Radical Ideas in the Penny Serials of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Scholars will have heard of a Pierce Egan (1772-1849), the Regency author who wrote famous works such as Life in London (1821). His son, Pierce James Egan (1814-1880), however, deserves more recognition than he currently enjoys due to the fact that he was one of the best-selling authors of the Victorian era, a point raised in MacMillan’s Magazine in 1866:

There is a mighty potentate in England whose name is Pierce Egan […] Many among us fancy that they have a good general idea of what is English literature. They think of Tennyson and Dickens as the most popular of our living authors. It is a fond delusion, from which they should be aroused. The works of Mr. Pierce Egan are sold by the half million. What living author can compare with him? [1]

Pierce Egan originally began his working adult life as an illustrator, and he collaborated with his father on projects such as The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). He soon turned his attention to writing light fiction, and published his first novel entitled Quintin Matsys; or The Blacksmith of Antwerp in  the same year.

Illustration from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood (1838-1840)

Other serials soon followed, and Egan enjoyed writing tales of outlaws. Robin Hood and Little John was serialised between 1838 and 1840. His second medievalist story was Wat Tyler which was serialised in 1840, and his third serial was Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest, which began serialisation in 1842. Critics have previously assumed that Egan presented a conservative and bourgeois view of life in medieval England, a reading based upon the fact that Robin is depicted as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon. [2] I disagree with this, however, the fact that Robin is presented as the Earl of Huntingdon appears to be an afterthought in Egan’s text. In the first chapter of the second book, Egan mentions that Robin tried to recover his estate through legal means, but being unsuccessful, decides instead to wait for the return of the King. [3] Other than that, the discussion of Robin’s rightful heritage receives little mention in Egan’s novel, and thankfully his story is not reduced to being simply a tale of Robin recovering his birth right, something which other novels of Robin Hood do fall victim to. Robin’s real enemies in Egan’s novel are the aristocracy, represented by the Normans. Raised as the son of a simple Anglo-Saxon yeoman forester, he feels little affinity with the nobility. He is constantly on the side of the yeoman, or the people. And Robin is violent towards members of the establishment. Aristocrats receive arrows through their eyes, [4] limbs are cut off. [5]

In Egan’s Robin Hood, Robin is not actually outlawed until the second book of the novel. But we see quite a ‘democratic’ set up in Sherwood Forest. Robin is elected as the leader of his men, but Egan says this is not to do with the fact that he is the Earl of Huntingdon, but rather he is elected upon his merits by downtrodden Anglo-Saxon peasants. [6] It is a pure form of democracy, in opposition to the notions of ‘Old Corruption’ that were frequently levelled at the early nineteenth-century establishment. Indeed, what could have been more radical in the early Victorian period than seeing the peasantry voting? It is what the Chartists demanded, although more on the Chartists allusions in Egan’s work is highlighted below in the brief discussion of Wat Tyler.

adam bell
Illustration from Egan’s Adam Bell.

The Anglo-Saxons versus Normans theme is continued in Egan’s serial Adam Bell, which is based upon the story of an eponymous medieval outlaw who supposedly lived in the thirteenth century and was, like Robin Hood, celebrated in ballads and songs. [7] In Adam Bell life under the Normans is presented as pretty grim for the good Anglo-Saxon folk:

The Normans still governed, still possessed everything; still laid a grievous yoke upon the English, who hated them to the very marrow of their bones. [8]

Like Scott before him, Egan presents a vision of a divided society, and it is the oppression of the Normans which creates outlawry and crime:

Cumberland possessed, at this time, an extensive forest, which bore the name of Englewood – and in various parts of this wood dwelled several bands of Saxons, who had all been sufferers under the Normans. [9]

Egan’s most radical text, however, was his serial Wat Tyler, the complete volume of which was published in 1841. The medieval Wat Tyler who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 had been appropriated by radicals in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ [10] Circumstances had changed when Egan was writing, and Britain saw the emergence of Chartism between 1838 and 1858. It was a working-class political reform movement which sought to establish a People’s Charter:

  • A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  • The Secret Ballot.
  • No Property Qualification for MPs.
  • Payment of MPs, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  • Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  • Annual Parliament Elections.
Illustration from Egan’s Wat Tyler.

In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter. Again Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Scott’s Ivanhoe. The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. [11] Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’.

The genius of Egan’s writing lay in the fact that he managed to cloak his radicalism in respectability. How could the Victorian middle classes object to tales of Robin Hood, Adam Bell, and Wat Tyler? They had after all been staples of broadsides and chapbooks for centuries before, and in the case of Robin Hood, the outlaw had by the nineteenth century become thoroughly gentrified and respectable due to the works of Walter Scott and Thomas Love Peacock. Egan’s tales of thieves and rebels certainly did not come in for censure like another novel about a thief entitled Jack Sheppard, written by William Harrison Ainsworth and published in 1839. Where the establishment saw quaint tales from English history, readers got a semi-radical vision of one in which commoners rose up and violently challenged the establishment.


[1] Anon. ‘Penny Novels’ MacMillan’s Magazine June 1866, 96-105 (96).
[2] See the third chapter in Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003).
[3] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 98.
[4]  Egan, Robin Hood, 65.
[5] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.
[6] Egan, Robin Hood, 144.
[7] See Thomas H. Ohlgren (ed.) Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998).
[8] Pierce Egan, Adam Bell; or, The Archers of Englewood Forest (London: G. Vickers, 1842), 3.
[9] Egan, Adam Bell, 5.
[10] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (London: T. Sherwin, 1817), 6.
[11] Pierce Egan, Wat Tyler (1842 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1851), 460.
[12] Chris R. V. Bossche, Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867 (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2014), 38.


“The Noble Birth of Robin Hood” (1662)


In the sixteenth century a peculiar genre of romance emerged known as picaresque fiction. It originated in Spain and portrayed the lives of rogues and criminals. The first such Spanish work was entitled Lazarillo de Tormes (1554). Works were translated into English such as James Mabbe’s Guzman de Alfarache (1622). Later in the seventeenth century was the famous work The English Rogue (1665) which, in the words of Hal Gladfelder, marked the genre’s full assimilation into English. [1] In the seventeenth century also one of the first prose accounts of Robin Hood’s life was published entitled The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1662). [2] Its author was said to be ‘an Ingenious Antiquary’ who had collected all of the different materials purporting to tell the details of Robin Hood’s life. It was reprinted several times throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, and again by the antiquary William Thoms in his edited collection of Early English Prose Romances (1828). Robin Hood scholars have often been dismissive of this work. But I think it is significant because it appears to be an attempt to situate stories of England’s most famous outlaw within the genre of English rogue fiction.


It is not known who the author of The Noble Birth was, other than that he was, as we have seen, ‘an ingenious antiquary’. The authors of English rogue fiction often claimed that their stories were either from the mouths of real criminals, or collected from their memoirs, or delivered directly to the author. Richard Head followed this practice in Jackson’s Recantation (1674) which declared that:

Reader, let me assure thee this is no fiction, but a true relation of Mr. Jacksons life and conversation, Pen’d by his own hand, and delivered into mine to be made publick for his Countrymens good, in compensation of the many injuries he hath done them. [3]

This is a practice which continued with criminal biography in the eighteenth century, as well as later novels. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), for example, claims to have been ‘written from her own memorandums’. The author of The Noble Birth is similarly attempting something of the same with Robin Hood; given the fact that Robin is not a contemporary seventeenth-century figure, however, the author needs to claim that he is an antiquary who has researched the subject.

Title Page: Anon. The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1678 Edn.)


As the title implies, the author states that Robin was born the heir to the Earl of Huntingdon’s estate. But to the antiquary, the fact that he is of noble birth does not automatically equal being upright and moral. He tells us that Robin was:

Outlaw’d by Henry the Eight for many extravagances and outrages he committed, [and] did draw together a company of such bold and licentious persons as himself. [4]

We are not told why Robin turns to a life of crime, merely that he was ‘bold and licentious’. There are no lofty ideals which make him take to a life in the greenwood. Rather, like many protagonists in seventeenth-century rogue fiction, Robin acts on impulses – self-preservation at any cost, money, revenge. [5] Robin’s actions are thus encouraged by the newly-emerging ideology of bourgeois individualism in the seventeenth century.

17th-century illustration from Robin Hood’s Garland (1663). Courtesy of Rochester University, NY.

The stories that follow the introduction to Robin Hood’s life are taken directly from many of the later seventeenth-century ballads such as Robin Hood’s Delight, Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham, Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Curtall Friar, and Robin Hood’s Chase. As with all seventeenth-century criminal narratives, the action moves at rapid pace. Rarely does the author expend more than two pages detailing the events of each ballad. This is another feature of English rogue fiction; they are episodic, move at rapid pace, and the world they imagine is unstable, characterised by chance meetings and clashes. [6] Adapting the later Robin Hood ballads to this end therefore works well for the author of The Noble Birth here, and further demarcates the work as a piece of English picaresque fiction. The rapidity of narration would be emulated in later criminal biographies during the eighteenth century, and Alexander Smith’s entry on Robin Hood in his A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Charles Johnson’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) owe a lot to author of The Noble Birth.

The major departure which The Noble Birth makes from the Robin Hood tradition is in its account of the outlaw’s later life. In the fifteenth-century poem A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode he is bled to death by the Prioress of Kirklees who conspires with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. And it is a story that is usually repeated in the oft-reprinted garland versions of the ballad of Robin Hood’s Death and Burial, as well as in Smith and Johnson’s eighteenth-century narratives. But in this story we are told that:

He spent his old age in peace, at a house of his own, not far from Nottingham, being generally beloved and respected of all […] Robin Hood dismissed all his idle companions, and betaking himself to a civil course of life, he did keep a gallant house, and had over all the country, the love of the rich, and the prayers of the poor. [7]

The penitence in Robin Hood’s later life is another feature of The Noble Birth which marks it out as a piece of rogue fiction. For example, The Conversion of an English Courtesan (1592) we are told how the author:

I have set downe at the end of my disputation, the wonderful life of a curtezin, not a fiction, but a truth of one that yet liues, not now in an other forme repentant. [8]

In this way the story of The Noble Birth, along with The Conversion, anticipate Defoe’s account of Moll Flanders who ‘during a life of continued variety […] at last grew rich, lived honest, and died a penitent’. [9] These types of narratives are there to provide moral instruction to readers, and they do this by showing the criminal repentant.


The account of Robin Hood’s life in The Noble Birth is not an historicist interpretation of the medieval period. There are no grand knights in shining armour as there is in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) or Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or the Days of King John (1838). In fact Robin is not a medieval figure at all in The Noble Birth, but instead is said to have lived in the early modern period during the days of Henry VIII. The work itself follows the conventions seen in English rogue fiction from the seventeenth century. Despite the fact that the author claims to be ‘an ingenious antiquary’, he pays little regard to scholarship, and is unconcerned with establishing the facts of Robin’s life. If attention to detail was his main concern, there were plenty of historical sources other than ballads which he could have used, such as John Major’s Chronicles. Had attention been paid to historical accuracy (as far as is possible in the Robin Hood tradition), he would certainly not have placed Robin during the time of Henry VIII. Despite being of little value to those who would seek to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood, this work is significant as it appears to be one of the first appearances of Robin Hood in an English mass market prose narrative (if ‘mass market’ can be applied to a seventeenth-century work). It is further evidence of the fact that, by the seventeenth century, the Robin Hood tradition is moving from being a predominantly oral tradition to a textual one. Previously Robin’s story had been told in ballads, poems, and Latin chronicles, but this work marks the assimilation of Robin Hood into the English literary sphere. It is a work that would have clear influences upon Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson’s accounts of Robin Hood’s life, which in turn would subtly influence Walter Scott’s nuanced portrayal of Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe, [10] the greatest Robin Hood novel.


[1] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[2] Excepting, of course, the ‘Sloane Life’ of Robin Hood in the British Museum which dates from around 1600.
[3] Richard Head, Jackson’s Recantation or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution : wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road (London: Printed for T. B. 1674)
[4] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood’ in Early English Prose Romances Ed. William Thoms 3 Vols. (London: William Pickering, 1828), 1: 3.
[5] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 7.
[6] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 33.
[7] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth’, op cit.
[8] Cited in Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2004), 249.
[9] Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Ed. John Mullan (1722 repr. London: Everyman, 1991), 1.
[10] Scott owned and read many criminal biographies and was particularly fond of Johnson’s Highwaymen. See Walter Scott, Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns Eds. Gerard Carruthers and Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 254n.

Review: Stephen Knight’s “Reading Robin Hood” (2015)

Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 296p. £70 (HB) ISBN: 978-0-7190-9526-9

reading Robin Hood

When scholars approach the end of their career, they often simply repackage and republish their older works. This is thankfully not the case with Stephen Knight’s new book Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (2015). Knight is the man who back in 1994 essentially rescued Robin Hood Studies from the seemingly never-ending quest to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood by shifting the discipline’s emphasis towards literary research.

Unlike his Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (1994), or Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), Knight’s most recent book is a collection of critical essays upon:

Area[s] where I have long felt exist elements of unclarity and uncertainty (p.8).

Hence there is no overall argument to work as such, and the chapters in it read like published conference papers which have never made it into journals. Knight begins by discussing the interplay between orality and literacy which has existed in the Robin Hood tradition. He then goes on to discuss the development of the outlaw myth in Scotland, after which he discusses the formation of The Gest of Robin Hood (c.1450).

Knight is strongest, however, when he is discussing the later tradition, a point which has been raised by R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor in the revised edition of Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976). The chapter ‘Romantic Robin Hood’ (pp.103-102) discusses how the Georgians transformed Robin Hood into a de-politicised, patriotic outlaw, and how this representation endures in modern portrayals. By far the strongest chapter is ‘Robin Hood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’. He discusses the novels which appeared during that century, and argues that this period, especially between 1819 and 1822, was a watershed moment in the formation of our modern conception of Robin Hood. His sources for this chapter are Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819), Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Royston Gower (1838), Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838-1840), and Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). These are Knight’s key texts, in addition to limited discussions of the many late Victorian children’s books on Robin which were published.

One thing which would have been good to see is for Knight to focus on the various criminal biographies of Robin Hood which appeared in the eighteenth century. There were, as my own research has shown, a significant genre of literature in the early eighteenth century. Yet all we get from Knight about these pieces of literature is a cursory four lines:

Robin did have other random appearances in the period. Several of the serial collections of criminal characters, including some versions of The Newgate Calendar, list him, typically alongside major pirates (p.106).

Furthermore, when Knight discusses Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1838), he makes no mention of the fact that this tale was originally published as a penny blood, and it would have been useful to have some more contextualisation around this, especially in view of the fact that Rosalind Crone has argued recently that penny bloods were one of the working classes’ main outlets for accessing violent entertainment. If there had been more contextualisation on this point, Knight may have been able to nuance the point about Egan’s book being a ‘gentrified’ text. The above weaknesses notwithstanding, however, Knight has once again produced a detailed, scholarly text that is sure to be of use to Robin Hood scholars for years to come, and my own research owes a debt to Stephen Knight for having made the later tradition a serious area of scholarly inquiry.

John Dryden’s “A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour”

But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)

John Dryden
John Dryden (1631-1700)

John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.

Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.

Miscellany title page
Title Page to The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems (1700)

It is in the sixth part of the Miscellany Poems that the ballad A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour appeared. A commentary on the actual content of the ballad has been undertaken for TEAMs by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, rendering a further discussion unnecessary here. It is rather the significance of the ballad appearing in the sixth volume that I want to briefly discuss.

Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:

They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.

Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:

There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.

Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.

Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:

This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.

My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.

This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) collected and preserved many broadside ballads.

Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.

As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.

Further Reading:

My post on Dryden’s King Arthur (1691) on The History Vault

The Digital Miscellanies Project

Full Text of the Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems on Google Books

Stephen N. Zwicker (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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

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

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

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

A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand. [1]

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

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

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Daniel Defoe’s “The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood”

The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].
The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].

I recently came across an obscure little book entitled The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Companions. Written by Captain Charles Johnson. To Which are added, some of the most favourite ballads from an old book, entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (1800). The archival entry lists the author as Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), which had me puzzled. I knew Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for a writer whose real identity is now lost to us, but I never thought that he and Defoe were one and the same person.

Captain Charles Johnson wrote many of the criminal biographies I have written about on this website numerous times before. His major works are A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates, &c. (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Robin Hood features in his history of the highwaymen, and receives a bad reputation. He is of ‘a licentious and wicked inclination’, and, in true eighteenth-century style, only turns to crime because he followed not his trade (just as Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice), and associates himself with several robbers and outlaws. Much of the text is directly plagiarised from an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Captain Alexander Smith entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, published in three volumes between 1714 and 1719.

But was Johnson really Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym? Defoe’s novels do seem to have centred upon criminals; Captain Singleton (1720) is based on the life of the pirate Henry Avery, and Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of a prostitute. Yet it would be difficult to attribute Johnson’s works to Defoe. For one thing, even while Defoe lived, he acknowledged that some of the works which were attributed to him were not actually his:

And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the Style; another to this or that Expression; another to the Way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is to no purpose to oppose it.

Evidently, the literary attributions suited Defoe, as well as the hawkers, who probably thought they could make more money out of people if the name of a famous author such as Defoe was attached to the piece of low literary hack work which they were selling.

Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).
Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).

It was in 1934 that an American scholar J. R. Moore announced that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. He had no documentary evidence to make such a claim, and instead pointed to the style and subject matter. His main line of reasoning was that the frequent moralism throughout Johnson’s works is similar to the didacticism in Defoe’s novels. Thus Moore was, as Defoe himself put it ‘swearing to the style, or this or that expression’. Moore went further, and compiled a checklist of over 500 works that had been attributed to Daniel Defoe. It is a checklist that is still quite influential to this day, including works such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), The Life of Jonathan Wild (1725), and The True and Genuine Account…of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). These are works which I have used repeatedly in my own research, and in the latest edited edition of them by Richard Holmes entitled Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2002), the credit for these works is clearly given to Defoe.

It seems, however, that I need to go back to some of my old essays, my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation, and de-attribute these works from Defoe. During peer review for an article on Robin Hood in criminal biography I recently wrote, it was suggested that I take a look at P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens book Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1987). On the subject of Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, Furbank and Owens say this:

Moore announced his belief that Defoe had a considerable hand in this work, described on its title page as ‘by Captain Charles Johnson’, at an MLA meeting in 1932; and by 1939, when he published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, he was asserting that the General History was substantially Defoe’s work throughout and that it combined much authentic information with passages of historical fiction and ‘unrestrained romance’. His case was based entirely on internal evidence, and in particular ‘parallels’ with Defoe’s known works.

Furbank and Owens dismiss Moore’s belief that Johnson was in fact Defoe, and point out many differences between Johnson’s and Defoe’s works, such as the fact that the account of the life of the pirate Henry Avery is very different in style and tone to Defoe’s known history of him. Moreover, Johnson in his works displays clear Jacobite sympathies, and staunchly loyal to the Stuart monarchy. In his A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen praises Capt. James Hind ‘the loyal highwayman’, for robbing ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell’:

About this time the unfortunate Charles I suffered death for his political principles. Captain Hind conceived an inveterate enmity to all that party who had stained their hands with the sovereign’s blood, and gladly embraced every opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon them. In a short time they met with the usurper Oliver Cromwell.

In view of the fact that Defoe was a supporter of the Hanoverian regime and Robert Walpole, it seems further unlikely that Johnson, who manifests Jacobite beliefs throughout all of his works, is the same person as Daniel Defoe. For example, he wrote a vigorous defence of William III entitled The True-Born Englishman (1701), and also carried out intelligence work for the Whigs, writing numerous pamphlets attacking the Tories, who were predominantly Jacobite supporters.

Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)
Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)

Who Captain Charles Johnson was nobody knows; perhaps we never will know. One thing is certain, however, he was not Daniel Defoe. Whilst there have only been a couple of famous novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) associated with the Robin Hood legend, unfortunately, it seems that we cannot add Defoe to the list.

Further Reading:

P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987).