19th Century

The Peterloo Massacre & Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)

I have written many times about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) on this website. It is perhaps the greatest of all Robin Hood novels. Scholars have often been puzzled, however, as to why Scott, a Tory politician, chose to give Robin the relatively humble social position of a yeomen, and effectively linked him with the local body of militia that existed in most towns. Furthermore, this went against the grain of many preceding interpretations of the Robin Hood legend which depicted the outlaw as a member of the aristocracy. One likely answer to this is the fact that Scott, an historian, was simply being faithful to medieval texts such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) in which Robin is also named as a yeoman.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830

Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

But perhaps there is another reason for this depiction of Robin Hood as a commoner hero that was connected to an event in Manchester in the same year that the novel was published.

On 16 August 1819 a great crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt speak upon the subject of political reform. This was a time when neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote. These people had other grievances such as the Corn Laws: protectionist tariffs upon imported grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The gathering itself was peaceful. But the magistrates of the town of Manchester, fearing a riot, ordered them to disperse by having the Riot Act read out loud. In a crowd of what was between sixty and eighty thousand people, it is unsurprising that the majority of people in attendance did not hear it being read. The magistrates then ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to disperse the crowd. The soldiers charged at the protestors and in the process killed fifteen people and wounding up to seven hundred more (although historians have debated the actual numbers). This is the description of one of the eye witnesses:

On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain.[1]

Among the numbers of the killed and wounded were several veterans of Waterloo – men who had fought and defended their country in that famous battle just four years previously. Thus the event became christened as ‘Peterloo’.

peterlooimage2

Red Plaque Commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester City Centre

The event horrified Scott. [2] There was outrage against the authorities in many sections of both the provincial and national press. And the yeomanry came in for harsh criticism. This is one poem that appeared the magazine The Free-Thinking Englishman:

He [The Magistrate] took the advice, and, to make all things sure,
Read the riot act o’er, on the step of his door;
When the Yeomanry Butchers all gallop’d away,
To do some great exploit on Saint Ethelstone’s Day.
They hack’d off the breasts of the women, and then,
They cut off the ears and the noses of men;
In every direction they slaughtered away,
‘Till drunken with blood on Saint Ethelstone’s Day. [3]

The Yeomanry receive a similarly bad press in another political satire entitled The Bloody Field of Peterloo:

Methinks I see the crimson flood,
And mark well the aim’d fatal blow,
The yeoman’s sabre dy’d in blood,
Reeking on far fam’d Peterloo!
Wives, mothers, children on the plain,
In one promiscuous heap, I view;
The husband, son, and father slain,
Stretch’d on the field of Peterloo!
But Yeomen’s hearts are form’d of steel,
Ardent to fields of blood they go;
Their gallant souls disdain to feel,
Whilst dealing death at Peterloo! [4]

Other satires such as William Hone’s important and influential The Political House that Jack Built (1819) depicted the soldiery of England as the tools of the elites’ oppression of the working man:

political-house-image

William Hone,  The Political House that Jack Built (London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819) (c) NCCO.

England was a divided society when Scott was writing in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has brought economic depression, unemployment, and clamours for political reform.

Why, then, did Scott choose to depict Robin Hood, a people’s hero, as a yeoman at a time when the yeomanry of England were being almost universally excoriated?

Scott’s novel was a plea for national unity: he turned to the medieval period in order to find a harmonious ordering of society. In Scott’s vision of society, the feudal ordering of society in the Middle Ages was a model that could be adapted to solve social and political divisions in nineteenth-century Britain. In the words of Alice Chandler, Scott’s vision of a feudal ordering of society ran thus:

The serf should be willing to die for his master, and the master willing to die for the man he considers his sovereign.[5]

So why do I argue that Scott specifically wants the band of outlaws in Ivanhoe to be associated with the military? (They are rarely called outlaws in the text). There is a definite hierarchical structure to their set up: Locksley is called the ‘Captain’ of the yeoman on several occasions (and rarely is Robin himself referred to as an outlaw twice in the whole novel). This Captain Locksley has underneath him several ‘Lieutenants’. They are not a motley crew of undisciplined brutes but a well-ordered militia. Furthermore, Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, or Locksley as he is called, is a man who is unwaveringly loyal to the King. He works with Richard the Lionheart to help him regain his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and the Norman Templars. Robin the yeoman worse for the nation and for the King. He bridges social divides and effectively restores trust in a much-maligned body of soldiers.

Thus the above may be one reason why Scott chose to cast Robin as a yeoman, in defiance of what had become a convention in writing about Robin Hood where the outlaw, as we have seen, was usually being cast as an Earl at this point. He wants to reclaim the yeomen of England as servants of both the nation and the King. The important thing is that all classes and members of society must work together.


[1] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (London: T. Unwin, 1893), p.152.
[2] Simon J. White, ‘Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Pentridge Rising’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts 31: 3 (2009), 209-224 (p.212).
[3] Anon. ‘To the Editor of the Theological and Political Comet’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 16 (1819), p.125.
[4] Anon. ‘The Bloody Field of Peterloo’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 11 (1819), 85-86 (p.86).
[5] Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 314-332 (p.324).
[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1819; repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1875), pp.125-126

Advertisements

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s