20170209_135544

Thomas Dun: A Medieval Pirate & Highwayman

Robin Hood was not the only famous law breaker in medieval times. Alongside Robin Hood were figures such as Adam Bell and the subject of this blog post, the medieval pirate Thomas Dun.

When the word ‘pirate’ is mentioned, many people will have in mind the image of an eighteenth-century pirate: an eye-patch wearing, sabre rattling, and rum-sodden dissolute character. This is an image that was first given to pirates in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). It is an image that has gained further traction recently in Disney’s series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011) as well as the television show Black Sails (2014 onwards).

eustacethemonk
The Execution of a Medieval Pirate, Eustace the Monk

But piracy in the medieval period was different from the eighteenth century. Often pirates were merchants who had been permitted, as part of their employment, to plunder foreign ships. The right to plunder foreign ships was granted by the King, providing that the Crown received a portion of the booty. Thus we should think of these pirates more as ‘privateers’ under contract with the monarch, rather than the semi-organised criminal networks that existed in the eighteenth century.[i]

Regarding Thomas Dun, little is known of his life and exploits, but modern-day historians place him during the time of Edward II and the Scottish Wars. Apparently he fought on the side of Robert the Bruce, whose forces were engaged in repelling the English occupation of Scotland.[ii] To place the events of Thomas Dun’s life in terms of people’s understanding of popular culture, then, this man lived shortly after the events of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart (1995). The campaign against the English forces occurred in both England and Ireland, and as the Scottish King had no navy to speak of, he employed Dun to ferry Scottish soldiers across the Irish Sea.[iii] There also is another story about him purportedly having raided the port of Holyhead, Wales in 1315.[iv] And that is, in all honestly, the extent of what we know of the man’s life.

As with the lives of so many criminals, however, the details are embellished and their life story becomes something unrecognisable. Thomas Dun’s story was recounted in a number of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), all of which were written in the eighteenth century, which is over five hundred years after he is said to have lived.

Lincoln B. Faller divides the representation of criminals during the eighteenth century: heroes, in which category belong figures such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and James Mclean (1724-1750); there are also ‘buffoons’, and the type of thieves that belong in this category are men such as John Wheeler, a housebreaker who burgles a house and inadvertently ends up having sex with the mistress of the house. Finally, there is the brute, and into this category belongs killers such as Sawney Beanne and Dun.[v]

Smith and Johnson are at pains to present Dun as the worst type of criminal imaginable. Johnson says that

A man who is not forced from necessity, or a desire of pleasure, to become dishonest, but follows his natural dispositions in robbing and maltreating others, will, generally, be found to be destitute of every humane and generous principle. So will it be found with this character – a person of mean extraction.[vi]

Criminal biographers were never interested in historical facts, evident by the inclusion in their compendiums of the life of that noted robber, Sir John Falstaff. Thus, instead of depicting Dun as a Scottish pirate who flourished during the fourteenth century, he becomes an English highwayman who lived in the reign of Henry I, operating in the latter part of his reign. In fact, Scotland is not mentioned once in these criminal annals. Dun’s haunt is now depicted as being in Bedfordshire where,

He continued to commit many petty thefts and assaults, but judging it safer to associate himself with others, he repaired to a gang of thieves, who infested the country leading from St. Alban’s to Towcester, and they became such a terror.[vii]

Having spent half of his criminal career robbing and plundering in Bedfordshire, he then moved to Yorkshire (so say the criminal biographers), and proceeded to ‘commit many notorious robberies along the river Ouse’.[viii] After this he returned to Bedford and was eventually caught and suffered a gruesome death, according to Smith:

At length, seeing he could not escape and that he must die, he yielded, and then the executioners chopping off each hand at the wrists, his arms were cut off at the elbows, and all above that again within an inch of his shoulders; next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off five inches below the trunk, which after severing his head from was burnt to ashes.[ix]

There is not a more graphic account of execution than this in most of the criminal biographies I have seen. Smith and Johnson’s accounts then both end with saying that the town of Dunstable takes its name from the robber, due to the fact that Henry I built a garrison there. This, however, is pure fiction, and academics have provided more plausible accounts of the town’s etymology:

The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun, means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary. Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill.  Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.[x]

While his story continued to appear in some versions of The Newgate Calendar, Thomas Dun appears to have been forgotten about for a while, and his story did not make it into either Charles MacFarlane’s The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) or Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits Of English Highwaymen, Pirates And Robbers (1834). Curiously, the next literary representation of Dun’s life appears in a comic entitled Crime Must Pay the Penalty (1948).

thomas-dun-comic

As we can see, this is just one instance of how a criminal’s life has been remoulded and readapted throughout the centuries, and how the original historical details, such as Dun being a Scottish pirate, becomes unrecognisable when the details are placed in the hands of various authors who care not for historical facts.


Works Cited

Illustrations from comic taken from: https://pappysgoldenage.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/number-1923-thomas-dun-undone.html

[i] ‘Piracy in Medieval Europe’ Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library ed. by Jennifer Stock 3 Vols (Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2011), 3: 17-34.

[ii] William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (New York: Viking, 2014), p.120.

[iii] Tim Hodkinson, The Waste Land (Lulu Publishing, 2015), p.6.

[iv] ‘Photo Essay: Thieves, Pirates and Conwy Castle – a trip through medieval Wales’ Irish History Podcast [Internet <http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/photo-essay-thieves-pirates-and-conwy-castle/> Accessed 9 February 2017].

[v] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.127.

[vi] Charles Johnson, Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Street Robbers (London, 1734; repr. T. Tegg, 1839), p.81.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1933), p.17.

[ix] Smith, Highwaymen, p.19.

[x] Joan Curran, ‘Town History: 12th Century’ Medieval Dunstable [Internet <http://medievaldunstable.org.uk/thistory.html> Accessd 9 February 2017].

2

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” (1888)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is perhaps most famous nowadays for his brilliant novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). This post, however, is about a now little-known novel that he authored entitled The Black Arrow, which was originally serialised in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature over four months in 1883, and then published as a single volume five years later in 1888. It is a story about medieval outlaws during the War of the Roses (1455-1487). The novel appears to be a fusion of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834),[i] and the numerous Robin Hood children’s novels that were being published in the late Victorian period.[ii]

1

Stevenson was probably inspired to set his outlaw novel during the Hundred Years’ War as a result of having Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (1844). This history situates Robin and his merry men, not in the time of Richard I, a practice which had been popularised by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), but, as Stevenson does in his novel, between 1455 and 1487. In speaking of Warwick the Kingmaker (a prominent figure in the wars), Michelet writes that he was

The King of the enemies of property, of the plunderers of the borders, and corsairs of the Strait.[iii]

He then goes on to speak about how Robin Hood was one of Warwick’s men:

What is Robin Hood? The outlaw. Robin Hood is naturally the enemy of the man of the law, the adversary of the Sheriff. In the long series of ballads of which he is the hero, we find him first inhabiting the green woods of Lincoln. He is induced to quit them by the French Wars, so he turns his back on the Sheriff and the King’s deer, seeks the sea and crosses it […] All Robin Hood’s companions, all who were under ban of the law, were safe whilst Warwick (either personally or through his brother) was judge of the marches of Calais and Scotland.[iv]

4

Notwithstanding Michelet’s highly suspect scholarship, Stevenson must have been convinced that the time of the wars between Lancaster and York was the perfect period in which to set an outlaw novel. He singles out this passage in his own personal copy of the book.[v] While some of the illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (who worked under Robin Hood author, Howard Pyle, and provided the illustrations to Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures in 1917) in the 1916 edition are clearly supposed to evoke ideas of Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, of course, is not a Robin Hood novel; I suspect (but cannot prove) that the reason Stevenson did not utilise the famous outlaw in his novel is because of the fact that, by the late-Victorian period, the idea that the outlaw flourished during the 1190s has almost become a ‘fact’ in historical writing.

The prologue of the novel is quite sinister, opening with the death by an arrow which is fired out of the forest and directed at a seemingly innocent, harmless and friendly old man named Appleyard in the village churchyard:

An arrow sang in the air, like a huge hornet; it struck old Appleyard between the shoulder blades, and pierced him clean through, and he fell forward on his face among the cabbages.[vi]

The novel evokes the Gothic: family secrets are exposed, past crimes come to light, and as in Ainsworth’s Rookwood, which featured Dick Turpin (1705-1739) it is an outlaw/brigand who is instrumental in exposing these. Immediately after Appleyard’s death, another arrow is fired from afar and lands among the group assembled at the Church. Attached to the arrow is a letter:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,

Four for the greefs that I have felt,

Four for the number of ill menne,

That have opressid me now and then.

One is gone, one is wele sped,

Old Apulyard is ded.

One is for maister Bennet Hatch,

That burned Grimstone, walls and Thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,

That cut Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shall have the fourt,

We shall think it fair sport.

Ye shull each have your own part,

A blak arrow in each blak heart.

Get ye to your knees for to pray:

Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!

“John Amend-All. Of the Green Wood. And his Jolly Fellowship.”[vii]

In contrast to Robin Hood and the other outlaw stories that were circulating at this period, which often present a ‘merrie England’ view of the past, it is clear that this is a story of revenge. Among those assembled in the churchyard is Dick Shelton, who is perplexed at the note because it appears to imply that those closest to him, including Sir Daniel, whose ward he is, are responsible for his father’s murder. Upon finding out that his guardian, Sir Daniel, had his father murdered, young Dick teams up with the outlaws to get revenge on the murderous noblemen.

3

While the novel appeared in a children’s magazine and is viewed by academics as a children’s book (and has even been portrayed by the BBC as a kids’ television show), the only “childlike” thing about it is the fact that it features an adolescent protagonist. The novel’s fairly detailed plot recalls earlier highwaymen novels. Finally, while it is not part of the Robin Hood canon of stories, it does deserve a place, if not within, then alongside the study of other Robin Hood texts.


References

[i] R. L. Stevenson, ‘To Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1881’ in The Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson ed. by Ernest Mehew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp.197-98; it is known that Stevenson admired Ainsworth (1805-1882), for in a letter to a friend named Edmund Gosse he urged him, while visiting London, to ‘go and see Harrison Ainsworth, and if you do, give him my homage’.

[ii] Examples of these late-Victorian and Edwardian Robin Hood children’s books are numerous, of which a few are named here: Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]); Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897); Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood (London, 1840); Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912).

[iii] Jules Michelet, The History of France Trans. G. H. Smith 2 Vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1882), 2: 319.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the annotated database of Stevenson’s library books at the following website: ‘What Stevenson Read – His Personal Library’ Robert Louis Stevenson Website [Internet <http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/169-robert-louis-stvensons-library/> Accessed 3 February 2017].

[vi] Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow (London: Cassell, 1888; repr. London: Cassell, 1916), p.9.

[vii] Stevenson, The Black Arrow, p.17.

aborigines

Charles Kinnaister: Executed for the Murder of Australian Aborigines (1838)

Broadly speaking, criminals fall into three types: heroes, buffoons, and brutes.[i] The categories are just as applicable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they are today – ‘heroes’ would be men like Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber of 1963, buffoons would be the types of offender featured in television shows such as America’s Dumbest Criminals (1996-2000), while the ‘brutes’ would include people such as Geoffrey Dahmer (1960-1994). This website usually deals with the criminal-as-hero types: outlaws and highwaymen whose crimes fall under the category of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘social banditry’,[ii] although I have featured the cannibal Sawney Beane whose story was inspiration behind the popular horror movie, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). It is about a set of brutes, or ‘monsters in human shape’,[iii] who were executed in nineteenth-century New South Wales that we turn our attention to today.[iv]

Outside of academia, the history of British colonialism is usually conceived of as one in which the colonisers – the British – committed atrocities against the indigenous population without any consequences. That the British were responsible for some ghastly humanitarian crimes during the time that they had an empire is certainly true, but the colonisers’ hands were not completely free to do as they pleased, as the execution of Charles Kinnaister and his men in 1838 for the murder of Australian aborigines illustrates.

cooks-map
Cook’s Map of the Coast of New South Wales and Botany Bay (1770)

A penal colony was established at New South Wales in 1788 following the “discovery” of the region in the 1770s by Capt. James Cook. Britain’s criminals, which previously had been shipped off to the Americas, as the eponymous title character of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), were now shipped off to Australia instead, a decision no doubt arrived at after the American colonies had declared their independence from Britain in 1783.

Charles Kinnaister, and his accomplices, William Hawkins, James Parry, Edward Foley, James Cates, John Russell, and John Johnson had all been transported in 1837. While transportation was designed to be a punishment, one of the ideas behind it was that some of the felons transported could serve as labourers for the local citizens, and thereby help to build up the colony. The men alluded to above were set to work as shepherds to a family of landowners in New South Wales.

One day, in the course of their duties, the men, along with one native free man called John Fleming (who, as Jillian Barnes notes, is usually left out of accounts of these murders)[v] rode beyond their masters’ lands and encountered a group of Australian aborigines. There were thirty of them in total. Kinnaister and his crew,

Tied them together with a rope, with the exception of one woman. This was done without a word being uttered, and with a cool and bloody determination. When all were thus secured, one end of the rope was tied around the body of the foremost of the murderers, who, having mounted his horse, led the way, dragging the terrified group after him, while his infamous companions guarded them on all sides.[vi]

The victims were dragged some distance and were then butchered with knives and swords,

‘Till all lay a lifeless mass, in death clinging to each other in the throes of natural affection’.[vii]

The murderers attempted to conceal their crimes as best they could by setting alight to the bodies. But after the fire died down, fragments of bones remained.

A professional police force in Britain had only been recently established in 1829, and the detective agency would not be established until 1842. Needless to say, policing and detection in the colonies was oftenn less efficient than it was in Britain. At this time period, Europeans still believed that God directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murderers. It is a belief expressed in the account of this crime in The Chronicles of Crime (1841); despite the men’s attempts to conceal their foul deeds,

The vengeance of providence was not to be thus thwarted; and although for a time these miscreants imagined they had effectually disguised their horrible work, circumstances led to their detection and apprehension.[viii]

It was birds that brought about these men’s arrest. After the murders, birds of prey were seen circling the place where the outrage had been committed. Some stock-men went to investigate and found the half-burnt carcases. Kinnaister and his accomplices were immediately suspected, owing to their past conduct, and upon examination the men admitted everything they had done.

The most ‘whole’ body that was left unburnt by the men was that of an indigenous man named ‘Daddy’. So it was for his murder that the men were indicted for. The next part of the story is where the racial prejudice in the minds of some of the colonialists becomes most apparent. Despite Kinnaister’s and his men’s admission of guilt, and the strong circumstantial evidence against them, an association was formed by some of the rich colonists to get the men acquitted. The best legal counsel was hired, and the defence lawyers argued that the murders were necessary because

They had been formed with the ostensible project of preserving the property of the settlers from the incursions of the [natives].[ix]

The defence convinced the jury, who found the men Not Guilty. It was a case of blatant racial prejudice, something which was acknowledged at the time. Camden Pelham, who recorded this event a few years later in The Chronicles of Crime, expresses his regret and shame that racial prejudices contributed to the acquittal.[x]

The prosecution did not rest, however, and two months later arraigned the men again, and this time they were justly found Guilty by the jury. The vile criminals were then hanged on 15 December 1838.


References

Header Image: Kinnaister and his Accomplices Murder the Aborigines. From Camden Pelham, The Chronicles of Crime (London, 1887), p.473.

[i] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.54.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Pelican, 1969).

[iii] Camden Palham, The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar. Being a Series of Memoirs and Anecdotes of Notorious Characters who have Outraged the Laws of Great Britain from the Earliest Period to 1841 (London: T. Tegg, 1841; repr. London: T. Miles, 1887), p.472.

[iv] Scholarship on this case includes the following articles: Patsy Withycombe & Jillian Barnes, ‘Representation and Power: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – “Australian Aborigines Slaughtered by Convicts” 1841’ Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues 18: 2 (2015), pp.62-67.

[v] Barnes, ‘Representation and Power’, p.67.

[vi] Pelham, Chronicles of Crime, p.473.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

hawke3

From Barman to Highwayman: The Case of William Hawke (d.1774)

Not every highwayman throughout history has achieved the fame of Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), Rob Roy (1671-1734), Dick Turpin (1705-1739), or Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). The names of most of the highwaymen who flourished in London during the eighteenth century have faded into insignificance. William Hawke is one such highwayman whose life story, while just as interesting as the robbers alluded, never had his story picked up by the likes of Walter Scott (1771-1832) or William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882).

hawke1
The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 135.

William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.

The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.

Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:

Field’s Defence.

I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.

Hawkes’ Defence.

I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]

This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).

hawke2
William Hawke Robbing Capt. Cunningham at Gunpoint – Illustration from The New Newgate Calendar 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 133.

Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,

Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]

Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).

The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,

Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]

In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:

Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]

Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:

I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]

Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.

By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.

When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.

The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.


References

ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM BOOKS IN MY PERSONAL COLLECTION

[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The New Newgate Calendar; or, Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg [n.d.]), p.133.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] William Hawke, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 18th May 1774 (t17740518-26) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].

[vi] Ibid.

rob-roy-main-pic-2

Rob Roy (1671-1734)

A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

The Life of Rob Roy

Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]

The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:

They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]

During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.

rob-roy-1723-main-pic
Illustration from: Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by A. Lang (London, 1829; repr. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2005).

However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James.  At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).

It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:

Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]

In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.

When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.

In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.

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The Highland Rogue. 1723. (c) ECCO

But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.

As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.

He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.

The Legend of Rob Roy

The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.

The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart

And wondrous length and strength of arm

Nor craved he more to quell his foes,

Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave;

Forgive me if the phrase be strong;–

A Poet worthy of Rob Roy

Must scorn a timid song.[iv]

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Title Page: Walter Scott, Rob Roy 1st Edn. (Edinburgh, 1818). Personal Collection.

However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:

It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]

Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.

Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.

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Aldine Rob Roy Library (c.1900)

References

[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]

[ii] The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.

[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’

[iv] The Complete Poetical Works by William Wordsworth ed. by John Morley (London: MacMillan, 1888) [Internet <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww242.html> Accessed 13 January 2017].

[v] Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by Andrew Lang (1829; repr. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2010), p.69.

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The Roman Robin Hood: Bulla Felix (fl. AD 205-207)

(Header Image: Two Roman Bandits Fighting – 19th-Century Print)

This post is a précis of the following article: B.D. Shaw, ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’ Past & Present No.105 (1984), pp.3–52, as well as supplemental information from Thomas Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality Trans. J. Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2004). The story of Bulla Felix will also appear in an extended form in my forthcoming book: The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Pen & Sword, 2018).


Introduction

Throughout human history it appears that, as long as an ‘upperworld’ has existed – mainstream society with laws and systems of government – there has also existed an ‘underworld’ – those who have transgressed the law and set themselves in opposition to society. The ancient world is full of examples of bandits. The book of Judges in the Old Testament refers to robber bandits:

The leaders of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills, who robbed everyone who travelled by on the road (Judges 9: 25, New English Translation).

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Jesus was Crucified along with two Bandits (17th-century print)

Indeed, Jesus used the example of bandits to provide the illustration to his parable of the Good Samaritan:

After careful consideration, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of bandits. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead (Luke 10: 30, New International Version).

This post aims to introduce readers to a man who can justifiably be called ‘The Roman Robin Hood’: Bulla Felix, who flourished as a bandit in Brundisium, Southern Italy between 205 and 207 AD.

Interfectus a latronibus (“Killed by Bandits”)

The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits: Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile populations but also to protect travellers from robbers; similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.

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(c) Bernard D. Shaw, Past & Present

Yet in spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs.

Indeed, there was a sense that bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified.

The Life of a Latrones

What type of person, then, became a bandit in the Roman Empire?

Shaw notes that it was mostly army veterans and deserters who took to this course of life. Their training in a state-sanctioned violent profession gave them the tools and experience in combat that they needed to turn to a life of banditry. Indeed, for some soldiers this way of life was their only recourse: the bonuses and earnings of a demobilised soldier were very frugal, and they needed to find some way to support themselves.

Another type of profession that was closely associated with banditry was that of a shepherd. The people who followed this profession were usually poor, yet a shepherd in the mountains would have known the local terrain, and often operated in areas where the state enforcement of the law was weak. Moreover, the shepherd could move about these places relatively quickly.

It is one thing to rob travellers on the highway, but it is another thing to dispose of the stolen goods. Most Roman bandits, as thieves in all ages, required the services of a receptator (a fence) to sell their stolen articles to. Often, as is the case with shepherds, the fences were usually local worthies who turned a blind eye and asked no awkward questions as to how certain items magically appeared in a bandit’s possession. The fences, if caught, were liable to the same punishments as bandits themselves – the amphitheatre, burning, or crucifixion.

Bulla Felix – the Roman Robin Hood

The main details of Felix’s life come from the writings of Cassius Dio, a Roman historian. One cannot help but be struck by the number of similarities between him and the much more famous English bandit, Robin Hood.

Like Robin Hood is said to have done, Felix headed a substantial army of around 600 men. Yet despite the attempts of the emperor to capture him,

[Felix] was never seen when seen, never found when found, and never caught when caught.

It was not simply an army of 600 brutish fighting men that he had built up but a sophisticated intelligence network: the information he received from those loyal to him allowed him to stay one step ahead of the law.

Another similarity to Robin Hood is that Felix only stole from the rich, and what is more, he gave a lot of these proceeds to the poor. This is another reason why he was always able to evade the authorities: the locals were loyal to him and his men. If the writings about him are to be believed, Felix was an early example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘a social bandit’: someone whom the lord and the state regard as criminal, but who remain within peasant societies and are looked up to as champions, freedom fighters, righters of wrongs.

Felix, like his medieval successor Robin Hood, was also a master of disguise, and there is one particular incident in particular which is reminiscent of a scene from early Robin Hood literature:

While in disguise he approached the Roman military officer who had been tasked with “exterminating” his gang. Bulla told the officer that he knew where Bulla could be found (not a lie) and said that he would betray Bulla if only the centurion would follow him to the bandit’s hideout. The gullible officer swallowed the bait and advanced into a wooded thicket where Bulla’s men promptly took him prisoner. Back in Bulla’s camp there ensued a piece of serio-comic drama in which Bulla reversed the normal lines of authority. He donned the official robes of a Roman magistrate, climbed onto a tribunal and summoned the centurion, with his head shaven, before his “court”. Bulla then delivered his sentence: “Carry this message back to your masters: let them feed their slaves so that they might not be compelled to turn to a life of banditry” (Shaw, 1984, p.47).

This is like a scene in the fifteenth-century ballad Robin Hood and the Potter, in which Robin, disguised as a potter, is invited to dine with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin informs the Sheriff that he can take him to meet Robin Hood and capture him. The Sheriff agrees, but when he and Robin are in the forest, Robin blows his horn at which all his outlaws come running, and Robin reveals his true identity. Robin allows the Sheriff to leave on the condition that he vows never to molest him and the outlaws again. The Sheriff, humiliated, agrees and is permitted to leave. Neither story is probably true.

In the end, it was a woman who proved to be Felix’s downfall: the authorities found out about a certain woman that he was intimately involved with. She was convinced to betray him for a fee. Felix was later arrested while sleeping in his cave. He was sentenced to be thrown into the wild beast pit and he was torn limb from limb.

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My Forthcoming Book: “The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers” (2018)

In addition to my PhD thesis entitled ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700-c.1900’ and my forthcoming book, The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler (2018), I have also been contracted to author another book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers which is due to be published by Pen & Sword Books in September 2018.

The book aims to resurrect the format of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as those by Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson, who authored books such as A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1714) and Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) respectively.

It is envisaged as a cultural history of crime, being a readable and scholarly compendium of short biographies of the most notorious thieves, reprobates, rogues, and murderers throughout history. I will discuss whether Robin Hood was a real person, and I will introduce readers to Sawney Beane, the seventeenth-century Scottish cannibal whose story inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The book will also contain several appendices such as a Dictionary of Thieves’ Cant, as well as several poems on highwaymen from historical works, such as the following one from William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834):

Of every rascal of every kind,

The most notorious to my mind,

Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind

Which Nobody Can Deny

But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,

For lute, oranto and madrigal,

Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall

Which Nobody Can Deny […]

Nor could any so handily break a lock,

As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,

And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock

Which Nobody Can Deny

Nor did the highwayman ever possess,

For ease, for security, danger, distress,

Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!

Which Nobody Can Deny.

Having over the years also built up a collection of penny dreadfuls and criminal biographies, the book will also be profusely illustrated throughout with images taken from these rare items.

Below is a copy of the blurb which will appear on the back of the book:

“For as long as human societies have existed there have always been people who have always transgressed the laws of their respective societies. It seems that whenever new laws are made, certain people find ways to break them.

“This book will introduce you to some of the most notorious figures, from all parts of the world, who have committed heinous crimes such as highway robbery, murder, and forgery.

“Beginning with Bulla Felix, the Roman highwayman, this book traces the careers of medieval outlaws such as Robin Hood. Early modern murderers make an appearance such as Sawney Beane, whose story inspired the horror movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977). There is Jack Sheppard, an eighteenth-century criminal who escaped from prison on several occasions, and the ruffian Dick Turpin. There is the Scottish freedom fighter Robert Roy MacGregor, who was immortalised in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), as well as the Eastern European outlaw Janosik. Australian bushrangers such as Ned Kelly and the American Jesse James also make an appearance, along with many others whose names have become synonymous with crime and roguery.

“This book also includes an appendix of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thieves’ canting language, as well as several historical poems, songs, and ballads relating to the subjects discussed, and the work is prefaced with an essay highlighting the significance of crime literature throughout history.”

Further updates will follow.

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E. L. Blanchard’s “The Mysteries of London” (1849-50)

My previous post was about Thomas Miller’s continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny blood The Mysteries of London (Reynolds and Miller’s series were published between 1844 – 1848 and 1848 – 1849 respectively). I managed to track down a copy of it from a second-hand book store. But when I was busy scanning through the images I realised that it also contained Edward L. Blanchard’s The Mysteries of London which was serialised between 1849 and 1850. Two rare books for the price of one is a good bargain.[i]

Blanchard (1820 – 1889) was a journalist and a playwright. He is not particularly distinguished in the annals of Victorian literature, and I had only heard of him in passing before becoming acquainted with his book. The magazines he contributed to include Fun, The Illustrated Times, The Era Almanack and Annual, The Observer, and The Era. He also served as the editor of Chambers’ London Journal (1841) and the New London Magazine (1845). The plays that he wrote include unremarkable pieces such as See Saw Margery Daw, or, Harlequin Holiday and the Island of Ups and Downs (1856). Of the literary works he penned, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that they were mostly ‘unmemorable novels’.[ii]

The ODNB further records that he was pretty inoffensive, and there is nothing to suggest that he shared either Reynolds’ republican sympathies or Miller’s Chartist sentiments. Indeed, the illustrations accompanying Blanchard’s Mysteries are not as violent or as racy as those of Reynolds, and there is certainly no nudity in any of them unlike there was in Reynolds’ first series. In fact, the illustrations seem a lot more ‘domesticated’ than the previous serials. Perhaps the series had been running so long by the time Blanchard was writing that it had ceased to be sensational.

There are actually two books in Blanchard’s version of the Mysteries, and each tells a different story (having only got the books a week ago, I have only skim read the books thus far). The first follows Reynolds and Miller by telling a story of vice and crime in Victorian high and low life. So I’m guessing that The Mysteries of London was like the modern day television show American Horror Story: an anthology series which with different cast and characters in each series, as evident in the introduction:

Again the curtain has descended on the characters that have figured in our former histories, and again we raise it to disclose others that have yet to appear before the eyes of those who watch our onward progress

Curiously, the second book is actually set during the late eighteenth century and the Regency. As you will see from the gallery below, the second set of images depicts men and women in eighteenth-century and Regency style clothing.

Enjoy the images – as far as I can ascertain this version of The Mysteries of London has not yet been digitised by any university library.

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References

[i] To find out which public and scholarly libraries hold this book, see the listings on the Price One Penny Database: http://www.priceonepenny.info/database/show_title.php?work_id=276.

[ii] Jane W. Stedman, ‘Blanchard, Edward Litt Leman (1820–1889)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2602 Accessed 16 Dec 2016]. Other biographical works on Blanchard include Scott Clement and Cecil Howard, The Life and Reminisces of E. L. Blanchard (London: Hutchison, 1891).

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Thomas Miller’s “The Mysteries of London; or, Lights and Shadows of London Life” (1849)

Thomas Miller’s The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1849) is a continuation of G. W. M. Reynolds’ eponymous penny blood serialised novel published between 1844 and 1848 (Reynolds had been inspired by an earlier French serial entitled The Mysteries of Paris published in 1844 by Eugene Sue). Reynolds decided to quit writing the Mysteries for two reasons: he had not only grown tired of writing it but had also fallen out with his publisher.[i] Miller, who was a skilled novelist, was chosen by the publisher, George Vickers, to continue the very popular serial. The Mysteries of London, in fact, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era.

I have only recently tracked down a copy of Miller’s continuation of the Mysteries and have not had time to read it as yet. Like Reynolds’ first and second volume of the Mysteries, it does not yet appear to have been digitised by Nineteenth-Century Collections Online or the British Library, and is quite rare.[ii] Furthermore, it has not, thus far, been subjected to critical analysis.

Miller will be familiar to readers of this blog as the man who authored the Robin Hood novel, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838). Interestingly, from my own position as a Robin Hood researcher, the principal aristocratic villains of Miller’s Mysteries has the same surname of De Marchmont, the same name as one of the cruel Norman antagonists in Miller’s Robin Hood story. Furthermore, one of the principal female protagonists in Miller’s novel is named Marian, and she has travelled from a village near Sherwood to seek her fortune in London. Given that Miller’s Mysteries was written partially to highlight the abuses and corruption of the aristocracy, perhaps he was trying to incorporate the world of the Mysteries into the Robin Hood universe, in order to show that, even from the medieval period, aristocrats are villainous, self-serving, and corrupt.[iii]

Once I have read the novel in full an analysis and commentary will follow. This post is only to highlight some of the pictures that appeared in the serial. Permission is freely granted to use the pictures, should anybody wish to do so – a citation to the website is all that is asked as it does take a lot of time to scan these images in and upload them on the website (I had a recent twitter spat with a certain popular history magazine after they used one of my images).

See also my post on E L Blanchard’s Mysteries sequel.


References

[i] Anne Humpherys, ‘An Introduction to G. W. M. Reynolds’ “Encyclopedia of Tales”’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.125.

[ii] See listings on Price One Penny database: copies are available in Bishopsgate Library, British Library, Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, Kansas University Library, Uni. California, Senate House, and Minneapolis Central Library www.priceonepenny.info

[iii] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), p.155; Knight says that Miller was ‘a serious radical’ and ‘a dedicated Chartist’. While there is sympathy for the Chartist cause in his work, I can find no overt reference in either Miller’s writings or those of Chartist historians to suggest that he played a role in the movement. His main association with Chartism seems to have come from the fact that he was friends with Thomas Cooper throughout his life.

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‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.

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Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]

(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)

That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.

Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to

Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

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Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:

My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]

The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:

Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]

Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.

After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:

Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]

Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.

While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).


REFERENCES

[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).

[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.

[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.