By Stephen Basdeo
Stories of Robin Hood have been popular since at least the late fourteenth century, as we know from William Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman (c.1377). However, around the same time that the ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ flourished, tales of the eponymous outlaw and his men were rivalled in their fame and popularity by stories of another three outlaw archers; Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie.
The tale of these three outlaws was first printed in 1536, and then reprinted half a dozen times throughout that century. However, stories of these men flourished before the 1500s because a Wiltshire court roll from 1432 lists an ‘Adam Belle’, ‘Clim O’ Cluw’, and a ‘William Cloudesle’ as aliases that were used by local men; it is unclear whether the aliases were being used by criminals or rather by law-abiding citizens as a joke.
Let us take a look at the ballad of Adam Bell, however. The setting is Inglewood Forest, Cumbria, at some point during the late medieval period, and the ballad opens with a celebration of the natural world:
‘Mery it was in grene forest,
Amonge the leues grene,
Wher that men walke east and west,
With bowes and arrowes kene,
To ryse the dere out of theyr denne
Such sightes has ofte bene sene.’
Inglewood Forest is a place where men are free, and where food is plentiful.
William is an outlaw but he is also a family man; his wife and three children live in Carlisle, along with an old woman who William’s family, out of the goodness of their hearts, had taken in. William expresses a desire to go to the town because he has not seen his wife for about six months.
This course of action is against Adam’s better judgement, for he warns William of the dangers involved in venturing into the town. Adam does not order him not to go, however, which highlights the democratic nature of this outlaw band. In order to allay Adam’s anxieties, William tells him that if he does not return by the next day, then it is safe to assume that he is either captured or dead.
Having arrived at Carlisle, William shares a meal with his wife and children. The old woman who lodges at the house, however, decides to betray William by going to see the Sheriff and alerting him to the fact that the outlaw has returned to Carlisle. The Sheriff then gathers a number of the townsfolk who congregate outside William’s house demanding his surrender. To coax him out, they set fire to the house. His wife and children manage to escape as he gives himself up to the Justice and the Sheriff, who gloatingly says:
‘Now, Cloudesle, sayd the hye justice,
Thou shalt be hanged in hast.
One vow shal I make, sayde the sherife,
A payre of newe galowes shall I for thee make.
And the gates of Caerlel shall be shutte,
There shall no man come in thereat.
Then shall not helpe Clim of the Cloughe,
Nor yet shall Adam Bell.’
[‘“Now Cloudesley,” said the High Justice,
You shall be hanged at last.”
“One vow I make to you,” said the Sheriff,
I make a pair of new gallows for you.
And the gates of Carlisle will be shut,
And none shall leave or enter.
Clim of the Clough can’t help you,
Neither can Adam Bell.”]
A gallows is prepared that very evening and the walls of the town are ordered to be shut so that nobody can enter or leave, in order that nobody can go and tell William’s comrades the predicament he is in.
Early the next morning, the justice goes out to see that the gallows have been erected and that preparations for William’s execution are going according to plan. At the foot of the gallows, a young boy approaches the Justice and asks why the gallows have been erected, whereupon he is told that it is to hang the notorious outlaw, William. The young lad decides to sneak out of the town through a small gap in the walls to go and warn Adam and Clim about their friend’s imminent execution. Upon learning that their friend is in danger, Adam and Clim resolve to rescue him.
Adam and Clim assume the identity of messengers coming with a letter from the king, and arriving at the gates of Carlisle, they demand to be admitted. The porter at the gates grants them entry. Realising they will need the keys to make their escape, they kill the porter, or as the ballad so eloquently puts it, they
Wrange hys necke in two.
Adam then steals his keys and both of the outlaws dispose of the porter’s body.
They arrive at the marketplace just in time; William is already in the cart at the foot of the gallows with the noose around his neck. Adam and Clim shoot the Sheriff and the Justice and set William free. The townsfolk begin to flee. The Mayor of the town next appears with a number of armed men at his side, but Adam and the gang heroically fight them off, shooting all of their arrows and continuing the battle with swords.
They decide to make a quick getaway through the castle gates. But as they clear the gates, Adam turns round to his pursuers, throws the keys at them, and sarcastically says:
‘Haue here your keys, sayd Adam Bell,
Mine office I here forsake,
Yf you do by my council,
A new porter do ye make.’
[‘“Here are your keys,” said Adam,
“This office I forsake,
If you’ll take my advice,
You’ll appoint a new porter.”’]
In other words, this is Adam saying, ‘oh, by the way, you will need a new porter’. It is the equivalent of the classic snipe that a superhero in a movie or comic might crack to his enemies in the heat of a fight.
The outlaws then reach their greenwood haven where they sit down and partake of a feast, but as they sit under the tree they can hear the sobs of a woman and children. It is William’s wife lamenting her husband’s execution (it seems that William is more concerned with food and ale than ascertaining the fate of his wife and children). But Alice is immensely happy to see her husband, and the outlaws then kill more deer to feed the extra mouths.
Adam and the rest of the band then resolve to send William’s wife and two youngest children to a nunnery while they and William’s eldest son go to London and procure a pardon from the king.
When the outlaws and William’s son arrive in the capital, they make the usual curtseys and beg his forgiveness. The news of the outlaws’ exploits has reached the king, and he is not impressed:
‘Be ye those theues, then sayd our kyng,
That men haue told of me?
Here to God I make a vowe,
Ye shall be hanged all three;
Ye shall be dead without mercy,
As I am kynge of this land.’
[‘Are you those thieves?’ our king said,
‘That men have told me of?
I make a vow to God,
All three of you shall be hanged,
You will be dead without mercy,
As I am king of this land.’
The king’s officers arrest all three of them. The outlaws again beg for forgiveness, but the king is having none of it. Even the queen intercedes on the outlaws’ behalf for mercy to be shown to them, and after some hesitation the king submits to his wife’s demands. He therefore decides to show them mercy, and invites the outlaws to dine with him. As they sit down, a messenger comes running into the hall with a message for the king. It is from Carlisle, and the letter bears the news of the Justice and the Sheriff’s deaths:
‘My hart is wonderous sore,
Had I knowne of thys before;
For I have graunted them grace,
And that for thynketh me,
But had I knowne all thys before,
They had been hanged all three.’
[‘My heart is sore,
And had I known of this before
I had granted them grace
All three of them would have been hanged’]
The king has further reason to be displeased with Adam and the gang. The letter also contains news of the outlaws having killed the king’s deer, as well as having shot numerous sergeants and men at arms. The king demands an end to the feast, and commands his archers and the outlaws to accompany him to an archery contest, saying
‘I will see these fellows shoot!’
The reason why the king thinks an archery contest is an appropriate method of punishment for the outlaws is left unclear in the ballad, and the episode may have been inserted because people during the medieval expected an archery contest in an outlaw ballad; an archery contest also appears in A Gest of Robyn Hode. In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin and Guy also compete in an archery contest.
As expected, the outlaws show themselves to be true masters of the bow, and as in many Robin Hood stories, William splits an arrow that is lodged in the centre of the butt. Upon seeing this, the king exclaims
‘Thou art the best archer’.
William then wants to show off his archery skills to a further degree; he tells the king that his son has accompanied him to London, and that he would like his son to stand in front of the butt with an apple on his head, and that he will shoot the apple. The king agrees, but warns him that, if the boy is harmed in any way,
‘By him that dyed on a tree … I shall hange you all three.’
The spectators begin praying that everything goes according to plan, and that the boy will not be harmed. William draws his bow, and lets his arrow fly.
‘Thus Cloudesle clefte the apple in two,
That many a man myght see;
Ouer God’s forbode, sayde the kinge,
That thou shote at me!’
[‘Thus Cloudesley cleft the apple in two,
That many a man might see;
“God forbid,” said the king,
That you should ever shoot at me.”]
The king is impressed; William has proved himself to be the best archer in the land. His son is unharmed.
Readers familiar with the story of the fourteenth-century Swiss folk hero, William Tell, will recognise this scenario; Tell is likewise ordered by a local official to shoot an arrow placed on top of his son’s head. Furthermore, similar stories that can be dated even earlier than those of Adam Bell and William Tell exist in folk tales from other nations. Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century Gesta Danorum relates the story of Palnatoki who is ordered by Harold Bluetooth to shoot an arrow that is on top of his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship. The Scandinavian Þiðrekssaga from the thirteenth century similarly relates the tale of Egil who is ordered to carry out a similar task. The presence of such an episode in Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie serves to remind us that we cannot look at medieval outlaw ballads as being purely factual, even if some historians in the past have attempted to fit the events related in outlaw poems to historical events.
The king, so impressed with the outlaws’ archery skills, pardons all of them. He makes William his ‘chyfe rydere’ in the north of the country, and grants him a salary of eighteen pence per day. The king then confers upon William the status of gentleman, and asks if Adam and Clim will become yeomen of the king’s chamber (a servant who was permitted to enter the royal bedroom). This is a lesser reward for Adam and Clim, for yeomen were beneath gentlemen in terms of rank during the late medieval period. There is also a reward in store for William’s wife; the king invites her and the children to court, where she will be in charge of the royal nursery.
The other way of seeing this episode at the end of the ballad, of course, is as an attempt by the king to contain these outlaws and keep them close by him, essentially as hostages, so that they might not continue their unlawful depredations. Nevertheless, Adam, Clim, and William and his family spend the remaining years of their lives in happiness by the king’s side.
While stories Adam Bell and his comrades may have rivalled those of Robin Hood for fame and popularity during the late medieval and early modern periods, Adam’s, Clim’s, and William’s ‘literary afterlives’ never reached the same heights as that of the Sherwood foresters.
There were minor references to Adam Bell and Clim of the Clough in some early modern poems, such as the one by William Davenant in 1673:
With hats pinned up and bow in hand,
All day most fiercely there they stand;
Like ghosts of Adam Bell and Clymme;
Sol sits for fear they’ll shoot at him.
There has been speculation by scholars in the past that the following lines from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1599-98) relate to Adam Bell:
‘Hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapp’d on the shoulder, and call’d Adam.’
The three outlaws receive their most epic post medieval literary treatment during the nineteenth century, however; Pierce Egan the Younger also turned his pen to the story of Adam Bell and his men in a novel entitled Adam Bell, or, The Archers of Englewood (1842), the first edition of which he also illustrated.
Egan’s novel was serialised when the Chartist movement was in full swing, when working-class men, along with some of their allies in the middle classes, were campaigning for the reform of the parliamentary system. They had six demands incorporated into their ‘People’s Charter’, from which the movement took its name: universal male suffrage; a secret ballot; annual parliamentary elections; equal size constituencies; the abolition of the property qualification for MPs; and salaries for MPs. Ultimately, the Chartist movement failed, in spite of three petitions presented to Parliament in 1839, 1842, and 1848; there are exaggerated newspaper reports from the time which allege that the last petition was so large that the doors had to be taken off the entrance of Parliament to get it in.
Pierce Egan was heavily sympathetic to the Chartist movement, and in his novels, he highlights the plight of the downtrodden medieval peasants, who in reality represent the nineteenth-century working classes, as evinced by several comparisons Egan makes between the Middle Ages and his own time period. A previous novel of his entitled Wat Tyler; or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841) presents the eponymous leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt as a man who fights for a ‘Charter of Rights’, and at Smithfield presents Richard II with a list of six demands.
In Adam Bell there is further sympathy for the plight of the nineteenth century working classes. Egan draws upon the idea of racial conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, which had been invented by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. Scott’s racialism, however, is adapted by Egan to represent class conflict; since 1066, the good Saxons
Were for the most part stripped of their political rights, and driven forth to destitution and beggary.
The Saxons are
The poorest class … divided and subdivided, that they might not unite and rise up en masse to destroy their oppressive conquerors.
Thus in the novel, the outlaws are depicted as freedom fighters, fighting against tyrannical nobles. Unlike the government in the nineteenth century who rejected all three Chartist petitions, however, the king in Adam Bell begins ‘growing weary of the rapacity of the Normans,’ and instead he begins a process of reconciliation by granting honours and rewards to the Saxons. At the end, Adam Bell and his band are pardoned by the king and return to their families.
After Pierce Egan, there are very few references to Adam Bell in popular culture, save for a few mentions in late Victorian Robin Hood penny dreadfuls. Adam Bell did make one final appearance, however, in the cult television series Robin of Sherwood (1984–86). In an episode entitled Adam Bell, Bryan Marshall portrays the eponymous hero as an ageing outlaw who sacrifices his own life to help Robin rescue a boy from the Sheriff of Nottingham.
It is doubtful, however, that Adam Bell and his gang will ever recoup their former glory. The fame of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William Cloudeslie has been forever eclipsed by that of Robin Hood.
 As with Robin Hood, it is difficult to ascertain whether the stories of Adam Bell and his band were inspired by the exploits of real people. It is doubtful that they are, and in any case, finding such evidence for a real Adam Bell would forever be a quest.
 ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode ed. by John Mathew Gutch 2 Vols. (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 320.
 ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’, 2: 325.
 Ibid., 2: 329.
 Ibid., 2: 332.
 Ibid., 2: 337.
 Ibid., 2: 339.
 Ibid., 2: 342.
 Pierce Egan, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley (London: G. Pierce [n. d.]), pp. 1-2.
 Egan, Adam Bell, p. 193.