18th century

Robin Hood the Angry Letter Writer

By Stephen Basdeo

Many people have adopted the name of Robin Hood over the years. The most obvious ones which spring to mind are the men who appear in medieval court records, being criminals who adopted the alias. The press today even applies the name to criminals who are perceived to be ‘good’ criminals. It was not only criminals who either assumed the name or had it applied to them: Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, who attempted to assassinate the protestant king, Charles I, were called Robin Hood’s Men. In the eighteenth century, we find the name of Robin Hood applied to the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) in satirical ballads such as Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).[1]

We saw in another post how even poor little orphan lads assumed the name of Robin Hood.

This is just a small example of how the legendary figure of Robin Hood is truly “all things to all men”.

So now we turn to the years 1819–20, a turbulent period in English history. Soldiers returned home at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), many of them returned to high unemployment. Where labour in vital industries had been scarce during the wars, now the labour market was glutted with plenty of people needing a job. Yet there were not many jobs available: tradesmen had done well out of the war, having been contracted to provide war materiel, there was now a trade depression. The war had created an artificial demand for goods.

To make matters worse, since 1815, the hated Corn Laws were in effect. These laws were tariffs on imports of grain and other foodstuffs. During the war, Britain had imported vast amounts of food to feed its soldiers. Yet after the war, landowners, many of whom were part of the political class, decided that it was high time to protect their own businesses from imports of cheap food: the result was that the price of food was kept artificially high in order to protect the landowners’ inefficient businesses.

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National Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card

Nowadays, if a government treated its citizens that badly, it would soon be voted out. This was not the case in 1819: by and large, neither the working classes nor the middle classes could vote. The franchise was restricted to men who owned freehold property worth 40 shillings. Very few people, even the quite wealthy upper middle classes, owned property in this era. And many of the wealthy industrialists lived in new towns such as Manchester and Leeds—commercial and industrial meccas which drove British economic growth. Yet the large northern cities had no representation in parliament, while fields such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire containing one cottage returned 2 MPs to the Commons.

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Engraving of Reform ‘celebrity’, Mr Henry Hunt

It was an unjust system.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope.

Reformers, some who quite famous like Henry Hunt, were organising, marching, and most importantly: they were printing. Their cause was political reform through the extension of the franchise and a repeal of the Corn Laws. A number of penny periodicals were printed which contained opinion pieces on current affairs rather than reporting actual news (otherwise they would be subject to the paying of stamp duty, “the tax on knowledge”).

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The Medusa; or Penny Politician, No. 1

It is in the print culture of the early nineteenth century, then, that we find a man who named Robin Hood who wrote to The Medusa; or, The Penny Politician on three occasions in the years 1819–20.

The Medusa, named after the famous Greek mythical figure, was a satirical magazine which, through its humour excoriated the ruling class:

What! Will you not believe the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Bishops, the Judge, the Counsellors, the Lawyers, the Borough-mongers, the Placemen, and all the Pensioners? The Dukes, the Earls, the Marquisses, the Barons, the Knights, &c. &c.? Deluded multitude! Here is a collection of the happiest creatures in the world, united together to persuade you that you are extremely happy, and yet you give no credit to what they may either say or swear! O Shocking stupidity![2]

This was complete and utter sarcasm, a sly dig at the idea, propagated at the time by those in power, that Britain boasted of the most glorious constitution in the world—that Britons were “free” and “happy”! Lest anyone doubt the paper’s radical credentials, however, if the sardonic tone did not immediately hit home then the engraving of Henry Hunt, given away free with the paper’s first number, would have left readers in no doubt.

It was not unusual for people to assume pseudonyms in this era. It was an era in which, according to Robert Reid, England’s system of government, with its system of spies and informants, resembled more the Third Reich than an emergent democracy. People wanted to protect their names in public—after all, the campaign for reform was supported by both the working class and respectable tradesmen. Pseudonyms based upon medieval resistors of tyranny were especially popular. Some wrote letters under the name of Wat Tyler, some under Jack Cade, a Thomas Paine here and there, and, of course, Robin Hood.

When Robin Hood, when he wrote his letters, was angry about many things (if Twitter was around in 1819, his account would probably look a little like mine!)

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Britons Strike Home!!! Engraving of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819

One of the measures which this radical Robin Hood proposed was the formation of a fund to aid the legal defence of men accused of sedition, an accusation applied to many a radical publisher who was hauled through the courts on trumped-up charges:

The present system of persecution adopted by our tyrants to stifle the public voice, should be met by a correspondent determination on the part of the friends of freedom to oppose their diabolical measures: a “Stock Purse” should be raised and maintained to counteract their evil purposes, the funds of which should be appropriated to defray the legal &c. expenses of the deserving public characters, whom our tyrants think to bear down by accumulated indictments.[3]

Robin Hood speaks of politicians as being tyrants quite frequently. And in 1819, an event which no doubt confirmed him in his beliefs came to pass: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August in Manchester. Nearly 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators came to hear the famous Henry Hunt speak in support of the cause of political reform; the magistrates got scared, however, and called out the local yeomanry on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring over 500, many of whom later died from their wounds.

Robin Hood was furious at

The late most atrocious outrages committed at Manchester, by order of a base Magistracy on a lawful multitude constitutionally assembled, by a banditti of FEROCIOUS MONSTERS, habited in the GARB of soldiers … Gracious God! Will Britons suffer themselves to be BUTCHERED by a banditti of lawless ruffians? Forbid it heaven! If the laws are perverted and an aggrieved people cannot obtain redress, they will be bound in justice to redress their own wrongs; they are called upon by the innocent blood of their murdered relatives, to AVENGE the deaths of numerous and unoffending individuals.[4]

The emphasis in the passage above was part of the original letter. Capitals were used back then in writing in the same way that we use them today: to show anger. The real law-breakers at Peters Fields in Manchester on 16 August were not the demonstrators but the magistrates.

Unfortunately, The Medusa did not last long; its last number was printed in January 1820, which was not unusual for some of these early publications. Yet while this would be worthy of nothing more than an interesting anecdote in a monograph, it does illustrate a wider point that the name of Robin Hood was being used at this point, as it had been before, as a symbol of resistance.

Of course, at the end of 1819, in the year that our pseudonymous Robin Hood was writing, radical readers would soon see their favourite historical outlaw appropriated by the Tory, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Ivanhoe (1819), in which Robin Hood sides wholly with the monarchical establishment.


[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1: 1 (2017), 15–31.

[2] ‘To the Public’, The Medusa; or, Penny Politician, 20 February 1819, 2.

[3] Robin Hood, ‘To the Editor of the Medusa’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 27 (1819), 216.

[4] Robin Hood, ‘Manchester Solomons’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 32 (1819), 252.

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