining a church in the poor villages surrounding Sherwood Forest. By maintaining a respectable position in the towns, this version of the friar is able obtain information on Robin’s nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and help to discover any plots the evil sheriff may be forming.
As he did not enter the stories until centuries after the original ballads of Robin Hood, Tuck remains a shadowy figure open to interpretation. Most writers have used him as they see fit, to further plot development and offer insight into other characters. Unlike with Robin Hood and Will Scarlet, there is no evidence that a historical Friar Tuck existed. Nevertheless, the friar is included in nearly every modern adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, and has a firm place in the lore of the outlaws of Sherwood.