The Flemish Revolt: Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” (1838)

By Stephen Basdeo

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) is one of my most favourite Victorian authors. The son of the more famous Regency journalist and writer, Pierce Egan (1772–1849), he was an artist, illustrator, journalist, newspaper editor and novelist who, although rarely studied or read today, made a significant mark on Victorian popular fiction.

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

He was rather fond of outlaws and rebels and liked to tell their stories: throughout the early part of his career he published Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838); Wat Tyler (1841), in which the eponymous rebel is depicted as a medieval Chartist; Adam Bell (1842), a story of a lesser-known medieval outlaw who is said to have lived around the same time as Robin Hood; Paul Jones (1841), which is the story of a man who defects to the American side during the war of independence; and Captain Macheath (1842), which tells the tale of the hero of Macheath the highwayman who originally appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). All of these stories were melodramatic and politically radical tales in which the protagonists fight against an unjust and oppressive government.

Egan Matsys 2
Title Page to Pierce Egan the Younger’s Quintin Matsys (1838)

Before all of these, however, Egan wrote Quintin Matsys (1838).

It was his first literary project and he took an unlikely historical figure for its subject, the Flemish painter Quintin Matsys (1466–1530). Matsys will be familiar to all art history students as the founder of the Antwerp School of painting and some of his most famous works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), A Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1513) and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514). The first of these has become a popular meme in today’s internet culture while the latter is famous throughout the world.

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The Real Quintin Matsys by Jan Wertrix

Shortly before Egan put pen to paper, a short story fictionalising Matsys’s life was written by A. B. Slous, entitled ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, and appeared in volume one of The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature (1833), so this may have been where Egan got some inspiration from, as the opening chapter in Egan’s novel which tells of Matsys’s early life bears much resemblance to the first chapter in Slous’s short story.[1]

Egan Rev 4
The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

Yet Egan’s was no dry novel about the life of a painter. Matsys starts out in the novel as a humble and starving painter but becomes embroiled in a revolution against the noblemen of the City of Antwerp. Matsys leads a secret society of men known as ‘Redressors’ who punish noblemen who commit wrongs against the working and middle classes of Antwerp and its surrounding regions. Issues come to a head when a (very melodramatic and characteristically bad, scheming, and evil) aristocrat has Matsys’s future father-in-law arrested on a spurious charge of treason.

Egan Rev 2
The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

After this, the Redressors lead the middle classes and working classes to the barricades in which they drive out the bad aristocrats and their private armies from the city. The many illustrations which accompanied the novel—which Egan engraved himself—are in fact highly reminiscent of the imagery of the French Revolution of 1830 (not the ‘big’ French Revolution of 1789 but the one featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor steps in and brokers a truce between the classes; when the working classes and bourgeoisie have secured certain political rights, Matsys is able to devote himself full time to the profession for which he would become famous. This is what might be termed an ‘origin’ story if we were talking about pop culture today.

Egan Matsys 1
Young Quintin considering one of his paintings in Egan’s novel

Obviously, Egan intended this novel to be a commentary on the politics of England at the time, and not those of Belgium and there are allusions in Egan’s text to ‘the present day, when society is, in all its relations, as opposite as it can possibly be to that which 400 years since existed’.[2] And there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that the historical Quintin Matsys ever led a revolt against the nobles of Antwerp.

However, this did not bother the authors of penny bloods like Egan as they regularly made stuff up anyway.

Egan’s radicalism is more of a pre-1832 style of English radicalism; the cause was the political enfranchisement of the people at large, and their struggle was conceived of in terms of a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with their main enemy being the aristocratic political establishment. This is the politics of Henry Hunt and those in attendance at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 1819; it harks back to a time in British politics when, prior to the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, the workers and the middle classes had indeed allied together to campaign for the vote. But ever sneaky, the British establishment used that classic tactic of divide-and-rule; they gave the vote to some middle-class householders (those who owned or rented property worth more than forty shillings), which left poorer people out in the cold. So, the working classes had to organise themselves, and in 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was formed to secure the vote for the working man, and two years later the Chartist movement was born. Egan’s depiction of the middle classes and working classes working together, writing as he does in 1838, suggests that he believes such an alliance is still possible.

Much emphasis is placed by Matsys and his fellow rebels upon the ‘rights and sovereignty of the people’ and ‘the people’s liberties’. The people of course are the working and middle classes, but the generalised idea of the people and of liberty recalls not only Henry Hunt but also Thomas Paine. The Chartists likewise drew upon such language, but it has to be remembered that the movement was not fully formed at the period when Egan’s novel began its serialisation in early 1838, and later, it was the terms of the People’s Charter which the Chartists most emphasised. And in Egan’s Wat Tyler, we see a firmer idea of a ‘Charter of Liberties’ with specific demands, while it’s left a little more hazy in the early Quintin Matsys novel.

More research is needed into the early works. As we noted earlier, all of Egan’s early novels—Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, Adam Bell, and Paul Jones—include revolts against ‘the powers that were’. The fact that the revolt in all of these novels, but most markedly in Quintin Matsys and Wat Tyler, is led by men of the middle and working classes gives us an insight into radical ideas in what is often a rather understudied phase in English working-class history and thought between the 1832 Reform Act and the emergence of Chartism.


[1] A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.

[2] Pierce Egan, Quintin Matsys, The Blacksmith of Antwerp (London: W. Barth [n.d.]), p.179.

See also: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016).

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Sir Robin William V. Harcourt Hood, M. P.

By Stephen Basdeo

Whenever a politician proposes raising a new tax or cutting a public service, a newspaper columnist will often respond that the proposed changes are ‘Reverse Robin Hood’. Alternatively, those who look favourably upon governmental tax and finance reforms might attempt to portray the politician in question as embodying Robin Hood values. We see this in the case of Donald Trump’s recent tax reforms, in which newspaper comic artists, as well as some gifted and not-so-gifted meme-makers on both sides of the debate portrayed Trump as an outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, or who steals from the not-so-fortunate to give to the rich.

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Robin Hood, as previous research of mine has shown, has always stood in for politicians when satirists wish to make a point about a politician’s – or indeed any public body’s – financial management of the country. Back in 1727, two ballads entitled Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster equated the ‘robbing’ Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with the outlaw of medieval legend.[1] Other writers in the Georgian era went further and argued that robbing civil servants are more skilled at hiding their frauds than Robin Hood ever was:

Had [Robin Hood] turn’d his head to politics, had he been placed in the finances, or promoted to the station of Paymaster, Receiver General, Treasurer […] and robb’d the Exchequer, as Falstaff says, with unwash’d hands; had he plunder’d the publick, in a civil employment, till he had been almost the only rich man in the kingdom, we may conclude from many passages of history that there would have been no signs of him at this day.[2]

And it was no different during the Victorian era. Railway fares have always been the bane of workers in the United Kingdom and we see in this era satirical poems depicting Robin Hood and Little John tiring of their life in the greenwood and opting to become railway bosses instead, so they can steal from people legally.

One of the most famous satirical magazines in Victorian Britain was Punch, and British politicians were not immune from the Punch Brotherhood’s pens. In 1894, the Liberals were in power, and Sir William Vernon Harcourt introduced a new budget which proposed a very modest form of wealth redistribution to help the poorer classes of society, but it was a measure to which the conservative press objected.[3] The measures included financing modest increases in ‘dole’ for working families using funds raised from increased death duties. The ‘Graduation’ to which the ballad refers was Harcourt’s introduction of an estate tax, payable upon a person’s death, of one per cent on properties worth £500, and eight per cent on properties worth £1 million.[4] Harcourt tried to sell it as a graduated income tax which would be paid by only the wealthiest, and this would be sure to go down well with working-class householders (the male heads of working-class households could vote since 1867).

Harcourt 1

Thus in the poem Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce, which is written in faux-Middle English, Robin stands in for Harcourt who robs a merchant in Sherwood Forest:

“There thou speketh soothe,” the Merchaunte cried,

“Thou scourge of Propertie!

But the thing thou dubbest ‘Graduation,’

Is Highway robberie!”

“Robberie?” quoth Bold Robin Hood,

“Nay that’s a slanderous statement.

Redistribution it is not Theft –

Nor Exemption, nor Abatement.

“I robbe thee not, thou Mammonite!

The aim of all my Labours

Is – to ease thee of superfluous wealth

For the goods of thy poorer neighbours!”[5]

The poem was accompanied with a full page illustration depicting ‘Sir Robin Hood Harcourt (addressing “The Marchaunt”)’ saying ‘“Nay, Friend, ‘Tis no robbery! I do but ease you of this to relieve your poorer brethren”’.[6]

Clearly the writer of this piece was opposed to the measures, like the Tory opposition were. And it the fact that this rather small poem was given such prominence tells us something about the political leanings of the magazine in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Punch. When it was originally founded in the 1840s, it was a fairly liberal magazine which, being founded by Henry Mayhew of London Labour and the London Poor fame, was sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Yet during its golden age, it became a magazine that was (small ‘c’) conservative in its outlook and enjoyed in the middle-class drawing room. Although it hardly liked Disraeli, it often favoured the Tory party over the Liberals. The complaint expressed in this poem, therefore, is, what we might term today, a ‘middle-class problem’. It was not the working class who had to worry about death duties so, very oddly, although readers of Punch were supposed to disapprove of Harcourt’s redistributive graduated tax, Robin Hood is still, in spite of the fact that readers were meant to disapprove of Harcourt’s actions, a man of the people.


References

[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1 (2017), 15-31.

[2] ‘Bravery: The Characteristic of an Englishman’, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, No. 8 (1738), 300.

[3] ‘Sir William Harcourt’s Possible Budget’, The Spectator, 24 March 1894, p. 7.

[4] Donald Read, The Age of Urban Democracy, 1868-1914 (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 295.

[5] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 210.

[6] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 211.

The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

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Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

Royal 2 B.VII, f.206
Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

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19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


References

[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog: fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/.

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hood-and-guy-of-gisborne [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/05/our-lady-of-everything [Accessed 5 June 2018].

Reading Robin Hood in World War Two (1939–45): Data from Mass Observation

Before the twentieth century, Robin Hood was a literary figure: he is the main protagonist in a number of important literary works such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450); Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98); Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Many fine scholarly studies have been conducted which have studied the production and dissemination of these texts.[i] In the twentieth century, the principal means through which the outlaw’s story was disseminated became films and, as domestic television ownership increased, serialised shows. Added to this we can, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, add videogames.[ii] Thus, in the twentieth century, Robin Hood became a visual rather than a literary hero.

While the late-Victorian period witnessed a number of new Robin Hood children’s books being written and published, there were noticeably fewer in the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the emergence of film technology. Robin Hood scholarship that focuses on twentieth-century sources likewise tends to privilege cinematic portrayals of the outlaw rather than the literature which appeared. Yet people were still reading Robin Hood, as we know from Mass Observation records.

Britain by Mass Observation
First edition of Madge’s Mass Observation Book.

Mass Observation was a project started by the philanthropists and filmmakers, including Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrisson, and Charles Madge, in 1937. Their aim was a simple one: to create a record of everyday life in Britain by having volunteers write about what they had done on a given day and submit it to the archive.[iii] The first major project was to chronicle people’s thoughts about the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1938. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War (1939–45) and was occasionally used by the wartime government as a means of collection information on public morale.

Sarah Hawks Sterling’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1928) was one of the most popular books requested by children at Fulham Library.[iv] This was surprising for me as a researcher because I assumed that, when Robin Hood books were read by children in the twentieth century, it was generally the American Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Indeed, when Penguin Books decided to publish a Robin Hood story as part of their Classics range, it was Pyle’s story that they chose for the collection, rather than any English author.

In Mass Observation records, we also see the continuing popularity of Scott’s Ivanhoe amongst children in London, in particular the Penguin Books 6d. edition.[v] The same record also records that nineteenth-century school editions of Ivanhoe remain in circulation and are popular among youths.

We see another unnamed child opting for Sterling’s book in 1942. In Marylebone, a Mass Observation worker saw a child carrying four books on their way home: Sterling’s Robin Hood, and some anonymous works The War of the Wireless, Shadow of the Swastika, and The First Quarter. More importantly, the child also gives the reasons why they have chosen these books: because they liked adventure books; because the books had been recommended by a friend; and they were similar to other books that they had read. They even told the interviewer that it generally takes them half a week to read through a full book.[vi]

Mass Observation did not focus merely upon children, however, for the investigators also interviewed adults. What is interesting are the Variety shows which were held on evenings. On 14 November 1942, a show was held in Bournemouth to raise money for civilians in USSR (the Soviet Union was part of the Allied Forces at this point). The theme of the show was “Merrie England”, Three Robin Hood songs were sung at this event. None of them were of the traditional ballad type, however, and the finale was a song that I have not yet identified, entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood.[vii] There is a Scottish ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John, as recorded in J. M. Gutch’s ballad anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847),[viii] but it is a minor ballad and certainly not worthy a spectacular finale, so it may have been a completely new song composed for the event.

What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. Such a big set-piece movie, released at the time Mass Observation was initiated, I assumed would have featured in some of the records, but there are none that I have found thus far. Perhaps this should prompt future Robin Hood scholars to reassess the reach and reception of Flynn’s ground-breaking movie, and perhaps it indicates that the ‘prose’ Robin Hood persisted in popularity much longer than previously thought.


[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[ii] See Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, pp. 150-210. On videogames see Thomas Rowland, ‘“And Now Begins Our Game”: Revitalizing the Ludic Robin Hood’, in Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. by Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 175-188.

[iii] See David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (London: W & N, 2015).

[iv] Mass Observation, Topic Collection-59_1413, p. 2.

[v] Mass Observation, File Report-1332_127, p. 116.

[vi] Mass Observation, Marylebone, Library QQM15C, R.C.C. 8. 4. 42, Topic Collection-20_2595.

[vii] Mass Observation, Bourneville Works Musical Society, Topic Collection-16_3753.

[viii] Anon., ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 389-91.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Jack Straw

In 1381, one of the most important events in English medieval history occurred: the Peasants’ Revolt. Under the leadership of a former soldier, Wat Tyler (d. 1381), a radical priest, John Ball (d. 1381), and Jack Straw (d. 1381), approximately 50,000 Englishmen descended on the capital to vent their grievances to King Richard II (although the event has been called ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ by historians in the nineteenth century, the rebel crowd was actually composed of people from a variety of social classes). The most immediate cause of their anger was the imposition of a Poll Tax the previous year. This had been the third such tax enacted in recent years, with the government having demanded money in 1377 and 1379 as well. The rebels also demanded the abolition of serfdom, and the right to buy and sell in the market place. Their social and economic grievances were further fired by John Ball’s radical egalitarian ideology which proposed bringing all land under common ownership. His views are famously encapsulated in the record of a speech which he gave to the rebels at Blackheath:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

Ball then finished with the recommendation that the people,

uproot the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.[i]

Some of the above must be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly John Ball’s recommendation that all lawyers must be slain, for they were recorded by a chronicler named Thomas Walsingham who aimed to paint the actions of the rebels in as negative a light as he possibly could.

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Although royal charters had been granted which satisfied the rebels’ demands, Wat Tyler was brutally killed by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. The additional rebel ring leaders such as Ball and Straw were then rounded up and suffered one of the most brutal sentences of the age: they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Unusually for common rebel leaders from this period, we have an account of the last dying speech and confession that Jack Straw allegedly made shortly before his execution because it is recorded by Walsingham. I say that he allegedly made the confession, however, for the noted historian of the Peasants’ Revolt, R. B. Dobson, says that it occurs at a point in Walsingham’s narrative in which ‘he gladly relieves himself of facts and gives free rein to his powerful imagination’.[ii] Yet still, Dobson acknowledges that Straw’s alleged confession cannot have been a mere figment of Walsingham’s imagination and must have had a grain of truth to it.[iii]

Let us take a look at the portrayal of Jack Straw’s final moments as Walsingham records them:

How the insurgents planned to destroy the realm is proved by the confession of Jack Straw, the most important of their leaders after Walter Tylere. After Straw had been captured and sentenced to execution in London by the mayor, the latter spoke to him publicly: “Behold, John! You are certain to die soon and have no hope of saving your life […] tell us in all honesty what plans you rebels pursued and why you stirred up the crowd of the commons.[iv]

Straw then proceeds to say

It no longer serves me to lie, nor is it proper to speak falsehoods, especially as I know that my soul would be subjected to harsher torments if I did so. Moreover, I hope for two advantages in speaking the truth: first because what I say may profit the country; and also because, according to your promises, I will have the help of your prayers after my death. So I will speak without any attempt to deceive. At the time we were assembled at “le Blakehethe” in order to arrange to meet the king, our plan was to kill all the knights, esquires, and other gentlemen who came with him. Then we would have taken the king with us from place to place in full sight of all; so that when everybody, and especially the common people, saw him, they would willingly have joined us and our band […] 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, Walter Tyler in Kent and one each in other counties, and appointed them […we would have] set fire to four parts of the city and [burnt] it down and divided all the precious goods found there amongst ourselves.[v]

After this short speech, Straw was executed and his head was placed on top of London Bridge alongside that of his fellow rebel leader, Wat Tyler. It is likely that the other parts of Straw’s body, as well as Tyler and Ball’s, were sent to be displayed in public spaces in other cities, although none of the accounts of the revolt tell us where.

This type of ‘spectacular justice’, in which criminals underwent an excruciating death, might at first glance seem to simply be a sign of a strong state crushing its opposition. Yet as Katherine Royer points out, if governments had to use this form of ‘spectacular justice’ frequently, which the government of Richard II had to do after the rebellion, it actually shows just how weak the state was.[vi] Thus, ‘the history of the dismembered and displayed body of a traitor bears little resemblance to the long-told story of a late-medieval state’s march to a monopoly of violence’.[vii]

Straw’s alleged last dying speech is interesting, furthermore, because it shows how just how important the actual speech of a dying person is becoming at this point. This is because, as Royer argues elsewhere, in the early medieval period, death was imagined as a long, drawn out process: a human was not properly dead until their body had completely decayed. But with the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory in in the 12th century, death increasingly became conceived of as a discrete event. Thus, what a criminal said in his last moments mattered more and more.[viii]

In his confession, Straw makes a ‘bargain’ with the authorities: prayers will be said on behalf of his immortal soul if he, in his final moments, recognises the authority of the state. If he dies resistant to authority, then prayers will not be said for the safety of his soul after death. Thus Straw has nothing to lose: he may as well as submit to kingly authority and ensure the safety of his soul in the hereafter.

Jack Straw’s story was adopted by later authors who wrote about the Peasants’ Revolt. Jack Straw appears as the principal protagonist in a play entitled The Life and Death of Iacke Strawe (1593). In this narrative, Straw and Wat Tyler have swapped places, for the former is the leader of the revolt, while the latter is consigned to a minor role in the rebellion. As such, Straw’s last dying speech is not dramatized as he is killed at Smithfield by William Walworth. The rebels’ aims are the same, however, as those intimated in Straw’s final confession above: to kill the king and the nobleman; to kill all bishops and lawyers; and to divide the land between themselves in the name of ‘communalitie’ (an almost proto-communist) ideology.

A slightly altered version of Jack Straw’s last dying speech appeared a few centuries later in a little-known criminal biography entitled The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (1716):

When we were assembled, says he, upon Black Heath, and had sent for the king to come to us, our purpose was to have slain all knights and gentlemen that he should have about him; and as for the king, we would have kept him among us, to the end the people might more boldly have repaired to us, and when we had gotten power enough, we would have slain all noblemen, especially the Knights of the Rhodes, and lastly would have kill’d the king and all men of possessions, with bishops, monks, parsons of churches […] then we would have deivs’d laws according to which the people should have liv’d, for which we would have created kings; as Wat Tyler in Kent, and other in other counties: and the same night that Wat Tyler was kill’d, we intended to have set fire to the city in four corners and to have divided the spoil amongst us. And this was our purpose as God may help me now at my last end.[ix]

When The History of all the Mobs appeared, the last dying speeches of criminals were printed en masse to be read as entertainment at public executions, and these speeches were often incorporated into compendiums of criminals’ lives such as The Newgate Calender (1784). The eighteenth century was also a period in which, as Dorothy George says, ‘King Mob might at any point resume his reign after the briefest insurrection’.[x] That is to say that the plebeian classes during the eighteenth century regularly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s policies through rioting. The spark for the riot could be quite small, and a series of riots in the 1740s began because the government slightly increased the duty on gin, thereby making it more expensive. With the purpose of criminal biography being primarily moralistic, what the anonymous author of The History of All the Mobs is doing is going back through the lives of every rebel leader throughout history, showing how they came to an untimely end, and through that warning people not to make the same mistakes, as it says in the preface that,

In all our histories of Great Britain and Ireland, we meet with nothing more frequent than mobs and insurrections, which tho’ they have terminated always in the destruction of the ringleaders and principal abettors, yet we shall find that the madness of the people has fatally spread itself from one age to another, and is become even at this day no less dangerous and infectious than it was at the very beginning. Upon this account this short history is attempted, that it may be a standing caution to the common people, for whose use it is chiefly intended.[xi]

Jack Straw appears as a turncoat in Mrs. O’Neill’s The Bondman (1833), who betrays the rebels in return for a pardon from the king. And as was the case with most historical rebels, Jack Straw was honoured (?) with a penny dreadful devoted entirely to himself entitled The Sword of Freedom; or, The Boyhood Days of Jack Straw (c. 1860). In this story he is a young lad who, like Robin Hood, is forced to become an outlaw. He spends his youthful days rescuing women from attempted rapes by Norman soldiers, and singlehandedly fighting off hordes of Norman soldiers. As the story only deals with his life before the insurrection, the reader is not given any information on his last dying speech here either.


[i] R. B. Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 375.

[ii] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 364.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, p. 365.

[v] Dobson, The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, pp. 365-66.

[vi] Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 31.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Royer, The English Execution Narrative, p. 51.

[ix] The History of All the Mobs, Tumults, Insurrections in Great Britain (London: J. Moore, 1716), pp. 12-13.

[x] Dorothy George, Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 4.

[xi] The History of All the Mobs, pp. 2-3.