Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)

The eighteenth century was a period which witnessed a great deal of interest in crime. With a rising crime rate, and an inefficient system of law enforcement that consisted of corrupt thief takers and part time constables, people sought to understand the workings of the criminal mind. For this they turned to the numerous pieces of crime literature that were available in the eighteenth century. Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) was the forerunner to Captain Charles Johnson’s more famous Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). With its combination of excessive moralism and sensational reporting, Smith’s work deserves discussion because it set the tone for successive portrayals of criminal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature.

Golden Farmer
An 18th-Century Illustration of the Golden Farmer

The details of who Smith was are now lost to us, and the name is most certainly a pseudonym – a guise that Smith’s successor Johnson would also adopt. The first volume of Smith’s compendium of criminals’ life stories appeared in 1714 in a small 12mo volume (5.5 inches by 7.5 inches). This first volume contained accounts of criminals that had appeared in the fifty years before Smith’s lifetime, including James Hind (1616-1652), James Whitney (d. 1694), and William Davies alias ‘The Golden Farmer’ (1627-1690). Smith’s had to at least pretend that his books were going to serve a moral purpose to make them acceptable to polite readers:

Since preceding generations have made it their grand care and labour not only to communicate to posterity the lives of good and honest men, that thereby men might fall in love with the smooth and beautiful face of virtue, but have also taken pains to recount the actions of criminals and wicked persons, that by the dreadful aspects of vice they may be deterred from embracing her illusions, we here present the public with ‘An History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen’. [1]

Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

Despite this benign moral intention behind his work, all that Smith really wants to do is to provide sensational and violent entertainment. Despite the fact that he condemns all of the criminals in his account as ‘wicked’ or ‘licentious’, and stressing how his work was ‘not published to encourage wickedness’, [2] he takes great delight in going into great detail about every violent act the criminals commit. Take the case of a burglary committed on the house of Mr. Bean by Sawney Cunningham, a highwayman and murderer who lived during the reign of Charles I:

He went one day to pay a visit to one Mr. William Bean, his uncle by his mother’s side, and a man of unblameable conversation; who, asking his wicked nephew how he did, and several other questions relating to his welfare, he for answer stabbed him with his dagger to his heart. [3]

Smith recounts with great delight some scenes of rape, or ‘ravishing’ as he calls it. This is the case with a criminal named Patrick O’Bryan, who with his gang break into a house, tie up the five servants, and attempt to rape the lady of the house’s daughter:

Next they went into the daughter’s room, who was also in bed; but O’Bryan being captivated by her extraordinary beauty, quoth he, Before we tie and gag this pretty creature, I must make bold to rob her of her maidenhead. So whilst the villain was eagerly coming to the bedside, protesting that he loved her as he did his soul and designed her no more harm than he did himself, the modest virgin had wrapped herself up in the bedclothes as well as time would permit. And as he took her in one arm, and endeavoured to get his other hand between herself and the sheet, she made a very vigorous defence to save her honour, for though she could not hinder him from often kissing, not only her face, but several other parts of her body, as by struggling they came to be bare; yet by her nimbleness in shifting her posture, and employing his hands so well as her own, they could never attain to the liberty they chiefly strove for. [4]

Often criminal accounts were used as a source of erotica for eighteenth-century readers which indicates that little attention was paid by readers to the moral message behind such texts. [5]

Smith’s work was an instant success, and an enlarged version of his work appeared in two volumes in early 1719, with another expanded three volume edition appearing later the same year. By the time that volume three was published, some of Smith’s accounts begin to verge upon the ridiculous. In volume three the reader is treated to accounts of Sir John Falstaff and Robin Hood (who Smith tries to portray as wicked as all of his other criminals).

18th-century illustration of Murderer and Highwaymen, Sawney Beane.

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ 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 Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

Edward Bonnet was born of very good and reputable parents in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, who bestowing some small education upon him, as reading, writing, and casting accounts, about the fifteenth year of his age, he was put an apprentice to a grocer living at Potton, in Bedfordshire, whom he served honestly. [6]

After an account of the offender’s good upbringing, Smith tells the tale of how the criminall falls into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. This usually follows as the result of keeping unwholesome company, as is the case of Tom Gerrard, a house-breaker:

Having some small education bestowed on him he was, when about sixteen years of age, put apprentice to a poulterer in Clare Market, where he served part of his time. But he addicted himself to ill company, so that wholly leading a loose and idle life, it drew him into many straits and inconveniences. To repair these, he took to the trade of thieving. [7]

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. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. 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. [9]

Towards some of his highwaymen Smith even has a grudging admiration. This was especially the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind. Smith was evidently an ardent royalist, and praised Hind for having once robbed:

That infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as [he was] coming from Huntingdon to London. [10]

At the end of the tale readers 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, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

At length, being brought to trial, he was convicted not only for wilful murder, but also for five robberies on the highway. After sentence of death was passed upon him he was very careless of preparing himself for another world, whilst under condemnation […] When he came to the place of execution at St. Michael’s Hill, he was turned off without showing any signs of repentance, on Friday the 4th of September 1713. Thus died this incorrigible offender. [11]

However much readers 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. [12]

What we witness when reading criminal biography, furthermore, is nothing less than the birth of the novel: criminal biography freely mixed fact and fiction and, dwelling as it did upon those of low social status (whereas the ‘romance’ – the dominant form of fiction – had usually dwelt upon aristocrats), it primed readers ready for larger factitious accounts of those from low social status. Indeed, Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) cann be regarded as a criminal biography writ large.

Moll Flanders (1722)

True crime writing – the type of books that are sold in Railway station bookshops for a few pounds today – have continued Smith’s style of writing: lurid, sensational, and giving readers a glimpse into the criminal psyche. Even television shows such as Law and Order and Criminal Minds arguably do the same. The Georgians’ love of crime writing shows how, even though manners and social customs can change over time, people have always had a taste for the lurid and violent. And like people today, although the Georgians enjoyed crime as entertainment, they enjoyed seeing criminals get their just desserts also.


[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] 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.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] 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 (p.701)

Historic Yorkshire Criminals: William Knipe’s “Criminal Chronology” (1867)

The eighteenth century was the period in which criminal biography flourished, when men such as Charles Johnson were publishing books such as Lives of the Highwaymen (1734) alongside serialised publications such as The Newgate Calendar and The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

The genre did not die at the end of the eighteenth century, however, for during the nineteenth century two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, published a new five volume edition of The Newgate Calendar in 1824 and a revised version 1826. A cheaper penny dreadful version entitled The New Newgate Calendar was published in 1863. Charles Macfarlane also authored The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) while in the following year Charles Whitehead published Lives and exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1834).

Crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century, but it is only in the nineteenth century that the government actually decided to do anything about it. The creation of a professionalised police force in 1829 replaced the haphazard system of law enforcement involving thief takers and part time constables that had existed until that point. Gaols, which had previously been nothing more than holding centres until an offender’s trial, became large institutions where people stayed for a long time. The persistence of criminal biography as a genre is therefore a reflection of the ongoing public debate that was occurring in parliament and the popular press over reforms to the criminal justice system.

William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867)

Most of these collections detailing the lives of criminals were very London-centric, with little attention paid to criminals from outside the capital. In light of this, William Knipe authored Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867). Knipes work gave a brief biography of almost every criminal executed at York between the fourteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.

Like Johnson before him, Knipe intended his work to be read as a piece of moralist literature:

The numerous and melancholy examples which our pages record of persons hurrying on from one crime to another, till the awful hand of justice has required their lives, will, we trust, alarm and deter the young and inexperienced from an indulgence in those pursuits or company which tend to weaken their ideas of justice and morality, the sure and certain prognostic of future ruin.[1]

Despite the moral purpose behind his work, Knipe avoids the sensational style of writing that was characteristic of the work of Johnson. Knipe was an antiquary and wanted his discussion to appear more sober and detailed. While Johnson often just made things up (Johnson even gives us an account of the life of that notorious robber, Sir John Falstaff), Knipe’s work was ‘carefully compiled from prison documents, ancient papers, and other authentic sources’ according to the title page.[2]

Ivanhoe 1871
Micklegate, York in the 19th century

The gallows in York was first erected on 1 March 1379 in order to execute all those who had been capitally convicted in the County of Yorkshire,[3] and the first criminal to have the ‘honour’ of being executed at the ‘York Tyburn’ (so called after the more famous London Tyburn) was a man called Edward Hewison:

At the Spring Assizes of 1379, Edward Hewison, aged 20, a native of Stockton, near York, and a private soldier in the Earl of Northumberland’s Light Horse, was tried and capitally convicted for committing a rape upon Louisa Bentley, 22 years of age […] when Hewison saw her alone in the field on the footpath, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. He then went into the field, threw the young woman down, and ravished her.[4]

While Knipe’s work is primarily a compendium of the lives of criminals, one thing which distinguishes his work from earlier works by Johnson et al is the fact that he includes political rebels. The three leaders of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ during the reign of Henry VIII: Sir Robert Aske, Lord Hussey, and William Wode are all presented in his work. Aske got off lightly compared to the latter two, for he was merely ‘hanged in chains’ and his body left to hang in a gibbet.[5] Hussey and Wode, however, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and:

[Their] mutilated remains put into a coffin and given to their friends for internment.[6]

Whereas Johnson’s accounts of each individual criminal are quite lengthy, most of Knipe’s accounts of criminals who existed before the Victorian era are relatively short. This is all he says, for example, of two criminals from Leeds named John de Viner and Harris Rosenberg who were executed at the York gallows in 1603:

Saturday, March 30th, A.D. 1603. – Harris Roseberg, aged 56, a native of Florence; and John de Viner, aged 32, servant to the above, a native of Paris, were executed at the Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, for the atrocious murder of Mr. Millington, an innkeeper at Leeds, on the night of the 8th day of November last. These unfortunate men suffered death in the presence of a large concourse of spectators. Their bodies on being taken down from the scaffold were given to the surgeons for dissection, in accordance with the sentence passed upon them.[7]

The criminal who receives the lengthiest account in Knipe’s work is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). For his account of Turpin, Knipe appears to have abridged an earlier account of Turpin’s life entitled The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739).

Illustration of a criminal being executed from The Newgate Calendar

For criminals who existed prior to his own day Knipe avoids making any moral judgements upon their course of life. As he moves into his own era, the Victorian era, however, he begins to moralise more and more. While criminality in earlier periods can be explained by the fact that Englishmen’s manners and morals were not as refined as they were in his own day, the fact that criminals existed and were still being hanged in the Victorian period baffles Knipe. Take his account of a murder committed in Hunslet, Leeds in 1849:

Thomas Malkin. Saturday, January 6th, A.D. 1849. – Thomas Malkin was hanged on the new drop, in front of St. George’s Field, for the murder of Esther Inman, near Leeds. It is again our painful duty to record one of those brutalizing spectacles, of which England, that land of Bibles and privileges, can boast so many, viz., the public strangling of a fellow creature.[8]

This is a double-edged critique of Knipe’s own society – with Bibles and ‘privileges’ being plentiful in the Victorian era (Knipe does not say what these ‘privileges’ are), in theory there should be no criminals and no hangings.

Knipe’s accounts of criminals from before the Victorian era rarely carry any information about their trial. Likely this was down to lack of primary sources, but accounts of Victorian criminals are conspicuous in Knipe’s work with the inclusion of trial proceedings.

Knipe gives a lengthy account of the trial of Alfred Waddington from Sheffield who was executed on 15 January 1853 for the murder of his illegitimate child.[9] While most of Knipe’s accounts of pre-Victorian criminals concentrate upon the birth and upbringing of the offender, in the accounts of criminals from the mid-Victorian period sometimes all that Knipe gives the reader is details of the trial. This is the case in Knipe’s account of William Dove from Leeds, who was executed for murdering his wife Harriet on 9 August 1856.[10]

Eighteenth-century accounts of criminals presented criminality as something that was the result of original sin, and this contributed to an often sympathetic depiction of criminals. They were simply people who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations through a tragic fatal flaw. But the conception of criminality had changed by the Victorian era: criminality became associated with the rise of a criminal class – a class of people drawn from society’s poorest ranks and who were thought to be responsible for the majority of crime. At the same time, however, there were murmurings from middle-class reformers about the barbarity of the spectacle of public hanging. Some might even argue that society was collectively responsible for crime – as the saying by Emile Durkheim goes: ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Thus the wickedness and depravity of the offender was exposed with the inclusion of trial:

[When] publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.[11]

The criminal had failed society, and their guilt had been determined through being found guilty by a jury of their peers. They had been justly punished.

Knipe’s work does not appear to have been extremely popular, and only went through one edition. In contrast, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar went through several editions during the Victorian era and are still being reprinted even today (the most recent edition of The Newgate Calendar was published by The Folio Society in 1993). The reason why Knipe’s work was not as successful, it might be speculated, is probably because it was too serious. It lacked Johnson’s acerbic wit and humour. Nevertheless, Knipe’s work is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of crime in Yorkshire that has ever been published.


[1] William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle; with a Register of the Criminals Capitally Convicted and Executed at the County Assizes, Commencing March 1st 1379, to the Present Time (York: C. L. Burdekin, 1867), p.vii.
[2] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.i.
[3] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.1.
[4] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.1-2.
[5] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.4.
[6] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.4-5.
[7] Knipe Criminal Chronology, p.15.
[8] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.230.
[9] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.240-244.
[10] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.248-253.
[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (London: Penguin, 1975), p.9


Curteous Outlaws and Elizabethan Rogues: The 16th-Century Context of “A Gest of Robyn Hode”

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.[1] 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.[2] It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.[3] The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century.[4] 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.[5]

Awdley Title Page
Title Page: John Awdley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1575 Edn.)

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’.[6] 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,[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.

Gest illustration
Illustration from A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1500)

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.[10]

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.[11]

J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’.[12] But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth,[13] 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.[14] The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

Thomas Harman’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

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: [19] the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree.[20] 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, [21] the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’.[22] 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:.[23] For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest;[24] 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’.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]

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’.[29] 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,[30] Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’,[31] spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.[32]

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.”[33]

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.”[34]

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’.[35] 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.’[36] The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[37] 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.[38]

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”’.[39] 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).[40] 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.[41]

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.[42]

Richard Grafton in his Chronicle at Large (1569) incorporated material from Major’s work, and expanded it, and Robin Hood emerges as thoroughly gentrified.[43] Similarly, in John Stow’s Annales of England (1592) he says that Robin Hood and Little John ‘renowned theeves’ known for ‘dispoyling and robbing the rich’, and concluding with Major’s statement that he was the most humane and Prince of all Robbers.[44] Any threatening aspects of Robin’s character would finally be neutered by Anthony Munday in his two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98).

In contrast, the inhabitants of the Elizabethan ‘underworld’ were still being portrayed as foreboding characters at the end of the century. Greene’s The Black Book’s Messenger (1592) almost anticipates the criminal biographies of the eighteenth century by telling, in a moralistic fashion, the story of

Ned Browne […] a man infamous for his bad course of life and well known about London […] in outward shew a Gentlemanlike companion.[45]

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.[46] 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.[47] Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures,[48] was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.[49]

William Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff.[50] 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.[51] 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’.[52] 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.


[1] 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).
[2] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
[3] 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).
[4] 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.
[5] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
[6] 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).
[7] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
[8] McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
[9] Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
[10] 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).
[11] An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
[12] Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[15] 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)
[16] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
[17] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
[18] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds [1561]’ 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).
[19] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] 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.
[22] 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).
[23] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[24] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
[25] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
[26] 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).
[27] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same [1552]’ 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).
[28] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
[29] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[30] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
[31] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[32] 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).
[33] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
[34] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
[35] Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
[36] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage [1591]’ 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).
[39] Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[40] Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
[41] 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).
[42] John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae [1521]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
[43] Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
[44] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
[45] Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger [1592]’ 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).
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light [1608]’ 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).
[48] 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).
[49] Ibid.
[50] Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
[51] Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
[52] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.

Maid Marian in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls: A Proto-Feminist?

A paper read at the Women in Print Conference, Chetham’s Library, Manchester 20 May 2016

Header image scanned from my personal copy of J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian the Forest Queen (1849)  – unless otherwise indicated, all images have been scanned from books in my personal collection.


Penny Tinkler writes that ‘the study of popular literature, in particular novels and periodicals, has contributed important dimensions the history of girls and women in England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. [1] Studying popular literature is important in discussions of gender history because popular literature projected gender ideals to their readers. One of these ideals was that women should be the ‘the Angel in the House’, confined almost exclusively to the domestic sphere. When it comes to Robin Hood novels, however, representations of Marian differ from typical Victorian gender norms. This paper analyses successive portrayals of Maid Marian in nineteenth-century penny bloods/dreadfuls. The novels considered in this paper are: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest which was serialised between 1838 and 1840; Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen which was serialised in 1849; the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet (1865); and George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Outlaws of Sherwood Forest which was first published as a three volume novel in 1869, and later reprinted as a penny dreadful in 1885. This paper will show how penny dreadful authors represented Maid Marian as a strong and independent female figure. But this paper will also ask why, when nearly every representation of Maid Marian in penny dreadfuls represents her as an emancipated proto-feminist woman, [2] no female authors ever adopted her.

Illustration from J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Context: Maid Marian before 1800

In the earliest Robin Hood texts, Maid Marian is entirely absent. She appears nowhere, for instance, in the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, or Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. [3] In fact, the first clear association of Robin with a woman named Marian was in Tudor May Day celebrations. [4] From the May Day celebrations she made her way into two late Elizabethan plays written by Anthony Munday entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, written between 1597 and 1598. Following Munday’s plays, Marian appears as Robin’s wife in Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood, which was written in 1641. From then on, Marian became fixed as Robin Hood’s love interest. She appears in Martin Parker’s poem, A True Tale of Robin Hood, which was first printed in 1632, and in the late seventeenth-century ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [5] However, ballads featuring Marian do not appear to have been very popular and went quickly out-of-print. [6] This is not because audiences did not warm to her as a character. It is rather as a result of the fact that the ballads featuring her have a ‘complete lack of any literary merit’, according to the Robin Hood scholars R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor. [7] Another reason for this may be that, in the seventeenth century ballad tradition, Robin Hood was known to have had another love interest – a lady called Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses. Clorinda appears in a widely printed ballad entitled Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage to Clorinda, which was first printed in the Sixth Part of John Dryden’s Miscellanies, published in 1716. [8]

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe published in 1819, which is, in my opinion, the greatest literary work to feature Robin Hood, does not include Maid Marian. In Ivanhoe Robin of Locksley has to be celibate in order to concentrate on saving the nation. [9] Neither does Marian appear in the two volume novel Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time also published in 1819. [10] In that novel Robin’s love interest is an aristocratic lady called Claribel. Instead, Marian’s big break came in a now little-known novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marian published in 1822. It is In his novel, Marian is a headstrong, powerful woman who challenges established gender roles, [11] in fact it is rumoured that the character of Marian was based upon Peacock’s friend, Mary Shelley. [12] In the novel, Marian disregards the wishes of her father by joining Robin in the woods, [13] is fond of traditionally masculine pastimes such as hunting, [14] and is bored when confined to the domestic sphere of life. She declares at one point that: ‘thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers were indifferent to me’. [15] Peacock thus set the tone for subsequent portrayals of Maid Marian in literature.

Representations of Marian in Penny Serials

Robin’s first entry into the world of Victorian penny bloods came with Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John. He was a prolific novelist, and after Scott and Peacock is perhaps one of the better authors to have adapted the legend of Robin Hood. The idea of class struggle, although not fully articulated, is present within Egan’s novel, for he says that there are ‘two classes’ under whom the poor suffer (the poor are represented by the Anglo-Saxon serfs).[16] Egan’s vision of Sherwood society is truly egalitarian: Robin is elected as the leader of the downtrodden Anglo-Saxon serfs, [17] while Little John also has to be elected as his lieutenant. [18] Whilst critics such as Stephen Knight have interpreted Egan’s Robin Hood as a gentrified and conservative text, [19] it is more likely that, given the democratic ideals present within Egan’s Robin Hood, as well as his Wat Tyler (1840) and Adam Bell (1842), his novel was a radical text. [20]

Egan Robin Hood
Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840 – 1850 Edn.)

In the novel, Marian is committed to the democratic ideals of the Sherwood Forest society. Marian is first introduced to the reader as Matilda, but when she goes to live with Robin in the forest, her name changes to Marian. Egan explains the reason for this in the novel, saying that it was ‘a request she had made that all should call her thus, rather than they should think her birth or previous state above theirs’. [21] In contrast to the other female characters, Marian is made of sterner stuff, displaying fortitude and strength in the face of danger. She is a skilled archer, and able to hold her own against the rest of the outlaws in archery competitions. [22] This is in contrast to how Egan portrays other women in his novel: the other ladies are typical ‘damsels in distress’ – one character called Maude faints frequently at the first sign of trouble, [23] while another character, Christabel, has ‘scarce ever been from her chamber’. [24] Apart from Marian, then, the women in late medieval society are portrayed as thoroughly Victorian.

Title Page: J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Egan’s Robin Hood was immensely successful, going through at least five editions. It also inspired another novel authored by Joaquim Stocqueler entitled Maid Marian, the Forest Queen (1849). In the first half of the novel, Marian is the central character. Robin is away fighting the Crusades in the Holy Land with King Richard, and it is Marian who has been placed in charge of the outlaw band in Robin’s absence. The reader first encounters Marian alone in the forest, attired in a male forester’s outfit. [25] In keeping with Egan’s and Peacock’s portrayals of Marian, in Stocqueler’s novel she is skilled in the use of the bow and arrow. [26] She enthusiastically participates in hunting with her fellow outlaws, [27] and at one point even wrestles with a wild boar. [28] These vigorous activities do not make her unfeminine, however, and Stocqueler says that she was blessed with both ‘gentleness and firmness, feminine grace and masculine intrepidity’. It is because of these qualities that Stocqueler says that all women should strive to be like Maid Marian: active, brave, independent. [30]

Little John Will Scarlet
Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) – From Nineteenth-Century Collections Online

It is a similar case in the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet. The novel is basically a rehash of Egan’s tale. There are two heroines in this serial, Eveline and Marian, and they are both expertly skilled with a bow and arrow, and do not flinch from killing people in self-defence. Eveline, for instance, rescues Will Scarlet by shooting a Norman with a crossbow. [31] During a battle between the outlaws and a horde of Norman soldiers, Marian saves Robin by killing a Norman who was about to stab Robin with his sword. This event, according to the author, is proof that ‘women [are] our best and safest shield from danger’. [32] The outlaws need women in their band: they are not there for decoration, but play an active role in the outlaws’ activities.

Aldine Robin Hood Library (c.1900)

In contrast to the examples discussed above, George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood presents Marian as a typical Victorian lady. She is delicate, and does not have the independence of mind that previous incarnations of Marian do, exclaiming at one point that ‘I know but little, my tongue is guided by my heart’. [33] She often requires rescuing by Robin from the clutches of the Sheriff, [34] and has a habit of getting captured by Norman soldiers travelling through the forest, [25] and from wild animals in the forest. [36] In Emmett’s novel it is the male characters who participate in the best adventures, and it is clear when reading the novel that it is the first Robin Hood story to be written specifically for boys. [37] In other adventures written for boys, Marian is present but often she is only a background character, as is the case with Aldine’s Robin Hood Library which were a series of 32 page pamphlets published between 1901 and 1902. When Marian is present, she more often than not requires rescuing from the Sheriff’s castle. [38] It appears that when the legend of Robin Hood is adapted specifically for a young male readership, writers left little room for free-spirited and independent Marian to appear in the text.

Emmett's Robin Hood
George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Sherwood Forest (1885 Edn.)


The Emmett novel and the Aldine Robin Hood Library notwithstanding, it is clear that novelists enjoyed portraying Marian as a free-spirited, brave woman. When Egan, Emmett, and Stocqueler were writing in the early-to-mid Victorian period, the ideal of domesticity had reached its zenith. The idea of the Angel in the House was central to the image of Victorian moral society, [39] but in Marian there was a heroine who differed from Victorian gender expectations. She is out in the public sphere, actively assisting her husband. In fact, as John Tosh notes, ‘the doctrine of separate spheres […] has been more dogmatically asserted by modern scholars than it ever was by the Victorians themselves’, [40] a point which has also been echoed by Amanda Vickery. [41] June Hannam similarly notes that, ‘far from confining themselves to the home, a significant minority of women in the nineteenth century took an active role in public life’. [42] The representations of Maid Marian that appear during the nineteenth century are perhaps an example of this: the male writers who authored Robin Hood novels thought that headstrong and independent Marian was a better ideal of femininity.

FullSizeRender[3] (2)
Marian Hunting a Wild Boar – Illustration from Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Just because Marian is portrayed as an active heroine, however, does not mean that she represents a woman that is fully emancipated from patriarchal restrictions upon her life. This is perhaps a consequence of the fact that it was male writers depicting her in their novels. Egan was much too concerned with politics in his novel, and gender issues appear to have taken a back seat. Stocqueler’s novel is interesting, however: Marian is a free-spirited woman while Robin is away on Crusade. When he returns, Marian becomes a typical ‘Victorian’ lady: she becomes weak and impressionable, [43] and almost kills all of the outlaws after she is beguiled by a witch who lives in the forest to administer an elixir to them. In fact, in Stocqueler’s portrayal of the witch there is an example of when female independence can apparently go too far. The witch has poisoned all of her previous husbands, and now lives alone. Poisoning in the nineteenth century was assumed to be a gendered crime, even if actual statistics prove this myth wrong. [44] Nevertheless, women who poisoned men were seen as perversions of ideal femininity. [45] And the witch is proud of her independence, declaring at one point that:

I am monarch in my own right – free, independent, absolute! – free to go where I will and when I will – unburthened by domestics and guards – mistress of the birds of the air and the beasts and reptiles which crawl at my feet – the arbiter of life and death. [46]

Her poisonous machinations know no social rank either, evident when Minnie exclaims: ‘peer or peasant, baron or boor, they have all had a taste of Minnie’s craft’. [47] Marian is an example of good femininity: she is independent, but only to a point – she still requires Robin’s leadership in most matters. Minnie, on the other hand, is what happens when women supposedly are allowed too much freedom.


It cannot have escaped people’s notice that all of these authors were male, and thus the paradox here is this: why did female authors not adapt Maid Marian as one of their heroes? The reason that later women writers, particularly those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, never adapted Maid Marian is because, despite her relative freedom and independence, she is only ever represented in relation to the other sex. Her whole life revolves around her husband, Robin Hood. This is something common to many fictitious heroines, and Virginia Woolf remarked in A Room of One’s Own (1929) something similar, to the effect that ‘all the great women of fiction’, for example, she concluded that they were ‘too simple’ because they were ‘not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.’ [48] Marian was never her own woman, and could never do as she pleased.

Maid Marian was usually depicted in nineteenth-century street literature as a quasi-feminist woman. At a time when the Victorian ideology of domesticity was at its height, Marian was a woman who shunned the private sphere and went out into the world. But there were several qualifications to this: Marian is independent only inasmuch as Robin allows her to be, and her independence, indeed her own world, revolves around her husband. Stocqueler’s novel is especially interesting, for Marian is contrasted with the witch, a woman who is independent but is a perverted form of Victorian femininity. Thus although at first glance Marian should have been an ideal figure nineteenth-century women writers, especially feminist ones, but the reality is that she is far from an ideal feminist icon.


[1] Penny Tinkler, ‘Women and Popular Literature’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 Ed. June Purvis (London: UCL Press, 1995), 131-156 (133).

[2] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[3] Critical editions of these poems are available in R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.), Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997) and Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).

[4] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 34.

[5] See Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 176-178.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Knight & Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, 527-540.

[9] Walter E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’ The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).

[10] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819).

[11] Marilyn Butler, Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context (London: Routledge, 1979), 151.

[12] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.

[13] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. George Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 29.

[14] Peacock, Maid Marian, 20 & 36.

[15] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[16] Pierce Egan the Younger, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 191.

[17] Egan, Robin Hood, 144-146.

[18] Egan, Robin Hood, 146.

[19] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 128.

[20] 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), 50-68.

[21] Egan, Robin Hood, 101.

[22] Egan, Robin Hood, 191.

[23] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.

[24] Egan, Robin Hood, 88.

[25] J. H. Stocqueler, Maid Marian, the Forest Queen, being a companion to “Robin Hood” (London: G. Pierce, 1850), 2.

[26] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40 & 139.

[27] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 53.

[28] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40.

[29] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 26.

[30] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 205.

[31] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, or, The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (London, 1865), 11.

[32] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, 60.

[33] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House, 1885), 76.

[34] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 176.

[35] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 251.

[36] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 201.

[37] Kevin Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’ in Popular Children’s Literature in Britain Eds. Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, M. O. Grenby (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 47-68 (54).

[38] Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’, 58.

[39] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2005), 135.

[40] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 77.

[41] Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’ in The Feminist History Reader Ed. Sue Morgan (London: Routledge, 2006), 74-86 (77).

[41] June Hannam, ‘Women and Politics’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (London: UCL Press, 1995), 217-246 (218).

[43] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 132.

[44] See Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon, 2004).

[45] Radojka Startup, ‘Damaging Females: Representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid nineteenth century’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, UCL, 2000), 10.

[46] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 109.

[47] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 92.

[48] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 1929) [Internet <>>&gt; Accessed 04 May 2016].

The Legend of Robin Hood

A Forthcoming Public Talk to be delivered at Pontefract Castle, Sunday 8 May 2016


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.[1]

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.

FullSizeRender (2)
First page of A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450)

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.[2] 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’.[3] 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’.[4] 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.[5] And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.’[9] Furthermore, ‘in 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war”.’[10] 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’.[11] 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.[12]

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’.[13]

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.[14]

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; [15] Robin Hood and the Potter, which survives in a single manuscript of popular and moral poems that can be dated to c.1500; [16] Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is dated to the mid-fifteenth century; [17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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. [20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

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 Marian published 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),[24] 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.

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598) by Anthony Munday.

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’.[25] His men refer to him as ‘gentle master’.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] 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.

Johnson title page
Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734)

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’.[30] 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.[31]

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’.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34]

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).[35] 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.

Title Page to the 1823 Edition of Ritson's Anthology
Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795 – 1823 Edition).

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.[36]

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.[37]

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.[38]

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.[39]

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.[40] 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’.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe Frontispiece (1871 Edition)

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.[41]

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].[42]

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.[43]

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.[44]

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’.[45] 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.[46]

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.[47] 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.

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

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.[48] 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.[49]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval.[50] 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.[51] 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,[53] 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. [54]

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’.[55]

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.[56]

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form.[57] 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).[58]

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

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,[59] 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.[60]

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.[61]

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.

A more “realist” Robin Hood? The 2010 movie starring Russell Crowe.

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.[62] 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’.[63]


[1] 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.
[2] 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 <; Accessed 11 April 2016].
[3] Allen Wright, ‘The Search for a Real Robin Hood’ Bold Outlaw [Internet <<>> Accessed 11 April 2016].
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.45.
[8] 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].
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] John Timbs, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (London: F. Warne & Co. 1870), 356.
[13] 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).
[14] William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman Eds. Elizabeth Robertson & Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2006), 82.
[15] 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.
[16] 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.
[17] 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.
[18] 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.
[19] 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.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, 178.
[22] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 43.
[23] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 58.
[24] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 43.
[25] Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood Ed. Frances Waldron (London: J. Nichols, 1784), 6.
[26] Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, 12.
[27]‘Pastoral’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [Internet <; Accessed 21 April 2014].
[28] Roy Booth, ‘Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd’ [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 18 April 2016].
[29] A version of this section originally appeared in History Today, October 2015.
[30] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.
[31] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
[32] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), 60.
[33] Smith, Highwaymen, 411.
[34] Smith, Highwaymen, 412.
[35] A version of this section originally appeared in History Vault, October 2015.
[36] Joseph Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: iv.
[37] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: xii.
[38] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: v
[39] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: ix.
[40] David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[41] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
[42] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
[45] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
[46] W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
[47] Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
[48] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[49] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[50] 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.
[51] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[52] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[53] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[54] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[55] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
[55] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[57] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[58] 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].
[59] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 153.
[60] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 152.
[61] The Adventures of Robin Hood, dirs. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (1938) [DVD]
[62] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 161.
[63] Drayton, op cit.

The Newgate Calendar

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.

A man being publically whipped in the Sessions House Yard. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

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 Execution of William Dodd. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

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. [1]

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.[2]

(For a discussion of how ‘true’ their accounts are, bear in mind that some of these authors thought that Sir John Flastaff was a real person…)

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). [3] 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’. [4]

At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes. [5] 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. [6]

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.

Penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1864) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection].

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.

More importantly, however, criminal biographies and The Newgate Calendar paved the way for a form of literature that we still read today: the novel. Whereas fiction before the eighteenth century tended to focus upon the lives of aristocrats, such as Don Quixote (2 Vols. 1605, 1611), criminal biography primed readers for reading about ‘real life’. Hence it is no surprise that the first English novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), often made the protagonists of his novels, not Kings and nobles, but those from low life: prostitutes (Moll Flanders, 1722), pirates (Captain Singleton, 1720).

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.


[1] The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
[2] 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.
[3] John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
[4] The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
[5] 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).
[6] The New Newgate Calendar, 1.

Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

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). [1] 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).[2]

Johnson title page
Title Page: Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 edition)

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.[3] 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.

For his History of the Highwaymen, Johnson appears to have taken inspiration from, and in some cases virtually plagiarised an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Alexander Smith (another pseudonymous author) entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes, for Above Fifty Years Past (1714). In turn Smith’s accounts were widely plagiarised from chapbooks and other earlier pamphlets dealing with the lives of criminals.


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.[4]

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.[5]

From then on, Johnson tells the tale of how the criminal fell into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. Not even Robin Hood, a noble thief by our standards today, is spared this treatment. Johnson tells us that:

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

Indeed, Johnson portrays many of his highwaymen as being very generous fellows, as is the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind:

Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.[12]

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.

Golden Farmer
Engraving of a highwayman from Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 Edition)

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.[13]

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.[14]

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,[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

Although largely forgotten about today, criminal biographies did do one important thing: they paved the way for the emergence of the novel. Instead of relating the lives of aristocrats and Kings, criminal biography attempted to show people ‘real life’. This is why many early novels deal with crime: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) are merely two examples of this. Thus criminal biography, although it died out relatively quickly, has left its mark on a genre of fiction that we still read today.

Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.



[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] 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).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] 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.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] 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).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.

Rogues in Early Modern England

Information for this post was taken principally from Steve Mentz’ and Craig Dionne’s introduction to an edited collection of essays in the book Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006) with further information gleaned from Hal Gladfelder’s Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Before the sixteenth century, there was no such thing as a ‘rogue’. The idea had not entered into popular culture, and the word was only coined in the 1560s. Rogues were different to the outlaw of medieval times. Whereas the medieval outlaw was placed literally beyond the protection of the law and often lived apart from normal society (think of Robin Hood living in the greenwood), the situation with the rogue was different. The rogue was not part of any criminal underworld but rather signified a figure that remained a part of normal society but simultaneously saw no problem with breaking the law.

The rogue was out to get all he could from modern society, usually by swindling, embezzling, and occasionally robbing people. In effect, the rogue was a deviant representative of the self-fashioned gentleman, and representative of wider changes in English society: the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. The rogue owed loyalty to no one but himself, and he was determined to ‘make’ himself through any means necessary. The term soon became a catch-all term for a variety of social deviants and outcasts: rural migrants, urban con-artists, thieves. But it was not always a negative term: for instance, one of Shakespeare’s rogue characters, Sir John Falstaff, is represented as a jolly fat knight who spends a lot of his time drinking and whoring. The rogue could be a figure of fun.

But the rogue could also have negative connotations. The Elizabethan period saw the emergence of English rogue fiction. This was marked by the translation into English of the Spanish work Lazarillo de Tormes (1586; original Spanish edn. 1554), as well as works of a more English flavour such as Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Whereas Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play is associated with the Royal court, the majority of English rogue fiction depicts socially marginal protagonists struggling to survive within an emerging capitalist world. The main associates of the protagonists in English rogue literature are usually the lowest of the low: conmen, cut-purses, petty thieves, prostitutes. Personal gain is these characters’ main object. Jack Wilton in Nashe’s work, for instance, ‘engages in a series of rogueries, some designed to get money, some to get revenge, others for the rough pleasure of practical joking’ (Gladfelder, 2001, 34).

Title Page: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) [Source: Adelaide University]

Rogues in Elizabethan popular literature were more often than not associated with the ‘underworld’. There is, and there was, no physical space in society where there exists an underworld. Rather the idea was constructed in popular culture. Increasingly after the 1550s such literature began to describe the underworld ‘as an autonomous social space with different classes or “degrees” of thieves, each with its own distinct language and tradition (Mentz and Dionne, 2006, 2). Although these people were not outlaws, in the sense that Robin Hood and his men were, they were simultaneously a part of society, in that they lived among the law abiding population, yet they were different to law abiding people.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that ‘rogues’, or people who engaged in ‘rogueish activities’ (cheating, swindling, embezzling, etc.) existed before the 1560s. But it was only in the Elizabethan period that the idea of the rogue was articulated in popular culture. These men were not outlaws and did not live in the forest as Robin Hood and his men. Rather they lived among normal people. While they did rob people, their modus operandi was more subtle: they cheated you out of money; played tricks on you. They were the product of an emerging capitalist society which praised the personal gain of the individual over the good of society. Ultimately rogue literature would give birth to the criminal biography of the eighteenth century: the precursor of modern crime fiction.

Sir John Falstaff, the Notorious Highwayman

So committed to historical accuracy were Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson that in their respective History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) and Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) they give us the life of Sir John Falstaff.

Falstaff lived, we are told by Smith and Johnson, during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. Being born of no great or distinguished parentage, they tell us that Falstaff took to the road with three accomplices to support his extravagant lifestyle. He was a very fat man, and his nicknames were:

– Ton of Man (a pun on the Biblical term ‘Son of Man’)
– Chops
– Sack and Sugar
– Fat-Kidneyed Rascal
– Bombast

Apparently Henry IV, who Smith tells us took to life upon the road for a short while, said to him:

You are so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches in the afternoon.

He was also a womaniser, and could often be found in the lowest bawdy houses of London, according to Capt. Charles Johnson.

Then came the wars of the roses, we are told by Smith and Johnson, and as a consequence of his acquaintance and friendship with King Henry, Falstaff received a commission to serve as a Captain, as well as a salary of £350. Despite his love of drinking and eating, Johnson tells us that:

Leaving the region of poetry, all historians agree, that, instead of his being a coward, a glutton, or a drunkard, he was a brave commander, and, on account, of his valour, was knighted by Henry IV, with a pension of four hundred marks.

Despite being given a seemingly good salary, however, Smith and Johnson say that he could not but help himself in pursing his former lawless course, and took to a career upon the road again. He continued his criminal course of life for a number of years, Johnson tells us in his typical dramatic manner:

Sir John was become grey in vice, and he renewed his former courses. Neither the threats nor the promises of his sovereign could effect his reformation. He continued his depredations until he was apprehended, and committed to prison, and found guilty.

Crime was viewed as an addictive practice in the eighteenth century – one small crime (such as stealing apples from orchards for instance), it was believed, led on to larger crimes. Luckily for Falstaff, however, we are told, the King intervenes and instead of hanging Falstaff receives the sentence of banishment.

Now, any literature and history student worth their salt would realise that Falstaff never actually existed, and is a completely fictional character invented by William Shakespeare. Despite being marketed and sold as ‘histories’ these criminal biographies were not scholarly texts, and they were not ‘history’ as we would imagine today. They freely sacrificed historical authenticity to provide a sensational entertainment, with obligatory lip service to upholding the prevailing moral and social order. Yet it is almost as though Smith believes that Falstaff is real. He gives us/invents specific places where Falstaff is said to have robbed, where he was incarcerated, and where he was buried. Smith and Johnson’s narratives so convincingly fit alongside accounts of other highwaymen that you have to wonder whether they were having a joke at the expense of their less educated readers.

Joseph Ritson in the late eighteenth century was a more serious scholar and criticised Johnson for including the life of Falstaff in a history book. But even in the nineteenth century it seems that authors wanted to try and market Falstaff as a real person and sell biographies of him, evident in the publication of such works as Robert Brough’s and George Cruikshank’s The Life of Sir John Falstaff: A Biography of the Knight from Authentic Sources (1858).

Falstaff 2
Robert Brough and George Cruikshank’s Life of Sir John Falstaff (1858) [Image from Duke University]

Usually in my study of eighteenth-century texts I always advocate going back to the original editions and seeing the way that the text is presented in those ancient works. But the one advantage of having a modern critical edition of Smith’s History of the Highwaymen is that you get the editor Arthur Heyward’s notes which are sometimes quite humorous. Of Smith’s account of Falstaff he sarcastically says this:

It scarcely need to be observed that the character of Falstaff is entirely Shakespeare’s creation; the adventures related in the following pages are chiefly taken from Henry IV, with additions from Captain Smith’s own imagination.

“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.