The Chartist Robin Hood: Thomas Miller’s “Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John” (1838)

The early nineteenth century witnessed two phenomenally successful Robin Hood novels: Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). After those two novels, authors took a break from casting Robin Hood in any of their historical romances. That was until the appearance of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838).

Thomas Miller (1807-1874) was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. His father died when he was very young as a result of having participated in the Burdett Riots in 1810, thus leaving Miller and his mother in desperate poverty. Despite the dire straits that the family were reduced to, however, Miller’s mother ensured that he received an education. From an early age he loved to read, and went on to become a poet and novelist. As far as his novels go, he appears to have been a ‘Jack of all trades’: capable of writing pastoral poetry, historical romance, and crime fiction. He even continued G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (1844-45) after Reynolds fell out with the publisher.[1]

The Robin Hood who appears in Royston Gower can justifiably be called the Chartist Robin Hood. Chartism was a political reform movement composed of middle-class radicals and working-class men that really began to pick up momentum in 1838, the year that Miller was writing. Indeed one of Miller’s life-long friends was the Chartist activist Thomas Cooper (1805-1892). The Chartists had six demands:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot.
  3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament.
  4. Payment of Members, enabling ordinary people to serve a constituency when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections.

Although the movement ultimately failed, gradually the British Parliament have actually implemented all-but-one of the reforms – that of annual elections.

Medieval heroes were often appropriated by Chartist activists. For example, the Chartists had a ‘Wat Tyler Brigade’, named after the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. And figures such as Wat Tyler and Robin Hood have been easily appropriated by radicals of all shades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, Robert Southey authored his dramatic poem Wat Tyler in 1794 which is highly supportive of the French Revolution. Thus although in its historicisation of Robin Hood Miller’s novel owes much to Walter Scott, and was meticulously researched from documents that Miller says he studied in the British Museum, in its political sentiments it is more alike to Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads (1795). Miller’s Robin Hood defiantly fights against the forces of King John, proudly declaring that ‘we own no tyrant’.[2] Miller presents Robin as a political reformer saying in his preface that his:

Earliest recollections of the brave freebooter are from “Robin Hood’s Garland,” which, embellished with rude woodcuts, represented this EARLY REFORMER as shooting deer, fighting rangers.[3]

In fact, advocating political reform is equated with patriotism in Miller’s novel, as he says that the outlaws in his novel are true patriots.[4] Miller’s novel was published in three volumes and retailed at a price of thirty-one shillings: the message for his affluent readers is that England’s great national hero Robin Hood would have been a Chartist/Reformer if he was alive in the nineteenth century, and readers should patriotically lend their support to the cause of political reform as well.

Significantly, while the growing trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Robin Hood literature had been to cast Robin as a nobleman, Miller gives him humbler social origins. In keeping with fifteenth-century Robin Hood poems, Robin is a yeoman. By the nineteenth century, the term ‘yeoman’ was understood to mean a small-scale land owner, as opposed to a person who was merely a tenant farmer. Thus Robin is definitely of the class that we might term the ‘labour aristocracy’. He is not a Lord standing up for the people, but is actually one of the people fighting for his rights and liberties.

Walter Scott’s idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans are opposed to each other is present in the novel, but in Miller’s novel the problem is not one of race but one of class. Miller highlights the fact that in the medieval period there were many good Normans living in poverty, and many good wealthy Normans.[5] What is needed in medieval England (and of course Victorian England), Miller argues, is complete reform of the political system. The problem back in the days of King John is a problem that would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers: Old Corruption.

Old Corruption was a term employed by middle-class radicals and the labour aristocracy in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century England to describe a political system in which the elites shored up their own interests at the expense of the people.[6] The callous and self-interested thirteenth-century elite are embodied in the character of the Norman nobleman De Marchmont, the principal villain of the tale, who Miller compares to nineteenth-century politicians:

The Baron gazed for a moment on the King, then cast his eyes towards the floor, as he feared his thoughts might be discovered; for he could not avoid comparing in his own mind the policy and hypocrisy of King John, with that which the monarch attributed to the Church of Rome. But De Marchmont was too much of a courtier to allow these thoughts to escape him, and too much of a tyrant himself, to murmur at the King’s conduct, and with a tact which politicians in our own day occasionally copy, he shaped his reply to suit his interests.[7]

Miller’s use of dating is also significant in this respect: by setting his novel after King Richard dies, and having Robin fight against King John, Robin is not required to side with a corrupt political establishment composed of Kings and noblemen, as he does in Ivanhoe.

Miller’s depiction of the outlaws’ society offers an alternative model for the creation of an egalitarian society. In Sherwood all men are equal: for instance, all of the outlaws including Robin Hood must undertake equal duties. This is so that there is no cause for murmuring or complaining from any of them, and to convey the message that all men are equal.[8]

While Miller sought to convey a political message to his readers, he also had to entertain them first and foremost. The Victorians loved violent entertainment. Millers novel is therefore filled with many violent scenes. Robin ‘dreams all night of cutting barons’ throats’.[9] When Robin kills a Norman soldier, we are told vividly how:

The blood gushed from his mouth.[10]

Thus Miller draws upon the early Victorians’ love for violent entertainment,[11] and presents us with a Robin Hood who is unafraid to resort to violence to achieve his political objectives.

In conclusion, what Miller’s Royston Gower shows us is that there was a resurgence of a radical image of Robin Hood in the late 1830s – a time of great political excitement due to the rise of Chartism, after having been made respectable in 1819 and 1822 by Scott and Peacock respectively. In the same year also, Pierce Egan the Younger would author the penny dreadful Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) which similarly rails against Old Corruption and advocates for democratic reform. While Clare A. Simmons has argued that nineteenth-century medievalism became conservative and the preserve of the elites after c.1830, Miller’s novel, as well as Pierce Egan’s simultaneously published serial, means that we must rethink our understanding of Victorian medievalism as being conservative. A text which supports Chartism can hardly be considered ‘conservative’. At the very least, Miller’s novel deserves much greater attention from Chartist scholars than it has yet received.


References

[1] Louis James, ‘Miller, Thomas (1807–1874)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18738&gt; Accessed 4 Aug 2016]
[2] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (London: J. Nichols [n.d.]), p.171.
[3] Miller, Royston Gower, p.7.
[4] Miller, Royston Gower, p.333.
[5] Miller, Royston Gower, p.26.
[6] Philip Harling, ‘Rethinking “Old Corruption”’ Past and Present No. 147 (1995), pp.127-158.
[7] Miller, Royston Gower, p.107.
[8] Miller, Royston Gower, p.36.
[9] Miller, Royston Gower, p.309.
[10] Miller, Royston Gower, p.268.
[11] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[12] See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2011), pp.191-194.

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons – Chartist Rally on Kennington Common.

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