The anonymously-authored Lazarillo de Tormes was first published in Spain in 1554. It is a picaresque novel – a term derived from picaro meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’. The genre emerged in Europe at a time when the gradual breakdown of feudalism was occurring: the old bonds of loyalty and fealty which each class owed to one another were disintegrating in the face of emergent capitalism and individualism. Picaresque novels such as Lazarillo de Tormes, then, often took socially marginal figures as their protagonists and depicted their struggles to survive in a new social and economic order. By the sixteenth century, money mattered just as much as birth in Europe, and to succeed one has to work hard – a sentiment expressed by Lazarillo himself in the introduction when he makes a snipe against the aristocracy:
I’d also like people who are proud of being high born to realise how little this really means, as Fortune has smiled on them, and how much more worthy are those who have endured much misfortune but have triumphed by dint of hard work and ability.
Personally, I find the argument that the genre was ‘a response to the breakdown of feudalism and the culture that sustained it’ much more convincing than those scholars who say the form was merely adapted from Arabic literature, in particular the Arabic maqama, and through it try to claim an Arabic origin for the birth of the novel (I have, however, given the citation to one work which makes such an argument in the interests of balance). Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila weighs up the arguments for an Arabic origin in his new book and concludes that some limited influences from the Arabic maqama can be found in the picaresque novel, but that the maqamas simply were not popular enough to have ever had any significant influence upon the picaresque.
Lazarillo’s Early Life
The whole novel is told from Lazarillo’s point of view. He was born in Tejares, a village near Salamanca. When he is young, his father is arrested for ‘bleeding the sacks’ of the townsfolk’s grain. His father is punished by being conscripted to serve in the army, where he dies. Lazarillo and his mother then move to Salamanca and she makes money by cooking meals for students and washing stables boys’ clothes. His mother gets to know one of the stablemen quite well – a black slave who is always coming to the house and bringing his mother gifts such as bread and pieces of meat. Lazarillo soon finds himself with a mixed race baby brother. Eventually, the slave’s master catches him stealing food to give to Lazarillo’s mother. The slave is whipped and basted with hot fat as punishment, and his mother is also given 100 lashes and ordered never to approach the slave again.
Lazarillo and the Blind Beggar
Lazarillo’s mother finds new employment at inn and there she raises her two sons. One day a blind man comes to the inn and asks if he might take Lazarillo off her hands and serve as his guide. Without much compunction, Lazarillo’s mother agrees and says to him that ‘now you must look after yourself’. The blind man and Lazarillo then set out to leave Salamanca. As they reach the edge of the city, the man gives Lazarillo a beating, for no other reason than to ‘show him who’s boss’ and to make him ‘sharp’. After another few days, the blind man starts to teach Lazarillo thieves’ slang, and says:
I won’t make you a rich man, but I can show you how to make a living.
Under the ‘protection’ of this man, Lazarillo experiences what we now call child abuse or neglect. Although the blind man obtains some not inconsiderable sums of money, he keeps poor Lazarillo half-starved. So Lazarillo has to learn how to use the man’s blindness to his advantage. As it is Lazarillo who has to prepare and cook both their meals, he makes sure that he gets the best bits of bread and meat, while leaving the inferior cuts to the blind man. The blind man, furthermore, keeps the pair’s bread supplies in a padlocked sack. Lazarillo simply bleeds the sack and eats some of the bread while the man is sleeping, and sews it back up. In addition, the blind man is a con man – he pretends to be a Holy man who says prayers for people who are sick and dying (all for a fee, of course). But the man’s customers always give payment to Lazarillo, who is supposed to check the amount, so Lazarillo simply siphons off funds to keep for himself. While at meal times the blind man keeps a tight hold of his wine cup, Lazarillo finds a long straw and sucks some of the wine out of it. Eventually the blind man cottons on to this trick, and starts keeping the cup of wine between his knees at meal times. So Lazarillo devises a new plan: at every meal he complains about being cold and asks to sit on the floor between the man’s knees for warmth. While sitting on the floor, Lazarillo makes a small hole in the bottom of the wine cup and sits there drinking the drops which fall out. After a few weeks, the blind man catches Lazarillo out again, and one day as he is sitting between his master’s knees waiting for the wine to drop out, the blind man simply smashes the cup between Lazarillo’s teeth, knocking several of his teeth out and cutting him in the face quite badly.
After the incident with the wine cup, Lazarillo vows to get revenge on his master. This often takes the form of leading his blind master over very uncomfortable and rocky roads, which hurts his master’s feet. One day his master throws Lazarillo a scrap of bread while he is cooking a nice fat sausage. Lazarillo is then commanded to go and buy wine for him. While the blind man is fumbling around for coin in his pockets, Lazarillo quickly grabs the sausage and replaces it with a rotten turnip and goes off to but some wine. When Lazarillo returns having eaten the sausage, the man guesses what he has done and starts to beat him, accusing Lazarillo of eating the sausage. Lazarillo protests his innocence but the blind man is not convinced, so he sticks his nose right into Lazarillo’s mouth to smell whether he has eaten the sausage. Lazarillo’s nerves, as well as the fact that a smelly old man has his nose stuck in his mouth, get the better of him and Lazarillo ends up vomiting in the blind man’s face. All the village people laugh at the blind man for this. Soon after this Lazarillo finally gets sweet revenge upon the blind man – one day it is raining heavily in the town square, and the blind man says that Lazarillo must guide him to a place of shelter. Led by Lazarillo, the pair starts running, and Lazarillo allows the blind man to run head first into a marble pillar, and afterwards taunts him saying:
You could smell the sausage but you couldn’t smell the post?
After this, Lazarillo abandons the blind man, and runs to the city gates to get out before they close and he makes his way to Torrijos.
Lazarillo and the Priest
Lazarillo spends a few days begging in Maqueda, and then a priest passes by. He asks Lazarillo if he would like to be employed as a servant, to which Lazarillo enthusiastically says yes. But the priest is even more stingy than the blind man, especially with food. The priest keeps all of the good food locked in a wooden chest, and Lazarillo is only permitted to eat one onion every four days, although the priest himself dines on the finest food. One day while the priest is out a tinker calls and asks Lazarillo if anything needs repairing in the house. Nothing needs repairing, but Lazarillo begs him to try and open the chest. Luckily, the tinker has a key which just about fits the lock on the food chest, and he kindly leaves it with Lazarillo. For the next few weeks Lazarillo takes little bits of bread at a time, which greatly restores his strength and health after having lived on a diet of one onion every four days. Eventually, the priest begins to notice the gradual depletion of the bread:
If I hadn’t locked this up myself, I’d swear someone stole it.
So the priest begins to meticulously record every morsel of food that goes in and out of the chest. Lazarillo now has to come up with a new scheme – he decides to make little holes in the side of the chest and make it appear as though mice have been getting in and eating the bread. The priest finds these holes and simply covers them up. But then more holes appear, making the priest think that he has a mouse infestation – this continues for a matter of weeks and eventually the chest is full of many holes. The priest lays many mousetraps but they catch nothing, all the while more and more bread is going missing. The priest asks his neighbours for advice and they tell him it is most likely a snake that is getting in and making the holes, which understandably makes the priest even more worried. Eventually Lazarillo’s scheme is discovered, however: at night Lazarillo sleeps with the key in his mouth; however, the key drops partially out of his mouth while he is sleeping with the consequence that his breathing begins to sound like hissing. The priest is awakened by this hissing noise and panics, thinking that it is the snake. He gets his club and walks towards where the noise is coming from, and he sees that Lazarillo’s key matches the padlock to the food chest. He beats Lazarillo with a stick for this and puts him out of doors, and Lazarillo’s six months with the priest thus comes to an end.
Lazarillo and the Gentleman
Lazarillo then makes his way to Toledo and begs for a few days. The people of Toledo appear to be quite stingy towards beggars, and all that he gets is advice ‘to get a job’:
Because charity not only begun at home but stayed there too.
Eventually, a gentleman comes to speak to him who offers him a job as his servant. Lazarillo gets excited because he thinks that the gentleman is rich and that he will have all the food in the world that he wants. However, when he gets to the gentleman’s lodgings, it is bare and there is no food in there. Moreover, there is only a single bed in the apartment, and Lazarillo has to sleep in the same bad with his new master. Lazarillo soon realises that he has fallen in with an impoverished aristocrat who only ‘keeps up appearances’ by wearing fine clothes and walking about town.
However, the gentleman is never cruel to Lazarillo like his previous two masters were. Lazarillo gladly tends the house while his master goes out, fetches water from the river, and when Lazarillo goes begging for food outside he always shares what he gets with his master. One day Lazarillo comes home with 4lbs of bread, a cow’s foot, and some wine for which his master is very grateful. Lazarillo muses upon his life so far, and decides that he likes this master best – the other two masters had plenty of food but were cruel and never shared it, but the gentleman cannot give what he has not got, and never tries to steal the food from Lazarillo. As they are talking over their ‘feast’ of bread and wine, Lazarillo asks the gentleman about his history. Lazarillo is told that the gentleman was forced to move here after a dispute with another man of lower rank in his home town. The man in question apparently spoke too casually to him, even though the man of lower rank was actually richer than the gentleman. When the gentleman came to the town, his original thought was that he might obtain a salaried position as another nobleman’s servant, but upon second thoughts he deemed such a position to be beneath him, and there were no positions available anyway. This is essentially a critique of the aristocracy – Lazarillo finds it strange that an aristocrat could be so vain as to endure virtual starvation because certain jobs which entail dealing with certain people are deemed to be beneath him.
Lazarillo’s time with the gentleman eventually comes to an end, however, when the rent collectors arrive at the lodgings. They demand two months’ rents, and the gentleman asks them to return later that evening and he shall give them the money. During this time the gentleman simply absconds. A constable is summoned and Lazarillo is arrested in his master’s place, as the rent collector thinks that he has colluded with the gentleman to hide away his money, but luckily Lazarillo’s neighbours vouch for his innocence and he is set free.
Lazarillo and the Pardoner
Lazarillo’s fourth employer was friar, but he does not spend very much time with this one and eventually he falls in with a Pardoner – a man who sells papal indulgences. A papal indulgence was a printed piece of paper that people could buy in order to ‘reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins’. This employer, Lazarillo discovers, is a real rogue:
He studied the salesman’s art, and he knew some really clever tricks.
One trick of the Pardoner’s, for example, was to heat a metal crucifix before saying Mass. When people came to Mass and kissed the crucifix it would burn them. The Pardoner would then say that the people who have been burned by the cross have been punished by God, and that the only way to mitigate this punishment would be through the sale of indulgences. Whenever the Pardoner entered a new town, he made friends with the local priests by giving them little gifts such as oranges, lemons, apples and in turn they would direct their parishioners to buy indulgences from him. In Toledo, the Pardoner has a lot of difficulty trying to get the townsfolk to buy indulgences. One day the Pardoner is seen arguing in the market square with the constable, who accuses the Pardoner of being a fraud. A physical fight almost breaks out between the two men but the townsfolk separate the two brawlers and lead them away. The next day the Pardoner is giving a sermon in the local Church and in walks the constable and repeats his accusation. The Pardoner does not reply but starts praying fervently to God that he will expose and punish his false accuser. Suddenly the constable begins to have a seizure and is foaming at the mouth. The parishioners beg the Pardoner to pray for the constable’s forgiveness. He does so and the constable apologises for ever having falsely accused the Pardoner, and suddenly everyone rushes to buy indulgences! Of course, it was all a trick: the charade was planned by the constable and the Pardoner.
The sale of indulgences really highlights the perceived corruption of the Church in sixteenth-century Spain. And criticism of these business practices was not limited to Spain – it was the sale of indulgences, or the ‘aggressive marketing practices’ of Pardoners such as Johan Tetzel that partially inspired Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, thereby initiating the Protestant Reformation. The episodes which Lazarillo recounts of the cruel priest, as well as the evidently corrupt practice of the sale of indulgences, amounts to a scathing critique of the Catholic Church – a risky thing to write in sixteenth-century Spain, whose government was a leading light in the Counter-Reformation, and a country in which the fearsome Inquisition had long flourished also.
Lazarillo the Civil Servant
Eventually Lazarillo’s fortunes do improve: he stays with an artist briefly, and then is hired by a priest to deliver water to people’s houses. He eventually saves up enough money to buy nice new clothes and leaves that employment because his ability to buy nice clothes means that he is more respectable. He does briefly serve as a constable’s apprentice, but after seeing his master get beaten up by two criminals one night, he decides that a policeman’s life is not for him. Finally, he gets a job in the Civil Service as a town crier and regulator of all the trade in Toledo. Naturally, all the merchants in the city have to be on his good side, and he takes a cut of every merchant’s profit, and becomes very wealthy. Even the Bishop of Toledo eventually notices him, and proposes a marriage between him and one of the Bishop’s maids, to which Lazarillo agrees, and the narrative ends with Lazarillo saying that he is now ‘at the height of my good fortune’.
Why, then, is this seemingly minor work of literature even worthy of discussion? This work marked the emergence of picaresque fiction. The genre spread throughout Europe and quickly made its way to England where it evolved even further into the rogue novel. From here its influences spread into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century criminal biography and also contributed to the birth of the novel in England. The picaresque marked a departure from established modes of fiction writing – instead of depicting heroic leaders or aristocrats, picaresque writers dealt with something resembling ‘real life’. This is something which the authors of sixteenth-century rogue literature, as well as later authors such as Richard Head, Alexander Smith, and Charles Johnson would carry into their narratives, and the examination of ‘problematic lives’ reached its apex in the works of Daniel Defoe, whose novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) told the story of marginalised people, as well as the works of Henry Fielding, whoseJoseph Andrews (1742), Jonathan Wild (1743) and Tom Jones (1749) similarly dealt with subjects from low life. Even in some of the Victorian era’s famous novels can the picaresque be felt, for example, in both Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844). Thus what we witness in Spanish picaresque fiction is nothing less than the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist society, as well as the birth of (in a limited sense) the novel.
1. Quotations used in this essay are taken from the following critical edition: Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ in Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels Michael Alpert, Trans. (London: Penguin, 2003).
2. See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2001), p.34.
3. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.4.
4. Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.34.
5. See Jareer Abu-Haidar, ‘Maqāmāt Literature and the Picaresque Novel’ Journal of Arabic Literature Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 1-10
6. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Maqama: A History of a Genre (Harwassotwitz Verlag, 2002), pp.298-299.
7. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.7.
8. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.8.
9. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, pp.16-17.
10. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.23.
11. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.29.
12. Edward Peters, A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Hillenbrand, 2008), p.13.
13. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.48.
14. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.60.
A conference paper to be delivered at the Forthcoming MEMS Festival, University of Kent, 17-18 June 2016.
A number of excellent scholarly examinations have been carried out upon A Gest of Robyn Hode, notably by Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, John Marshall, and Alexander Kaufman, as well as older discussions by James C. Holt and R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor. For the most part, these essays have focused upon the content of the Gest within its medieval context. It is the most significant of all the early Robin Hood poems, and at 1,824 lines long is certainly the longest, in all likelihood being a compilation of various Robin Hood tales to which somebody, at some point, gave unity. It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’. The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century. It was not printed, however, until the early sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; a further edition was printed by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560.
When the Gest was being printed, a new type of criminal was emerging: the rogue and the vagabond. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and were relatively indistinguishable from the law-abiding. This paper suggests that changes in the nature of crime, and its concomitant cultural expression – the emergence of rogue literature – contributed to the idealisation of Robin Hood and his gentrification. This paper will therefore discuss the Gest in the context of it being printed alongside sixteenth-century rogue literature, such as Robert Copland’s The Highway to the Spitalhouse (1535-36), Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), John Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), and Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). This is not to say that these works are taken here to represent a ‘true’ picture of crime during the early modern period. Instead these texts are viewed as ‘factual fictions’: they were real to contemporaries, being an outlet ‘through which the various classes of the “middling sort” of Tudor and Stuart England projected their anxieties’. People needed to believe in the myth of a good outlaw, even if such a myth was ultimately based upon a fiction, because real, contemporary criminals were altogether more menacing.
The medieval period certainly had its fair share of crime, and it is of course during the medieval period that tales of Robin Hood and Adam Bell first emerge. The sentence of outlawry literally placed an offender beyond the protection of the law. But the sentence itself began to lose much of its potency by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was a sentence that existed prior to the establishment of the legal precepts of habeus corpus. It fell into disuse by the late medieval period because the social and legal system of England was changing from one based upon the exclusion of felons, to one based upon the confinement of offenders. Thus by the time that the Gest was printed, it would have been rare to find somebody who had been placed beyond the law: in the early modern period all people were subject to the law.
Additionally, when the time the Gest was being printed, the breakdown of medieval economic and social structures was occurring and society was on its way to becoming capitalist. As a consequence, the perceived increasing numbers of supposedly ‘masterless men’ were becoming a problem for the Tudor state, and were legislated against in the Vagabonds and Beggar’s Act (1495):
Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.
The problem remained a source of irritation to the authorities throughout the century. While the ‘rogue’ had appeared as a named literary type in Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds in 1561, by the next decade the Vagabonds Act (1572) was also legislating against this new type of criminal:
All the partes of this Realme of England and Wales be p[rese]ntlie with Roges, vacabonds and sturdie beggers excedinglie pestred, by meanes wherof dailye happenethe in the same Realme horrible murders, thefts and other greate owtr[ages], To the highe displeasure of allmightie god, and to the greate anoye of the common weale.
J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’. But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth, and a new type of ideology was emerging: individualism. Rogues and vagabonds, due to the breakdown of medieval social and economic structures owed loyalty to nobody. It is for this reason that Hal Gladfelder, writing about rogue literature, says that the genre’s emergence, and its portrayal of socially marginal people struggling to survive within a new economic system, was a response to the breakdown of feudalism. The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.
Outlaws and Rogues – Modus Operandi
There are some similarities between the ways in which greenwood outlaws such as Robin Hood and the rogues and vagabonds in Tudor rogue literature operated, As illustrated in the Gest, when Robin wishes to steal from somebody, he first invites them to dine with him in the forest. The traveller is treated to a sumptuous feast, and at the end of it Robin asks him to pay for the meal. If the traveller pleads poverty and is found to be lying to Robin, when the traveller’s effects are searched he is robbed of all the money about his person. Similarly, trickery is employed by many of the various types of rogues in the works of Walker, Awdley, and Harman. Often this was done, as illustrated in cases of Cheaters and Fingerers, described by Awdley, through conning unsuspecting victims out of their money while gambling.
But there were differences between outlaws such as Robin Hood and Tudor rogues. Firstly, outlaws lived in the forest. There is a sense of unity between the outlaws and the natural world:  the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree. In another outlaw ballad that is of medieval origin, although not printed until c.1557-58, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie,  the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’. At no point is it ever implied in the Gest that the outlaws wish to live in the urban environment. The outlaws encounter trouble, for example, whenever they leave the forest and venture into the town:. For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest; and after being pardoned by the King and entering his service, Robin finds the world of the Royal court unpalatable, returning to the greenwood after an absence of only ‘twelve moneths and thre’. Outlaws who value freedom see themselves as having no place in urban environments.
In contrast, rogues do not operate within a separate physical space such as the greenwood. At this point it should be noted that rogues were not a homogenous criminal group: Awdley’s Fraternity or Vagabonds and Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors, for example, give different names to a number of various types of criminals. They could masquerade as common beggars, as Copland remarked in The Highway to the Spitalhouse. Or as in Walker’s A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, when his gentleman ‘haply […] roamed me in the Church of Paul’s’, the rogues that he is introduced to are seemingly gentlemanly tricksters from the shady world of dice play. Awdley in the Fraternity of Vagabonds makes reference to another different type of rogue: the Courtesy Man. This type of rogue, says Awdley:
Is one that walketh about the back lanes in London in the daytime, and sometimes in broad streets in the night season, and when he meeteth some handsome young man cleanly apparelled, or some other honest citizen, he maketh humble salutations and low curtsy.
The Courtesy Man will ingratiate himself into the honest gentleman’s service, but he will then repay their generosity by ‘stealing a pair of sheets or coverlet, and so take their farewell in the morning, before the master or dame be stirring’. Evidently, rogues are a product of the urban environment, and instead of wearing suits of Lincoln Green as Robin Hood is portrayed as doing in the Gest, Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’, spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.
Robin and the outlaws in the Gest do not steal from people indiscriminately, and instead they adhere to a strict moral code. In the first fytte of the Gest, Little John asks Robin:
“Where we shall take, where we shall leve,
Where we shall abide behynde;
Where we shall robbe, where we shal reve,
Where we shall bete and bynde.”
Robin’s reply as to whom the outlaws are permitted to steal from is clear and concise: they are not permitted to steal from any husbandman, nor any good yeoman, nor from any knight or squire. The only people that the outlaws are permitted to rob are corrupt clerics and the Sheriff of Nottingham:
“These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.”
As Maurice Keen stated in the 1960s, ‘to the poor they [the outlaws] shall be all courtesy […] but to the rich and unjust no mercy is shown’. Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in Gest, it is clear that he and his outlaws do not rob people indiscriminately.
Rogues, on the other hand, would steal from people of all social classes, and their victims could hail from both the poorer and wealthier classes. A ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance, ‘goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’ The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’. Robert Greene would say of ‘devilish cony-Catchers’ in 1591 that:
The poor man that cometh to the Term to try his right, and layeth his land to mortgage to get some crowns in his purse to see his lawyer, is drawn in by these devilish cony-catchers that at one cut at cards looseth all his money, by which means he, his wife, and children [are] brought to utter ruin and misery.
Tradesmen could also be targets of these thieves, as Awdley says of the ‘whipjack’ that ‘his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer ware from stalls, which they call “heaving off the booth”’. Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay who spent their nights ‘taverning with trumpets, by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’ (emphasis added). The rogues and vagabonds presented in Tudor rogue literature were people who were willing to make money by cheating and stealing. As the Gest makes clear, these are things that outlaws of Robin Hood’s type also aspired to, admittedly, but the difference was that people knew who outlaws were, and if they were truthful with them, and were not a member of the corrupt classes of society such as the clergy, they might have passed them unmolested.
It is clear that there was an emerging dichotomy between rogues, vagabonds, and greenwood outlaws during the sixteenth century. The changing reputation of Robin Hood between the late medieval period and the sixteenth century illustrates this: in Walter Bower’s Continuation of John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon (c.1440), Bower says that:
Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.
Bower was a member of the Clergy and, judging by the treatment that clerics receive at the hands of Robin Hood in the Gest, it is perhaps no surprise that he treats of Robin negatively. But when chronicles from the sixteenth century are studied, however, the depiction of Robin Hood becomes less ambiguous. In John Major’s Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), it is said that:
About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, and Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods only those that were wealthy […] He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of the man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humanest and the chief.
Ned Browne […] a man infamous for his bad course of life and well known about London […] in outward shew a Gentlemanlike companion.
Despite his genteel outward appearances, however, he is a threatening figure, and would ‘bung or cut a good purse’ from either a man or woman if he could. Early during the next century, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light (1608) represented ‘the laws, manners, and habits of these wild men’ of London. Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures, was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.
Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff. The rogue continued as a literary type in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) which is essentially a ‘fond’ examination of excess and deception in the life of the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, linking the low-born rogue to his aristocratic counterpart, the rake. It would be rare for Robin Hood to receive negative treatment after the sixteenth century. An attempt would be made during the eighteenth century, when criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) described him as a man of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’ who ‘followed not his trade’. It was perhaps easier to gentrify the outlaw and make him appear semi-respectable: he robbed according to a clear moral code, and he was easily identifiable. This way of operating set him in contrast to his more menacing, sinister underworld counterparts: the rogues, vagabonds, fraters, cony-catchers, and prigs who existed in urban settings in early modern England.
 See the following works by Stephen Knight: Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994). Works by Thomas Ohlgren include: Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2007); ‘The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice Ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 175-190. There is also John Marshall’s research: ‘Picturing Robin Hood in Early Print and Performance: 1500-1590’ in Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern Eds. Lois Potter & Joshua Calhoun Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 60-82, as well as Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Context: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164. Older works include James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) and R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
 Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 80-168 (148).
 There is debate about the dating of A Gest of Robyn Hode: James C. Holt originally argued that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ – Robin Hood, 11. He subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400 – James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ in Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Kevin Carpenter (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), 27-34.
 Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
 Craig Dionne, ‘Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 33-61 (38).
 Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
 McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
 Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
 Vagabonds and Beggars Act 11 Henry 7 c.2 1494 cited in J. R. Tanner (ed.), Tudor Constitutional Documents, AD 1485-1603 with an Historical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 469-470. Admittedly this was not the first piece of legislation passed against vagabonds and beggars. Two statutes of Edward III punished ‘who wandered at night or otherwise acted suspiciously’, while another statute of Richard II similarly brought punitive measures against vagrants. But the Tudor legislation against vagabonds and suspected persons was different in several respects: the Reformation had eroded the Church’s welfare provisions for the poor, with the State forced to intervene (often in a haphazard and inefficient manner) in the granting of poor relief to those in need; Tudor legislation was more repressive than earlier laws, given the fact that the Tudor monarchs viewed the poor with suspicion, conscious of the lack of legitimacy for their rule – See J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977).
 An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
 Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
 Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
 Brooke A. Stafford, ‘Englishing the Rogue, “Translating” the Irish: Fantasies of Incorporation and Early Modern English National Identity’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 312-336 (323)
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
 John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds ’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 85-102 (95-97).
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
 For a critical discussion of Adam Bell, see Thomas Hahn, ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley’ in Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English Ed. Thomas Ohlgren (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 239-252.
 Anon. ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. Eds. R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 258-273 (260).
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
 Robert Copland ‘The Highway to the Spitalhouse [1535-36]’ in Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727: Classics from the Underworld, Volume One 3rd Edn. Ed. A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-25 (5).
 Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same ’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 59-84 (66).
 John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
 Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
 Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
 Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 240-260 (240).
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
 Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
 Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
 Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage ’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 155-186 (164).
 Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
 Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
 Walter Bower, ‘Scotichronicon [c.1440]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 25-26 (26).
 John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae ’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
 Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
 Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger ’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 193-205 (193).
 Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light ’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 213-260 (214).
 Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz, ‘Introduction’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1-29 (2).
 Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
 Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
 Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
The Renaissance poet Michael Drayton authored a monumental work entitled Poly-Olbion which was published in 1612. It is often described as a ‘topographical poem’ and deals with the history of England and Wales. In one part of this poem he wrote the following lines:
In this our spacious isle I think there is not one,
But he of ROBIN HOOD hath heard, and Little John;
And to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done
Of Scarlock, George-a-Green, and Much the Miller’s son,
Of Tuck, the merry friar, which many a sermon made
In praise of ROBIN HOOD, his out-laws, and their trade.
I would like to echo Drayton’s words and say that surely everybody here ‘in this our spacious isle’ no doubt has heard of Robin Hood. He is the quintessential noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. His true love is a woman named Marian. His fellow outlaws include Little John, Will Scarlet, Allen-a-Dale, and Friar Tuck. Their stories have been immortalised in books, films, and television series, and with three movies forthcoming, it seems that Drayton’s prophecy that ‘until the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’ will continue to ring true. I want to talk to you today about the legend of Robin Hood as a whole. I will briefly discuss some of the historical outlaws whom researchers have identified as being possible candidates for the ‘real’ Robin Hood. I then want to move on to discussing how the legend has been continually reshaped over time, and how Robin Hood has been appropriated by different authors for various purposes. My talk, therefore, will take you on a journey through social, cultural, and literary history from the middle ages until the twentieth century.
A Real Robin Hood?
When I have given public talks before on the legend of Robin Hood, the one question that continually arises is: was Robin Hood a real person, and if so, who was he? It is a question to which there will never be a definitive answer simply due to the paucity of evidence surrounding his life. That being said, this has not stopped people attempting to identify an historic outlaw. I am going to pre-empt your questions by dwelling upon the most likely candidates we have who may be the real Robin Hood.
The late Professor James C. Holt in his work Robin Hood (1982), believed that a man listed in the Yorkshire Assize Rolls between 1225 and 1226 as ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’ was the most likely candidate for the real Robin Hood. And in the image above you can see the entry for this man in the court rolls. The same outlaw turns up years later under the sobriquet of ‘Hobbehod’. Allen Wright, an independent Robin Hood scholar based in Canada, lists in one of his articles several of the other candidates that have at one time or another been identified as the real Robin Hood. Among them is one Robert of Wetherby who is listed in the Court Rolls as ‘outlaw and evildoer of our land’. Other potential candidates include a Robert Hood from Cirencester who, sometime between 1215 and 1216 murdered a man named Ralph in the local Abbott’s garden. And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences.
Most pertinently for audiences here today, perhaps, there is also the case of the supposed Robin Hood of Wakefield. The Robin Hood of Wakefield was identified by a nineteenth-century antiquary named Joseph Hunter (1783-1861). Hunter was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office, or National Archives as we know it today. In a tract entitled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood, published in 1852, he argued that Robin Hood was from Wakefield. Hunter aimed to fit known facts to the early tales of Robin Hood. Hunter first identified a Robert Hood who with his wife Matilda appears in the Court Rolls of the manor of Wakefield in 1316 and 1317. Without any evidence, he argued that this Robert Hood became an outlaw between this time and 1324, when Hunter discovered that there was a valet de chambre to Edward II named Robyn Hode. For Hunter, this seemed to confirm that that this man was the same Robin who enters into the King’s service at the end of the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, when the King travels into the forest and meets Robin, and asks him to join his service. The problem with this approach is:
1) There is no indication that this Robyn Hode from 1324 was ever an outlaw.
2) The idea of a monarch going into the woods, as the king does at the end of the Gest, was a common trope in medieval ballads, and it is highly unlikely that the King ever went incognito among the populace.
This has not stopped local historians from sticking to Hunter’s assertions that Robin Hood was a man from Wakefield. To say that the real Robin Hood was from Wakefield, however, is to mix shaky historical methodology with wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is this: yes there was a man named Robin Hood who lived in Wakefield, but we do not know if he was an outlaw.
Indeed, what if Robin Hood was simply an alias? The name ‘Robin Hood’ was often used as an alias by criminals in the medieval period: ‘In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.’ Furthermore, ‘in 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war”.’ And finally ‘in 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale. Clearly Robin was a name associated with rebellion’. The nineteenth-century antiquary John Timbs in his work Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870) said that there was a term in use from the time of Edward III, ‘Roberdsmen’ which denoted any type of thief or robber.
Thus I hope I have shown you how difficult it is for anybody to identify an historical outlaw whose life and deeds match those of the legendary Robin Hood. We really are dealing with scraps of information: little notes in court rolls; men who used the name of Robin Hood as an alias. But I think it is the very paucity of evidence regarding a real Robin Hood which has allowed the legend to grow over time, and be adapted continually by different people in different ages. Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved beyond trying to identify a historic outlaw who could have been the ‘real’ Robin Hood. And I think this is a move in the right direction: the tale of Robin Hood has been appropriated and adapted many times, and we will never identify a historic outlaw simply due to the lack of evidence. In the words of Professor Alexander Kaufman, ‘the origins of Robin Hood the person and his original context are perhaps best left to those individuals who wish to search for that which is forever to be a quest’.
A Popular Hero: The Medieval Period
While there is little evidence that enables us to definitively identify a single outlaw whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood, stories about Robin Hood circulated at an early period of English history. In a thirteenth-century poem by William Langland entitled The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c.1370), we meet a lazy Priest named Sloth. Poor Sloth is not a very good cleric. He cannot read or write, and he does not even know his Paternoster by heart. However, the one thing he can recite from memory is ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’. He tells us in the poem that:
I can noughte parfitly my Paternoster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hode, and Randalf Erle of Chestre.
These words from c.1370 are the first literary reference to Robin Hood. They make clear that during this period ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, or ballads were circulating orally. Transmission of these tales was often by word of mouth, for England was not a predominantly literate society in the fourteenth century. In fact, the skill of reading and writing was mainly confined to members of the Church and the upper classes.
In time, however, the ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ were written down. We have five surviving examples of these early rhymes, or ballads, of Robin Hood, and these are: Robin Hood and the Monk which survives in manuscript form and is dated c.1450;  Robin Hood and the Potter, which survives in a single manuscript of popular and moral poems that can be dated to c.1500;  Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is dated to the mid-fifteenth century;  and A Gest of Robyn Hode, the content of which is dated to c.1450, but only survives in printed copies from the sixteenth century.
The Robin Hood of these early ballads is very different to the outlaw that we would recognise today. While modern audiences are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon, Robin is not a nobleman in these early texts but is described as a ‘yeoman’. Broadly speaking, a yeoman was a member of the medieval middle classes, for want of a better term, occupying a social position between the aristocracy and the peasantry. This is clear from the outset of the Gest which opens with the following lines:
Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode. 
All of Robin’s fellow outlaws such as Little John and Much the Miller’s son hail from the same social class of yeomanry. And Robin and his men are quite violent characters. In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne he cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks his head upon the end of his bow:
Robin thought on Our Ladye deere,
And soone leapt up againe,
And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke,
Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.
He tooke Sir Guy’s head by the hayre,
And stickt itt upon his bowes end:
“Thou has beene a traytor all thy liffe,
Which thing must have an ende.”
Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne,
Could tell who Sir Guye was.
In Robin Hood and the Monk, one of Robin’s men, Much the Miller’s son and Little John kill a travelling monk and his young page:
John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.
There are also characters whom we would count as staples of the Robin Hood legend today that actually appear nowhere in these early texts. Maid Marian is notable absent from these texts. In fact, Robin has no love interest at all. Marian entered the legend via a different route to the ballads. The first time that two people named Robin and Marian were associated together was in a French pastoral play entitled Jeu de Robin et Marion, dating from c.1282. It is unclear, however, whether the Robin and Marian of this play were understood to be outlaws. There is certainly no proven link between the play and the Robin Hood tradition. We do know, however, that Marian appears alongside the ‘proper’ Robin Hood in sixteenth-century Tudor May Day celebrations. It seems from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon written between 1597 and 1598. Despite these two plays, however, Maid Marian would not get her “big break” until the nineteenth century with a short novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marianpublished in 1822, although of this novel I shall speak later.
The poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) is the most significant of all the medieval texts. While Robin was an outlaw in Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he did not really have a social mission as such. It is with the Gest that this changes. It is a long poem, 1.824 lines in total, and appears to have been constructed from a variety of existing tales which somebody, at some point, endeavoured to give unity to. It is a type of the ‘good outlaw’ tale. Robin will help poor, honest people whom he meets: the first ‘fytte’ of the poem sees him lending money to an impoverished knight named Sir Richard of the Lee, whose lands have been mortgaged to pay a debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York. And in this poem many familiar scenes occur, such as the archery contest, or his meeting with the King and subsequent pardon. At the end of the poem, Robin falls ill and goes to Kirklees Priory to be bled. The prioress, in league with Sir Roger of Doncaster, bleeds him to death. The poem then ends with a benediction:
Cryst have mercy on his soule
That dyed upon the rod.
For was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch gode.
Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in the poem (it was not until John Stowe’s Annales of England in 1592 that this idea would become current), it is in the Gest that we first get the idea that Robin is kind to the poor and ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.
The Seventeenth Century
Robin moved up in the world during the seventeenth century. In the afore-mentioned plays by Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, Robin was cast for the first time as an Earl. There was no precedent in the ballad tradition for Robin being an Earl. Munday did this because he was catering to a primarily aristocratic audience. Although largely forgotten about today outside of academic circles, these plays established a new narrative in the Robin Hood legend: Robin is depicted as an aristocrat; he is outlawed because of a plot against him by rival courtiers; and instead of a bold yeoman outlaw/rebel, the reason that Robin is outlawed is because he has stayed loyal to King Richard. Hence any subversive political traits are extracted from his character. Thus instead of challenging the establishment, in these plays Robin becomes an upholder of the established order.
In fact, in the area of high culture, Robin becomes a very non-threatening and gentle figure. This is the case in a play written by Ben Jonson entitled The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1641). Firstly, it’s unclear whether Robin is actually an outlaw at all: he is described as ‘Chief Woodsman, and Master of the Feast’. His men refer to him as ‘gentle master’. Furthermore, in the play, Robin never actually steals from anybody. Instead the story is what we call a ‘pastoral’, which is defined as:
A literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner, and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life.
In the play, Robin Hood has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the Vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, and then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his true love has drowned in the river – hence The Sad Shepherd. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved. Jonson never finished the play – that was a task left to subsequent writers. However, as among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, one academic named Ann Barton suggests that Jonson would probably have had the witch and her children forgiven and present at the final delayed banquet of venison. However Jonson might have ended, as you can see, it’s a very different tale of Robin Hood than the one that we are used to seeing.
At the same time as Jonson was writing, more exciting tales of Robin Hood were appearing in broadside ballads. Broadsides were large folio size sheets of paper with the lyrics of a song printed on one side. They were sold usually for a penny by itinerant hawkers. The ballads which appear in the seventeenth century are not the long type of medieval narrative poem, but rather are shorter stories, supposed to be sung, and they depict Robin as something of a buffoon. Ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, which dates from the seventeenth century, for instance, see Robin meeting a stranger in the forest. Robin bids him to stand, and the traveller takes offence. The traveller challenges Robin to a battle with quarterstaffs. The stranger wins the fight, and afterwards the two fellows make friends, and the stranger usually joins Robin’s band. Now although this is not quite the ‘heroic’ Robin Hood we expect, you may already realise that even these relatively unimportant later texts have left their mark upon modern-day portrayals: anybody who has seen a Robin Hood film or television show will no doubt recall that, in most instance, when Robin meets Little John for the first time, the two men fight and then become friends.
The Eighteenth Century
The eighteenth century is a very interesting century for the Robin Hood legend. On the one hand, he’s depicted as a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he is celebrated. But let us begin at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Between 1714 and 1737, Robin Hood’s reputation took a beating. In criminal biography, the most popular genre of literature, Robin was portrayed as a cold-hearted killer. It is best to briefly digress, however, to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did.
In the 18th century crime was the subject on everybody’s lips, and people believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. The situation apparently became so bad by mid-century that Henry Fielding gloomily prophesied ‘I make no doubt, but that the streets of [London], and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard’. The legal response to this crime wave was the introduction of a bloody law code, when 200 offences became capital felonies. This resulted in the proliferation of cheap criminal biographies. Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies, and Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722) is often seen as a more sophisticated example of the genre. The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ Robin also makes an appearance in Captain Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), as well as the anonymous The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737). The content of Smith’s Highwaymen was heavily plagiarised for subsequent accounts of Robin’s life, and it is Smith’s text which is focused upon here.
Today Robin Hood is usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, which is a legacy of Munday’s plays, but Smith was not convinced:
This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second.
Robin Hood’s social status, however, is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the 18th century: all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners – there was no concept of a ‘criminal class’. You became a criminal if, like Robin, you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.
Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws’. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the 18th century people often rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. When one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told an official that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the sarcastic response was that this was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers’. Even Robin’s meeting with the king is played out differently to how it is portrayed in movies today, for in Smith’s work, instead of the meeting ending amicably, Robin simply robs him:
The King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.
Evidently, the 18th-century Robin Hood is loyal to no man, not even the King. Finally, Smith portrays Robin Hood as a man who is wicked until the day he dies, for he records that:
Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay.
Criminal biographies were intended to serve as pieces of moralist literature. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led felons to the gallows. Eighteenth-century authors had a more nuanced and, dare it be said, ‘realistic’ impression of the type of man that Robin may have been like, if he existed at all. If you lived in the eighteenth century, it was this version of Robin’s life which you were most likely familiar with: criminal biographies such as Smith’s Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar were the third most common book to be found in the middle-class home, after the Bible and The Pilgrims Progress.
It was only in the latter part of the century when Robin became reimagined as a hero in the conventional sense of the word, with the publication of Joseph Ritson’s two-volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and was a conveyancer by trade. In his spare time, however, he was an antiquary. He was interested, not in the ‘high’ culture of people in times past, but in the culture of the common man. He published many collections of ancient ballads and songs such as A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) and Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791). Ritson quickly established himself as an authority on many historical subjects owing to his willingness to seek out obscure primary sources from archives and libraries across the country. He was also cantankerous, and fiercely critical of his rivals such as Thomas Percy who took it upon himself to edit and ‘refine’ Old and Middle English texts.
Ritson’s work is significant in the overall construction of the legend because, as his title suggests, he collected together and made accessible in printed form every Robin Hood text he could find ranging from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The Middle English ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, for instance, was first printed for a mass market readership in Ritson’s publication. Some of the other ballads which he included in his collection had been printed before, of course, by antiquaries such as Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical & Narrative (1784), and in the often reprinted Robin Hood’s Garland chapbooks (‘garlands’ were cheaply printed collections of popular songs). But Ritson’s Robin Hood was the first book to include all of these ancient and modern Robin Hood texts in one place.
The most important part of Ritson’s work, however, was the section entitled ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the collection of ballads. In this Ritson laid down the “facts” of the legend, saying:
Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the County of Nottingham, in the reign of king Henry the Second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble. […] he is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon.
Ritson, furthermore, decides to lay down the ‘facts’ about his character:
With respect to [Robin Hood’s] personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent; possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers and adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.
Another thing about Ritson is that he is a bit of an armchair republican/revolutionary. His letters from the 1790s are full of praise for the French Revolution. And so Ritson fashions Robin Hood into an almost quasi-revolutionary leader:
In these forests, and with [his] company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the king of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy, and such as were ‘desolate and oppressed,’ or stood in need of his protection.
And finally, Ritson tells us that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor:
That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denyed. Testimonies to this purpose, indeed, would be equally endless and unnecessary […] But it is to be remembered […] that, in these exertions, he took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would never suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.
As you can see, the story of Robin Hood, due in large part to Joseph Ritson, is beginning to look familiar to the story which we see depicted on film and television today. Ritson died shortly after the publication of Robin Hood, but we know from his letters that he was in contact with a young Scotsman, Walter Scott. It is Scott, as we shall see in a few moments, who carried Ritson’s portrayal of Robin Hood even further in his novel Ivanhoe (1819).
The Nineteenth Century
It is indeed during the nineteenth century when the Robin Hood legend assumes the form that we are familiar with today. This was primarily due to three literary works: Scott’s Ivanhoe, Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840). Scott is perhaps the most famous of all Scottish novelists. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Percy’s Reliques. Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.
Most of Scott’s novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish eighteenth-century history. Waverley – regarded as the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period, and it is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.
Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Ritson. Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:
I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels].
England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them. Scott says that:
The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia.
The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:
A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.
The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.
Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Richard finds his his land in chaos: outlaws roam in the forest; the Normans oppress the good Saxons; and Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.
Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another: ‘the serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’. Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century. England in 1819 was in fact a very divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured. Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:
From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest.
Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.
Walter Simeone, an early twentieth-century academic, argued that the modern idea of Robin Hood was practically ‘invented’ by Scott. Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights. Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.
The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819) and Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian’s ‘big break’ came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novel are based upon Byron and Shelley. Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As the Robin Hood critic Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott.
The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power on the continent. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted what he called the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.
Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:
Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. 
As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. However, she is no delicate little lady. Instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:
Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’.
In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. Marian in Peacock’s novel is essentially a proto-feminist.
The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. Early ballads such as the Gest were compiled from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent: in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. And neither does Robin have a backstory before Peacock’s novel.
Peacock set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.
The man who really brings together the ideas of both Scott and Peacock is an author who is relatively unknown today: Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). Egan was a prolific author who penned a number of medievalist novels, most of which were sold in weekly penny instalments. His quite radical work Robin Hood and Little John (1840) told the story of the hero from birth to death. Robin is portrayed as a freedom fighter, but also at the same time a chivalric, almost “Victorian” gentleman. And neither did Egan flinch from making his novels violent. Illustrating many of the scenes in his novel himself, the pages are full of arrows in people’s eyes, and in the text limbs are cut off and there’s a high body count. It is the perfect novel for a young male readership, even if Egan himself intended his novel to be read by adults as well. Egan’s novel was highly successful, went through six editions, and was even translated into French by the famous author Alexandre Dumas as Le Prince des Voleurs and Robin le Proscrit (1863) which was then retranslated back into English as two novels entitled Robin Hood the Outlawand The Prince of Thieves (1904).
After Egan, the quality of Robin Hood novels declines somewhat. And there are some terrible, highly moralistic novels. Some of them were written by Churchmen, and they are all overtly patriotic, stressing the duties of loyalty and service to the crown. Whereas the Robin Hood of earlier novels had always represented something of a challenge to the establishment, in this any subversive traits Robin has are totally neutered. He is now a thoroughly Victorian “drawing room hero” – a gentleman, a worthy subject, and in some novels it is unclear whether he is an outlaw or not. The one exception to these late nineteenth-century novels is perhaps Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Until Pyle, most Robin Hood novels had followed Scott in portraying him as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter. But Pyle returned to the earlier ballads, and from them constructed quite a lengthy narrative, telling the story of Robin’s life from birth to death. This was one of the more successful novels, and if you pick up a Penguin Classics edition of the story of Robin Hood today, it will most likely be Pyle’s novel.
The Twentieth Century
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, it is clear that the medium for telling tales of Robin Hood was shifting from the book to the screen. And no twentieth-century Robin Hood novel has ever really had the power to truly have a lasting impact upon the tradition as Scott, Peacock, and Egan did. Robin Hood movies were released in 1912 and 1913, but the first major Robin Hood movie was released in 1922 and starred Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The idea of Robin wearing tights was something which Victorian actresses adopted so that they could, with propriety, show their legs on stage, but in the 1922 movie the semi-acrobatic costume allowed Fairbanks to make darting leaps from castle edges, and Robin becomes a true swashbuckling hero.
The next major Robin Hood movie was Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood is very much influenced by Fairbanks’ movie and Walter Scott’s novel. Robin Hood is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, but he is more of an American hero than an English hero in this movie. And the movie endorses Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which can be seen in the oath that Robin makes the outlaws swear to:
You the freemen of this forest swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless, to protect all women rich and poor, Norman or Saxon, and swear to fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign Richard the Lionheart, and swear to fight to the death against all oppression.
It is this American, populist vision of Robin Hood that has persisted in cinematic portrayals. Hollywood has always far outstripped the British Film industry in terms of quantity of output, if not in terms of quality. Robin Hood is perhaps the perfect hero to be “Americanised”: he is the man who stands up for the common man against the strong and powerful, much like an American superhero. There is the idea that Robin is a Lord, but on the whole cinematic portrayals of the outlaw myth are relatively classless, just as American society is supposed to be. Perhaps the most memorable American portrayal of the outlaw legend, for many here today at least, is the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). So Americanised it was, that the filmmakers seemingly never even made the effort to have key members of the cast speak with an English accent. Costner’s Robin Hood is a relatively two-dimensional character, and the movie is full of big Hollywood action sequences – Robin catapulting into Nottingham castle to rescue Marian, for instance, is definitely an “American” addition to the legend.
The Costner movie was a piece of pure Hollywood fancy, a product of a time when cinema audiences evidently required little historical realism when watching a period film. The most recent movie Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe, although criticised by some reviewers, was an attempt at least to ground the story of Robin Hood in historical “fact”, with the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. It is essentially what, if it was a superhero movie, might be termed an ‘origins’ story. It is not a tale of merry men in Lincoln-Green costumes r big Hollywood set pieces, but a thoughtful and well-executed portrayal of a man who leads his people in an attempt to secure political rights from the monarch.
This is not to say that the British have not produced some good adaptations of the legend, but the most successful British portrayals have tended to be television affairs. There was the weekly TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the gentlemanly, and quite bland, Richard Green, which was broadcast between 1955 and 1959. In this series, following Scott, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who has returned from the Crusades and becomes an outlaw. But although the TV series may appear to be a thoroughly English affair, the hidden hand of the Americans was not far away: many of the series’ writers were Americans who held communist sympathies and who had fled the States after being accused of ‘Un-American Activities’ by the McCarthy government. So in effect we have America giving us a quintessentially English Robin Hood. The television series Robin of Sherwood which aired in the 1980s is certainly my personal favourite. For me this series represents a return to the bold outlaw of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Robin is no lord in this series, and he does not declare his loyalty to the King at the end of the series. To me, he appears to be closest to how the medieval ballad writers imagined Robin Hood: an outlaw who owed allegiance to nobody.
I just want to finish off by saying that hopefully what you’ve learned today is this: that the legend of Robin Hood has always been varied and adaptable. There may or may not have been a man whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend that was to become Robin Hood. We shall never know, mainly due to the lack of evidence surrounding his life. From early poems and rhymes, the legend rolled on, and acquired new features: in the fifteenth century Robin Hood was a bold yeoman forester; in the sixteenth century he became a member of the aristocracy; in the eighteenth century he was portrayed as both a wicked criminal and simultaneously praised as ‘the celebrated English outlaw’; in the nineteenth century in Ivanhoe, he became an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter; and in the twentieth century he is now more or less an American hero. It is difficult to know what further turns the legend of the outlaw of Sherwood will take. One thing is certain, however, and that is that, as Drayton prophesied in 1612 that ‘to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’.
 Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion cited in Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: i.
 James C. Holt, ‘Hood, Robin (sup. fl. late 12th-13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24741> Accessed 11 April 2016].
 Allen Wright, ‘The Search for a Real Robin Hood’ Bold Outlaw [Internet <<www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/realrob2.com>> Accessed 11 April 2016].
 James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.45.
 See Mark Truesdale and Stephen Basdeo ‘Medieval Continuities: Nineteenth-Century King and Commoner Ballads’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [Forthcoming].
 John Timbs, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (London: F. Warne & Co. 1870), 356.
 Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Contexts: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164 (146).
 William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman Eds. Elizabeth Robertson & Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2006), 82.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 31-56.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 57-79.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 169-183.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 80-168.
 See R. Almond and A. J. Pollard, ‘The Yeomanry of Robin Hood and Social Terminology in Fifteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 170: 1 (2001), 52-77.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, 178.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 43.
 Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 58.
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 43.
 Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood Ed. Frances Waldron (London: J. Nichols, 1784), 6.
 Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, 12.
‘Pastoral’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [Internet <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pastoral> Accessed 21 April 2014].
 Roy Booth, ‘Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd’ [Internet << http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhle/001/Jonsonsadshepherd.htm>> Accessed 18 April 2016].
 A version of this section originally appeared in History Today, October 2015.
 Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.
 Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
 Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), 60.
 Smith, Highwaymen, 411.
 Smith, Highwaymen, 412.
 A version of this section originally appeared in History Vault, October 2015.
 Joseph Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: iv.
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: xii.
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: v
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: ix.
 David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
 John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
 Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
 Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
 W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
 Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
 Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
 Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
 Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
 Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
 Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
 See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [FORTHCOMING].
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 153.
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 152.
 The Adventures of Robin Hood, dirs. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (1938) [DVD]
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 161.
 Drayton, op cit.
People in the eighteenth century believed that they were living in a crime-ridden society. In addition to Capt. Alexander Smith’s and Capt. Charles Johnson’s criminal biographies, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, a series of books were printed in London entitled The Newgate Calendar.
There is no single authoritative text of The Newgate Calendar as there have been many versions of works bearing the name since the eighteenth century, so a brief history is offered here. Newgate Calendars were named after the infamous London gaol, Newgate, which was first built in 1188, and subjected to numerous renovations and rebuilds in its history until its demolition in 1904.
There were various criminal ‘calendars’ compiled from the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as The Tyburn Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register (1705), and The Chronicle of Tyburn; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches (1720).
The first publication that bore the name of The Newgate Calendar appeared in 1774, entitled The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and published in five volumes. Five years later, there was The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, dedicated to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), the co-founder of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first dedicated law enforcement agency.
Another publication, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar appeared in 1795, whilst William Jackson’s The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Universal Register, appeared in 1818.
Like Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar contains biographies of the most notorious criminals. For its sources, the various versions often directly plagiarised contemporary criminal narratives, in particular the ‘Last Dying Speech’ broadsides which contained news of convicted felons. In the words of the 1784 edition, The Newgate Calendar comprises:
All the most material passages in the SESSIONS PAPERS, for a long series of years; together with the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Capital Convicts, and complete narratives of all the most remarkable trials. 
And some familiar faces appear in the pages of The Newgate Calendar such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1734), Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). The claim to provide ‘complete’ and ‘true’ accounts of all the trials of these offenders, however, is a little suspect. Despite the claims of the Proceedings (upon which, as we have seen, The Newgate Calendar was based), for instance, to provide a ‘fair, true and perfect narrative’ the publishers of these works had the final say in their content, and they had to be entertaining so they could be profitable. Hence ‘greater attention [was] paid to murders, robberies, and thefts from the person (involving titillating details of prostitutes’ interactions with their clients)’ in order to ‘make the Proceedings appeal to a wide audience,’ and thereby proving profitable.
The accounts of each offender, like the broadsides and criminal biographies that they were taken from, were very formulaic in style. They begin with an account of the offender’s birth and parentage, and then describe his/her descent into a life of sin and depravity. Crime, if you have read some of the other posts on this site, in the eighteenth century was viewed as a sin. Criminals were not necessarily inherently wicked: they were people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, which is why a lot of criminals are portrayed sympathetically in the accounts (murderers apart).  Hence in the case of the burglar Luke Cannon, it was ‘an early attachment to bad company, an early introduction to the paths of vice, [that] led with rapid success to his ruin’. 
At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes.  In a world that lacked a professional police force, one of the aims of the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar was (as well as providing sensational entertainment), to function as moralist texts. Readers were supposed to shun the examples of sin and vice and avoid making the same unhappy mistakes that had led the criminals to the gallows.
In fact, the title page of the 1795 edition contains a short piece of verse which is illustrative of its aims:
The crimes related here art great and true,
The subjects vary, and the work is new,
By reading, learn the ways of sin to shun,
Be timely taught, and you’ll not be undone. 
It might be supposed that The Newgate Calendar was cheap entertainment for eighteenth-century readers. However, this is not the case: firstly, all editions of The Newgate Calendar were multivolume sets, and accompanied with fine engravings. Although we do not know the prices for the individual editions of The Newgate Calendar, comparisons can be made with the prices of other works. Volume three of Alexander Smith’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1719) cost half a crown, an expensive amount in the 1700s. Similarly, Charles Johnson’s Highwaymen addressed ‘gentlemen’. We are talking about a literate and sophisticated audience who read these books.
There were further publications bearing the name of The Newgate Calendar during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A major early nineteenth-century version was edited by two layers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in 1824, and given the name The Newgate Calendar; Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages upon the Laws of England since the Eighteenth Century, with a revised edition appearing in 1826.
After Knapp and Baldwin’s editions followed G. Thompson’s Newgate Calendar of 1840, which at first glance appears to be a virtual plagiarism of Knapp and Baldwin’s version. The penny dreadful version, The New Newgate Calendar, was then published weekly between 1863 and 1865, and then Camden Pelham published, in two volumes The Chronicles of Crime; or, the New Newgate Calendar in 1887.
The last large-scale five volume compilation of The Newgate Calendar was printed by the Navarre Society in 1927, whilst the Folio Society has more recently reprinted a selection of the most famous trials in two volumes, The Newgate Calendar, and The New Newgate Calendar (1951).
The legacy of The Newgate Calendar can be seen in any bookshop today. This publication, along with criminal biographies, initiated the whole ‘true crime’ book industry.
Thus although nobody today prints accounts of criminals in the same way as the publishers of The Newgate Calendar did, it has to be remembered that there would be no novels were it not for eighteenth-century criminal accounts.
 The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
 Robert Shoemaker ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’ Journal of British Studies 47: 3 (2008), 563.
 John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
 The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
 For a critical discussion of these accounts see Andrea Mckenzie Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007) and Lincoln B. Faller Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987).
 The New Newgate Calendar, 1.
This is a blog post written for my friend, Dr. Kate Lister, and her ‘Whores of Yore’ project.
All illustrations featured in the article are from original nineteenth-century books in my personal collection.
The two thieves which feature most on this blog are, of course, Robin Hood (supp. fl. c.1190s), and Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Robin was not the only thief to have been enamoured with a woman, however, for Sheppard was also. The name of Sheppard’s woman was Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgworth Bess. What little we know of Bess’ life is gleaned from the contemporary criminal biographies about Sheppard. She was born, apparently, in the county of Middlesex in the early eighteenth century, was the reputed wife of a soldier but also a prostitute, having led ‘a wicked and debauched life’.  She was ‘a large masculine woman’, and of her personal character we are told (from second-hand, highly-embellished sources) that she was fond of strong drink, and often beat her lover Sheppard when she quarrelled with him. 
To contemporary journalists, she was a temptress: ideas about criminality in the eighteenth century were not related to social class; instead of a sociological explanation of crime, the Georgians held to a theological explanation. Anyone in the eighteenth century was capable of becoming a criminal because all men were sinners.  People instead were ‘tempted’ into a life of crime through small sins which multiplied and hardened their hearts against God. As Andrea McKenzie explains:
It was a commonplace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought (if by no means new or unique to the period) that sin was both addictive and progressive. Contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of ‘Farthings and Marbles’ grew great oaks of iniquity. 
Temptation could come from bad associations also, which is an echo of the Bible’s command at 1 Corinthians 15: 33 which says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. And it was usually through a prostitute that unsuspecting good youths could be led astray down a bad path. This was the case with Jack Sheppard, who was enticed by Edgworth Bess into a life of crime. Speaking of Sheppard, Charles Johnson says in Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) that:
The history of this unfortunate man affords another to the many examples of already given in this volume, that the company of profligate women have plunged men into scenes of dissipation and vice. 
In a biography attributed to Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) entitled The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), we are told how Sheppard was essentially a good lad when he first started his apprenticeship as a carpenter:
The lad proved an early proficient, had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business, and gave entire satisfaction to his master’s customers, and had the character of a very sober and orderly boy. 
In all of the accounts of Sheppard’s life, it is his fateful meeting with Edgworth Bess which leads him astray, however, and it is narrated by Defoe in a truly dramatic way:
Alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin! 
In his own confession, printed by John Appleby in 1721, Sheppard himself (or more likely the Ordinary of Newgate who attended to him before his execution) blames Bess for his misfortune:
I may justly lay the blame of my temporal, and (without God’s great mercies) my eternal ruin on Joseph Hind, a button-mould-maker, who formerly kept the Black Lyon alehouse in Drury Lane; the frequenting of this wicked house brought me acquainted with Elizabeth Lyon, and with a train of vices, that before I was altogether a stranger to. 
But how, exactly, was Bess responsible for bringing Jack to a life of crime?
Firstly, she convinced him that ‘they must cohabit together as man and wife’.  She also convinced Sheppard to steal items for her on multiple occasions. At first they were small items, but having introduced Sheppard to other thieves in the Georgian underworld such as Joseph Blueskin Blake, his robberies became greater in number (crime, remember, was ‘addictive and progressive).
The pair’s first brush with the law came when Sheppard and Bess stole a watch from a gentlemen as they were passing through Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). The hue and cry was raised and Sheppard was captured, but Bess got away. Sheppard was consequently detained in St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Bess went to visit him the next morning, she too was arrested, having been implicated in the robbery the day before.
Remarkably, however, Sheppard and Bess managed to escape. With a file, Sheppard sawed off his and Bess’ fetters, cut an iron bar out of the window, and descended 25 feet down the walls of the prison by fastening a blanket to the remaining iron bars and lowering himself and Bess down. 
As soon as he was out, Sheppard turned again to robbery:
Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit. 
Sheppard managed to escape from gaol a further four times, and once with Bess’ help, when she visited him in gaol and secretly gave him the tools with which to carry out his escape.
Sheppard was hanged on 16 November 1724. It is not known if she attended the execution of her lover, and history is silent in all particulars of Bess’ life after that. There was an Elizabeth Lyons who gave evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1740,  and then there is an Elizabeth Lyons listed as a defendant in a trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1742.  It is unknown, however, if these two Elizabeth Lyons are the same person as the prostitute with whom Jack Sheppard was enamoured.
Whatever the circumstances of her later life, Bess did enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’. This came in the next century with William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839). In this novel, she comes across as quite a mean-spirited character: changeable, indifferent to Jack’s fate. Ainsworth’s novel was plagiarised several times: in Lincoln Fortescue’s Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845); in the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847); and in The Real Life and Times of Jack Sheppard (c.1850). In addition to these novels, she also appears in entries on Jack Sheppard in the numerous reprints of The Newgate Calendar (1825) and Camden Pelham’s The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887). All of these publications presented Bess in the same way that Defoe and Ainsworth had done: a treacherous, wicked woman.
An altogether more positive portrayal of Bess came in the little-known movie Where’s Jack? (1969). However, while the movie is certainly an entertaining watch, the producers were liberal with the truth. Bess is not a sex worker in the movie, and far from being a temptress, she actually tries to steer Jack away from a life of crime.
As of yet there is no scholarly biography of Bess’ life, and likely there never will be due to the lack of evidence surrounding her life. This post has merely endeavoured to shed light on the life and actions of an historic sex worker.
 Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 6.  Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), 182.  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), 54.  Andrea McKenzie, Tyburns Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.  Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 367.  Perhaps not written by Daniel Defoe. See P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).  Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 5.  Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.  Daniel Defoe, ‘A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 51.  Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.  Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 10.  Ibid.  Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 16 April 1740 (t17400416-37) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=t17400416-37 Accessed 12 March 2016].  Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 28 April 1742 (t17420428-14) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=t17420428-14 Accessed 12 March 2016].
There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994).  Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).
Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world. As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.
In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:
Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.
The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:
The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.
At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.
What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.
One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:
He usually robbed alone.
In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:
Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.
This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination. The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.
Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:
Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.
The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns.
At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:
Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.
However much an audience may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:
The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.
Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff, and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.
There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:
The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.
At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:
The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.
Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.
It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:
It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.
 P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
 Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
 Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
 Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
 Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
 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), 71.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
 Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
 It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
 Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
 Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
 Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.