By Stephen Basdeo
While physical archival research remains the “bread and butter” of the work of any historian, the rise of online repositories of primary sources have proved to be of invaluable use to many a historian over the years. This is particularly the case when you want to investigate what, say, the Victorians thought about a person like Robin Hood. A simple key word search will bring up a number of results from often quite obscure places. And I came across a rather interesting commentary on a Robin Hood ballad, titled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, which was reprinted in Toby Veck’s Facts and Figures: Ten Tables Telling Tales of My Landlord and the Church (1846).
Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford is one of the more humorous songs of Robin Hood that was first printed in the seventeenth century. Robin and John meet with the bishop (The earliest surviving text is in the so-called Forresters manuscript (British Library Additional MS 71158), which dates to the 1670s). The song sees Robin and Little John, disguised as shepherds, poaching in an area of the forest which they know the bishop will pass through. The Bishop does indeed see them and demands that they come with him to face the king’s justice. The outlaws scoff and Robin, blowing his horn, summons his soldiers who surround the bishop and his men. The outlaws tie the bishop to a tree and force him to sing Mass for them; they then hold a feast for which, harking back to earlier Robin Hood tales such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the bishop is compelled to pay.
The Bishop of Hereford soon became an integral character in the Robin Hood legend. His encounter with the outlaws was featured in Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1719) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734). He is also an integral character in Robert Southey’s unpublished Robin Hood novel Harold; or The Castle of Morford (1791), while variants of the ballad were given in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). In the Victorian era, the Bishop of Hereford was also a rather comic villain in Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838–40).
When Egan was writing, the price of bread was kept artificially high because of the Corn Laws. After the Napoleonic Wars, or the “first” World War, the British industrial and agricultural sectors were on their knees. When the war ended in 1815, British landowning elites, who had done very well out of the war, feared that, with the opening of the continent to British trading again (it had of course been cut off under Napoleon’s Continental System), the price of grain, and their incomes, would be slashed. As the government of the day was dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy for whom few could vote, the ruling class naturally legislated for something that in their narrow party interests against the benefit of the British people-at-large. So tariffs were placed upon imports of grain. The ruling class was happy.
This policy hurt both the middle-class tradesman and the poorer labourer. Everyone had to eat, and everyone had to pay the same high price for bread.
Much opposition to the tariffs, or the “Corn Laws” as they became known, was voiced by radicals and reformers in the press, and the policy even had a few enemies among MPs. Yet it took a while for opposition to the laws to coalesce into a firm, united front. While the tariffs had been legislated for in 1815, it was not until 1836—almost in tandem with the emergence of the Chartist movement—that one of Britain’s most successful pressure groups was formed: The Anti-Corn Law League.
The Anti-Corn Law League certainly alarmed the Tories, whose policy it was. By 1836, the middle classes could now vote and even stand for parliament providing they owned or leased land or property worth over 40 shillings. One response by the league, which was backed by some big names of the day such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, was to donate a 40 shilling freehold to friendly would-be MPs and field them as candidates for parliament in by-elections where “protectionists” stood.
And they wrote, and they printed, and they mobilised mass support among the working classes through large rallies. Much of the opposition came from the industrial towns while support for the laws came from Tory and Whig landowners. But so successful was the Anti-Corn Law League that they even managed to convince the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, of the necessity for ending the Corn Laws and, by all accounts, even secured the backing of Queen Victoria herself!
It is in one such Anti-Corn Law League pamphlet where we find our “free trade” Robin Hood: the aforementioned work Ten Tables by Toby Veck. The name was a pseudonym, for Toby Veck is a character who appears in Charles Dickens’s The Chimes (1844). When reading Veck’s work, we find him making numerous appeals to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past in which, so he believed, Englishmen enjoyed political liberty and did not starve under the benevolent rule of the various Anglo-Saxon kings.
At the end of his work, he decided to share a little anecdote.
He told readers that when he was a boy, he knew “a fine old English gentleman”—a farmer—who could sing from Robin Hood’s Garland for six hours straight! (Slight exaggeration here, most likely—that’s a tall order for any singer, then or now). Of all the ballads this farmer sung to him, he recalled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.
He reprinted the ballad in full and then commenced upon a short explanation.
The Bishop in the ballad was definitely a Tory, so Veck reasoned: he was against the “free trade” in venison, which Veck assures us was a catch-all term which included not only meat but also bread (a reach, certainly, but definitely not the wildest appropriation of a Robin Hood character I’ve seen).
Robin Hood, on the other hand, was a medieval Anti-Corn Law Leaguer: his attempt to go a poaching on the Bishop’s land represented the good Saxon Englishman’s yearning for free trade. Veck even gave his readers a useful key to the antiquated terminology used in the ballad:
Explanations.—“Bishop of Hereford and Company,” the Protectionists and their leader; “ven’son” means cheap corn; six of his men, Repealers in the disguise of conservatives; “Lives away,” to turn ‘em out; a Tree, “public opinion;” “a thorn,” the League; “the horn of Repeal,” three score and ten Leaguers; “cut off his head,” immediate Repeal; “staying at Barnsdale,” delay of three years during which they are in a state of alarm; and at the expiration of that period comes “the reckoning.”
So, let us try and work out that allegory in full now Veck has given us the key to decipher this seventeenth-century rant against the nineteenth-century Corn Laws:
Robin Hood is an Anti-Corn Law Leaguer who with “six of his men” ventures into the Tory Bishop’s lands to poach and steal and really put free trade into full practice for they are Repealers disguised as Tories who are venturing into the hostile land of protectionism when all they want is cheap “venison”/Corn—whatever! When the Bishop tries to prevent Robin’s exercise in forest free trade he sounds the horn of Repeal at which many other Repealers flock to his side. Little John, the more hot-headed Repealer, wants to immediately cut off the Bishop’s head and gain an immediate repeal of protectionist forest laws; but the Bishop has by this point been tied to the “tree” of public opinion and just a little stay longer will make the Bishop see the wisdom of forest free trade too! And of course, soon would then come the reckoning: the floodgates of repeal would burst open and there would be forest free trade for all!
While amusing to us, this was not satire: the Corn Laws meant that many poorer families did indeed go hungry due to the high price of bread. Usually, Victorian medievalists were a little more subtle in their appropriation of the Norman Forest Laws to serve different political causes. Thomas Miller’s Chartist novel Royston Gower (1838) is particularly good in this respect, being a novel in which the outlaws seek a “Forest Charter” to reclaim their ancient rights. Robin Hood fans will also be pleased to know that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1819),opposed the Corn Laws.
Repeal finally came in 1846, when Prime Minister Robert Peel used the votes of the opposition to carry through the measure. Yet it split the Tory Party: the “Peelites” broke away and joined with the Whigs and the Radicals in Parliament, and formed the Liberal Party. The Tory party limped on and remained practically on its deathbed for a few years until it was popularly revived under the leadership of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.
Dickens, Charles, The Chimes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844)
Miller, Thomas, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1838)
Turner, Michael, ‘The “Bonaparte of free trade” and the Anti-Corn Law League’, The Historical Journal, 41: 4 (1998), 1011–34
Veck, Toby, Ten Tables Telling Tales of “My Landlord” and “The Church” (London: Longman, 1846)