An Early Socialist History of the Peasants’ Revolt: Charles Edmund Maurice’s “Lives of English Popular Leaders of the Middle Ages” (1875)

By Stephen Basdeo

While researching my book, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018),[i] I came across an interesting history book, written by Charles Edmund Maurice during the Victorian period, entitled Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (1875). The book immediately interested me because it is an early social history, and, as far as I could ascertain, is the first to link the so-called “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381 with the Marxist idea of class struggle (I use the term “Peasants’ Revolt” here for convenience, but I am fully aware that the rebels were drawn from a diverse range of social classes, as Maurice was also aware). Thus, having tracked down a first edition and reading it in full, I thought I would give an overview

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Charles Edmund Maurice’s “Lives of English Popular Leaders” (1875)

Maurice was a history lecturer and a barrister. He was also the brother-in-law of the noted social reformer, Octavia Hill. Little is known of Maurice’s life (I could not even track down a picture of him for this post, unfortunately, although if any readers have any further information on him do please comment below): he had a role in founding the National Trust,[ii] and was also a committed Christian socialist, which is why the idea of the 1381 rebellion is presented in terms of class struggle. Marxists hold to the idea that society progresses in stages through class struggle, according to changes in the means of production, and usually these changes are accompanied by revolutions. Hence in ancient societies, class struggle occurred between masters and slaves. In feudal societies, the conflict was between lords and serfs, and in capitalist societies, it is between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The transition to a communist society would be marked by a revolution of the working class against the bourgeoisie, after which class struggles would cease .[iii]

What Maurice is interested in throughout his work is the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the language of class and class struggle comes through strongly from the outset. He spends the first half of his book examining ‘the condition of the poorer classes in England’ from 597 AD to the fourteenth century (emphasis added). Maurice makes no attempt to hide his disgust at the condition of slaves during the sixth and seventh centuries:

The first feeling excited by a study of the slave laws of the early English kings is one of extreme disgust … one is much struck by the barbarous custom of making a distinction between an injury done to the person or life of the landed eorl, or earl, the half free ceorl, or churl, and the absolutely enslaved theow.[iv]

Ideas of the Norman yoke infiltrate Maurice’s analyses of class relations after 1066. While the Saxon kings viewed the ceorl and theow as necessary to the working of society, and were even accorded some limited protections in the law, after the arrival of the Normans, argues Maurice, there was contempt for all those classes of society beneath the Normans, and as a result of their laws:

By the time we reach the legal documents of the reigns of Henry I. and Stephen, the distinctions between the half-free and the slave have grown almost invisible, and though new terms of contempt have come into use [Maurice speaks immediately before this passage of the contemptuous terms ‘villein’ and ‘villanus’], they do not seem to imply any new distinctions.[v]

The only respite that the oppressed classes received during the Middle Ages, Maurice further argues, is the rights which they acquired as a result of reform-minded clergyman, and the prominence that he gives to these early religious reformers stems, perhaps, from Maurice’s own Christian socialist ideals. The Christian socialist movement emerged during the mid-nineteenth century. Christian beliefs have always been easily superimposed onto socialist ideology, to take just one scripture in the Epistle of James, for example, we can see a discontent with the rich and a desire to right the wrongs which they have placed upon the poorer classes:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up for treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud (James 5: 1-6).

Maurice next comes to John Ball, the radical fourteenth-century lay preacher whose teachings followed, as Rodney Hilton argues, ‘in the long tradition of Christian social radicalism which goes back to St. Ambrose of Milan, if not before’.[vi] Ball’s famous phrase,

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?

gave expression to the inequalities and discontent felt by a number of the oppressed classes during the medieval period. And it is John Ball and his teachings that were, according to Maurice, the most important cause of the 1381 rebellion. While Ball is described as a parochial churchman, Maurice also stresses the fact that he was, in fact, a labourer, of the same class of people as Wat Tyler.[vii] Ball’s preaching was so successful because it occurred at a time when, due to the Black Death, the villeins were becoming aware of their own importance, and were able to demand better wages for their labours, and offered them a vision of a better world. But in this the labouring class were foiled, says Maurice, due to the machinations of the ruling class who sought to prevent, through laws such as the Statute of Labourers (1351).[viii]

John Ball’s preaching is the ideology that underpinned the Peasants’ Revolt, but it’s most immediate cause was the exaction of a Poll Tax designed by the ‘class of tyrants’ which disproportionately hurt the labouring classes. The apocryphal story of a tax man visiting Wat Tyler’s home, demanding payment for her, and then Tyler’s killing of the tax man for handling his daughter in an indecent manner, is taken as a fact by Maurice.[ix] This had indeed become accepted as historical truth during the nineteenth century, and almost every fictional and non-fictional nineteenth-century work, such as Mrs O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833) and Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler; or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841), takes this incident as undoubted historical truth.

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John Ball preaching to the Commons – Reproduced from Froissart in Henry Newbolt’s Froissart in Britain (1893)

Maurice then follows up with a fairly standard narrative of the revolt: Wat Tyler’s rescuing John Ball from gaol in Maidstone, the march of the men of Kent to London, the meeting with Richard II at Smithfield, and Wat Tyler’s death. Afterwards, Maurice then muses upon John Ball and Wat Tyler’s achievements. The most notable among these was the construction of a labouring class-consciousness:

[Wat Tyler] taught the serfs and workmen to stand together, and depend upon themselves. They had implanted a tradition of freedom and self-respect in the most depressed classes of the kingdom, which was remembered afterwards when, in 1424, the villeins rose against the monastery in St. Albans.[x]

Although theirs was a revolt that ultimately failed, Maurice further argues that it had a ‘slow burn’ effect which benefitted both the serfs and the free labourers of medieval England:

After the insurrection of Tyler, the position of the villeins steadily improved; and that, though nominally refused, the demands of the villeins were silently but effectually accorded.[xi]

Moreover, Maurice also argues that it strengthened the position of Parliament, particularly those who sat in the Commons, who also felt the tyrannies of the nobility, though to a lesser degree than the serfs.

After Maurice’s work, the next major socialist interpretation of the Peasants’ Revolt came from the pen of the brilliant William Morris in A Dream of John Ball (1888). Socialism is essentially a foreign, non-British ideology, and nineteenth-century British socialists such as Morris looked back to the medieval past, to the teachings of men such as John Ball, to find evidence of proto-typical socialist thought. Thus, in A Dream of John Ball, a man from the nineteenth century wakes up in a medieval village in Kent in 1381. All around him he hears tidings of ‘the valiant tiler of Dartford’. He then manages to speak with John Ball privately, and the two men converse about the class struggles of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although the traveller tells John Ball that his revolution will be unsuccessful, he should still take heart, for struggles and rebellions such as Wat Tyler’s insurrection are necessary milestones on the road to achieving socialism.

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Frontispiece to William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (1888)

The most prominent historian of the Peasants’ Revolt during the mid-twentieth century was Rodney Hilton, a neo-Marxist, of the same school as Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. It was Hilton, Hobsbawm, and Thompson, among others, who founded in 1952 the prestigious academic journal, Past and Present. In many ways, Maurice’s work anticipates Hilton’s: one of Hilton’s aims in Bondmen Made Free (1973) was to reposition the egalitarian ideology of John Ball as the central cause of the revolt, whereas in early twentieth-century historical scholarship it had been side-lined, with economic and social causes of the result given privilege at the expense of ideology. I have checked the references in Hilton’s works, and it does not appear that he was aware of Maurice’s book, or at any rate, he does not cite it. If you would like to read Maurice’s work for yourself, however, the Internet Archive has scanned it in (Click here).


References

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

[ii] Astrid Swenson, ‘Founders of the National Trust (act. 1894–1895)’, in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn., 2008) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/95571> Accessed 15 July 2017].

[iii] There are many writers who have written upon this subject at length, and in more detail than I ever could, but I recommend the Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press on ‘Marx’ and ‘Socialism’ as a starting point.

[iv] Charles Edmund Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders in the Middle Ages: Tyler, Ball, and Oldcastle (London: Henry S. King, 1875), p. 7.

[v] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, pp. 26-7.

[vi] Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 211.

[vii] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 143.

[viii] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, pp. 146-48.

[ix] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 153.

[x] Maurice, Lives of English Popular Leaders, p. 195.

[xi] Ibid.

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Thomas Dun: A Medieval Pirate & Highwayman

Robin Hood was not the only famous law breaker in medieval times. Alongside Robin Hood were figures such as Adam Bell and the subject of this blog post, the medieval pirate Thomas Dun.

When the word ‘pirate’ is mentioned, many people will have in mind the image of an eighteenth-century pirate: an eye-patch wearing, sabre rattling, and rum-sodden dissolute character. This is an image that was first given to pirates in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). It is an image that has gained further traction recently in Disney’s series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011) as well as the television show Black Sails (2014 onwards).

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The Execution of a Medieval Pirate, Eustace the Monk

But piracy in the medieval period was different from the eighteenth century. Often pirates were merchants who had been permitted, as part of their employment, to plunder foreign ships. The right to plunder foreign ships was granted by the King, providing that the Crown received a portion of the booty. Thus we should think of these pirates more as ‘privateers’ under contract with the monarch, rather than the semi-organised criminal networks that existed in the eighteenth century.[i]

Regarding Thomas Dun, little is known of his life and exploits, but modern-day historians place him during the time of Edward II and the Scottish Wars. Apparently he fought on the side of Robert the Bruce, whose forces were engaged in repelling the English occupation of Scotland.[ii] To place the events of Thomas Dun’s life in terms of people’s understanding of popular culture, then, this man lived shortly after the events of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart (1995). The campaign against the English forces occurred in both England and Ireland, and as the Scottish King had no navy to speak of, he employed Dun to ferry Scottish soldiers across the Irish Sea.[iii] There also is another story about him purportedly having raided the port of Holyhead, Wales in 1315.[iv] And that is, in all honestly, the extent of what we know of the man’s life.

As with the lives of so many criminals, however, the details are embellished and their life story becomes something unrecognisable. Thomas Dun’s story was recounted in a number of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), all of which were written in the eighteenth century, which is over five hundred years after he is said to have lived.

Lincoln B. Faller divides the representation of criminals during the eighteenth century: heroes, in which category belong figures such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and James Mclean (1724-1750); there are also ‘buffoons’, and the type of thieves that belong in this category are men such as John Wheeler, a housebreaker who burgles a house and inadvertently ends up having sex with the mistress of the house. Finally, there is the brute, and into this category belongs killers such as Sawney Beanne and Dun.[v]

Smith and Johnson are at pains to present Dun as the worst type of criminal imaginable. Johnson says that

A man who is not forced from necessity, or a desire of pleasure, to become dishonest, but follows his natural dispositions in robbing and maltreating others, will, generally, be found to be destitute of every humane and generous principle. So will it be found with this character – a person of mean extraction.[vi]

Criminal biographers were never interested in historical facts, evident by the inclusion in their compendiums of the life of that noted robber, Sir John Falstaff. Thus, instead of depicting Dun as a Scottish pirate who flourished during the fourteenth century, he becomes an English highwayman who lived in the reign of Henry I, operating in the latter part of his reign. In fact, Scotland is not mentioned once in these criminal annals. Dun’s haunt is now depicted as being in Bedfordshire where,

He continued to commit many petty thefts and assaults, but judging it safer to associate himself with others, he repaired to a gang of thieves, who infested the country leading from St. Alban’s to Towcester, and they became such a terror.[vii]

Having spent half of his criminal career robbing and plundering in Bedfordshire, he then moved to Yorkshire (so say the criminal biographers), and proceeded to ‘commit many notorious robberies along the river Ouse’.[viii] After this he returned to Bedford and was eventually caught and suffered a gruesome death, according to Smith:

At length, seeing he could not escape and that he must die, he yielded, and then the executioners chopping off each hand at the wrists, his arms were cut off at the elbows, and all above that again within an inch of his shoulders; next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off five inches below the trunk, which after severing his head from was burnt to ashes.[ix]

There is not a more graphic account of execution than this in most of the criminal biographies I have seen. Smith and Johnson’s accounts then both end with saying that the town of Dunstable takes its name from the robber, due to the fact that Henry I built a garrison there. This, however, is pure fiction, and academics have provided more plausible accounts of the town’s etymology:

The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun, means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary. Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill.  Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.[x]

While his story continued to appear in some versions of The Newgate Calendar, Thomas Dun appears to have been forgotten about for a while, and his story did not make it into either Charles MacFarlane’s The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) or Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits Of English Highwaymen, Pirates And Robbers (1834). Curiously, the next literary representation of Dun’s life appears in a comic entitled Crime Must Pay the Penalty (1948).

thomas-dun-comic

As we can see, this is just one instance of how a criminal’s life has been remoulded and readapted throughout the centuries, and how the original historical details, such as Dun being a Scottish pirate, becomes unrecognisable when the details are placed in the hands of various authors who care not for historical facts.


Works Cited

Illustrations from comic taken from: https://pappysgoldenage.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/number-1923-thomas-dun-undone.html

[i] ‘Piracy in Medieval Europe’ Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library ed. by Jennifer Stock 3 Vols (Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2011), 3: 17-34.

[ii] William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (New York: Viking, 2014), p.120.

[iii] Tim Hodkinson, The Waste Land (Lulu Publishing, 2015), p.6.

[iv] ‘Photo Essay: Thieves, Pirates and Conwy Castle – a trip through medieval Wales’ Irish History Podcast [Internet <http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/photo-essay-thieves-pirates-and-conwy-castle/> Accessed 9 February 2017].

[v] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.127.

[vi] Charles Johnson, Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Street Robbers (London, 1734; repr. T. Tegg, 1839), p.81.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1933), p.17.

[ix] Smith, Highwaymen, p.19.

[x] Joan Curran, ‘Town History: 12th Century’ Medieval Dunstable [Internet <http://medievaldunstable.org.uk/thistory.html> Accessd 9 February 2017].

‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.

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Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]

(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)

That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.

Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to

Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

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Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:

My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]

The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:

Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]

Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.

After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:

Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]

Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.

While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).


REFERENCES

[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).

[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.

[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.

The Peterloo Massacre & Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)

I have written many times about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) on this website. It is perhaps the greatest of all Robin Hood novels. Scholars have often been puzzled, however, as to why Scott, a Tory politician, chose to give Robin the relatively humble social position of a yeomen, and effectively linked him with the local body of militia that existed in most towns. Furthermore, this went against the grain of many preceding interpretations of the Robin Hood legend which depicted the outlaw as a member of the aristocracy. One likely answer to this is the fact that Scott, an historian, was simply being faithful to medieval texts such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) in which Robin is also named as a yeoman.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

But perhaps there is another reason for this depiction of Robin Hood as a commoner hero that was connected to an event in Manchester in the same year that the novel was published.

On 16 August 1819 a great crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt speak upon the subject of political reform. This was a time when neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote. These people had other grievances such as the Corn Laws: protectionist tariffs upon imported grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The gathering itself was peaceful. But the magistrates of the town of Manchester, fearing a riot, ordered them to disperse by having the Riot Act read out loud. In a crowd of what was between sixty and eighty thousand people, it is unsurprising that the majority of people in attendance did not hear it being read. The magistrates then ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to disperse the crowd. The soldiers charged at the protestors and in the process killed fifteen people and wounding up to seven hundred more (although historians have debated the actual numbers). This is the description of one of the eye witnesses:

On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain.[1]

Among the numbers of the killed and wounded were several veterans of Waterloo – men who had fought and defended their country in that famous battle just four years previously. Thus the event became christened as ‘Peterloo’.

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Red Plaque Commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester City Centre

The event horrified Scott. [2] There was outrage against the authorities in many sections of both the provincial and national press. And the yeomanry came in for harsh criticism. This is one poem that appeared the magazine The Free-Thinking Englishman:

He [The Magistrate] took the advice, and, to make all things sure,
Read the riot act o’er, on the step of his door;
When the Yeomanry Butchers all gallop’d away,
To do some great exploit on Saint Ethelstone’s Day.
They hack’d off the breasts of the women, and then,
They cut off the ears and the noses of men;
In every direction they slaughtered away,
‘Till drunken with blood on Saint Ethelstone’s Day. [3]

The Yeomanry receive a similarly bad press in another political satire entitled The Bloody Field of Peterloo:

Methinks I see the crimson flood,
And mark well the aim’d fatal blow,
The yeoman’s sabre dy’d in blood,
Reeking on far fam’d Peterloo!
Wives, mothers, children on the plain,
In one promiscuous heap, I view;
The husband, son, and father slain,
Stretch’d on the field of Peterloo!
But Yeomen’s hearts are form’d of steel,
Ardent to fields of blood they go;
Their gallant souls disdain to feel,
Whilst dealing death at Peterloo! [4]

Other satires such as William Hone’s important and influential The Political House that Jack Built (1819) depicted the soldiery of England as the tools of the elites’ oppression of the working man:

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William Hone,  The Political House that Jack Built (London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819) (c) NCCO.

England was a divided society when Scott was writing in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has brought economic depression, unemployment, and clamours for political reform.

Why, then, did Scott choose to depict Robin Hood, a people’s hero, as a yeoman at a time when the yeomanry of England were being almost universally excoriated?

Scott’s novel was a plea for national unity: he turned to the medieval period in order to find a harmonious ordering of society. In Scott’s vision of society, the feudal ordering of society in the Middle Ages was a model that could be adapted to solve social and political divisions in nineteenth-century Britain. In the words of Alice Chandler, Scott’s vision of a feudal ordering of society ran thus:

The serf should be willing to die for his master, and the master willing to die for the man he considers his sovereign.[5]

So why do I argue that Scott specifically wants the band of outlaws in Ivanhoe to be associated with the military? (They are rarely called outlaws in the text). There is a definite hierarchical structure to their set up: Locksley is called the ‘Captain’ of the yeoman on several occasions (and rarely is Robin himself referred to as an outlaw twice in the whole novel). This Captain Locksley has underneath him several ‘Lieutenants’. They are not a motley crew of undisciplined brutes but a well-ordered militia. Furthermore, Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, or Locksley as he is called, is a man who is unwaveringly loyal to the King. He works with Richard the Lionheart to help him regain his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and the Norman Templars. Robin the yeoman worse for the nation and for the King. He bridges social divides and effectively restores trust in a much-maligned body of soldiers.

Thus the above may be one reason why Scott chose to cast Robin as a yeoman, in defiance of what had become a convention in writing about Robin Hood where the outlaw, as we have seen, was usually being cast as an Earl at this point. He wants to reclaim the yeomen of England as servants of both the nation and the King. The important thing is that all classes and members of society must work together.


[1] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (London: T. Unwin, 1893), p.152.
[2] Simon J. White, ‘Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Pentridge Rising’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts 31: 3 (2009), 209-224 (p.212).
[3] Anon. ‘To the Editor of the Theological and Political Comet’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 16 (1819), p.125.
[4] Anon. ‘The Bloody Field of Peterloo’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 11 (1819), 85-86 (p.86).
[5] Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 314-332 (p.324).
[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1819; repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1875), pp.125-126

My Forthcoming Book: “The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler” (2018)

I have recently been contracted by a commercial publisher to write a popular history book entitled The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler which is due for publication in 2018.

The title is taken from that of an old play, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, or, The Mob Reformers (1750) and the idea for the book first appeared on this website in an earlier post about nineteenth-century appropriations of Wat Tyler. It struck me that every great medieval hero had their ‘mythic biography’: Stephen Knight has published three books and countless articles upon Robin Hood; Joanne Parker in England’s Darling (2007) explores post medieval representations of King Alfred; Stephanie Barczewski, and John and Caitlin Mathews have written at length upon King Arthur. Yet Wat Tyler, who was arguably England’s first notable radical leader, or so he would be called during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, did not enjoy the same critical attention that has been devoted to other medieval figures.

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Tyler Killing the Tax Collector who Tried to Rape his Daughter – From Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

The ‘blurb’ which I have submitted to the publishers gives a flavour of the shape that the book is taking (please make an allowance for the sweeping generalisations – I only had max. 150 words to describe the book):

In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and a Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose who led an army of commoners to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Yet Tyler was treacherously struck down the Lord Mayor, and his head placed upon a spike on London Bridge. Yet Wat Tyler lived on throughout the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people the authorities had something to fear.

It will begin by giving an account of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. It will then examine Tyler’s appearance in the literature of the English Revolution under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1651), before moving on to the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century radical literature. Consequently, the book will be as much a piece of Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, and twentieth-century cultural history as much as it is a piece of medieval history.

As my doctoral research upon Robin Hood winds down, I am really looking forward to starting work on this in earnest. As well as my interest in Robin Hood and highwaymen, another of my research interests is the history of English radicalism, and this book will allow me to pursue this interest to a greater extent than I currently am able to do in my thesis upon Robin Hood.

To radical authors during the late eighteenth century, for example, Tyler became the symbol of a tough Englishman who fought for people’s rights and liberties, which is the case in Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler (1794).

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The work will also allow me to revisit some of my favourite nineteenth-century authors such as Pierce Egan the Younger, whose novel Wat Tyler, or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841) was immensely popular and presented readers with a Chartist Wat Tyler and whose other novel Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) features prominently in my PhD thesis. In Egan’s novel, Wat leads the revolt and hands the King a Charter with ‘Six Points’ which is highly reminiscent of the Chartist cause.

In fact, Chartism shall feature prominently in the work just as Wat Tyler was important to the Chartists, appearing in several poems published in radical newspapers such as The Northern Star and Reynolds’ Miscellany.

Unlike Robin Hood who was elevated to the rank of an Earl during the seventeenth century, and who has gradually become a relatively conservative (with a small ‘c’) figure, Wat Tyler resists any attempts at gentrification. This is not to say that some authors did not try to make him a hero of the establishment: the book will also explore the attempts at de-radicalising Wat Tyler, in the process allowing me to revisit the works of one of my favourite novelists, William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) and his novel Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs (1874); G. A. Henty, the arch-imperial propagandist of the late Victorian era, similarly transforms Tyler into a hero of the establishment in A March on London (1898).

The book will also see me revisiting another research interest of mine: the study of penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. Tyler was the hero of several boys’ stories in magazines such as The Boy’s Own and The Boys of England, all of which contained lurid and violent scenes.

Finally, the book moves into the twentieth century when Tyler’s name was invoked by socialist writers and politicians against Margaret Thatcher’s government during the Miners’ Strike of 1984 and the Poll Tax Riots of 1989.

Thus, the book aims, following what Stephen Knight has done for Robin Hood in his works, to provide a history of the literary afterlives of Wat Tyler.

 

George Emmett’s “Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood” (1868-69)

[All images taken from books in my personal collection – feel free to use]


Further to my recent postings on Robin Hood in Victorian penny dreadfuls, this post sheds light upon another Robin Hood serial written by George Emmett entitled Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood which was serialised between 1868 and 1869. The Emmett brothers owned a busy but financially insecure publishing business. Constantly in financial difficulty, Emmett perhaps mistook his true vocation for none of his novels sold well enough. Emmett’s tale is a very defective historical romance which, had it been undertaken by a more talented writer, might have passed for a good novel.[1]

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Title Page to Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (1873)

Following Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the novel is framed as an antiquary’s research into the old ballads of Robin Hood. But unlike the antiquarian research of Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) or Thomas Percy (1729-1811), the study of old ballads that Emmett undertakes (or says that he has done, at least) has a tint of nationalism to it. He says that the old Robin Hood ballads were

Rude in composition […but] suited our sturdy Saxon ancestors […] expressing all that was manly and brave […] appealed to the hearts of the freeborn youth of England, and taught them to aid the oppressed.[2]

Although the idea of Social Darwinism had yet to emerge, one can detect the first seeds of the sense that Robin, a Saxon, is racially superior to the Normans. And Robin’s Saxon heritage is constantly played up in the novel. In one of many instances, Emmett writes that Robin was

The indomitable leader of the Saxon archers.[3]

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Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merry Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1870)

While Ritson, Pierce Egan the Younger, Thomas Miller, and the anonymous author of Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) had cast Robin as a radical and anti-establishment figure in their works, it is in Emmett’s work that Robin truly becomes the loyal servant of the King and nation in Victorian literature.

The novel begins promisingly by setting the story of Robin Hood, not during the times of King Richard and Prince John, but during the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, or ‘The Second Barons War’ (1264-67). This had been done before in G. P. R. James’ novel Forest Days (1843). But Emmett was not as talented as James and lacks the talent for weaving together a complicated tale of exciting battles and political intrigue. In fact, both in its text and images, the novel is barely historicised. Robin is always dressed more as a seventeenth-century highwayman than a medieval outlaw.

As is usual in the later Victorian penny dreadfuls, Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. In other places, Emmett also calls Robin a yeoman, which is quite puzzling.[4] There is unlikely to be a ‘deep’ explanation for this inconsistency of the account of Robin’s birth, in all likelihood it was probably the case that, in a novel which was written on a weekly basis, Emmett simply forgot that he had made Robin an Earl. But he is not the type of outlaw that a person would want to meet. By that, I do not mean that he is a cruel and murderous outlaw as he is in eighteenth-century criminal biography. Rather it is to say that he treats his fellow outlaws, especially Little John, with a harshness that borders upon contempt. In all fairness, Little John is portrayed as an annoying fellow, and somewhat dim and constantly utters the annoying phrase ‘Body o’me’ when he’s astounded by something. Thus Little John, the sturdy giant of earlier tales is degraded in Emmett’s novel into a buffoon.

Furthermore, the Forest Society of Sherwood lacks the free-spirited and democratic ideals of Egan’s novel and Ritson’s ballad anthology. There is the sense that Robin, the Earl, is very much the undisputed leader of the outlaw band. And it is very hierarchical. Robin calls Will Scarlet his lieutenant’.[5] In addition, Robin is repeatedly called ‘King of the Outlaws’, and Robin draws his men up in military array.[6]

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Robin Hood and the Wood Demon from Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth, 1873)

The one interesting insertion into the narrative is that of the Forest Demon. When Robin and his men are outlawed for joining Simon De Montfort in his rebellion, they make their home in Sherwood Forest. It is here that Robin meets the strange woodland creature. Forest spirits would make their way into further Robin Hood adaptations such as Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) and in the television series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). The association between Robin Hood and woodland spirits comes from a now-discredited theory from 1830s (which was never taken seriously at the time anyway) that supposed Robin to be the manifestation of the Teutonic Spirit Hodekin, and which subsequently made it into The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when Sir Sidney Lee was editing it during the nineteenth century.

What is clear from Emmett’s tale is that the quality of Robin Hood novels has begun to decline by the 1870s. Further evidence of the poor quality is The Prince of Archers (1883) which appeared in The Boys of England. They are very much for a juvenile audience and cease to be targeted in any way towards adults. Still, just like the late-Victorian children’s books, they were undoubtedly popular with the young lads who read them avidly.


References

[1] Robert Kirkpatrick, Pennies, Profits and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street (London: CreateSpace, 2016), pp.417-422.
[2] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House [n.d.]), p.2.
[3] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.19.
[4] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.2.
[5] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.24.
[6] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, p.25.