The History of Thomas Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana traced through Reappearances of Jack Straw’s Last Dying Speech

A paper delivered at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 1–5 July 2019 by Stephen Basdeo

The so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was widely reported in various chronicles. The Anonimalle Chronicle—based here in Leeds—is said to be one of the best sources for historians of the rebellion, along with histories written by the likes of John Froissart, Henry Knighton, and Thomas Walsingham. The latter’s chronicle is highly interesting; although modern editions of Walsingham’s writings are published under general titles such as The St Albans Chronicle, these are actually compilations of what, until the work of V. H. Galbraith in the early twentieth century, were actually viewed as three separate and distinct works: Historia Anglicana, Annales Ricardi II et Henrici IV, Chronicon Angliae. The first of these, Historia Anglicana, is what I would like to focus on today because it contains something very interesting: the purported last dying speech and confession of Jack Straw, one of the ringleaders of the Peasants’ Revolt. Obviously, we have to take Straw’s confession, as recorded in Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana, with more than a pinch of salt. R. B. Dobson tells us that it appears at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which he ‘gladly relieves himself of the need to adhere to the facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[1] At the same time, Dobson notes that Straw’s confession ‘is unlikely to be a mere figment of Walsingham’s imaginative powers’.[2] Whatever the truth of the matter, later chroniclers took it at face value and the speech reappears in narratives of the revolt up to the year 1715, after which, very oddly, it disappears completely in print until Henry Riley transcribed the Walsingham’s works for the Rolls Series in 1863. So, I set out to find out why this was so. So, I’d like to tell you a story of how and why Jack Straw’s speech and, by extension, the two manuscripts of the Historia Anglicana ‘disappeared’ between 1715 and 1863. So, although I originally planned a kind of ‘textual’ interpretation of the speech (the primary sources weren’t saying what I wanted them to say), tracing the history of a manuscript still fits within the idea of ‘materialities’ and I hope you’re not disappointed!

straw 1
Victorian image of Jack Straw

Straw’s confession occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative after Wat Tyler has been put to death. The Lord Mayor, William Walworth, bribes Straw to confess his reasons for stirring up the commons to rebellion. There are two reasons for this: it will ensure that prayers are said for him after his death, and serve for a useful moral to the country at large.[3] We are also told the rebels ‘true’ motivations:

Our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen … then we would have killed the king and driven out of the land all possessioners, bishops, monks, canons, and rectors of churches … We would have created kings, Wat Tylere in Kent and one each in other counties.[4]

To begin, we should note that what we now call Historia Anglicana with Straw’s Last Dying speech appears on two surviving manuscripts: The Chronica Maiora, or Corpus Christi College Cambridge manuscript 195, and the Historia Anglicana, Arundel Manuscript No. VII. The former, as the name suggests, was held in the library of the Cambridge College;[5] during the Reformation, manuscripts from St Albans found their way into the hands of a number of private book collectors.[6] It was John Bale (1495–1563)[7] who originally “owned” or “took” the Corpus Christi manuscript which then made its way into the possession of the famous Matthew Parker (1504–75). It was Parker’s collection of Walsingham’s chronicles which paved the way for their first printing; Parker combined Historia Anglicana with Walsingham’s Ypodigma Neustriae into Historia Brevis, first published in 1574 and again in 1594.[8] Historia Brevis was then incorporated into William Camden’s Anglica, Normanica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a Veteribus Scripta, published in Frankfurt in 1603.[9]

One man who clearly had read Walsingham’s chronicles was John Stow (1524–1605). We have a brief summary of the Peasants’ Revolt and of Straw’s confession in Stow’s A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (1565): ‘Jacke Strawe being taken confessed all the conspiracie & lost his head at London’.[10] He definitely would have had access to Walsingham’s works because his patron was the aforementioned Matthew Parker, who asked Stow to translate and edit the so-called Matthew of Westminster’s Flores Historiarum, published in 1567 and to work with Parker on the 1574 Historia Brevis. After collaborating with Parker, Stow wrote his own Annales of England— reworked from Stow’s much shorter Chronicles of England (1580)—published in 1592, 1601, and 1605. In the Annales, Straw’s confession is reproduced faithfully: the aims of the rebels are the same as in Walsingham’s version, to kill the gentlemen and set themselves up as kings; these details were probably taken from the reprint of Straw’s confession in Holinshead’s Chronicles, published in 1577.[11] In Walsingham’s original text Walworth convinces Straw to confess his crimes in return for masses to be said for him after his death.[12] This obviously reflected the idea of death as a discrete event, of purgatory and the necessity of prayers to be said after a sinner’s passing on.[13] There is one variation in the text of the speech: obviously as a result of the Reformation, Straw in Stow’s account will no longer have masses said for him after his death but his confession, William Walworth tells Straw, should simply be said ‘for thy soules health’.[14]

Regarding the second—and I will only briefly talk about it here as I’ll come on to it later:—in 1589, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, purchased many of Walsingham’s texts from the Abbey at St Albans. Howard died in 1646, after which the manuscript collection was held by Howard’s son, Henry Howard, and then his grandson, also Henry Howard. The grandson then divided the manuscripts between the Royal Society and then the College of Arms in 1666, with the Historia Anglicana given to the latter.[15] Howard’s donation to the College of Arms was likely a philanthropic gesture: in 1666, the College of Arms was a victim of the Great Fire of London and, although a number of members of the public and the public themselves saved as many manuscripts and rolls as they could, many were lost.

The idea that Straw needed to die with a clean conscience or soul reappears in The Iust Reward of Rebels, published at the beginning of the English Revolution in 1642.[16] The source text for this work, which aimed to show the folly of rebelling against one’s king through providing a true account of the rebellion, was likewise, as much of Stow’s work before, Walsingham’s ‘Chronicle of St Albones’.[17] It is merely a politicised appropriation of the events of the revolt and Straw’s speech completed with the aim of criticising the parliamentarians who were waging war against their king. In a similar vein is a book which sees the final time that Straw’s speech appears in popular culture: The History of all the Mobs, written by Robert Ferguson in 1715.[18] All references to ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ is absent but the text of the speech itself is largely faithful to that of John Stow’s (although Ferguson was not that great a researcher, declaring that the revolt occurred in 1383 and not 1381).[19]

After The History of all the Mobs, Jack Straw’s speech disappears—as far as I can ascertain—from all new retellings of the revolt (I have listed these in my bibliography on this paper should anyone be interested in consulting them). It is referenced nowhere in cheap eighteenth-century chapbook histories of the revolt, or the many ‘Historical Gleanings’ sections of newspapers and periodicals which appeared throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (many of which appeared in the lead up to the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819). They often reference Froissart’s chronicles but neglect Walsingham, much as William Hone does in his preface to Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler, published in 1817.[20]

rebel1
The Iust Reward of Rebels published at the height of the English Revolution to show the folly of rebelling against one’s lawful king

The question remains, therefore: why, when other medieval chroniclers were referenced in a variety of ‘popular’ historical essays, was Walsingham neglected? By extension, we might count Stow, Holinshead, and Parker’s Historia Brevis among those chronicles which were likewise, if not forgotten, then at least less privileged. The short answer is: I have absolutely no idea why Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana ceased to be consulted as a source for the revolt after the mid-eighteenth century, although I do have a few suppositions which, at this stage, may be either right or wrong. Having searched some, although not all, catalogues of rare book libraries from the eighteenth century, Stow’s works are rarely mentioned and, if they are, it is usually in general terms such as ‘Stow’s Chronicles’, which does not contain the speech. Where Walsingham is mentioned, again it is in general terms such as ‘Saint Alban’s Chronicle’, many variants of which do not contain the speech.[21] Walsingham enjoys a very brief (one sentence) footnote in Antiquitates Culinariæ (1791), although the particular chronicle referred to is not mentioned, being simply a ‘Walsingham tells us’.[22] Again we find one brief reference to Walsingham in a pamphlet written by the antiquary Joseph Ayloffe, but whether he had actually read the Historia Anglicana is unclear, as he just refers to ‘Walsingham’ and not any specific manuscript.[23] To me, this suggests that, by the mid-eighteenth century, Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana and Stow’s Annales were perhaps left to languish in various libraries and were no longer being consulted by those who wished to retell the revolt.

Mobs 1

Even early radicals’ and reformers’ late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century publications avoided Walsingham. This was probably due to the fact that they disliked ‘party historians’ whose sympathies were always with Walworth and Richard II.[24] Thomas Paine, in his invoking of Wat Tyler’s name, hit upon the same sentiments in reference to the establishment’s views of the rebel.[25] Even in hardbound history books, such as The Life of Wat Tyler published in 1851, which acknowledges its debt to various sources such as Froissart and Knighton, there is no debt paid to Walsingham—poor Walsingham! These nineteenth-century popular history books often took the bare facts of the revolt but put their own spin on it (ahem—see chapter five of my book for further details). Southey’s Wat Tyler play is referenced more in magazines and newspapers such as Bronterre’s National Reformer, The Northern Star, and the Red Republican more than any medieval chronicler ever was when they printed accounts of the revolt (again, I hate to do this ‘cause it is rather vain but: see my book for any nineteenth-century Wat Tyler query). Not even Pierce Egan the Younger’s—he’s a real favourite of mine—well-researched novel contains Straw’s last dying speech.

19thc slide
Poor Walsingham is not referenced in any of these popular publications

So, would Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana ever be rescued from languishing unnoticed? All I’ll say here, as someone who is more Victorian than medieval, is: Thank God for the Victorians! Walsingham’s history would soon be ‘rediscovered’ thanks to Victorian lawmakers’ passage of the Public Record Office Act in 1838, which aimed to

rescue from oblivion … valuable collections of papers the contents of which are now unknown even to the possessors which are … of the highest value on account of the information which they afford in matters of history, law, legislation, biography, and several other important subjects.[26]

Riley worked from Arundel MSS No. VII to produce his critical edition of Historia Anglicana, which he collated with Chronica Maiora in Corpus Christi College’s archives in Cambridge. Now, since the mid-eighteenth century, the College of Arms had been left to languish; it could barely afford to rebuild after the Great Fire and after the Hanoverian succession, the Georgian kings showed little interest in the college, refused to grant it any money, and even refused to renew its royal charter. In a situation that I’m sure we can all identify with, they kept applying to the government for money and kept getting rejected—history really does repeat itself! By the 1830s, the college was dilapidated and at risk of fire but the government ordered the college, with some financial incentive, to make a list of all the records and manuscripts which they held to comply with the Public Record Office Act.[27] This suggests, as the Public Record Act itself recognised, that the College of Arms simply did not know what they had. A small team of researchers was assembled by the government to collect information about Britain’s records and, where necessary, publish them. Among these was Henry Thomas Riley. Little is known of Riley’s life except for the fact that he was a lawyer, called to the bar in 1847, but his legal career not paying well, he took odd jobs editing and translating old manuscripts for the Public Record Office. But Riley published Walsingham’s chronicles as distinct, separate works which is arguably better practice than some modern translators who compile all of them together into one generalised Chronica Maiora. Riley accepted that the Historia Anglicana was ‘based upon’ or ‘derived from’ a larger and more complete Walsingham text, Royal MS. 13. E. ix—this omits Straw’s speech—but was hesitant to view all of Walsingham chronicles as one large ‘whole’, and his position was disputed in the 1930s by V. H. Galbraith.[28]

College 1
College of Arms in the 1840s

While Galbraith’s conclusions—that each Walsingham chronicle was part of a larger St Albans Chronicle—have become accepted scholarly ‘fact’—based on identifying these manuscripts’ repetitions and references to each other—his publication of the St Alban’s Chronicle comprising Historia Anglicana, Annales Ricardi II et Henrici IV, Chronicon Angliae, a practice carried on by modern editors, has obscured the history of the manuscripts to some extent. Sometimes, when studying the reappearance of a specific passage such as Straw’s speech and why it disappeared from ‘popular’ understanding of the Peasants’ Revolt, the history of one chronicle needs to be disentangled from the rest with which it has been ‘lumped together’. I do, of course, need to do further research; Walsingham’s Historia Anglicana may have been one of those manuscripts in need of being ‘rescued from oblivion’, but this does not account for the lack of citations to John Stow and Holinshead and their versions of Jack Straw’s last dying speech.

Rily1
Riley’s publication of Walsingham’s Chronicles

Notes

[1] R. B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1970), p. 363.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Walsingham, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed. by R. B. Dobson (London: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 365–6 (p. 365).

[4] Ibid., p. 366.

[5] James G. Clark, ‘Thomas Walsingham Reconsidered: Books and Learning at Late-Medieval St. Albans’, Speculum, 77: 3 (2002), 832–60 (p. 837): ‘There is an important group of St. Albans manuscripts containing material attributed to Walsingham all of which can be dated to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, that is, within a generation of his death. This includes Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 195; and Bodl., MSS Bodley 585, Douce 299, Rawlinson B 152, and Rawlinson D 358’.

[6] J. Clark, ‘Reformation and reaction at St Albans Abbey, 1530-58’, The English Historical Review, 115: 461 (2000), 297–328 (p. 321): the chief instigator in this respect was Richard Boreman, the last Abbot of St Albans, who sold a thirteenth-century anthology of astronomical treaties to John Dee in 1553, while the previous abbot, Robert Catton, also retained a number of books from St Albans’s library for his own personal use, as did Boreman.

[7] Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora, MS Cambridge CCC 195; Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376–1422, Trans. David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), p. 22.

[8] For a fuller account of medieval books in early modern England and specifically of Matthew Parker, see the following: Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); R. I. Page, Matthew Parker and his Books (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993); Anthony Grafton, ‘Matthew Parker: The Book as Archive’, History of Humanities, 2: 1 (2017), 15–50.

[9] John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1570), pp. 702–3: John Foxe in Acts and Monuments, first printed in 1653, likewise drew upon Walsingham’s chronicles, although Straw’s speech does not appear in Foxe’s work and the only information of the revolt first appeared in the 1570 edition, and what Foxe included was relatively short: ‘But let vs consider yet further of these xx. thousand souldiours so sodenly without wages, without vitall, or other prouision congregated together, what they were, from whence, out of what quarter, countrey, or countreys they came. MarginaliaIn other kynges dayes, when soeuer any rebellion is against the kyng, moued by the commōs, as when Iacke Straw, and Wat Tyler of Kent, and Essex rose in þe tyme of kyng Richard. 2. Whē William Mandeuill of Abyngdon, Iacke Cade of Kent, in þe tyme of kyng Henry the 6. In the tyme of kyng Henry the 8. when the commotion was of rebels in Lyncolshyre, thē in Yorkeshyre, when in kyng Edward the 6. tyme Humfrey Arundell in Deuonshyre, Captayne Kyte in Northfolke made styrre agaynst the kyng, the countrey and partes from whence these rebels did spryng, were both noted and also diffamed. In this so traiterous commotion therfore let vs nowe learne, what men these were, and from what countrey or countreis in all Englande they came. If they came out of any, let the Chronicles declare what countreys they were. If they came out of none (as none is named) then let them come out of Outopia, where be lyke this figment was first forged, and inuented. Wherefore seyng neither the countreys from whence they came, nor yet the names of any of all these thousand do appeare what they were eyther in Chronicle or in recorde, but remaine altogether vnknowen, I leaue it (gentle reader) to thy iudgemēt, to thinke therupon, as thy wisedome shall lead thee’. There is little variation upon these words in successive editions of Foxe’s works which were published in 1576 and 1583.

[10] John Stow, A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (London: Richard Bradocke, 1598), p. 149.

[11] Ralph Holinshed, et al., The Chronicles of England, 4 vols (London: Lucas Harrison, 1577), IV, p. 1036.

[12] Walsingham, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, p. 365. See also Thomas Walsingham, Chronica Monasterii S. Albani. Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, ed. by Henry Thomas Riley, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1864), II, p. 10.

[13] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200–1700, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 51–3.

[14] John Stow, Annales of England (London, 1601), p. 465.

[15] H. T. Riley, ed., Chronica Monasterii S. Albani: Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, London Rolls Series, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1872), I, p. x.

[16] The Iust Reward of Rebels (London: F. Couls, 1642), pp. 14–15: ‘The Lord Mayor againe thus seconded it; I speake to thee as a dying man who now ought to study for the peace of thy soule, and not dissemble at all either with God, or man’.

[17] Ibid., p. 3.

[18] Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), pp. 61–3.

[19] Robert Ferguson, The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, and Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1715), pp. 12–13.

[20] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: Printed for William Hone, 1817), p. xvii.

[21] John Berkenhout, Biographia Literaria; or, a Biographical History of Literature, 2 vols (London: J. Dodsley, 1748), I, p. 48.

[22] Richard Warner, Antiquitates Culinariæ; or Curious Tracts Relating to the Culinary Affairs of the Old English (London: R. Blamire, 1791), p. xxxi.

[23] Joseph Ayloffe, An Account of the Body of King Edward the First (London: Printed in the Year 1775), p. 21.

[24] ‘Historical Gleanings’, The English Chartist Circular, 28 (n. d.), 28.

[25] Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man: Part the Second, 8th edn (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792), p. 111.

[26] Roger Ellis, ‘The historical manuscripts commission 1869–1969’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 2: 6 (1962), 233–42 (p. 233).

[27] Anthony Wagner, Heralds of England: A History of the Office and College of Arms (London: HMSO, 1967), p. 167.

[28] V. H. Galbraith, ‘Thomas Walsingham and the Saint Albans Chronicle, 1272–1422’, The English Historical Review, 47: 185 (1932), 12–30.

Further Reading:

Ailesbury, Charles Bruce, A Catalogue of the Books of the Right Honourable Charles Viscount Bruce of Ampthill (London: Printed at the Theatre, 1733)

Ayloffe, Joseph, An Account of the Body of King Edward the First (London: Printed in the Year 1775)

Basdeo, Stephen, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)

Berkenhout, John, Biographia Literaria; or, a Biographical History of Literature, 2 vols (London: J. Dodsley, 1748)

Bibliotheca Hollandiana (Norwich: Henry Crosgrove, 1733)

Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry, ‘Introduction: Death and the Regeneration of Life’, in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 1–45

Brie, F. W. D., ‘Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’, The English Historical Review, 21: 81 (1906), 106-111

Bronterre’s National Reformer

A Catalogue of Books (Thomas and John Egerton, 1787)

A Catalogue of the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts, Purchased by Authority of Parliament, 2 vols (London: Dryden Leach, 1759)

Chaucer, Geoffrey, ‘The Canterbury Tales: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, in The Canterbury Tales and Faerie Queene, ed. by D. Laing Purves (Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1897), pp. 165–77

Clark, James G., ‘Reformation and reaction at St Albans Abbey, 1530-58’, The English Historical Review, 115: 461 (2000), 297–328

————, ‘Thomas Walsingham Reconsidered: Books and Learning at Late-Medieval St. Albans’, Speculum, 77: 3 (2002), 832–60

Cleveland, John, The Rustick Rampant; or Rurall Anarchy Affronting Monarchy (London: F. C., 1658)

The Complaint and Petition of the Whole Kingdome of Englande (London: W. Webb, 1643)

A Dialogue Between Mischievous Tom, Wat Tyler, and an English Farmer (London: John Stockdale, 1793)

Dobson, R. B., ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: MacMillan, 1970)

Ellis, Roger, ‘The historical manuscripts commission 1869–1969’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 2: 6 (1962), 233–42

The English Chartist Circular

Evans, Thomas, ed., Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, 2 vols (London: T. Evans, 1777)

Ferguson, James, Robert Ferguson the Plotter; or, The Secret of the Rye-House Conspiracy and the Story of a Strange Career (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1887)

Ferguson, Robert, The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, and Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1715)

Foxe, John, Actes and Monuments (London, 1570)

Galbraith, V. H., ‘Thomas Walsingham and the Saint Albans Chronicle, 1272–1422’, The English Historical Review, 47: 185 (1932), 12–30

Godfrey, Walter H., and Anthony Wagner, An Account of the College of Arms in Queen Victoria Street (London: Guild & School of Handicraft, 1963)

Goldsmith, Oliver, Goldsmith’s History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Death of George II (Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1844)

Gordon, Stephen R., ‘The Walking Dead in Medieval England: Literary and Archaeological Perspectives’ (Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 2013)

Grafton, Anthony, ‘Matthew Parker: The Book as Archive’, History of Humanities, 2: 1 (2017), 15–50

Graham, Timothy, ‘Matthew Parker’s Manuscripts: an Elizabethan library and its use’, in The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, ed. by Elisabeth Leedham-Green, et al., 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 322–42

The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw (London: [n. pub.], 1788)

The History of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw (London: Edward Midwinter [n. d.])

Holinshed, Ralph, et al., The Chronicles of England, 4 vols (London: Lucas Harrison, 1577)

The Iust Reward of Rebels (London: F. Couls, 1642)

The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (London: Iohn Danter, 1593)

Northern Star

Page, R. I., Matthew Parker and his Books (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993)

Paine, Thomas, The Rights of Man: Part the Second, 8th edn (London: J. S. Jordan, 1792)

Phillpott, Matthew, The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018)

‘The Rebellion of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’, in Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, ed. by Thomas Evans, 2 vols (London: T. Evans, 1777), I, pp. 280–84

Royer, Katherine, The English Execution Narrative, 1200–1700, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)

‘Some Account of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion’, The Universal Magazine, June (1780), 322

Southey, Robert, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: William Hone, 1817)

Stow, George B., ‘Bodleian Library MS Bodley 316 and the Dating of Thomas Walsingham’s Literary Career’, Manuscripta, 25: 2 (1981), 67–76

————, ‘Richard II in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronicles’, Speculum, 59: 1 (1984), 68–102

Stow, John, Annales of England (London, 1601)

————, A Summarie of the Chronicles of England (London: Richard Bradocke, 1598)

Summit, Jennifer, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

 ‘Tax Has Tenet Us Alle (Corpus Christi Coll. Cambridge MS 369 fol. 46v)’, in Medieval English Political Writings, ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), pp. 147–9

Trokelowe, Johannis and Henrici de Blandeford, Chonrica Monasterii S. Albani. Monachorum S. Albani, Necnon Quorundam Anonymorum Chronica et Annales, ed. by H. T. Riley, London Rolls Series (London: Longman, 1866)

Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1969)

Wagner, Anthony, Heralds of England: A History of the Office and College of Arms (London: HMSO, 1967)

Warner, Richard, Antiquitates Culinariæ; or Curious Tracts Relating to the Culinary Affairs of the Old English (London: R. Blamire, 1791)

Walsingham, Thomas, Chronicon Angliae, 1328–88, ed. by E. Maunde Thompson, London Rolls Series (London, 1874)

————, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376–1422, Trans. David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005)

————, Chronica Monasterii S. Albani: Thomae Walsingham, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana, ed. by H. T. Riley, London Rolls Series, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1872)

————, ‘The Confession of John Straw’, in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed. by R. B. Dobson (London: MacMillan, 1970), pp. 365–6

‘Wat Tyler’, The Republican, 29 March 1817, 65–80

‘Wat Tyler’, The Weekly Entertainer, 19 May 1817, 390–91

Zook, M., ‘Turncoats and Double Agents in Restoration and Revolutionary England: The Case of Robert Ferguson, the Plotter’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42: 3 (2009), 363–78

 

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Visions of “Piers Plowman” in the 18th Century

The best thing about having a Robin Hood theme for this blog is that it allows me to legitimately write about both crime and medievalism (medievalism, as opposed to medieval studies, examines how the medieval period has been represented by authors, artists, and writers in periods after the middle ages). Our modern understanding of Robin Hood is, of course, largely a figure of popular culture: while we know very little of who the historical outlaw may have been, we have plenty of stories about him that have survived since the Middle Ages. The first reference to Robin Hood in popular culture occurs in the B Text of William Langland’s poem entitled The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was composed between c. 1370 and c. 1390):[i]

I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,

But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randalf erle of Chestre.[ii]

Much has been written on the medieval texts of Piers Plowman, and there is even a Piers Plowman Society which aims to further research into this text. This post, however, concerns eighteenth-century views of Langland’s masterpiece.

Let us first learn a little about the context: the eighteenth century, particularly from 1765 onward, with the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in that year, was a period in which intellectuals were gradually “rediscovering” historical English texts. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, neoclassicism was the dominant artistic and literary aesthetic mode. Authors and poets such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope, while they were admiring of early English poets such as Chaucer, more often than not held their works to be rude and unrefined. Thus, in Addison’s Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694), he gives the following opinion of Geoffrey Chaucer:

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,

Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine

Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,

And many a story told in rhyme and prose.

But age has rusted what the poet writ,

Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;

In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,

And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.[iii]

In other words, the poetry of the medieval period was good, but it was rather unsuitable for the polite and polished age of the Georgian period. This is why, usually, when authors and artists in the eighteenth century wished to represent the medieval period, it was usually with a baroque or neoclassical overlay.[iv]

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Addison did not include Langland in his list of the greatest English poets, although other critics in the period credit the latter with having been

The first English poet, who employ’d his muse for the refinement of manners … by his writings, it plainly appears that poetry, and politeness, grew up together.[v]

Of course, the progress of politeness, poetry, and the cultivation of manners in the medieval period was halted, according to the author, because of the various conflicts that occurred in the Middle Ages, for ‘war and faction immediately restor’d ignorance’.[vi] It was not until the author’s own era of Enlightenment that politeness, refinement, scientific and cultural progress had resumed.

However, when serious historical research into ancient English poetry began, then such poetry began to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Antiquaries throughout the eighteenth century engaged in extensive textual analysis of Langland’s poem. The afore-mentioned Thomas Percy (1729–1811), in an essay on Langland’s poem, published in 1767, argued that Pierce Plowman, as he calls it, was the product of the poetry of the Gothic ‘race’: the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry can be felt in the structure of Langland’s poem; in turn, as Robert Shiell’s argued slightly earlier, Langland’s poetry influenced that of John Milton. In this way, Percy and Shiell argue for an almost unbroken line of literary heritage from the ‘dark ages’ through to the late medieval period, and, of course, through Milton and Percy’s own Reliques, to the early modern era.[vii]

The noted Robin Hood scholar, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), took over the reins of Langland scholarship.[viii] Ritson identified two different versions of Langland’s poem, and unlike other scholars before him, Ritson preferred to go back to manuscript sources rather than rely on printed sixteenth-century editions of the poem. Amazingly, Ritson’s opinion of Langland was lukewarm: in his Bibliographia Poetica (1802), he says that the poem is,

but a dull performance and scarcely merits the care of a modern impression [printing].[ix]

Eighteenth-century medievalist scholarship in general was concerned with rediscovering English literary heritage, and trying to show contemporary readers that England had a rich literary heritage just like that which predominated on the continent, even though Helen Young has recently argued in an essay for the Public Medievalist that Percy’s scholarship effectively was a work of white supremacis because it somehow “whitewashed” the Middle Ages.[x] Indeed, there is indication in either the work of Percy or Ritson that either of them assumed that their ‘race’ was superior to that of other cultures. Given the fact that Percy speaks of race in terms of linguistics, it is more likely he conceived of it in terms similar to that expressed in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), more in terms of a ‘family’, i.e. the gothic ‘races’ spoke a different family of languages to the Latin-speaking family of people. Percy and Ritson were, in fact, conscious of the alleged inferiority of their native culture when compared to that of other cultures. This makes it difficult to believe that such scholarship ever laid the groundwork for a “white” vision of the middle ages, and by extension, laid the framework for white supremacists’ belief in racial purity.

Langland’s poem will always have a special place in the eyes of Robin Hood scholars, and indeed any medieval scholar. It is a survey of medieval life and manners which, to scholars in the eighteenth century who were just beginning to establish the discipline of medieval studies, it was invaluable.


[i] The full title in Latin is: Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman.

[ii] William Langland, ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman – B Text’, in The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts together with Richard the Redeless, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, rev. ed., 2 Vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), 1: 166.

[iii] Joseph Addison, ‘An Account of the Greatest English Poets’, in The Works of the English Poets, ed. by Samuel Johnson, rev. ed., 56 Vols (London: A. Strahan, 1790), 30: 34.

[iv] Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 9.

[v] The Historical and Poetical Medley: or, Muses Library; Being a Choice and Faithful Collection of the Best Antient English Poetry, rev. ed. (London: T. Davies, 1738), p. xi.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thomas Percy, ‘On the Metre of Pierce Plowman’s Visions’, in Four essays, as Improved and Enlarged in the Second Edition of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. by Thomas Percy (London: J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 5-9.

[viii] The following information on Joseph Ritson’s contribution to Langland scholarship is taken from the following book: Lawrence Warner, The Myth of Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 2-21.

[ix] Ibid., p. 11.

[x] Helen Young, ‘Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’, The Public Medievalist, 21 March 2017, online edn., https://www.publicmedievalist.com/white-middle-ages-come/ [Accessed 11 December 2017].

The Critical Reception of Mrs. Brown of Falkland’s Robin Hood Ballads

Paper Presented to the Women’s History Network Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 16-17 September 2016.


Abstract: The earliest ballads of Robin Hood such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) and Robin Hood and the Potter (c.1450) give no clue as to the manner of Robin Hood’s birth. This was still the case when Joseph Ritson published his influential ballad anthology entitled Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). Five years after Ritson, however, Robert Jamieson published Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). In that collection two new never-before-seen Robin Hood ballads appeared entitled The Birth of Robin Hood and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John. Jamieson had transcribed the ballads from Anna Gordon Brown of Falkland, Scotland. Although twentieth-century Robin Hood critics have derided Mrs. Brown’s ballads as being of little merit compared to earlier material, Mrs. Brown enjoyed a ‘literary afterlife’ in the tradition as Goody – the old woman who recites Robin Hood stories to dinner guests – in the first ever Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). The proposed paper, therefore, is intended to fit into the panel ‘Women Collectors and Collected Women’.


Introduction

Throughout history many Scottish authors have shaped the Robin Hood legend. For example, it is in medieval and early modern Scottish chronicles written by Andrew of Wyntoun, John Major, and Walter Bower, for instance, that Robin is first established as a ‘historic’ figure, and not merely a man who exists in ballads. During the nineteenth century, the first two Robin Hood novels entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, both of which were published in 1819, were written by Scottish authors and first published in Edinburgh.[1] There is not a single scholar who would question the appearance of the works of Wyntoun, Bower, Major, or Scott within the Robin Hood canon – that is to say, those texts which scholars have agreed are an undeniable part of the Robin Hood tradition. Yet as this paper illustrates, there has been a certain amount of hesitancy on the part of modern critics to include within the tradition three Robin Hood ballads which first appeared when Robert Jamieson transcribed them from Mrs. Brown of Falkland (1747-1810).

To begin with, it is necessary to provide a very brief history of Robin Hood scholarship during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There was a significant degree of interest in the medieval English past during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and much of this amateur scholarship focused upon medieval and early-modern ballads, especially those relating to historic worthies such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, with ballads about him appearing repeatedly in various antiquaries’ works.[2] Thomas Percy’s three volume Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 featured the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and in the four volume work Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative published by the Welsh bookseller and antiquary in 1784 almost every post medieval Robin Hood ballad was printed. The most famous eighteenth-century Robin Hood scholar, however, was Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). His two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was, upon its first publication in 1795, the definitive collection of Robin Hood texts. Ritson made available in two volumes texts such as the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, and Robin Hood and the Monk. In his collection Ritson also included the texts of seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, and Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham.

rh-books-1700s
Eighteenth-Century Robin Hood Scholarship: Percy’s Reliques (1765), Evans’ Old Ballads (1784) and Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

None of the ballads in Ritson’s collection, however, provided the story of Robin Hood’s birth. It was not until Jamieson published a collection of ballads entitled Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions in 1806 did an account of Robin’s birth appear in a ballad entitled The Birth of Robin Hood. Another never before seen ballad relating to Robin’s life entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John also appeared in the same collection. Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border published in 1802 included another of Mrs. Brown’s Robin Hood ballads entitled Rose the Red, and White Lily. Jamieson and Scott transcribed these ballads from Mrs. Brown. Usually the only woman associated with the Robin Hood legend is Maid Marian, and the only writers who have represented her have usually been men. Thus, a conference which focuses upon women’s history is the perfect opportunity to discuss these ballads and explore what I shall call the ‘literary afterlife’ and subtle influence of Mrs. Brown upon later manifestations of the Robin Hood tradition – a woman whose contributions to the legend, if she is remembered at all, have often been dismissed by late-nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars.

Mrs. Brown’s Ballads and their Critical Reception

Anna Gordon was born in Aberdeen in 1747, the daughter of Thomas Gordon, a Professor of Humanities, and Lilias Forbes. She grew up in a Scotland in which ballads were central to both elite and popular culture’.[3] The most significant ballad which was transcribed from Mrs. Brown of Falkland was the aforementioned The Birth of Robin Hood.[4] The story follows the daughter of Earl Richard who falls in love with a servant named Willie – a union of which she knows her father the Earl would disapprove. The Earl’s daughter and Willie often have secretive meetings in the forest, and it is soon revealed that she is pregnant. The Earl’s daughter escapes from her home to go and give birth in the forest. Realising that his daughter is missing, the Earl convenes a search party and goes out after her. He finds his daughter in the wood, exhausted from having given birth and, despite the circumstances of the illegitimate birth the Earl is overcome with happiness upon seeing the child:

abrownballad
Anna Gordon’s ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Jamieson’s Popular Ballads (1806)

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim;
And Robin Hood in the gude green wood,
And that shall be your name.’ [5]

Thus the ballad sets up a noble parentage for Robin Hood. While The Birth of Robin Hood has at least made into Barrie Dobson and John Taylor’s critical anthology of Robin Hood ballads Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976), Brown’s second Robin Hood ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John did not, and has received very little critical attention. The ballad relates the story of two women who one day decide to dress in men’s clothes and travel into the greenwood under the assumed names of Nicholas and Roger Roun. The two women are found sleeping in the wood by Robin Hood and Little John, and eventually one of the women, Roger, becomes pregnant:

“When we were in our father’s ha’,
We wore the beaten gold;
But now we wear the shield so sharp,
Alas! We’ll die with cold!”
Then up bespake him Robin Hood,
As he to them drew near;
“Instead of boys to carry the bow,
Two ladies we’ve got here.”
So they had not been in gud green-wood,
A twalmonth and a day,
Til Roger Roun was as big wi’ bairn
As ony ladie could gae.[6]

During the early nineteenth century when the ballads first appeared, there appears to have been little question over whether the ballads should be included as part of the developing canon. Ritson’s original text was reprinted in 1820,[7] 1823,[8] 1832,[9] and then revised and expanded in 1865.[10] Brown’s ballads appeared in both the 1832 and the 1865 editions of Ritson’s text. Furthermore, the historian John Mathew Gutch included Brown’s ballads in his two volume critical anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode published in 1847. Gutch justified the inclusion of Brown’s The Birth of Robin Hood by writing that:

It is certainly characteristic, and perfectly consistent with [Robin Hood’s] subsequent life and conduct; insomuch, that it cannot be said of the renowned hero of Sherwood, as Deianira says of Hercules, – “Dissimiles hic vir et ille puer”.[11]

And of Rose the Red, and White Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John he says that

There can be no doubt that the three following ballads relate to Robin Hood and Little John and have their origin in the same tradition.[12]

However, the attitude towards these ballads changed as the nineteenth century progressed. A further edition of Ritson’s work appeared in 1884 which did not include Brown’s ballads.[13] Between 1882 and 1898 Francis J. Child published the multivolume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His third volume was devoted almost entirely to Robin Hood ballads. Yet Brown’s ballads were not to be included alongside other ‘canonical’ Robin Hood texts but were placed in the second volume which dealt with songs of Scottish origin. The main reason that he gave for placing Brown’s ballads outside of the Robin Hood canon was that many of them bear resemblance to other popular Scottish ballads, and Child stated that all of Brown’s songs were said to be variants upon the popular Scottish ballad Willie O’ Douglas Dale.[14]

He justified excluding Rose the Red, the White and Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John from the Robin Hood tradition because:

Robin Hood has no love-story in any ancient ballad, though his name has been foisted into modern love ballads, as in “Robin Hood and the Tanner’s Daughter” […] Maid Marian is a late accretion. There is a piteously vulgar broadside, in which Maid Marian, being parted from Robin, dresses herself “like a page” (but armed fully), meets Robin Hood, also under disguise, and has an hours fight with him.[15]

When discussing The Birth of Robin Hood Child made a break with established scholarly practice and renamed the ballad as Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. To justify this he stated that:

This ballad certainly does not belong to the cycle of Robin Hood, and for this reason the title hitherto held by it could not be retained […the title of] the Earl of Huntingdon has no place in the ancient traditional ballads of Robin Hood, but is of later literary invention.[16]

Child was correct, of course, for Robin was not named as the Earl of Huntingdon until Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon written between 1597 and 1598.

fjchild
American Scholar F. J. Child (1825-1896)

Taken at face value, Child’s justifications for excluding these ballads appear to be relatively sound. What is perplexing, however, is that despite the objections listed above, Child includes as part of the Robin Hood canon certain ballads at which his afore-mentioned rationale could also be raised. For example, most of the later seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner and Robin Hood and the Scotchman are merely variations upon the theme of The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield. Although very few ballads reveal that Robin has a love interest such as Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage which sees Robin marry Clorinda, the Queen of the Shepherdesses, Child has no compunction about including these in the tradition. Child also includes Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood originally published in 1632.[18] This ballad names Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon, yet is included despite his remarks that any ballad stating that Robin was a nobleman was of dubious canonicity.

Conclusion

The reasons why Child applied these double standards to these ballads will likely have died with Child himself. Child’s view has persisted into modern scholarship. Barrie Dobson and John Taylor state in Rymes of Robyn Hood that

Mrs. Brown’s ballad owes nothing but Robin Hood’s name to the native English cycle of stories.

While they even went so far as to suggest that Brown simply invented the stories, saying that

It remains suspicious that for the missing story of [Robin Hood’s] birth we have to wait until the recitation of a remarkable Scottish woman delivered five years after the first (1795) edition of Ritson’s comprehensive collection.[19]

The suggestion that Brown invented these ballads contradicts David C. Fowler’s earlier argument that Mrs. Brown’s ballads were learned from her mother, aunt, and her maidservant. Moreover, Mrs. Brown’s ballads appear nowhere in the even more recent ballad anthology by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren entitled Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (2000).[21] But the exclusion of Brown’s ballads from the overall tradition, especially in the face of the double standards applied to their ‘authenticity’ when compared to other Robin Hood tales, should encourage a rethink of what scholars mean by ‘canon’ when discussing legends such as Robin Hood.

rh1
Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh, 1819)

However, Mrs. Brown would go on to enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’ as the old village woman Goody in the framing narrative of the first Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time published in 1819. The novel begins in the nineteenth-century lawyer’s home in Oxfordshire where he is holding a dinner party, and the subject turns to ancient songs and ballads. The lawyer reveals that there is a woman named Goody living in the village who is descended from Welsh bards and knows by heart several tales of Robin Hood. On the next evening the whole village descends on Goody’s cottage to hear a tale of Robin Hood and his merry men.[22] Stephen Knight, who has studied this novel in depth, agrees that Goody is modelled upon Mrs. Brown.[23]

Robert Southey in his unfinished poem entitled Robin Hood: A Fragment which was published in 1847 utilises the plot of The Birth of Robin Hood. Earl William – a name obviously taken from Brown’s ballad – and his lover Emma are now respectably married:

O! Emma! fairest, loveliest of thy sex!
[…]
For sure, if ever on a marriage day
Approving angels smiled
Upon their happy charge,
‘Twas when her willing hand
Was to Lord William given.
The noble to the noble — blooming youth
To manhood in its comeliness and prime:
Beauty to manliness and worth to worth;
The gentle to the brave —
The generous to the good.[24]

In fact, Southey expanded and continued the plot of Brown’s ballad, which sees Robin’s mother die and Earl William descend into depression. Thus the situation is this: works which are considered to be canonical have taken some of their inspiration from a supposedly non-canonical work, and in view of this, perhaps it is time to reconsider the status of Mrs. Brown’s ballads within the Robin Hood tradition.


References

[1] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp.36-54.
[2] See Monica Santini, The Impetus of Amateur Scholarship: Discussing and Editing. Medieval Romances in Late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).
[3] Ruth Perry, ‘The Famous Ballads of Anna Gordon, Mrs. Brown’ in A Cultural History of Women in the Age of Enlightenment ed. by Ellen Pollack 6 Vols. (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2012) 4: 2 [Internet <https://lit.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/Famous-Ballads.pdf&gt; Accessed 27 July 2016].
[4] For a critical edition, see Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), pp.195-197.
[5] Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’, p.197.
[6] Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood ed. by J. M. Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 2: 391.
[7] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Longman, 1820).
[8] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: C. Stocking, 1823).
[9] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. 2 Vols. London: William Pickering, 1832).
[10] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Bell and Daldy, 1865).
[11] A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 373; the translation of the Latin reads ‘how different from the present man was the youth of earlier days’.
[12] A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 377.
[13] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. [n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]).
[14] The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis J. Child (5 Vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1882-1898; repr. 5 Vols. New York: Dover, 2005), 2: 406.
[15] Child, 2: 417.
[16] Child, 2: 412.
[17] Child, 3: 130.
[18] Child, 3: 227-233.
[19] Dobson Taylor, p.195.
[20] Suzanne Gilbert, ‘Orality and the Ballad Tradition’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing ed. by Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 35-43 (pp.39-40).
[21] Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).
[22] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54-78.
[23] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, p.146-147.
[24] Robert Southey, Robin Hood: A Fragment (London: William Blackwood, 1847), pp.1-2.

The Chartist Robin Hood: Thomas Miller’s “Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John” (1838)

The early nineteenth century witnessed two phenomenally successful Robin Hood novels: Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). After those two novels, authors took a break from casting Robin Hood in any of their historical romances. That was until the appearance of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838).

Thomas Miller (1807-1874) was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. His father died when he was very young as a result of having participated in the Burdett Riots in 1810, thus leaving Miller and his mother in desperate poverty. Despite the dire straits that the family were reduced to, however, Miller’s mother ensured that he received an education. From an early age he loved to read, and went on to become a poet and novelist. As far as his novels go, he appears to have been a ‘Jack of all trades’: capable of writing pastoral poetry, historical romance, and crime fiction. He even continued G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (1844-45) after Reynolds fell out with the publisher.[1]

The Robin Hood who appears in Royston Gower can justifiably be called the Chartist Robin Hood. Chartism was a political reform movement composed of middle-class radicals and working-class men that really began to pick up momentum in 1838, the year that Miller was writing. Indeed one of Miller’s life-long friends was the Chartist activist Thomas Cooper (1805-1892). The Chartists had six demands:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot.
  3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament.
  4. Payment of Members, enabling ordinary people to serve a constituency when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections.

Although the movement ultimately failed, gradually the British Parliament have actually implemented all-but-one of the reforms – that of annual elections.

Medieval heroes were often appropriated by Chartist activists. For example, the Chartists had a ‘Wat Tyler Brigade’, named after the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. And figures such as Wat Tyler and Robin Hood have been easily appropriated by radicals of all shades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, Robert Southey authored his dramatic poem Wat Tyler in 1794 which is highly supportive of the French Revolution. Thus although in its historicisation of Robin Hood Miller’s novel owes much to Walter Scott, and was meticulously researched from documents that Miller says he studied in the British Museum, in its political sentiments it is more alike to Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads (1795). Miller’s Robin Hood defiantly fights against the forces of King John, proudly declaring that ‘we own no tyrant’.[2] Miller presents Robin as a political reformer saying in his preface that his:

Earliest recollections of the brave freebooter are from “Robin Hood’s Garland,” which, embellished with rude woodcuts, represented this EARLY REFORMER as shooting deer, fighting rangers.[3]

In fact, advocating political reform is equated with patriotism in Miller’s novel, as he says that the outlaws in his novel are true patriots.[4] Miller’s novel was published in three volumes and retailed at a price of thirty-one shillings: the message for his affluent readers is that England’s great national hero Robin Hood would have been a Chartist/Reformer if he was alive in the nineteenth century, and readers should patriotically lend their support to the cause of political reform as well.

Significantly, while the growing trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Robin Hood literature had been to cast Robin as a nobleman, Miller gives him humbler social origins. In keeping with fifteenth-century Robin Hood poems, Robin is a yeoman. By the nineteenth century, the term ‘yeoman’ was understood to mean a small-scale land owner, as opposed to a person who was merely a tenant farmer. Thus Robin is definitely of the class that we might term the ‘labour aristocracy’. He is not a Lord standing up for the people, but is actually one of the people fighting for his rights and liberties.

Walter Scott’s idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans are opposed to each other is present in the novel, but in Miller’s novel the problem is not one of race but one of class. Miller highlights the fact that in the medieval period there were many good Normans living in poverty, and many good wealthy Normans.[5] What is needed in medieval England (and of course Victorian England), Miller argues, is complete reform of the political system. The problem back in the days of King John is a problem that would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers: Old Corruption.

Old Corruption was a term employed by middle-class radicals and the labour aristocracy in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century England to describe a political system in which the elites shored up their own interests at the expense of the people.[6] The callous and self-interested thirteenth-century elite are embodied in the character of the Norman nobleman De Marchmont, the principal villain of the tale, who Miller compares to nineteenth-century politicians:

The Baron gazed for a moment on the King, then cast his eyes towards the floor, as he feared his thoughts might be discovered; for he could not avoid comparing in his own mind the policy and hypocrisy of King John, with that which the monarch attributed to the Church of Rome. But De Marchmont was too much of a courtier to allow these thoughts to escape him, and too much of a tyrant himself, to murmur at the King’s conduct, and with a tact which politicians in our own day occasionally copy, he shaped his reply to suit his interests.[7]

Miller’s use of dating is also significant in this respect: by setting his novel after King Richard dies, and having Robin fight against King John, Robin is not required to side with a corrupt political establishment composed of Kings and noblemen, as he does in Ivanhoe.

Miller’s depiction of the outlaws’ society offers an alternative model for the creation of an egalitarian society. In Sherwood all men are equal: for instance, all of the outlaws including Robin Hood must undertake equal duties. This is so that there is no cause for murmuring or complaining from any of them, and to convey the message that all men are equal.[8]

While Miller sought to convey a political message to his readers, he also had to entertain them first and foremost. The Victorians loved violent entertainment. Millers novel is therefore filled with many violent scenes. Robin ‘dreams all night of cutting barons’ throats’.[9] When Robin kills a Norman soldier, we are told vividly how:

The blood gushed from his mouth.[10]

Thus Miller draws upon the early Victorians’ love for violent entertainment,[11] and presents us with a Robin Hood who is unafraid to resort to violence to achieve his political objectives.

In conclusion, what Miller’s Royston Gower shows us is that there was a resurgence of a radical image of Robin Hood in the late 1830s – a time of great political excitement due to the rise of Chartism, after having been made respectable in 1819 and 1822 by Scott and Peacock respectively. In the same year also, Pierce Egan the Younger would author the penny dreadful Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) which similarly rails against Old Corruption and advocates for democratic reform. While Clare A. Simmons has argued that nineteenth-century medievalism became conservative and the preserve of the elites after c.1830, Miller’s novel, as well as Pierce Egan’s simultaneously published serial, means that we must rethink our understanding of Victorian medievalism as being conservative. A text which supports Chartism can hardly be considered ‘conservative’. At the very least, Miller’s novel deserves much greater attention from Chartist scholars than it has yet received.


References

[1] Louis James, ‘Miller, Thomas (1807–1874)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18738&gt; Accessed 4 Aug 2016]
[2] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (London: J. Nichols [n.d.]), p.171.
[3] Miller, Royston Gower, p.7.
[4] Miller, Royston Gower, p.333.
[5] Miller, Royston Gower, p.26.
[6] Philip Harling, ‘Rethinking “Old Corruption”’ Past and Present No. 147 (1995), pp.127-158.
[7] Miller, Royston Gower, p.107.
[8] Miller, Royston Gower, p.36.
[9] Miller, Royston Gower, p.309.
[10] Miller, Royston Gower, p.268.
[11] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[12] See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2011), pp.191-194.

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons – Chartist Rally on Kennington Common.

Historic Yorkshire Criminals: William Knipe’s “Criminal Chronology” (1867)

The eighteenth century was the period in which criminal biography flourished, when men such as Charles Johnson were publishing books such as Lives of the Highwaymen (1734) alongside serialised publications such as The Newgate Calendar and The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

The genre did not die at the end of the eighteenth century, however, for during the nineteenth century two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, published a new five volume edition of The Newgate Calendar in 1824 and a revised version 1826. A cheaper penny dreadful version entitled The New Newgate Calendar was published in 1863. Charles Macfarlane also authored The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) while in the following year Charles Whitehead published Lives and exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1834).

Crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century, but it is only in the nineteenth century that the government actually decided to do anything about it. The creation of a professionalised police force in 1829 replaced the haphazard system of law enforcement involving thief takers and part time constables that had existed until that point. Gaols, which had previously been nothing more than holding centres until an offender’s trial, became large institutions where people stayed for a long time. The persistence of criminal biography as a genre is therefore a reflection of the ongoing public debate that was occurring in parliament and the popular press over reforms to the criminal justice system.

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William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867)

Most of these collections detailing the lives of criminals were very London-centric, with little attention paid to criminals from outside the capital. In light of this, William Knipe authored Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867). Knipes work gave a brief biography of almost every criminal executed at York between the fourteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.

Like Johnson before him, Knipe intended his work to be read as a piece of moralist literature:

The numerous and melancholy examples which our pages record of persons hurrying on from one crime to another, till the awful hand of justice has required their lives, will, we trust, alarm and deter the young and inexperienced from an indulgence in those pursuits or company which tend to weaken their ideas of justice and morality, the sure and certain prognostic of future ruin.[1]

Despite the moral purpose behind his work, Knipe avoids the sensational style of writing that was characteristic of the work of Johnson. Knipe was an antiquary and wanted his discussion to appear more sober and detailed. While Johnson often just made things up (Johnson even gives us an account of the life of that notorious robber, Sir John Falstaff), Knipe’s work was ‘carefully compiled from prison documents, ancient papers, and other authentic sources’ according to the title page.[2]

Ivanhoe 1871
Micklegate, York in the 19th century

The gallows in York was first erected on 1 March 1379 in order to execute all those who had been capitally convicted in the County of Yorkshire,[3] and the first criminal to have the ‘honour’ of being executed at the ‘York Tyburn’ (so called after the more famous London Tyburn) was a man called Edward Hewison:

At the Spring Assizes of 1379, Edward Hewison, aged 20, a native of Stockton, near York, and a private soldier in the Earl of Northumberland’s Light Horse, was tried and capitally convicted for committing a rape upon Louisa Bentley, 22 years of age […] when Hewison saw her alone in the field on the footpath, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. He then went into the field, threw the young woman down, and ravished her.[4]

While Knipe’s work is primarily a compendium of the lives of criminals, one thing which distinguishes his work from earlier works by Johnson et al is the fact that he includes political rebels. The three leaders of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ during the reign of Henry VIII: Sir Robert Aske, Lord Hussey, and William Wode are all presented in his work. Aske got off lightly compared to the latter two, for he was merely ‘hanged in chains’ and his body left to hang in a gibbet.[5] Hussey and Wode, however, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and:

[Their] mutilated remains put into a coffin and given to their friends for internment.[6]

Whereas Johnson’s accounts of each individual criminal are quite lengthy, most of Knipe’s accounts of criminals who existed before the Victorian era are relatively short. This is all he says, for example, of two criminals from Leeds named John de Viner and Harris Rosenberg who were executed at the York gallows in 1603:

Saturday, March 30th, A.D. 1603. – Harris Roseberg, aged 56, a native of Florence; and John de Viner, aged 32, servant to the above, a native of Paris, were executed at the Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, for the atrocious murder of Mr. Millington, an innkeeper at Leeds, on the night of the 8th day of November last. These unfortunate men suffered death in the presence of a large concourse of spectators. Their bodies on being taken down from the scaffold were given to the surgeons for dissection, in accordance with the sentence passed upon them.[7]

The criminal who receives the lengthiest account in Knipe’s work is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). For his account of Turpin, Knipe appears to have abridged an earlier account of Turpin’s life entitled The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739).

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Illustration of a criminal being executed from The Newgate Calendar

For criminals who existed prior to his own day Knipe avoids making any moral judgements upon their course of life. As he moves into his own era, the Victorian era, however, he begins to moralise more and more. While criminality in earlier periods can be explained by the fact that Englishmen’s manners and morals were not as refined as they were in his own day, the fact that criminals existed and were still being hanged in the Victorian period baffles Knipe. Take his account of a murder committed in Hunslet, Leeds in 1849:

Thomas Malkin. Saturday, January 6th, A.D. 1849. – Thomas Malkin was hanged on the new drop, in front of St. George’s Field, for the murder of Esther Inman, near Leeds. It is again our painful duty to record one of those brutalizing spectacles, of which England, that land of Bibles and privileges, can boast so many, viz., the public strangling of a fellow creature.[8]

This is a double-edged critique of Knipe’s own society – with Bibles and ‘privileges’ being plentiful in the Victorian era (Knipe does not say what these ‘privileges’ are), in theory there should be no criminals and no hangings.

Knipe’s accounts of criminals from before the Victorian era rarely carry any information about their trial. Likely this was down to lack of primary sources, but accounts of Victorian criminals are conspicuous in Knipe’s work with the inclusion of trial proceedings.

Knipe gives a lengthy account of the trial of Alfred Waddington from Sheffield who was executed on 15 January 1853 for the murder of his illegitimate child.[9] While most of Knipe’s accounts of pre-Victorian criminals concentrate upon the birth and upbringing of the offender, in the accounts of criminals from the mid-Victorian period sometimes all that Knipe gives the reader is details of the trial. This is the case in Knipe’s account of William Dove from Leeds, who was executed for murdering his wife Harriet on 9 August 1856.[10]

Eighteenth-century accounts of criminals presented criminality as something that was the result of original sin, and this contributed to an often sympathetic depiction of criminals. They were simply people who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations through a tragic fatal flaw. But the conception of criminality had changed by the Victorian era: criminality became associated with the rise of a criminal class – a class of people drawn from society’s poorest ranks and who were thought to be responsible for the majority of crime. At the same time, however, there were murmurings from middle-class reformers about the barbarity of the spectacle of public hanging. Some might even argue that society was collectively responsible for crime – as the saying by Emile Durkheim goes: ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Thus the wickedness and depravity of the offender was exposed with the inclusion of trial:

[When] publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.[11]

The criminal had failed society, and their guilt had been determined through being found guilty by a jury of their peers. They had been justly punished.

Knipe’s work does not appear to have been extremely popular, and only went through one edition. In contrast, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar went through several editions during the Victorian era and are still being reprinted even today (the most recent edition of The Newgate Calendar was published by The Folio Society in 1993). The reason why Knipe’s work was not as successful, it might be speculated, is probably because it was too serious. It lacked Johnson’s acerbic wit and humour. Nevertheless, Knipe’s work is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of crime in Yorkshire that has ever been published.


References

[1] William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle; with a Register of the Criminals Capitally Convicted and Executed at the County Assizes, Commencing March 1st 1379, to the Present Time (York: C. L. Burdekin, 1867), p.vii.
[2] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.i.
[3] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.1.
[4] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.1-2.
[5] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.4.
[6] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.4-5.
[7] Knipe Criminal Chronology, p.15.
[8] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.230.
[9] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.240-244.
[10] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.248-253.
[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (London: Penguin, 1975), p.9

UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ARE SCANNED IMAGES TAKEN FROM COPIES OF BOOKS IN MY OWN COLLECTION.

The Legend of Robin Hood

A Forthcoming Public Talk to be delivered at Pontefract Castle, Sunday 8 May 2016

Introduction

The Renaissance poet Michael Drayton authored a monumental work entitled Poly-Olbion which was published in 1612. It is often described as a ‘topographical poem’ and deals with the history of England and Wales. In one part of this poem he wrote the following lines:

In this our spacious isle I think there is not one,
But he of ROBIN HOOD hath heard, and Little John;
And to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done
Of Scarlock, George-a-Green, and Much the Miller’s son,
Of Tuck, the merry friar, which many a sermon made
In praise of ROBIN HOOD, his out-laws, and their trade.[1]

I would like to echo Drayton’s words and say that surely everybody here ‘in this our spacious isle’ no doubt has heard of Robin Hood. He is the quintessential noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. His true love is a woman named Marian. His fellow outlaws include Little John, Will Scarlet, Allen-a-Dale, and Friar Tuck. Their stories have been immortalised in books, films, and television series, and with three movies forthcoming, it seems that Drayton’s prophecy that ‘until the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’ will continue to ring true. I want to talk to you today about the legend of Robin Hood as a whole. I will briefly discuss some of the historical outlaws whom researchers have identified as being possible candidates for the ‘real’ Robin Hood. I then want to move on to discussing how the legend has been continually reshaped over time, and how Robin Hood has been appropriated by different authors for various purposes. My talk, therefore, will take you on a journey through social, cultural, and literary history from the middle ages until the twentieth century.

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First page of A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450)

A Real Robin Hood?

When I have given public talks before on the legend of Robin Hood, the one question that continually arises is: was Robin Hood a real person, and if so, who was he? It is a question to which there will never be a definitive answer simply due to the paucity of evidence surrounding his life.[2] That being said, this has not stopped people attempting to identify an historic outlaw. I am going to pre-empt your questions by dwelling upon the most likely candidates we have who may be the real Robin Hood.

The late Professor James C. Holt in his work Robin Hood (1982), believed that a man listed in the Yorkshire Assize Rolls between 1225 and 1226 as ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’ was the most likely candidate for the real Robin Hood. And in the image above you can see the entry for this man in the court rolls. The same outlaw turns up years later under the sobriquet of ‘Hobbehod’.[3] Allen Wright, an independent Robin Hood scholar based in Canada, lists in one of his articles several of the other candidates that have at one time or another been identified as the real Robin Hood. Among them is one Robert of Wetherby who is listed in the Court Rolls as ‘outlaw and evildoer of our land’.[4] Other potential candidates include a Robert Hood from Cirencester who, sometime between 1215 and 1216 murdered a man named Ralph in the local Abbott’s garden.[5] And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences.[6]

Most pertinently for audiences here today, perhaps, there is also the case of the supposed Robin Hood of Wakefield. The Robin Hood of Wakefield was identified by a nineteenth-century antiquary named Joseph Hunter (1783-1861). Hunter was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office, or National Archives as we know it today. In a tract entitled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood, published in 1852, he argued that Robin Hood was from Wakefield. Hunter aimed to fit known facts to the early tales of Robin Hood. Hunter first identified a Robert Hood who with his wife Matilda appears in the Court Rolls of the manor of Wakefield in 1316 and 1317. Without any evidence, he argued that this Robert Hood became an outlaw between this time and 1324, when Hunter discovered that there was a valet de chambre to Edward II named Robyn Hode.[7] For Hunter, this seemed to confirm that that this man was the same Robin who enters into the King’s service at the end of the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, when the King travels into the forest and meets Robin, and asks him to join his service. The problem with this approach is:

1) There is no indication that this Robyn Hode from 1324 was ever an outlaw.
2) The idea of a monarch going into the woods, as the king does at the end of the Gest, was a common trope in medieval ballads, and it is highly unlikely that the King ever went incognito among the populace.[8]

This has not stopped local historians from sticking to Hunter’s assertions that Robin Hood was a man from Wakefield. To say that the real Robin Hood was from Wakefield, however, is to mix shaky historical methodology with wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is this: yes there was a man named Robin Hood who lived in Wakefield, but we do not know if he was an outlaw.

Indeed, what if Robin Hood was simply an alias? The name ‘Robin Hood’ was often used as an alias by criminals in the medieval period: ‘In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.’[9] Furthermore, ‘in 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war”.’[10] And finally ‘in 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale. Clearly Robin was a name associated with rebellion’.[11] The nineteenth-century antiquary John Timbs in his work Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870) said that there was a term in use from the time of Edward III, ‘Roberdsmen’ which denoted any type of thief or robber.[12]

Thus I hope I have shown you how difficult it is for anybody to identify an historical outlaw whose life and deeds match those of the legendary Robin Hood. We really are dealing with scraps of information: little notes in court rolls; men who used the name of Robin Hood as an alias. But I think it is the very paucity of evidence regarding a real Robin Hood which has allowed the legend to grow over time, and be adapted continually by different people in different ages. Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved beyond trying to identify a historic outlaw who could have been the ‘real’ Robin Hood. And I think this is a move in the right direction: the tale of Robin Hood has been appropriated and adapted many times, and we will never identify a historic outlaw simply due to the lack of evidence. In the words of Professor Alexander Kaufman, ‘the origins of Robin Hood the person and his original context are perhaps best left to those individuals who wish to search for that which is forever to be a quest’.[13]

A Popular Hero: The Medieval Period

While there is little evidence that enables us to definitively identify a single outlaw whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood, stories about Robin Hood circulated at an early period of English history. In a thirteenth-century poem by William Langland entitled The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c.1370), we meet a lazy Priest named Sloth. Poor Sloth is not a very good cleric. He cannot read or write, and he does not even know his Paternoster by heart. However, the one thing he can recite from memory is ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’. He tells us in the poem that:

I can noughte parfitly my Paternoster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hode, and Randalf Erle of Chestre.[14]

These words from c.1370 are the first literary reference to Robin Hood. They make clear that during this period ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, or ballads were circulating orally. Transmission of these tales was often by word of mouth, for England was not a predominantly literate society in the fourteenth century. In fact, the skill of reading and writing was mainly confined to members of the Church and the upper classes.

In time, however, the ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ were written down. We have five surviving examples of these early rhymes, or ballads, of Robin Hood, and these are: Robin Hood and the Monk which survives in manuscript form and is dated c.1450; [15] Robin Hood and the Potter, which survives in a single manuscript of popular and moral poems that can be dated to c.1500; [16] Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is dated to the mid-fifteenth century; [17] and A Gest of Robyn Hode, the content of which is dated to c.1450, but only survives in printed copies from the sixteenth century.[18]

The Robin Hood of these early ballads is very different to the outlaw that we would recognise today. While modern audiences are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon, Robin is not a nobleman in these early texts but is described as a ‘yeoman’. Broadly speaking, a yeoman was a member of the medieval middle classes, for want of a better term, occupying a social position between the aristocracy and the peasantry.[19] This is clear from the outset of the Gest which opens with the following lines:

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode. [20]

All of Robin’s fellow outlaws such as Little John and Much the Miller’s son hail from the same social class of yeomanry. And Robin and his men are quite violent characters. In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne he cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks his head upon the end of his bow:

Robin thought on Our Ladye deere,
And soone leapt up againe,
And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke,
Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.

He tooke Sir Guy’s head by the hayre,
And stickt itt upon his bowes end:
“Thou has beene a traytor all thy liffe,
Which thing must have an ende.”

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne,
Could tell who Sir Guye was.[21]

In Robin Hood and the Monk, one of Robin’s men, Much the Miller’s son and Little John kill a travelling monk and his young page:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.[22]

There are also characters whom we would count as staples of the Robin Hood legend today that actually appear nowhere in these early texts. Maid Marian is notable absent from these texts. In fact, Robin has no love interest at all. Marian entered the legend via a different route to the ballads. The first time that two people named Robin and Marian were associated together was in a French pastoral play entitled Jeu de Robin et Marion, dating from c.1282. It is unclear, however, whether the Robin and Marian of this play were understood to be outlaws. There is certainly no proven link between the play and the Robin Hood tradition. We do know, however, that Marian appears alongside the ‘proper’ Robin Hood in sixteenth-century Tudor May Day celebrations. It seems from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon written between 1597 and 1598. Despite these two plays, however, Maid Marian would not get her “big break” until the nineteenth century with a short novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marian published in 1822, although of this novel I shall speak later.

The poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) is the most significant of all the medieval texts. While Robin was an outlaw in Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he did not really have a social mission as such. It is with the Gest that this changes. It is a long poem, 1.824 lines in total, and appears to have been constructed from a variety of existing tales which somebody, at some point, endeavoured to give unity to. It is a type of the ‘good outlaw’ tale. Robin will help poor, honest people whom he meets: the first ‘fytte’ of the poem sees him lending money to an impoverished knight named Sir Richard of the Lee, whose lands have been mortgaged to pay a debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York. And in this poem many familiar scenes occur, such as the archery contest, or his meeting with the King and subsequent pardon. At the end of the poem, Robin falls ill and goes to Kirklees Priory to be bled. The prioress, in league with Sir Roger of Doncaster, bleeds him to death. The poem then ends with a benediction:

Cryst have mercy on his soule
That dyed upon the rod.
For was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch gode.

Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in the poem (it was not until John Stowe’s Annales of England in 1592 that this idea would become current),[24] it is in the Gest that we first get the idea that Robin is kind to the poor and ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.

The Seventeenth Century

Robin moved up in the world during the seventeenth century. In the afore-mentioned plays by Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, Robin was cast for the first time as an Earl. There was no precedent in the ballad tradition for Robin being an Earl. Munday did this because he was catering to a primarily aristocratic audience. Although largely forgotten about today outside of academic circles, these plays established a new narrative in the Robin Hood legend: Robin is depicted as an aristocrat; he is outlawed because of a plot against him by rival courtiers; and instead of a bold yeoman outlaw/rebel, the reason that Robin is outlawed is because he has stayed loyal to King Richard. Hence any subversive political traits are extracted from his character. Thus instead of challenging the establishment, in these plays Robin becomes an upholder of the established order.

munday
The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598) by Anthony Munday.

In fact, in the area of high culture, Robin becomes a very non-threatening and gentle figure. This is the case in a play written by Ben Jonson entitled The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1641). Firstly, it’s unclear whether Robin is actually an outlaw at all: he is described as ‘Chief Woodsman, and Master of the Feast’.[25] His men refer to him as ‘gentle master’.[26] Furthermore, in the play, Robin never actually steals from anybody. Instead the story is what we call a ‘pastoral’, which is defined as:

A literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner, and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life.[27]

In the play, Robin Hood has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the Vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, and then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his true love has drowned in the river – hence The Sad Shepherd. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved. Jonson never finished the play – that was a task left to subsequent writers. However, as among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, one academic named Ann Barton suggests that Jonson would probably have had the witch and her children forgiven and present at the final delayed banquet of venison.[28] However Jonson might have ended, as you can see, it’s a very different tale of Robin Hood than the one that we are used to seeing.

SadShepherd

At the same time as Jonson was writing, more exciting tales of Robin Hood were appearing in broadside ballads. Broadsides were large folio size sheets of paper with the lyrics of a song printed on one side. They were sold usually for a penny by itinerant hawkers. The ballads which appear in the seventeenth century are not the long type of medieval narrative poem, but rather are shorter stories, supposed to be sung, and they depict Robin as something of a buffoon. Ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, which dates from the seventeenth century, for instance, see Robin meeting a stranger in the forest. Robin bids him to stand, and the traveller takes offence. The traveller challenges Robin to a battle with quarterstaffs. The stranger wins the fight, and afterwards the two fellows make friends, and the stranger usually joins Robin’s band. Now although this is not quite the ‘heroic’ Robin Hood we expect, you may already realise that even these relatively unimportant later texts have left their mark upon modern-day portrayals: anybody who has seen a Robin Hood film or television show will no doubt recall that, in most instance, when Robin meets Little John for the first time, the two men fight and then become friends.

The Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century is a very interesting century for the Robin Hood legend. On the one hand, he’s depicted as a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he is celebrated. But let us begin at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Between 1714 and 1737, Robin Hood’s reputation took a beating. In criminal biography, the most popular genre of literature, Robin was portrayed as a cold-hearted killer. It is best to briefly digress, however, to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did.

Johnson title page
Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734)

In the 18th century crime was the subject on everybody’s lips, and people believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. The situation apparently became so bad by mid-century that Henry Fielding gloomily prophesied ‘I make no doubt, but that the streets of [London], and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard’.[30] The legal response to this crime wave was the introduction of a bloody law code, when 200 offences became capital felonies. This resulted in the proliferation of cheap criminal biographies. Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies, and Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722) is often seen as a more sophisticated example of the genre. The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ Robin also makes an appearance in Captain Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), as well as the anonymous The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737). The content of Smith’s Highwaymen was heavily plagiarised for subsequent accounts of Robin’s life, and it is Smith’s text which is focused upon here.

Today Robin Hood is usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, which is a legacy of Munday’s plays, but Smith was not convinced:

This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second.[31]

Robin Hood’s social status, however, is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the 18th century: all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners – there was no concept of a ‘criminal class’.[32] You became a criminal if, like Robin, you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.

Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws’. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the 18th century people often rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. When one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told an official that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the sarcastic response was that this was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers’. Even Robin’s meeting with the king is played out differently to how it is portrayed in movies today, for in Smith’s work, instead of the meeting ending amicably, Robin simply robs him:

The King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.[33]

Evidently, the 18th-century Robin Hood is loyal to no man, not even the King. Finally, Smith portrays Robin Hood as a man who is wicked until the day he dies, for he records that:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay.[34]

Criminal biographies were intended to serve as pieces of moralist literature. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led felons to the gallows. Eighteenth-century authors had a more nuanced and, dare it be said, ‘realistic’ impression of the type of man that Robin may have been like, if he existed at all. If you lived in the eighteenth century, it was this version of Robin’s life which you were most likely familiar with: criminal biographies such as Smith’s Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar were the third most common book to be found in the middle-class home, after the Bible and The Pilgrims Progress.

It was only in the latter part of the century when Robin became reimagined as a hero in the conventional sense of the word, with the publication of Joseph Ritson’s two-volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795).[35] Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and was a conveyancer by trade. In his spare time, however, he was an antiquary. He was interested, not in the ‘high’ culture of people in times past, but in the culture of the common man. He published many collections of ancient ballads and songs such as A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) and Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791). Ritson quickly established himself as an authority on many historical subjects owing to his willingness to seek out obscure primary sources from archives and libraries across the country. He was also cantankerous, and fiercely critical of his rivals such as Thomas Percy who took it upon himself to edit and ‘refine’ Old and Middle English texts.

Title Page to the 1823 Edition of Ritson's Anthology
Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795 – 1823 Edition).

Ritson’s work is significant in the overall construction of the legend because, as his title suggests, he collected together and made accessible in printed form every Robin Hood text he could find ranging from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The Middle English ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, for instance, was first printed for a mass market readership in Ritson’s publication. Some of the other ballads which he included in his collection had been printed before, of course, by antiquaries such as Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical & Narrative (1784), and in the often reprinted Robin Hood’s Garland chapbooks (‘garlands’ were cheaply printed collections of popular songs). But Ritson’s Robin Hood was the first book to include all of these ancient and modern Robin Hood texts in one place.

The most important part of Ritson’s work, however, was the section entitled ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the collection of ballads. In this Ritson laid down the “facts” of the legend, saying:

Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the County of Nottingham, in the reign of king Henry the Second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble. […] he is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon.[36]

Ritson, furthermore, decides to lay down the ‘facts’ about his character:

With respect to [Robin Hood’s] personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent; possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers and adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.[37]

Another thing about Ritson is that he is a bit of an armchair republican/revolutionary. His letters from the 1790s are full of praise for the French Revolution. And so Ritson fashions Robin Hood into an almost quasi-revolutionary leader:

In these forests, and with [his] company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the king of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy, and such as were ‘desolate and oppressed,’ or stood in need of his protection.[38]

And finally, Ritson tells us that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor:

That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denyed. Testimonies to this purpose, indeed, would be equally endless and unnecessary […] But it is to be remembered […] that, in these exertions, he took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would never suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.[39]

As you can see, the story of Robin Hood, due in large part to Joseph Ritson, is beginning to look familiar to the story which we see depicted on film and television today. Ritson died shortly after the publication of Robin Hood, but we know from his letters that he was in contact with a young Scotsman, Walter Scott. It is Scott, as we shall see in a few moments, who carried Ritson’s portrayal of Robin Hood even further in his novel Ivanhoe (1819).

The Nineteenth Century

It is indeed during the nineteenth century when the Robin Hood legend assumes the form that we are familiar with today. This was primarily due to three literary works: Scott’s Ivanhoe, Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840). Scott is perhaps the most famous of all Scottish novelists. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Percy’s Reliques.[40] Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.

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Ivanhoe Frontispiece (1871 Edition)

Most of Scott’s novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish eighteenth-century history. Waverley – regarded as the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period, and it is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.[41]

Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Ritson. Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:

I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels].[42]

England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them. Scott says that:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia.[43]

The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:

A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.[44]

The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.

Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Richard finds his his land in chaos: outlaws roam in the forest; the Normans oppress the good Saxons; and Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.

Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another: ‘the serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’.[45] Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century. England in 1819 was in fact a very divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured. Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:

From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest.[46]

Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.

Walter Simeone, an early twentieth-century academic, argued that the modern idea of Robin Hood was practically ‘invented’ by Scott.[47] Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights. Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.

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Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819) and Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian’s ‘big break’ came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novel are based upon Byron and Shelley.[48] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As the Robin Hood critic Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott.[49]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval.[50] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power on the continent. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism.[51] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted what he called the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested,[53] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [54]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. However, she is no delicate little lady. Instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’.[55]

In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. Marian in Peacock’s novel is essentially a proto-feminist.[56]

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form.[57] Early ballads such as the Gest were compiled from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent: in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. And neither does Robin have a backstory before Peacock’s novel.

Peacock set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.

The man who really brings together the ideas of both Scott and Peacock is an author who is relatively unknown today: Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). Egan was a prolific author who penned a number of medievalist novels, most of which were sold in weekly penny instalments. His quite radical work Robin Hood and Little John (1840) told the story of the hero from birth to death. Robin is portrayed as a freedom fighter, but also at the same time a chivalric, almost “Victorian” gentleman. And neither did Egan flinch from making his novels violent. Illustrating many of the scenes in his novel himself, the pages are full of arrows in people’s eyes, and in the text limbs are cut off and there’s a high body count. It is the perfect novel for a young male readership, even if Egan himself intended his novel to be read by adults as well. Egan’s novel was highly successful, went through six editions, and was even translated into French by the famous author Alexandre Dumas as Le Prince des Voleurs and Robin le Proscrit (1863) which was then retranslated back into English as two novels entitled Robin Hood the Outlawand The Prince of Thieves (1904).[58]

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

After Egan, the quality of Robin Hood novels declines somewhat. And there are some terrible, highly moralistic novels. Some of them were written by Churchmen, and they are all overtly patriotic, stressing the duties of loyalty and service to the crown. Whereas the Robin Hood of earlier novels had always represented something of a challenge to the establishment, in this any subversive traits Robin has are totally neutered. He is now a thoroughly Victorian “drawing room hero” – a gentleman, a worthy subject, and in some novels it is unclear whether he is an outlaw or not. The one exception to these late nineteenth-century novels is perhaps Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Until Pyle, most Robin Hood novels had followed Scott in portraying him as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter. But Pyle returned to the earlier ballads, and from them constructed quite a lengthy narrative, telling the story of Robin’s life from birth to death. This was one of the more successful novels, and if you pick up a Penguin Classics edition of the story of Robin Hood today, it will most likely be Pyle’s novel.

The Twentieth Century

At the turn of the twentieth century, however, it is clear that the medium for telling tales of Robin Hood was shifting from the book to the screen. And no twentieth-century Robin Hood novel has ever really had the power to truly have a lasting impact upon the tradition as Scott, Peacock, and Egan did. Robin Hood movies were released in 1912 and 1913,[59] but the first major Robin Hood movie was released in 1922 and starred Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The idea of Robin wearing tights was something which Victorian actresses adopted so that they could, with propriety, show their legs on stage, but in the 1922 movie the semi-acrobatic costume allowed Fairbanks to make darting leaps from castle edges, and Robin becomes a true swashbuckling hero.[60]

The next major Robin Hood movie was Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood is very much influenced by Fairbanks’ movie and Walter Scott’s novel. Robin Hood is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, but he is more of an American hero than an English hero in this movie. And the movie endorses Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which can be seen in the oath that Robin makes the outlaws swear to:

You the freemen of this forest swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless, to protect all women rich and poor, Norman or Saxon, and swear to fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign Richard the Lionheart, and swear to fight to the death against all oppression.[61]

It is this American, populist vision of Robin Hood that has persisted in cinematic portrayals. Hollywood has always far outstripped the British Film industry in terms of quantity of output, if not in terms of quality. Robin Hood is perhaps the perfect hero to be “Americanised”: he is the man who stands up for the common man against the strong and powerful, much like an American superhero. There is the idea that Robin is a Lord, but on the whole cinematic portrayals of the outlaw myth are relatively classless, just as American society is supposed to be. Perhaps the most memorable American portrayal of the outlaw legend, for many here today at least, is the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). So Americanised it was, that the filmmakers seemingly never even made the effort to have key members of the cast speak with an English accent. Costner’s Robin Hood is a relatively two-dimensional character, and the movie is full of big Hollywood action sequences – Robin catapulting into Nottingham castle to rescue Marian, for instance, is definitely an “American” addition to the legend.

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A more “realist” Robin Hood? The 2010 movie starring Russell Crowe.

The Costner movie was a piece of pure Hollywood fancy, a product of a time when cinema audiences evidently required little historical realism when watching a period film. The most recent movie Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe, although criticised by some reviewers, was an attempt at least to ground the story of Robin Hood in historical “fact”, with the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. It is essentially what, if it was a superhero movie, might be termed an ‘origins’ story. It is not a tale of merry men in Lincoln-Green costumes r big Hollywood set pieces, but a thoughtful and well-executed portrayal of a man who leads his people in an attempt to secure political rights from the monarch.

This is not to say that the British have not produced some good adaptations of the legend, but the most successful British portrayals have tended to be television affairs. There was the weekly TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the gentlemanly, and quite bland, Richard Green, which was broadcast between 1955 and 1959. In this series, following Scott, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who has returned from the Crusades and becomes an outlaw. But although the TV series may appear to be a thoroughly English affair, the hidden hand of the Americans was not far away: many of the series’ writers were Americans who held communist sympathies and who had fled the States after being accused of ‘Un-American Activities’ by the McCarthy government.[62] So in effect we have America giving us a quintessentially English Robin Hood. The television series Robin of Sherwood which aired in the 1980s is certainly my personal favourite. For me this series represents a return to the bold outlaw of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Robin is no lord in this series, and he does not declare his loyalty to the King at the end of the series. To me, he appears to be closest to how the medieval ballad writers imagined Robin Hood: an outlaw who owed allegiance to nobody.

Conclusion

I just want to finish off by saying that hopefully what you’ve learned today is this: that the legend of Robin Hood has always been varied and adaptable. There may or may not have been a man whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend that was to become Robin Hood. We shall never know, mainly due to the lack of evidence surrounding his life. From early poems and rhymes, the legend rolled on, and acquired new features: in the fifteenth century Robin Hood was a bold yeoman forester; in the sixteenth century he became a member of the aristocracy; in the eighteenth century he was portrayed as both a wicked criminal and simultaneously praised as ‘the celebrated English outlaw’; in the nineteenth century in Ivanhoe, he became an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter; and in the twentieth century he is now more or less an American hero. It is difficult to know what further turns the legend of the outlaw of Sherwood will take. One thing is certain, however, and that is that, as Drayton prophesied in 1612 that ‘to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’.[63]

References

[1] Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion cited in Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: i.
[2] James C. Holt, ‘Hood, Robin (sup. fl. late 12th-13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24741&gt; Accessed 11 April 2016].
[3] Allen Wright, ‘The Search for a Real Robin Hood’ Bold Outlaw [Internet <<www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/realrob2.com>> Accessed 11 April 2016].
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.45.
[8] See Mark Truesdale and Stephen Basdeo ‘Medieval Continuities: Nineteenth-Century King and Commoner Ballads’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [Forthcoming].
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] John Timbs, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (London: F. Warne & Co. 1870), 356.
[13] Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Contexts: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164 (146).
[14] William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman Eds. Elizabeth Robertson & Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2006), 82.
[15] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 31-56.
[16] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 57-79.
[17] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 169-183.
[18] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 80-168.
[19] See R. Almond and A. J. Pollard, ‘The Yeomanry of Robin Hood and Social Terminology in Fifteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 170: 1 (2001), 52-77.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, 178.
[22] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 43.
[23] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 58.
[24] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 43.
[25] Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood Ed. Frances Waldron (London: J. Nichols, 1784), 6.
[26] Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, 12.
[27]‘Pastoral’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [Internet <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pastoral&gt; Accessed 21 April 2014].
[28] Roy Booth, ‘Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd’ [Internet << http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhle/001/Jonsonsadshepherd.htm>&gt; Accessed 18 April 2016].
[29] A version of this section originally appeared in History Today, October 2015.
[30] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.
[31] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
[32] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), 60.
[33] Smith, Highwaymen, 411.
[34] Smith, Highwaymen, 412.
[35] A version of this section originally appeared in History Vault, October 2015.
[36] Joseph Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: iv.
[37] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: xii.
[38] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: v
[39] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: ix.
[40] David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[41] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
[42] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
[45] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
[46] W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
[47] Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
[48] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[49] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[50] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[51] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[52] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[53] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[54] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[55] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
[55] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[57] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[58] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [FORTHCOMING].
[59] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 153.
[60] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 152.
[61] The Adventures of Robin Hood, dirs. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (1938) [DVD]
[62] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 161.
[63] Drayton, op cit.