The Working Man’s Robin Hood: The Writings of Allan Cunningham (1784–1842)

By Stephen Basdeo

In 1832, the publisher Charles Knight had a bright idea: every Saturday he would publish a new magazine which whose aim was to educate working-class readers about their world. It would not contain news, and would therefore be exempt from the Stamp Tax (the much-hated “tax on knowledge”), meaning that its retail price would be very low at only 1d.

The magazine would also be profusely illustrated with highly detailed images to attract readers—images being especially important at a time when perhaps 30% of men and nearly 50% of women had poor literacy skills. Most people were able to read something; many could read but they could not write, while under a third of working people possessed neither skill.[1] Investors came on board—the grandiosely named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge sponsored the project and the result was The Penny Magazine, which was published weekly between 1832 and 1845.

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Charles Knight’s Penny Magazine

Many famous writers from Great Britain and the United States contributed articles to this magazine. Knight himself contributed many articles, which were often published anonymously. The American writer and politician Edward Everett contributed an article in 1832 on the benefits of working-class education.

In 1838, the poet Allan Cunningham wrote a series of articles on Robin Hood for the magazine under the initials A.C. While the identity of many writers who wrote under simply initials or pseudonyms is now lost to us, Knight identified Cunningham as A.C. in Half Hours with the Best Authors (1847), in which there appears a short biographical notice of Cunningham as well as an abridgment of Cunningham’s work on Robin Hood.[2]

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Cunningham was born in Scotland to working-class parents. At a young age he was apprenticed to a stone mason but his career moved in a different direction. Since youth, he had been an avid reader of Robert Burns’s poetry—Cunningham’s father lived next door to Burns when he was young—as well as other kinds of poetry such as ‘old’ English and Scottish ballads. In 1809, having by then quitted his labouring life to follow a literary one, Cunningham collected old Scots ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song. As well as this, Cunningham also wrote multivolume histories of British artists and sculptors as well as three novels and even some plays. Although we know Cunningham as a poet, therefore, we should view him much more as a gentleman-scholar in the same way that Walter Scott was—the great Scott was, in fact, one of Cunningham’s good friends.

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The first Robin Hood article in The Penny Magazine

Cunningham’s first article on Robin Hood appeared in The Penny Magazine on 5 May 1838. The series may have been commissioned to capitalise on the popularity of Pierce Egan’s serialised penny novel, Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, which began its serialisation earlier in the previous month. Cunningham’s opening remarks in The Penny Magazine celebrate Robin Hood’s place in English history—the ballads which relate his life are equal to the epics handed down to mankind from the poets of Ancient Greece and Rome.[3]

The comparison of the ‘old’ English Robin Hood ballads as being on a par with the epics of Ancient Greece and Rome began with the publication of Ben Jonson’s unfinished Robin Hood play entitled The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (c.1637), evident in the play’s preface in which Jonson said that his tale of Robin Hood aims

To match, or those of Sicily, or Greece.[4]

Allusions to classical literature between the appearance of The Sad Shepherd in Jonson’s Second Folio (1641) and the nineteenth century are few and far between—two exceptions being Joseph Addison, who in 1711 called Robin Hood the ‘British Worthy’and John Winstanley’s ‘An Invitation to Robin Hood and Robin Hood’s Answer’, in which our outlaw is seen conversing with Apollo. It seems this fad of placing Robin Hood on a par with classical figures emerged again with Cunningham’s remarks. Thomas Carlyle would later, in Past and Present (1843), make a similar remark to Cunningham’s:

Things rise, I say, in that way. The Iliad Poem, and indeed most other poetic, especially epic things, have risen as the Liturgy did. The great Iliad in Greece, and the small Robin Hood’s Garland in England, are each, as I understand, the well-edited ‘Select Beauties’ of an immeasurable waste imbroglio of Heroic Ballads in their respective centuries and countries. Think what strumming of the seven-stringed heroic lyre, torturing of the less heroic fiddle-cat gut, in Hellenic King’s Courts, and English wayside Public Houses; and beating of the studious Poetic Brain, and gasping here too in the semi-articulate windpipe of Poetic men, before the Wrath of a Divine Achilles, the Prowess of a Will Scarlet or Wakefield Pindar, could be adequately sung! Honour to you, ye nameless great and greatest ones, ye long-forgotten brave![5]

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The inimitable Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle and Cunningham actually became friends in the 1830s—the former referred to him as ‘my most dear, my most kind, good-humoured Allan’.[6] Perhaps Carlyle’s later remarks in Past and Present were inspired by his friend, the ‘stonemason poet’ Cunningham! However, Cunningham argued that old English poetry like the ballads of Robin Hood were written to make a political point rather than honour the gods, as the Ancient Greeks had done:

In classic lands, the first recorded poetry was of a devotional kind; while in Britain the earliest strains were in their nature political. The poets of Greece sang of their gods and goddesses … but the bards of our isle harped and sang of mere mortals—of men who robbed the devout, bearded the strong, and broke the laws, for which other sons of song claimed reverence.[7]

The idea that Robin Hood ballads were political of course harks back to the work of Joseph Ritson who depicted Robin Hood as a medieval revolutionary; Cunningham’s arguments about the radical “protest” element of the early Robin Hood tales are also in line with the way some later Robin Hood historians such as Maurice Keen and Rodney Hilton interpreted the content.[8]

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The Chartist Rally at Kennington Common, London, in 1848

However, Cunningham was writing in the age of Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League–the former movement was the first large scale working-class political movement and campaigned, among other things, for the following:

  • Universal male suffrage
  • The secret ballot
  • Equally-sized constituencies
  • Salaries for MPs
  • Abolition of the property qualification for MPs
  • Annual parliaments.

Cunningham refers to Robin Hood as a ‘reformer’—similar to the manner in which Thomas Miller would describe his own Chartist Robin Hood in Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838):[9]

The laws and the rule which the reformer Robin Hood sought to set aside and break were the chains imposed by a conqueror and a slave master, which oppressed body and soul. The expensive church and domineering aristocracy of the Normans were for centuries the sore grievance of the Saxon yeomanry of England … That bold man’s deeds kept the spirit of liberty alive in the land during his own day … a desire of independence were nursed by those rude but graphic compositions, and the strife which they fomented and fostered has reached to our own times.[10]

In support of these points—that the early Robin Hood ballads represented a radical class and racial struggle between the Saxons and the Normans which reached down into the nineteenth century—Cunningham quotes Ritson the revolutionary at length throughout his first number. The ideology of Chartism and the eighteenth-century radical movement of which Ritson was a part shared many similarities—it was John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Major Cartwright who were the leading voices in the campaign for universal suffrage at the end of the eighteenth century, and the Chartists had picked up the baton in the Victorian era after the ‘great betrayal’ of 1832 (previously the middle and the working classes had combined together to campaign for universal suffrage, but the government craftily gave it only to the middle classes in 1832, thus dividing the movement).

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In light of the fact that Cunningham saw Robin Hood as a radical figure, it remains to be asked whether he was in fact a democrat. He was of the labouring class, and a man who wrote in such eloquent terms about the struggle against a ‘Norman’ tyranny that lasted until the nineteenth century was probably a Chartist. There is very little in the little scholarship that exists on Cunningham’s views, however, to suggest that he was. Only a recent Ph.D. thesis has picked up on some of the few references to Cunningham in Chartist newspapers such as the Northern Star:

Allan Cunningham is mentioned in the Northern Star, but the paper never refers to his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Cunningham is almost exclusively referred to in his capacity as the editor of The Works of Robert Burns. The discussions of this collection in the Star suggest that it was of great importance to the Chartist movement; for example, a report on the ‘Trades Movement’ on 29th May 1847 describes how the volume was presented as a gift, ‘being the people’s edition of the works of their own immortal bard, “Robert Burns”, with notes from Allan Cunningham.’ On the occasion of his death in November 1842, the Star published an obituary; this piece describes Cunningham as a poet in his own right and makes no mention of his connection to Burns. However, the Northern Star never reproduced any of Cunningham’s original poetry. Although the publication figures indicate that Cunningham’s Eminent British Painters may have been available to members of the Chartist movement, there is simply no evidence that the Chartists ever engaged with this book, or with the poems by Blake reproduced therein.[11]

Nevertheless, this is about as far as we can go with his involvement in Chartism, even if the textual evidence from The Penny Magazine suggests that he might have been.

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While these Robin Hood articles in The Penny Magazine may appear to be of little worth, they are worthy of study—further blog posts will appear in the next few weeks—because until now, Robin Hood in the nineteenth century is viewed largely as a novelists’ tradition (I have begun making an effort in a previous post to study the less well-known men of the Robin Hood tradition). However, the people at large would have gotten their facts from the cheaply printed newspapers of the day—through these as well as the novels would readers have understood Robin Hood.


Further Reading and Notes

Jeremy Norman [online], ‘Exploiting New Technologies’, History of Information (n. d.), accessed 23 January 2020. Available at: http://www.historyofinformation.com.

[1] Anon. ‘On the Proportion of Persons in England Capable of Reading and Writing’, The Penny Magazine, 25 August 1838, 323–24 (p. 323).

[2] Charles Knight, ed. Half Hours with the Best Authors, 4 vols (New York: John Wiley, 1849), IV, pp. 37–50.

[3] Allan Cunningham [A.C.], ‘The Old English Ballads.—No. I’, The Penny Magazine, 5 May 1838, 1.

[4] Ben Jonson [online], ‘The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood’, accessed 23 January 2020. Available at: https://hollowaypages.com/jonson1692shepherd.htm

[5] Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843), p. 163.

[6] James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of the First Forty Years of His Life, 1795–1835, 2 vols (London, 1882), I, p. 222.

[7] Allan Cunningham [A.C.], ‘The Old English Ballads.—No. I’, The Penny Magazine, 5 May 1838, 1.

[8] Rodney Hilton, ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’, Past and Present, 14 (1958), 30-44.

[9] Stephen Basdeo, ‘The Chartist Robin Hood: Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 44: 2 (2019), 72–81.

[10] Allan Cunningham [A.C.], ‘The Old English Ballads.—No. I’, The Penny Magazine, 5 May 1838, 1.

[11] Nichola L. McCawley, [online] ‘Re-sounding Radicalism: Echo in William Blake and the Chartist Poets Ernest Jones and Gerald Massey’ (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Manchester, 2012), p. 35. 

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