Robin Hood the Angry Letter Writer

By Stephen Basdeo

Many people have adopted the name of Robin Hood over the years. The most obvious ones which spring to mind are the men who appear in medieval court records, being criminals who adopted the alias. The press today even applies the name to criminals who are perceived to be ‘good’ criminals. It was not only criminals who either assumed the name or had it applied to them: Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, who attempted to assassinate the protestant king, Charles I, were called Robin Hood’s Men. In the eighteenth century, we find the name of Robin Hood applied to the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) in satirical ballads such as Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).[1]

We saw in another post how even poor little orphan lads assumed the name of Robin Hood.

This is just a small example of how the legendary figure of Robin Hood is truly “all things to all men”.

So now we turn to the years 1819–20, a turbulent period in English history. Soldiers returned home at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), many of them returned to high unemployment. Where labour in vital industries had been scarce during the wars, now the labour market was glutted with plenty of people needing a job. Yet there were not many jobs available: tradesmen had done well out of the war, having been contracted to provide war materiel, there was now a trade depression. The war had created an artificial demand for goods.

To make matters worse, since 1815, the hated Corn Laws were in effect. These laws were tariffs on imports of grain and other foodstuffs. During the war, Britain had imported vast amounts of food to feed its soldiers. Yet after the war, landowners, many of whom were part of the political class, decided that it was high time to protect their own businesses from imports of cheap food: the result was that the price of food was kept artificially high in order to protect the landowners’ inefficient businesses.

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National Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card

Nowadays, if a government treated its citizens that badly, it would soon be voted out. This was not the case in 1819: by and large, neither the working classes nor the middle classes could vote. The franchise was restricted to men who owned freehold property worth 40 shillings. Very few people, even the quite wealthy upper middle classes, owned property in this era. And many of the wealthy industrialists lived in new towns such as Manchester and Leeds—commercial and industrial meccas which drove British economic growth. Yet the large northern cities had no representation in parliament, while fields such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire containing one cottage returned 2 MPs to the Commons.

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Engraving of Reform ‘celebrity’, Mr Henry Hunt

It was an unjust system.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope.

Reformers, some who quite famous like Henry Hunt, were organising, marching, and most importantly: they were printing. Their cause was political reform through the extension of the franchise and a repeal of the Corn Laws. A number of penny periodicals were printed which contained opinion pieces on current affairs rather than reporting actual news (otherwise they would be subject to the paying of stamp duty, “the tax on knowledge”).

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The Medusa; or Penny Politician, No. 1

It is in the print culture of the early nineteenth century, then, that we find a man who named Robin Hood who wrote to The Medusa; or, The Penny Politician on three occasions in the years 1819–20.

The Medusa, named after the famous Greek mythical figure, was a satirical magazine which, through its humour excoriated the ruling class:

What! Will you not believe the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Bishops, the Judge, the Counsellors, the Lawyers, the Borough-mongers, the Placemen, and all the Pensioners? The Dukes, the Earls, the Marquisses, the Barons, the Knights, &c. &c.? Deluded multitude! Here is a collection of the happiest creatures in the world, united together to persuade you that you are extremely happy, and yet you give no credit to what they may either say or swear! O Shocking stupidity![2]

This was complete and utter sarcasm, a sly dig at the idea, propagated at the time by those in power, that Britain boasted of the most glorious constitution in the world—that Britons were “free” and “happy”! Lest anyone doubt the paper’s radical credentials, however, if the sardonic tone did not immediately hit home then the engraving of Henry Hunt, given away free with the paper’s first number, would have left readers in no doubt.

It was not unusual for people to assume pseudonyms in this era. It was an era in which, according to Robert Reid, England’s system of government, with its system of spies and informants, resembled more the Third Reich than an emergent democracy. People wanted to protect their names in public—after all, the campaign for reform was supported by both the working class and respectable tradesmen. Pseudonyms based upon medieval resistors of tyranny were especially popular. Some wrote letters under the name of Wat Tyler, some under Jack Cade, a Thomas Paine here and there, and, of course, Robin Hood.

When Robin Hood, when he wrote his letters, was angry about many things (if Twitter was around in 1819, his account would probably look a little like mine!)

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Britons Strike Home!!! Engraving of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819

One of the measures which this radical Robin Hood proposed was the formation of a fund to aid the legal defence of men accused of sedition, an accusation applied to many a radical publisher who was hauled through the courts on trumped-up charges:

The present system of persecution adopted by our tyrants to stifle the public voice, should be met by a correspondent determination on the part of the friends of freedom to oppose their diabolical measures: a “Stock Purse” should be raised and maintained to counteract their evil purposes, the funds of which should be appropriated to defray the legal &c. expenses of the deserving public characters, whom our tyrants think to bear down by accumulated indictments.[3]

Robin Hood speaks of politicians as being tyrants quite frequently. And in 1819, an event which no doubt confirmed him in his beliefs came to pass: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August in Manchester. Nearly 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators came to hear the famous Henry Hunt speak in support of the cause of political reform; the magistrates got scared, however, and called out the local yeomanry on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring over 500, many of whom later died from their wounds.

Robin Hood was furious at

The late most atrocious outrages committed at Manchester, by order of a base Magistracy on a lawful multitude constitutionally assembled, by a banditti of FEROCIOUS MONSTERS, habited in the GARB of soldiers … Gracious God! Will Britons suffer themselves to be BUTCHERED by a banditti of lawless ruffians? Forbid it heaven! If the laws are perverted and an aggrieved people cannot obtain redress, they will be bound in justice to redress their own wrongs; they are called upon by the innocent blood of their murdered relatives, to AVENGE the deaths of numerous and unoffending individuals.[4]

The emphasis in the passage above was part of the original letter. Capitals were used back then in writing in the same way that we use them today: to show anger. The real law-breakers at Peters Fields in Manchester on 16 August were not the demonstrators but the magistrates.

Unfortunately, The Medusa did not last long; its last number was printed in January 1820, which was not unusual for some of these early publications. Yet while this would be worthy of nothing more than an interesting anecdote in a monograph, it does illustrate a wider point that the name of Robin Hood was being used at this point, as it had been before, as a symbol of resistance.

Of course, at the end of 1819, in the year that our pseudonymous Robin Hood was writing, radical readers would soon see their favourite historical outlaw appropriated by the Tory, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Ivanhoe (1819), in which Robin Hood sides wholly with the monarchical establishment.


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

[2] ‘To the Public’, The Medusa; or, Penny Politician, 20 February 1819, 2.

[3] Robin Hood, ‘To the Editor of the Medusa’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 27 (1819), 216.

[4] Robin Hood, ‘Manchester Solomons’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 32 (1819), 252.

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The Chartist Robin Hood: The Poems of W. J. Linton (1812–97)

By Stephen Basdeo

During the 1830s, in spite of the passage of the ‘great’ Reform Act (1832), most working men could not vote, while women did not enter the equation at this point. So, in 1836, six working men and six MPs drew up a list of demands calling for political and constitutional reform. In its final form, this People’s Charter consisted of six demands: the vote for all working men; the abolition of the property requirement to serve as an MP; equally sized electoral districts; the secret ballot; salaries for MPS, so that working men as well as the independently wealthy could sit in the commons; and annual general elections. The movement—which acquired the name of Chartist—became the first mass working class movement; large-scale outdoor meetings were held which were attended by thousands, and three petitions were launched in the hope that the government would respond to and ratify their demands.

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W. J. Linton–radical and reformer, poet, publisher, and engraver

The Chartists left us with a large body of prose and poetry—much of which was often written by working class people—which sought, through the arts, to inspire its members to soldier on in their just cause in spite of government opposition. One prominent Chartist writer was William James Linton (1812–97). He was born in London to a lower middle class family who, throughout his life, campaigned tirelessly for political and constitutional reform. His politics were overtly radical and bordered on republican, and he often wrote under the name of ‘Spartacus’; it was a telling pseudonym and suggests that he was a proponent of ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, which favoured direct action over ‘Moral Force’ Chartism, which aimed to convince the elites to grant the people’s demands with kind words.

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Outline of the People’s Charter. (c) The Victorian Web

Above all, however, Linton considered himself a patriot. His patriotism was not a narrow patriotism based upon loyalty to the state but rather what Eric Hobsbawm would call the ‘social-democratic’ form of patriotism: loyalty to the people of the nation rather than state institutions. Patriotism in any country often depends upon a thorough knowledge or awareness of a nation’s past events and famous people. When the Chartists looked back to the past, they more often than not looked back to the medieval period for inspiration; Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was the figure who was chosen by them as their main historical forebear, and he was cast as the hero of the people in several Chartist poems and even serialised novels. Less is known, however, about Robin Hood’s place in the movement. I have previously written about ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ in my analysis of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838), but Linton also appropriated the outlaw’s legend to serve a radical political cause.

The first Robin Hood poem which Linton wrote appeared in The Plaint of Freedom (1852). This was a privately printed collection of poems which circulated only among his friends. Simply titled ‘Robin Hood’, it is part of a much larger narrative of separate but connected poems which trace the onward march of democracy with resistance to tyranny from the ancient period onwards:

Robin Hood

Yet far better in tangled wood

Than palaced with the tyrant’s men;

And nobler than a Norman den

The forest lair of Robin Hood

 

Ay, better even for yeoman good,

Than service under foreign lord,

To roam at will on springy sward

And rouse the deer with Robin Hood.

 

Cease villain! O’er thy woes to brood;

Be woodman’s law thy only friend,

Thy quarry vengeance: out, and bend

A freeman’s bow with Robin Hood!

 

A thankless life in the merry green wood:

Natheless in the shadow of Freedom there

Some worthier hearts may learn to dare

And aim beyond bold Robin Hood.

The poem was written towards the end of the Chartist movement; the failure of the 1848 petition, and the general fading of the movement towards the end of 1851, meant that reformers such as Linton would have to wait until seeing their goals fully realised. Linton’s poem looks back nostalgically to the time of Robin Hood. Although men were not ‘free’ in any sense during this time period—a fact acknowledged by Linton in the poem—there was one spot in England where men might roam free of any tyrants: this place was of course forest lair of Robin Hood. As a reflection of the idea, current among many Chartists in 1852, that there was still work to be done in the cause of political reform, Linton urges his contemporaries to be better than Robin Hood, to aim higher and achieve more, or, ‘aim beyond bold Robin Hood’.

Research tells us that English politics entered an ‘age of equipoise’ in the post-Chartist period. It is certainly true that there was a brief feeling of calm. However, while there were fewer mass meetings, people continued to organise and the question of universal male suffrage did not go away over the next decade. Former Chartist activists continued writing and pushing the cause of reform in the press; Linton wrote several articles for The Red Republican (which also published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto), and Linton himself also founded The English Republic.

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Beginning in the 1860s, things picked up again as several new organisations dedicated to the cause of political reform were founded: The Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes (est. 1863); The International Workingmen’s Association (est. 1864); the Reform Union (est. 1864); and the Reform League (1865). And it was in 1865 that Linton published his next Robin Hood poem entitled ‘An Hour of Robin Hood’, which was published in Claribel and Other Poems:

An Hour of Robin Hood

O for an hour with Robin Hood, deep, deep in the forest green,

With fern and budding bramble waving o’er me as a screen,

In mid-noon shade,

Where the hot-breath’d Trade

Came never the boughs between.

 

O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,

Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathe, fragrantly,

Where heaven is seen,

And the smile serene

Of heavenliest liberty.

 

O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free

Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:

Better with men

In the wildest glen,

Than palaced with Infamy.

 

My life for a breath of Robin Hood, with the arrow before my eye

And a tyrant but within bow-shot reach: how gladly could I die

With the fame of Tell,

With Robin so well

Embalm’d in history.

 

O but to rest, like Robin Hood, beneath some forest green,

Where the wild-flowers of the coming spring on my mouldering heart may lean;

For England’s sward

Is trampled hard

With the journeyings of the Mean.

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Victorian children with rickets–a disease caused by a Vitamin D deficiency and low calcium intake. Notice the ‘bow legs’ on some of the children; rickets causes abnormal bone growth.

The forest is imagined once again as a place of freedom from tyrants. Yet interestingly, the freedom which the forest gives is not only one from overhearing Norman lord but also ‘from the noisome smoke’. This was an era, of course, of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, in the words of William Blake. Very particular to London and many industrial cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and Sheffield was heavy pollution which sometimes resulted in ‘pea-souper’ fogs which blackened buildings and shut out the sun for days at a time. The heavy pollution was one of the reasons why many children developed rickets, which is deficiency of Vitamin D (it causes ‘bow legs’ and ‘pigeon chests’ in children). This was not the first time that environmental concerns would be expressed in retellings of Robin Hood, for John Keats had famously criticised deforestation in Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818), and recently we have seen the rise of eco-critical studies of the Robin Hood tradition.

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Manchester, c. 1870

The Chartists wanted the right to vote. They had little to say about capitalism in its early years—they aimed to curb its excesses but were relatively speaking happy with the prevailing capitalist economic system. Linton was neither a socialist nor a communist, and criticised both groups in The English Republic. Yet it is clear that some influence from that movement has filtered through subtly into Linton’s poetry with comments such as ‘the market-place of human slavery’. These words anticipate some of the comments about capitalism and ‘the market’ which William Morris would make in News from Nowhere (1888). This being said, while Linton never embraced socialism, after 1848 many former Chartist campaigners took a leftward turn and found a natural home in the socialist movement.

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The Reform Act was eventually passed under Disraeli’s Tory government in 1867

After the (apparently) Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, died in 1865, the government decided to look into how it might extend the franchise. Yet these discussions were just that: discussions. With the passage of working-class suffrage yet two years away and by no means a sure thing when Linton was writing Claribel, we see much anger come through. Linton longs to have a tyrant to aim his bow at and, the story of England’s working class in the modern era is still one of oppression: England’s ‘sward’ is still trampled by the journeyings of the ‘mean’ who cannot enjoy the forest as Robin Hood of old did.


Further Reading:

Linton, W. J., Claribel and Other Poems (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1865)

——, The Plaint of Freedom (London: Privately Printed, 1852)

Sanders, Mike, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)