Judging Robin Hood: Negotiating Outlawry in Nineteenth-Century Texts

Paper Read at Plymouth University Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference 23-24 June 2016.

Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.

In the recent television series Arrow (which tells the tale of a superhero who is a skilled archer, dresses in green, wears a hood, and in some instances steals from the rich and gives to the poor) it is said that: ‘People forget that Robin Hood was a criminal’. [1] It was no different during the nineteenth century. Whilst there was a general understanding that Robin was an outlaw, he is usually represented in nineteenth-century literature, not as a common cut-throat but as a patriotic social bandit.[2] He is loyal to the King, opposes the schemes of ‘bad’ Prince John who plots to take the English throne from Richard the Lion-heart, thereby upholding the true order.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe (1819 – 1871 Edition)

If one studies representations of Robin Hood solely in canonical nineteenth-century texts such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840), as this paper argues, Robin’s status as an outlaw was often downplayed. This was to distinguish him – England’s great national hero – from the regular criminals. This discussion is needed because, despite the fact that nineteenth-century novelists depicted Robin favourably, less-canonical texts were still ambivalent towards the legendary outlaw.

Many people will be familiar with the Scott’s Ivanhoe and Peacock’s Maid Marian, but just a few months prior to Ivanhoe an anonymous author published Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). [3] Robin is no ordinary bandit in this novel, and in the lengthy introduction there is a deliberate effort to ensure that readers think Robin is better than ordinary highwaymen and banditti, declaring that he was ‘an innocent and harmless freebooter’. [4] The plot sees Robin cheated out of his Huntingdon estate by his villainous cousin, and left homeless. He subsequently becomes the leader of a band of men living in the forest. The circumstances of his outlawing are out of keeping with both the ballad tradition and novels that would come afterwards: he is outlawed because he interrupts a wedding and stops a bride marrying somebody she does not want to. For this deed Robin is seized by soldiers and reluctantly outlawed by his friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham. In another part of the novel, after he has been outlawed, Robin declares that the word ‘robber’ had ‘become hateful to his thoughts’. [5]

In Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the outlaw Robin of Locksley appears in only ten out of forty-four chapters in the novel, although he is to all intents and purposes its hero. In the preface to the novel, Scott declares that England should be as proud of its historic outlaw as Scotland was of Rob Roy:

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 than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

It is as a patriot that Scott wished Locksley to be seen, rather than an outlaw. Scott links Robin to a conservative agenda. He is now a man who is loyal to the King, and he is never depicted committing any criminal act. Indeed, Locksley is rarely called an outlaw in the text. He is called ‘a stout well-set yeoman, arrayed in Lincoln green’, [7] or simply as a ‘yeoman’, [8] ‘Locksley the yeoman’, [9] or ‘captain’. [10]

Scott is hesitant to name Robin as an outlaw, and there are only two scenes where Locksley is addressed as such. The first is when he is negotiating a ransom for Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, [11] and towards the end of the novel. Even in these scenes, however, he is not robbing anybody. This may explain why Scott chose to call his character Robin of Locksley: throughout the novel, the reader is never told that Robin of Locksley is the same outlaw as Robin Hood. Readers may have suspected it, but it is not confirmed until the end of the novel, when Richard (who has been disguised as the Black Knight for the majority of the novel) and Locksley reveal their true identities to each other:

“Call me no longer Locksley, my Liege, but know me under the name, which, I fear, fame hath blown too widely not to have reached even your royal ears – I am Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest.”
“King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows!” said the King, “who hath not heard a name that has been borne as far as Palestine? But be assured, brave Outlaw, that no deed done in our absence, and in the turbulent times to which it hath given rise, shall be remembered to thy disadvantage.” [12]

Even after Locksley has revealed to the King that he is the famous outlaw, Robin Sherwood, Scott allows Richard to effectively nullify his entire criminal career by pardoning his former misdeeds.

Despite Robin’s reconfiguration as a patriot in Ivanhoe, Scott did try to provide some balance. Whilst Richard I displays nothing but unqualified admiration for the outlaws, the jester Wamba gives a more nuanced assessment of the outlaws’ morality: he says that, however much good the outlaws may have done for Richard, ‘those honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable’. Richard asks Wamba to elaborate upon what he has said:

The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle – the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church – the setting free a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff; or, to come nearer to our point, the deliverance of a Saxon Franklin against the burning alive of a Norman baron. Gentle thieves they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at their worst. [14]

It is as though Scott is partially continuing the conventions of eighteenth-century criminal biography by allowing Locksley to be portrayed as a hero, yet simultaneously critiquing his actions. Scott highlights the outlaws’ heroism on the one hand, and their negative traits on the other. In Charles Johnson’s eighteenth-century account of Robin Hood’s life, for example, Robin is a ‘a very bold man, of a charitable disposition, generous and open to the last degree’, at the same time as being described as having lived ‘a mispent [sic] life’ and engaging in ‘unlawful practices’. [15] It is known that Scott owned and read Charles Johnson’s The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and owned several other criminal biographies which must have undoubtedly influenced his tale. [16]

Despite his attempt to provide some nuance, some reviewers were less than impressed with his portrayal of Robin Hood. A reviewer in The Monthly Review said that the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe comes across as nothing more than one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [17] Similarly, in 1820 Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Scott:

Has failed, however, in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant’.[18]

Nevertheless, despite Scott’s skilled and complex portrayal of Robin Hood, it is the vision of a patriotic English freedom fighter that has succeeded through to twenty-first century portrayals, and any nuances in Robin’s morality have been jettisoned.

Maid Marian (1822)

Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822) followed after Ivanhoe, and is a lighter work than Scott’s. The novel begins very dramatically with soldiers interrupting the Robert of Huntingdon’s and Marian’s wedding, declaring him an outlaw, a swordfight then ensues, and Robin and his men escape to the woods. Robin is not outlawed due to having committed any heinous crime – he is simply outlawed because he had fallen into debt. He gathers around him a band of men who are described, not as cut-throats, but:

A band of disinherited prodigals, outlawed debtors, excommunicated heretics, elder sons that have spent all they had, and younger sons that never had anything to spend; and with these he kills the king’s deer, and plunders wealthy travellers of five-sixths of their money; but if they be abbots or bishops, them he despoils utterly. [19]

Whilst there are elements of social banditry in Locksley’s character in Ivanhoe, it is in Maid Marian that Robin fully emerges as one. Peacock develops the themes of the outlaw code found in the A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450). [20] Robin’s merry men live according to noble principles, displaying ‘Legitimacy, equity, hospitality, chivalry, chastity, and courtesy’ in everything that they do. [21] Robin’s band is also commanded that:

All usurers, monks, courtiers, and other drones of the great hive of society, who shall be found laden with any portion of the honey whereof they have wrongfully despoiled the industrious bee, shall be rightly despoiled thereof in turn; and all bishops and abbots shall be bound and beaten, especially the abbot of Doncaster; as shall also all sheriffs, especially the sheriff of Nottingham’. [22]

Just as a true social bandit does, Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor. [23] Despite the worthy maxims of social banditry contained in Maid Marian, as with so many texts in which Robin and Marian are portrayed as Lord and Lady, the reader is never allowed to forget that these two are merely playing at being outlaws. [24] Marian expresses boredom in the domestic sphere, and longs to be liberated from ‘tapestried chambers and dreary galleries’. [25] When she joins Robin Hood and commences living in the forest with him, all that she is doing is swapping one bourgeois world for another. Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet, for instance, are all described as ‘peers of the forest’. [26] The main characters in Peacock’s novel, then, were people who essentially from the same world as the novel’s middle-class readers – a world of tapestried chambers and galleries, and ‘green tea and muffins at noon’. [27] Robin and Marian’s exploits in the novel are presented as an aristocratic frolic for Lord and Lady Huntingdon.

Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or The Days of King John (1838) and Pierce Egan the Younger’s novel appropriate the outlaw to serve a radical message. Miller imitates Scott, making Robin a supporting characters who allies with the protagonist Royston Gower – a Saxon – who experiences ‘a radical awakening’ after his Norman master asks him to kill a Saxon woman in cold blood, which he refuses to do. Gower, Robin Hood, and the other Saxon characters subsequently fight on behalf of the oppressed who suffer under ‘the tyranny of the Norman forest laws’. [28] Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood is no robber either, and instead is portrayed as a man who fights for the political rights of the Anglo-Saxon serfs. [29] Egan places Robin in a class apart from the other outlaws that existed during the period, and he acknowledges that both past and present criminals, for the most part, are indiscriminate in whom they rob. [30] A Review of Egan’s novel in The Westminster Review, in an article entitled ‘Modern Perversions’, says that

“Robin Hood and Little John” by Pierce Egan the Younger! Truly this is too bad’.[31]

The reviewer goes on to state that England’s national hero has become nothing more than:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob’. [32]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [33] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [34] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, [35] was at least a grudging compliment. Thus it is clear that nineteenth-century authors downplayed Robin’s criminality, but when certain authors attempted to critique his actions, reviewers were ever ready to criticise a writer who might present Robin Hood as anything less than an English patriot.

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

Thus far the view of Robin that has been given is the canonical view of Robin Hood, who was appropriated to serve nationalist, patriotic, and even radical ends. Books written for children insisted that:

Though Robin Hood was a robber, which, to be sure, is a bad thing, he behaved himself in such a manner as to have the good word and good wishes of all the neighbourhood. He never loved to rob anyone except people who were very rich, and who had not lived to make good use of their riches. [36]

But not everybody believed that Robin was a class apart from most criminals. Henry Walter in A History of England (1828) said that Robin was

Neither more nor less than a highway robber of notoriety’ in his lifetime, being ‘the hero in many an idle song, in the mouths of the dissolute. [37]

Charles Macfarlane in The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833) says that Robin’s life was a series of ‘predatory exertions of power’. [38] An anonymous correspondent in The Times made no distinction between Robin Hood and Little John ‘and their dingy imitators in this metropolis described by Dickens and Ainsworth’. [39] This article from the 1850s is especially interesting: nothing distinguishes the greenwood outlaws of old from the Fagins of the nineteenth century because

The same man passes from one form into another – developing, according to the changes in society, from a forester to a mountaineer, thence to a highwayman, thence to an instructor of pickpockets and the receiver of their day’s work in St. Giles. [40]

By the time that Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time was published, he was no ordinary robber. Instead he was portrayed in various manners such as a freedom fighter or dispossessed aristocrat. If authors attempted, like Scott, to portray Robin as a complex character, they were criticised by reviewers. People wanted to believe that Robin was not a regular criminal. Yet despite the image that the canonical texts put forth, there is a certain school of thought in non-canonical texts which saw no issue in placing Robin alongside other less respectable thieves such as Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the highwaymen of the eighteenth century, or the Fagins described by Dickens in Oliver Twist. Thus there is a dichotomy between the representation of Robin Hood in novels, and his reception amongst lesser-known writers.


[1] Arrow S1E09 ‘Year’s End’, dir. John Dahl (The CW Television Network, 2012) [DVD].

[2] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1972).

[3] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time’ in The Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel Ed. April London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) [Forthcoming]. See also Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 147-150.

[4] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54.

[5] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, 2: 103-4.

[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1871), 12.

[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 84.

[8] Scott, Ivanhoe, 89, 110, 144, 145,148, 194.

[9] Scott, Ivanhoe, 193.

[10] Scott, Ivanhoe, 125-126.

[11] Scott, Ivanhoe, 338-339.

[12] Scott, Ivanhoe, 419-420.

[13] Scott, Ivanhoe, 414.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anon. The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and His Merry Companions. Written by Capt. C. Johnson. To Which are Added, Some of the Most Favourite Ballads from an Old Book, Entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (London: J. Bonsor, 1800), 20.

[16] In Scott’s last written work Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns (1832), which is a guide to Abbotsford and its collections, Scott picks out Charles Johnson’s The History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) as being of especial interest, and indeed it seems he was familiar with several of the anonymous criminal biographies from the early eighteenth century such as The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates and their Crews which is probably just a reprint of Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). See Walter Scott, The Pirate Eds. Mark Weinstein & Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Constable et al, 1832 repr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 490n.

[17] Anon. The Monthly Review Jan 1820, 71-89 (82)

[18] Henry Crabb Robinson, ’Diary Entry by Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 Jan. 1820’ in Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers Ed. E. J. Morley, 3 Vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1: 238.

[19] Peacock, Maid Marian, 46.

[20] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 129.

[21] Peacock, Maid Marian, 88.

[22] Peacock, Maid Marian, 89.

[23] Peacock, Maid Marian, 126.

[24] This is the point made by Liz Oakley-Brown in regards to Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. See Liz Oakley-Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Munday’s Huntington Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval Ed. Helen Philips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 113-128 (115).

[25] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[26] Peacock, Maid Marian, 82.

[27] Peacock, Maid Marian, 5.

[28] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838 repr. London: W. Nicholson [n.d.] c.1890?), 5.

[29] 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 & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 48-65.

[30] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1850), 12.

[31] Anon. ‘Modern Perversions’ The Westminster Review Vol. XXXIII (London: Henry Hooper, 1840), 425.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[34] Anon, ‘Modern Perversions’, p.425.

[35] See Lauren Gillingham, ‘Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” and the Crimes of History’ SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49: 4 (2009), pp.879-906.

[36] Anon. Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery: Newly Translated and Revised from the French, Italian, and Old English Writers (London: Tabart & Co., 1809), 151.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1833), 2: 75.

[39] Anon. ‘Editorial: Talk of Robin Hood and Little John’ The Times 22 June 1855, 6.

[40] Ibid.


Walter Scott’s Influence Upon 19th-Century Medieval Scholarship

Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) is one of the most important works in the entire history of the legend. But even more important, arguably, is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), which is one of the major novels of the nineteenth century. The novel tells the story of how the conquered Anglo-Saxons and their conquerors, the Normans, came together in the 1190s and formed the English nation. One of the major characters in the novel is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter named Robin of Locksley, or as you may know him, Robin Hood. In the novel Locksley embodies the free and generous spirit of Old England. But that is only fiction; there is nothing in historical scholarship to suggest that Robin Hood was a Saxon freedom fighter, or that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were in conflict with each other after 1066, much less by the 1190s when Ivanhoe is set. Here I will examine how Scott’s fictional interpretation of the Middle Ages, in particular the notion that Robin Hood was a Saxon yeoman, influenced historical scholarship in the early-to-mid nineteenth century.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

In 1819 when Ivanhoe was published, British society was divided. The immediate post-Napoleonic War years had brought economic depression, unemployment, rising crime, and popular political agitation for parliamentary reform. The novel itself was written in the run-up to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester where the local militia was unleashed on to a crowd of 80,000 peaceful protesters who had gathered together to campaign for political reform, killing 15 people and injuring 700 more. Scott’s purpose in writing Ivanhoe was to create a sense of shared history for his readers. It was a message for people living in the early nineteenth century which read that society did not have to be divided if everyone worked together. This is why Scott begins his novel by showing that society was racially divided:

A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William 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. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand. [1]

The eponymous character, Ivanhoe, symbolises the best of both worlds. He respects his Saxon lineage, but accepts the fact that the best future for the Anglo-Saxons will come about if the acrimony between the Saxons and the Normans is laid aside and they work together. This eventually happens in the novel, as gradually the Norman King, Richard I, works with the outlawed Saxon yeoman, Robin Hood, and the Saxon Franklin, Cedric, to reclaim his lands from the machinations of Richard’s brother, Prince John. In effect, Scott is telling readers that society does not have to be divided; everyone can and should work together; the nation came together in the past and the English can do so again. 

It is fairly undisputed that, in the whole of the later Robin Hood tradition, Walter Scott’s name looms large. When the second edition of Joseph Ritson’s 1795 publication Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was published in 1820, it was dedicated ‘To His Grace, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott’. [2] The preface to this second edition makes a further reference to Scott, saying that ‘this little volume will prove peculiarly acceptable at the moment, in consequence of the hero, and his merry companions, having been recently portrayed in the most lively colours by the masterly hand of the author of Ivanhoe’. [3] By 1820 the original 1795 edition of Ritson’s work had become ‘exceedingly scarce and expensive’. [4] In effect it is Scott who rejuvenated historical interest in the old ballads of Robin Hood, for Ivanhoe initiated a reprinting of Ritson’s work, which was in reality an obscure little two-volume work for serious antiquaries.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Novels which were published later in the nineteenth century also utilise the Saxon versus Norman theme. All of these novels include an historical note as to where the authors obtained the sources for their stories, thereby trying to assert their credentials as serious novelists, no doubt. The preface to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, published in weekly numbers between 1838 and 1840, with a single volume edition appearing later, states in its preface that:

[Robin Hood] was the last Saxon who made a positive stand against the dominancy of the Normans […] in fact, his predatory attacks upon them were but the national efforts of one who endeavoured to remove the proud foot of a conqueror from the neck of his countrymen […] and must have been a source of constant alarm and harass to the Normans within his three counties, as well as of much uneasiness to the Governments under which he lived. [5]

The French author Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Prince of Thieves (1873), similarly states in his preface that ‘Robin Hood was the last Saxon who tried to seriously resist the Norman rule’. [6]

Not long after Egan was writing, John Mathew Gutch published another collection entitled A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode in 1847. This collection was published as an ‘attempt to throw some new light on the life and actions of this celebrated hero of English serfs, the poor and obscure of the Anglo-Saxon race’. [7] It was not only British historians, however, who believed that Robin was a Saxon hero. Gutch quotes at length from the French historian Augustin Thierry. In Thierry’s History of the Norman Conquest (1825), in a passage which is obviously inspired by Scott (of whom he was a fan), he wrote how:

The forest of Sherwood was at that time [the 1190s] a terror to the Normans; it was the last remnant of the bands of armed Saxons, who, still denying the conquest, voluntarily persisted in living out of the law of the descendants of foreigners […] About that time that this heroic prince [Richard I], the pride of the Norman barons, visited the forest of Sherwood, there dwelt under the shade of that celebrated wood a man who was the hero of the Anglo-Saxon race […] the famous brigand Robin Hood. [8]

Linking Robin Hood with the Saxons even more explicitly, Thierry goes on to state that:

It can hardly be doubted that Robert, or more vulgarly, Robin Hood, was of Saxon birth […] Hood is a Saxon name. [9]

In conclusion, it is best to reiterate the point that by the 1190s, at least, there was no enmity between the Normans and Saxons in Britain. Eighteenth-century historians make no reference to the Saxons in connection with Robin Hood. The Saxons appear nowhere, for instance, in any of the criminal biographies of the early period, and neither are they referenced in Ritson’s afore-mentioned collection of Robin Hood ballads in 1795. It is clear, then, that historians such as Gutch and Thierry have taken Scott’s interpretation of the middle ages and applied it to their own research. This speaks to Scott’s power as a novelist. When people were reading Ivanhoe in 1819, they assumed that they were getting a relatively true-to-life depiction of what life was like during the Middle Ages. The novel is littered with footnotes of various kinds directing the reader, should he like to know more upon a subject, to various manuscripts held within the Bodleian Library, or Cambridge University’s Library. Even the framing narrative which Scott deploys in Ivanhoe, his ‘Dedicatory Epistle’, is written as a quite believable debate between two antiquaries, Sir Lawrence Templeton and Dr. Dryasdust. Thus it is clear that Scott had an enduring influence, not only upon nineteenth-century fiction, but upon historical scholarship in the period also.


[1] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (3 Vols. Edinburgh: Bannatyne, 1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 3.
[2] Anon. ‘Dedication’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), v.
[3] Anon. ‘Preface’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), vii.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), i.
[6] Alexandre Dumas, The Prince of Thieves Trans. Alfred Mallinson (Paris: M. Levy, 1873 repr. London: Methuen, 1890), 1.
[7] John Mathew Gutch, ‘Preface’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode with other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman Ed. John Mathew Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 1: iii.
[8] Augustin Thierry, ‘History of the Norman Conquest’, cited in Gutch (ed.) A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1: 101.
[9] Ibid.

Recidivism in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.

National Institute of Criminal Justice

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode'
‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’

I will talk here again about the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (referred to hereafter as the Geste). It is a poem that was composed c.1450 but not printed until much later, most probably between the years c.1490 and c.1510. It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes,’ and chronicles many of the deeds and exploits that Robin becomes embroiled in. It is a long poem at 1,824 lines.

I will dwell here upon fyttes seven and eight in the Geste. Before going further, let me say that Robin Hood is first and foremost a criminal. He’s an outlaw who sets himself up in defiance of the authorities. People seem to forget this. Anything he is taken to represent, such as a love of liberty, or “the fellowship of free and equal men” as some scholars say, are meanings which people ascribe to the legend rather than anything which Robin in the early texts says that he represents.

Let us begin at the end of fytte six, where Robin has killed the Sheriff:

Robyn bent a good bowe,
An arrowe he drew at his wyll,
He hyt so the proude sheryf,
Upon the grounde he lay full styll.
And or he myght up aryse,
On his fete to stoned,
He smote of the sheryves head,
With his bryght bronde.

The King is understandably a bit annoyed that this outlaw has killed his representative of law and order, and in the seventh fytte we are told that:

The kynge came to Notynghame,
With knyghts in grete araye,
For to take that gentyll knight,
And Robyn Hode, yf he may.

The King is also a bit miffed that when he has been hunting, he cannot find any deer, for Robin and his men have been feasting upon them. So the King resolves to travel into the forest in disguise to meet Robin Hood and capture him. Dressed as monks, the king and his men happen to come across Robin and his men. This part of the poem is a rehash of medieval and early-modern ‘King and Commoner’ ballads, and cannot be taken to be factually true. When Robin meets the King (in disguise as a monk) Robin praises the King, and the King is impressed with this.

Robin invites the disguised King and his men for a meal in the forest and they have a feast. Afterwards, Robin demands payment from the King, at which point the King reveals himself to Robin and the outlaws:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge
Wystly in the face,
So dyde Syr Rycharde at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place.

And so dyde all the wylde outlawes,
Whan they see them knele:
“My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
Now I knowe you well.”

“Mercy then, Robyn,” sayd our kynge,
“Under your trystyll-tre,
Of thy goodnesse and thy grace,
For my men and me!”

The King forgives Robin for his crimes and invites him to live at Court with him, which Robin readily accepts.

He stays with the King for a full year, after which time Robin begins to get itchy feet. In reality, he is more like the King’s hostage than his servant – what better way to control England’s most notorious outlaw than to have him directly in sight at all times, right? Anyhow, Robin asks the King if he might have a few days’ leave of the King to travel back to Barnsdale to visit a chapel he had built to Mary Magdalene in the woods:

“Yf it be so,” than sayd our kynge,
“It may no better be,
Seven nyght I gyve the leve,
No lengre, to dwell fro me.”

“Gramercy, lorde,” then sayd Robyn,
And set hym on his kne;
He toke his leve courteysly,
To grene wode then went he.

Granted seven days’ leave and no more, Robin returns to Barnsdale. Once there, he cannot help himself but break the law again:

Whan he came to grene wode,
In a mery mornynge,
There he herde the notes small
Of byrdes mery syngynge.

“It is ferre gone,” sayd Robyn,
“That I was last here;
Me lyste a lytell for to shote
At the donne dere.”

Robyn slewe a full grete harte,
His horne than gan he blow,
That all the outlawes of that forest
That horne coud they knowe,

And gadred them togyder,
In a lytell throwe;
Seven score of wyght yonge men
Came redy on a rowe.

He really cannot help himself-once back in the green wood he slays another deer, and immediately sounds his bugle horn and rejoins the other outlaws living in the forest. He remains an outlaw for another 22 years until he finally dies at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).
Illustration from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

Now, obviously caution has to be exercised when applying a modern theoretical concept such as recidivism to an early English text, for the legal system of the 1400s was very different to the legal system in England today. But the fundamental principle – that offenders can reoffend – remains the same. To repeat the definition of ‘recidivism’: It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. The ‘intervention’ Robin receives is being invited by the King to live at his court. Robin even receives a fee from the king – like a salary – for the duties he carries out at Court. Yet he still cannot help himself but reoffend the moment he is given a little bit of freedom from the King. Were this a more recent outlaw/highwayman from the 1700s, we would term this ‘recidivism’.