Dick Turpin (1705-1739)

TrialDick Turpin (1705-1739) is perhaps the most famous highwayman in English history after Robin Hood (fl. 12th-13th centuries). He is remembered today as a heavily romanticised noble, gallant figure, having allegedly rode his horse from London to York in one day upon his trusty horse, Black Bess, the real Dick Turpin, as you would expect, was a wholly different man. This post gives a brief overview of his life and the legend which grew around him.

Dick Turpin was born in East Ham, in Essex, and received quite a good education, learning how to read and write. It was this good education which, as we will see, proved to be his ultimate downfall. At a young age he was apprenticed to a butcher, and having learnt a trade, established his own business after completing his term as an apprentice. It was when he set up his own business that he began to act as a receiver of stolen livestock for a gang of poachers called the Essex Gang. Although the exact details of Turpin’s involvement with the Essex Gang are unclear, it seems he became ever more deeply involved with them, and some historians have implicated him in the robbery of William Mason’s house – a farmer who lived in Essex – during which his daughters were raped.

In time, most of the members of the Essex Gang had been captured and executed, or sent for Transportation. It was after this, in 1735, that he turned to crime. He spent a brief career upon the road with two other highwaymen called Matthew King and Stephen Potter, and with them he committed several robberies, and, it is rumoured, even a murder.

King died, and Potter was later arrested, and so Turpin fled north (but not, as the legend would have you believe, in one day). Arriving in the East Riding of Yorkshire, he posed for a time as a horse trader under the assumed name of John Palmer. However, it is almost as though he could not help himself but engage in criminal activities; despite having a fresh start, he got caught stealing chickens from a farm, was arrested and placed in York Gaol. Whilst in Gaol, he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law in Hempstead asking for assistance. His brother-in-law did not collect the letter, and the letter remained at the post office, and the handwriting on the envelope and the letter was recognised as being none other than that of the wanted highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Dear Brother,
York, Feb. 6, 1739.
I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing. If I could procure an evidence from London to give me a character, that would go a great way towards my being acquitted. I had not been long in this county before my being apprehended, so that it would pass off the readier. For Heaven’s sake dear brother, do not neglect me; you will know what I mean, when I say,
I am yours,
JOHN PALMER.

Turpin was sentenced to death at York Tyburn, but he apparently gave a good show to spectators in his last few moments, bowing to them in the cart as he passed by. When he climbed the scaffold the York Courant reported that: ‘with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes’.

William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834).
William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834).

It is only later that legends began to build up around him, and the construction of the legend, and its longevity, is surprising. In his own time, not much was written about him. He had a couple of entries in various editions of The Newgate Calendar, and none of those seem to have portrayed him in a good light. In fact, in the eighteenth century, the real criminal heroes were highwaymen like Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard, and James MacLean.

It was only in the next century when a novelist named William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) that Turpin’s legend really took off. Ainsworth wrote the novel Rookwood (1834). It was in this novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged; Ainsworth’s preface explained that he:

Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe [who wrote the Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho]…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.

The novel begins with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son, and hitherto legitimate, heir is Ranulph Rookwood. It is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate. Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend, and it turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Real Dick Turpin - Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]
The Real Dick Turpin – Modern Police eFit based on contemporary descriptions [Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/8154929.stm]

In this novel Turpin is a true gentleman; a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome, in contrast to the real Turpin, whom, says Gillian Spraggs, was a ‘pock-marked thug’. In fact, one of the reasons why the reading public may have warmed to Turpin in this novel is because throughout the whole novel, we never actually see Turpin robbing anybody at all. Instead the members of the aristocratic Rookwood are the real criminals because they continue their murderous ways until they each fall victim to their own schemes.

Ainsworth’s novel, moreover, was an exciting scene, and Turpin gets all of the best scenes, such as the now infamous ride from London to York in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess:

It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.

The ride to York is simply a legend, and was attributed to at least two other highwaymen before it settled upon Turpin; Daniel Defoe in A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727-1727) attributes the feat to the highwayman William Nevison.

Ainsworth led readers to believe that the mounted highway robber was a special figure. A song which Ainsworth wrote and inserts into the novel entitled Nobody Can Deny celebrates the exploits of historical highwaymen, and ends with Turpin:

Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny…
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.

The placing of Turpin at the end of this list of illustrious highwaymen is significant; towards the end of the novel, Ainsworth calls Turpin the Great Highwayman:

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct…with him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road.

Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive
Broadside Ballad of O Rare Turpin from the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads Archive

After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin began to appear frequently on broadside ballads such as The Life and Death of Dick Turpin (c.1838), My Bonny Black Bess (c.1838), O Rare Turpin (c.1844), The Death of Black Bess (printed after c.1850), One Foot in the Stirrrup (c.1850), Poor Black Bess (c.1860).

It seems, however, that Ainsworth’s novel was the only foray into ‘high’ culture that the Turpin would make. After Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin appears in penny dreadfuls such as Henry Downs Miles’ The Life and Death of Richard Palmer, better known as Dick Turpin (1845). He also appears in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1863-1866), as well as the mammoth 254-part penny serial Black Bess, or, the Knight of the Road (1867-1868). He is also the subject of a number of comics in the early 1930s such as The Dick Turpin Library. Most of these penny serials were denounced as pernicious trash by commentators in the press, and indeed their literary quality is low compared to Ainsworth’s novel.

A Late 19th-Century Penny Dreadful Featuring Dick Turpin
Black Bess, or the Knight of the Road (1867-68).

It appears in the twentieth century, however, that his popularity has died down a little. He has been the subject of the eponymous TV series Dick Turpin which ran for a few season back in the late 1970s, but has not featured in a major way on television or on film. His name survives in the adage (peculiar, as far as I can ascertain, to Yorkshire) “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, which is used to express astonishment at the high cost of goods when buying something. Although York city centre makes much of Turpin’s legend to attract tourism (you can visit the cell where he was held at York Castle Museum), and they do have a grave there which is said to be that of Turpin’s, it seems that there is really only one criminal who bears a special place in the hearts and minds of English people: Robin Hood.

The Birth of Robin Hood

The ballad The Birth of Robin Hood is of uncertain date, and never appeared in Joseph Ritson’s influential Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). It came to the attention of Robert Jamieson in 1800, who heard a Mrs. Brown, of Falkland, singing the song. Jamieson later published it in his ballad anthology Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). Mrs. Brown contributed two songs to the Robin Hood tradition: The Birth of Robin Hood, and Rose the Red, and White Lily. The latter song also came to the attention of Sir Walter Scott and was included in his ballad collection The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott’s influence over the Robin Hood legend in 1819 would be immeasurable.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).
Thomas Bewick, ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 Vols. ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795).

The story of The Birth of Robin Hood concerns a man called Willie who goes to serve as a retainer in the household of an Earl Richard. Whilst there, he falls in love with Earl Richard’s daughter, who remains nameless. Knowing her father would probably hang his steward if he found out about their relationship, the couple carry on their relationship in secret. Eventually she falls pregnant with his son, and the couple go out to the woods so she can give birth without her father knowing. Back at Earl Richard’s home, he thinks his daughter has gone missing and organises a search party to find her. The men search everywhere, and eventually Richard finds his daughter in the woods nursing a young boy. Moved with compassion, he picks up in the infant:

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

The language indicates that it is clearly a ballad of Scottish origin, and the account of Robin Hood’s birth that it gives seems to many scholars to be improbable. It is certainly not a ballad of medieval origin. For these reasons this song has not always been popular among ballad collectors and Robin Hood scholars. The antiquary J. M. Gutch in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847) said that ‘little historical credit may be due to it’ due to the fact that it seems to ‘fit’ the legend almost too well, assigning Robin Hood a birth of noble degree, when in fact the earliest texts such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450) state that Robin was not an Earl but a yeoman (the Earl of Huntingdon storyline only came in 1598 with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon). Similarly, the folk song scholar Francis J. Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898) did not include it in his collection of Robin Hood ballads, instead assigning it the title of Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. It is only Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in The Oxford Book of Ballads (1947) that this ballad was placed alongside other ballads.

Whilst many events of Robin Hood’s life recounted even in the later seventeenth-century ballads seem to have been incorporated somehow into the legend via film and television (i.e. the fight which Robin and Little John have when they first meet), this ballad seems not to have had a great impact, which is a shame because it is one of the most singable, infectious tunes of all the Robin Hood ballads which I have come across.


The Lyrics – Unaltered from Mrs. Brown in 1800.

O WILLIE’s large o’ limb and lith,
And come o’ high degree,
And he is gane to Earl Richard,
To serve for meat and fee.

Earl Richard had but ae daughter,
Fair as a lily-flower,
And they made up their love-contract
Like proper paramour.

It fell upon a simmer’s nicht,
Whan the leaves were fair and green,
That Willie met his gay ladie
Intil the wood alane.

‘O narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont to be sae wide;
And gane is a’ my fair colour,
That wont to be my pride.

‘But gin my father should get word
What’s past between us twa,
Before that he should eat or drink,
He’d hang you o’er that wa’.

‘But ye’ll come to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun gaes down,
And kep me in your arms twa,
And latna me fa’ down.’

O whan the sun was now gane down,
He’s doen him till her bower,
And there, by the lee licht o’ the moon,
Her window she lookit o’er.

Intill a robe o’ red scarlèt
She lap, fearless o’ harm;
And Willie was large o’ lith and limb,
And keppit her in his arm.

And they’ve gane to the gude green-wood,
And, ere the night was deen,
She’s born to him a bonny young son,
Amang the leaves sae green.

Whan night was gane, and day was come,
And the sun began to peep,
Up and raise the Earl Richard
Out o’ his drowsy sleep.

He’s ca’d upon his merry young men,
By ane, by twa, and by three:
‘O what’s come o’ my daughter dear,
That she’s nae come to me?

‘I dreamt a dreary dream last night,
God grant it come to gude!
I dreamt I saw my daughter dear
Drown in the saut sea flood.

‘But gin my daughter be dead or sick,
Or yet be stown awa’,
I mak a vow, and I’ll keep it true,
I’ll hang ye ane and a’!’

They sought her back, they sought her fore,
They sought her up and down;
They got her in the gude green-wood,
Nursing her bonny young son.

He took the bonny boy in his arms,
And kist him tenderlie;
Says, ‘Though I would your father hang,
Your mother’s dear to me.’

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in gude green-wood,
And that shall be your name.’

And mony ane sings o’ grass, o’ grass
And mony ane sings o’ corn,
And mony ane sings o’ Robin Hood
Kens little whare he was born.

It wasna in the ha’, the ha’,
Nor in the painted bower;
But it was in the gude green-wood,
Amang the lily-flower.


Lyrics in Modern English

Oh Willie’s tall, and Willie’s strong
And he is born of high degree,
And he has gone to Earl Richard
To serve obediently.

Earl Richard had one daughter dear,
The fairest to be seen,
And Willie fell in love with her
All in the garden green.

Well, the summer’s night was warm and still
And brightly shone the moon,
When Willie’s met his sweetheart
In the garden, all alone.

“Oh narrow is my gown, Willie,
That wont be so wide,
And gone is all my fair colour
That wont to be my pride.

“But if my father should find out
What’s passed between us two,
Before that he would eat or drink
He would hang you over that wall.

“But come up to my bower, Willie,
Just as the sun goes down,
And catch me in your two strong arms
And let me not fall down.”

So when the sun was setting low
He has gone up to her bower,
And by the pale light of the moon
Her window she looked over.

All in that robe of red scarlet
She jumped, fearless of harm.
And Willie was tall and Willie was strong,
He caught her in his arms.

When night was done, and day was come
And the light began to creep,
Well up and rose the Earl Richard
From out of his drowsy sleep.

“Well I dreamed a dreadful dream last night,
God grant it come to good:
I dreamed I saw my daughter dear
Drowning in the flood.”

So he’s called to him his servant men
By one, by two, by three,
“Oh what’s become of my daughter dear
That she’ll not come to me?”

“Oh if that she’s been stolen away
Or taken from this hall,
Well I’ll make a vow and I’ll keep it true:
I’ll hang you one and all!”

So they searched east and they searched west,
And they searched up and down.
They found her in the merry green wood
Nursing her bonny young son.

Well he’s taken the baby all in his arms
And kissed him tenderly,
Saying, “Although I would your father hang
Yet your mother is dear to me.”

He kissed him once, he kissed him twice:
“My grandson I thee claim,
And Robin Hood in the merry green wood
That shall be your name.”

There’s many that sing of green, green grass
And sing of golden corn,
And there’s many that sing of Robin Hood
Know not where he was born.

Well, it wasn’t in the lofty hall
Nor in the painted bower,
But it was in the merry green wood
All among the lily-flowers.

What is a book?

IMG_5840
Thomas Evans, Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative with Some of Modern Date (1774)
book [bʊk] noun. book; plural noun: books; noun: the book: a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

Above is a standard dictionary definition of the word ‘book’. However, I’ve just finished reading an excellent article by Leslie Howsam in a book which she edited called The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015) which has made me rethink the way that I think about a book. As a collector of second-hand books, and someone whose PhD project makes forays into book history, Howsam’s article was a fascinating read, forcing readers to consider what, exactly, a book is.

Do we read ‘books,’ or do we read texts? These are the types of issues which Howsam deals with in her article, and which, published this year, represents the latest research in the field of book history, and I’ll attempt to summarise the article here.

When we think of the word ‘book,’ most people, myself included, usually think of the material form of a body of knowledge or stories. We think of what is known as the ‘Codex’. And yet when one studies the history of the book, this common conception becomes problematic. Books existed before there were codices. In Ancient Greece and Rome people read ‘books,’ but their material form was different to today: there were scrolls. In Ancient Mesopotamia, Howsam points out, they had books, but their books were written on clay tablets. The codex (the material form of a text which we would recognise, in which the leaves of a book are bound together) only emerged in the second century CE.

Is this a book?
Is this a book?

Indeed, Howsam does not mention it specifically, but her article got me thinking of the Bible. Pick up any copy of a Bible from a bookstore and you will be, in effect, buying a book, that is a codex, in which paper leaves are bound together. But then read inside and you will see that there are actually books within books. There is ‘The First Book of Moses, Commonly called Genesis,” “The Book of Exodus.’ So there are numerous books within a book. The material form in which we buy these many combined books (a library of books, as that is what the word Bible means) is a book, but the actual books are inside the covers.

And so Howsam argues that a book is many things:

  1. A book is a text.
  2. A book is an object.
  3. A book is a transaction.
  4. A book is an experience.

The Book as a Text.

So a book must have text. An author writes the text. This can be a work of fiction, or a factual text such as a history or a science book. Literary critics tend to consider texts only, apart from their social, economic, and cultural contexts, whereas an historian might concentrate, not so much on the text of an historic book itself, but on its significance. And this is where, argues Howsam, that book history can make valuable contributions to both fields. But a text is not solely the work of an author. Editors edit texts, typesetters set the print type, and publishers publish the text.

A comic - is it a 'book'?
A comic – is it a ‘book’?

The Book as an Object

The materiality of books is another aspect of a text that is frequently overlooked by scholars, usually due to the significance of their texts. Once the words of an author have taken physical form, on a sheet of paper, they are a book. And this is why we can class magazines, comics, and periodicals as books also. Books are objects: material things.

The Book as a Cultural Transaction

The book as a cultural transaction signifies, in Howsam’s words:

A relationship of communication and exchange (often commercial exchange) that operates within a culture and a political economy.

The transaction can be ‘the nexus between one reader and another, as well as the interplay between the reader and writer implied in the every day act of reading.’ However, the transaction is also between author and publisher,  between publisher and bookseller, who publish and sell books.

The Book as an Experience

Everyone reacts to books: ‘the reader, the collector, and the scholar, all in their different ways, react emotionally and intellectually to the books in their purview.’ These responses are based, yes, on the genre of the text they are reading (some people like Romance novels, others like fantasy novels), however, these reactions to books can only take place once a the text has received its material form, once it has been edited, bound, and gone through cultural and commercial transactions. And readers reactions may stem from many things. For example, for some readers the (commercial) price of a book will give them a certain reaction to the text.

Are ebooks books?
Are ebooks books?

Ebooks, etc.

Howsam also looks forward in her introductory essay to the future. Will ebooks replace the material book? Will a book still be called a book if it is only online. Indeed, and this is my sidenote to Howsam’s work, I think that in our demarcation of the ‘ebook’ we are already implicitly arguing that an ebook is not a book. Somehow it is a different entity, and mimics the way that scrolls were written, as continuous texts (Howsam makes the point here about the similarity between ebooks and ancient scrolls, noting that we tend to ‘scroll down’ a page when looking at a text on a screen).

So as can be seen from Howsam’s article, the word ‘book’ cannot be summarised in a single sentence. It is certainly much more than the dictionary definition above would imply.


Further Reading:

Leslie Howsam (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598) & The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601) by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle.

Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1598)
Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1598)

In medieval ballads such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1470), Robin Hood’s rank in society was fairly low. He was a yeoman:

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode. – A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1470).

But this situation changed in the the late 16th century in two plays written by Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601).

These plays are the first time that Robin Hood appears as a distressed aristocrat. They are proper Elizabethan tragedies, and Munday decided not to use the ‘popular’ Robin Hood tradition, where ballads had cast him as a yeoman – a rank altogether inferior to the Earl that Robin Hood became in his plays – in order to appeal to a more courtly Elizabethan audience.

The play, as a typical Elizabethan tragedy is static, unmoving. Virtually all the action has been taken out of the Robin Hood story (having action and fighting scenes in the play would have been judged to vulgar). But Munday had written so much material for his Robin Hood plays – detailing so much courtly intrigues and amorous monologues – that he separated them into two plays. The sequel was called The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (Munday was helped by Henry Chettle in the writing of the sequel). This, as the title implies, is also a tragedy. In The Death, Robin actually dies by the end of Act 1, and what follows is a lengthy tale of King John trying to win the hand of the fair Matilda (whose outlaw name is Marian).

The fact that he is a virtually inactive hero, and that he dies by the end of Act 1 of the second play, effectively marginalises him, although the marginalisation of heroes is common to many Renaissance plays. After reading the play, you get the feeling that, although the play uses his name, it is really a play about politics in the 12th century.

An "active" hero - 19th-century illustration.
An “active” hero – 19th-century illustration.

In the play, furthermore, Prince John is not the villain, as he has been cast in some of the more recent adaptations, and neither is Robin’s traditional arch-enemy, the Sheriff, as they had been in medieval ballads. Instead, his real enemies in this play are fellow aristocrats who plot his downfall:

Robert, Earl of Huntington, is in the tense opening scenes betrayed by his uncle the Prior of York and by his own steward, Warman, conceived initially as a Judas figure. For renaissance aristocrats like those who owned the play-companies, living on lands taken from the Catholic church and fearful of the unreliability of those he had to trust, Munday could hardly find a more gratifying pair of villains. – Stephen Knight

Anthony Munday's The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601).
Anthony Munday’s The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601)

The other enemies in the play are Catholic clerics – something which would have resonated with viewers who had, under Elizabeth I, seen England go through the Reformation. It was a period of heightened anti-Catholic sentiment, and here was a play, featuring one of England’s best known figures, opposing the Catholic Church – it was going to be a hit!

The “Downfall” of Robert refers to the dispossession by his uncle, and it is only after fleeing to the forest that he becomes Robin Hood. As Stephen Knight, a scholar who has conducted extensive research into the legend of the famous outlaw, says, another break with the ‘popular’ tradition is that the forest is presented as the site of aristocratic shame, whereas in the medieval ballad, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450), the forest represents freedom.

What is striking about these plays though is the influence they would have upon nearly subsequent interpretations of the legend.In 18th-century plays such as Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment! (1751), and Francis Waldron’s continuation of Ben Johnson’s pastoral, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1784), the famous outlaw also comes across as a rather passive sort of fellow; he is called “gentle master” by his merry men, and the whole plot of the play revolves around Robin and his men comforting a sad shepherd on the loss of his wife and trying to reunite him with her.

SadShepherd
Francis Waldron’s The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1783)

Thankfully, in subsequent books, movies, and TV shows, Robin once again became a more active outlaw. But another, more profound effect of the plays, is that the reconfiguring of Robin Hood as a distressed aristocrat seems to have been an idea which subsequent English authors and filmmakers adopted. It almost immediately filtered down into ‘popular’ culture, as the ballad writer, Martin Parker, wrote the song, A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631), whilst criminal biographies in the 18th century would, with one exception, retain the idea that Robin Hood was a nobleman. Even the supposedly radical Joseph Ritson, who is in many ways the father of the modern Robin Hood legend, depicted Robin as an aristocrat. In the 19th century, most of the children’s books and penny dreadfuls about Robin Hood portray him as a dispossessed nobleman. And this intepretation has filtered down also into modern movie and TV adaptations. Even the radical, anti-Thatcherite, 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood, succumbed eventually to the establishment when the second Robin Hood of the series, Jason Connery, was cast as Robert of Huntingdon.

The two main texts where Robin Hood is once again returned to low birth is Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Ivanhoe (1819), written by Sir Walter Scott, who oddly was a Tory, and if anyone would have kept the Robin Hood as aristocrat theme I would have thought it would have been him – something which I can’t quite figure out why.

The latest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, which was last year’s Doctor Who episode, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ similarly cast Robin as an aristocrat and, unfortunately, it does not seem to be an idea that writers and filmmakers will abandon very soon.


Further Reading:

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Ithaca: Cornell, 1994).

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994)

Green Arrow – A 21st Century Robin Hood?

RH Curtal Friar
Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Curtall Friar’ in Joseph Ritson ed. Robin Hood [1795] (London: C. Stocking, 1823)

This post analyses the similarities between the legend of Robin Hood and the TV show, Arrow.

This has come about mainly because I would like to justify my obsession with my new favourite TV show and, well, I doubt anyone has as yet applied Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry to the Arrow TV series.


The legend of Robin Hood has spawned many imitators in times past, as it seems that the public like to admire a hero who is on the outside of the law. In the 18th century the English public warmed to the figure of the highwayman, and men such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin became household names. In the nineteenth century people were singing ballads about Jesse James, whilst the legend of Billy the Kid is popular with Mexicans. Everyone likes an outlaw hero.

I’ve never been one of those comic book reading people (although I’m a big fan of reading the forerunners of comic books, penny dreadfuls), and I don’t even watch much TV. One day, however, whilst browsing in HMV I came across a DVD box set for a series named Arrow. As I’m in the middle of my doctorate on Robin Hood, naturally my interest was piqued when I say the front cover featuring a man in a green hood, and a quiver on his back with arrows in it. Hesitant to fork out £31.99 on a TV series I’d never heard of, I instead downloaded it on Amazon Prime. I became engrossed/obsessed with it, as it is oh so easy to do with these types of TV series. I thought, then, I’d point out some of the similarities between the legend of Robin Hood (as it stands today), and the Arrow TV show.

Why do this, you ask? Well, because when I started asking my comic book enthusiast friends, they all had a vague notion that Arrow was meant to be some type of latter-day Robin Hood, but no one could say why he was meant to signify such, apart from the fact that he uses a bow and arrow. So, let’s see if Arrow stands the H-Test (the Hobsbawm test); can he live up to the principles of social banditry identified by Eric Hobsbawm?

Green Arrow in More Fun Comics (1941)
Green Arrow in More Fun Comics (1941)

The Green Arrow began life as a comic book hero in the boys’ periodical More Fun Comics. He was the brainchild of the author, Mort Weisinger, and the illustrator, George Papp. They took the figure of Robin Hood and turned him into a Batman-like figure. However, it is the TV show which is focused upon here.

Like most American superheroes, Arrow is the alter ego of Oliver Queen, born into a rich family. In the TV show, Oliver was stranded on a deserted island for 5 years during which time he undertook many adventures, and served on various missions for a military organisation. He then returns home to, in his words, ‘save my city,’ from the people who are ruining it through their greed.

Robin Hood is also (said to be) from a wealthy family; he is the noble Earl of Huntingdon, and in most versions of the legend he too returns home after a long period of absence, and decides to take up the plight of the people against the corrupt lords of medieval England.

I want to here, however, apply Eric Hobsbawm’s social banditry thesis to the case of Green Arrow/Oliver Queen, so let me iterate the nine requirements for one to be a social bandit and see how similar/different Arrow is to Robin Hood (aside from dressing in green and using a bow and arrow):

imagesFirst, the noble robber begins his career of outlawry not by crime, but as the victim of injustice, or through being persecuted by the authorities for some act which they, but not the custom of his people, consider as criminal (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.42).

Oliver Queen decided only to ‘save his city’ after he was almost killed in a boating accident engineered by a corrupt businessman. After all, asks Hobsbawm, if a social bandit were a real criminal, how could he enjoy the support of the people?

Second. He rights wrongs.

Third. He takes from the rich and gives to the poor (Ibid).

Arrow seeks, not a complete overthrow of the existing social and economic system, but reform; whilst his main targets are large corporations which skirt the edge of the law and exploit the common people, he has no issue with the existence of large and powerful corporations per se. Rather it is when that power is used to evil and exploitative ends that he takes issue with. Bandits/outlaws are actually quite conservative figures; the seek a restoration of ‘the old order’ of things,’ as Hobsbawm says of Robin Hood:

He protests not against the fact that peasants are poor and oppressed. He seeks to establish, or re-establish, justice or ‘the old ways,’ that is to say, fair dealing in a society of oppression. He rights wrongs. He does not seek to establish a society of freedom and equality (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.55). Indeed, a bandit/vigilante acting alone cannot singlehandedly wipe out all instances of injustice in a society, but they do prove that justice is possible (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.56).

Fourth. He never kills but in self-defence or just revenge (Hobsbawm, op cit.)

Bandits often have a ‘savage spirit of justice’ (Ibid). Here, the morality of Arrow, especially in the first series, is relative; he has no problem with acting as judge, jury, and executioner to the morally bankrupt and exploitative, wealthy businessmen of Starling City, his home. However, by the second and third series, the Arrow truly becomes the noble outlaw/bandit/vigilante.

Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).
Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).

Fifth. If he survives, he returns to his people as an honorable citizen and member of the community…

Sixth. He is admired, helped, and supported by the people (Hobsbawm, 1969, pp.42-43).

Naturally, we cannot comment on Hobsbawm’s fifth point, as the TV series is still ongoing and Arrow’s career has not yet ended (and hopefully will be continuing for quite some time). On the sixth point, however, Arrow fulfills Hobsbawm’s point; he is admired, and helped, by the people of his city. In time he gathers a number of supporters around him, such as his right-hand man, John Diggle, Black Canary, Arsenal, et al. One of the interesting things about the relationship beteween Arrow and Diggle is the number of times that they fall out over something which, on the face of it, appears to be trivial.

That a bandit and his right hand man fall out from time to time is a theme that dates back to the medieval period and the ballads of Robin Hood. In the ballad, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Little John encounter a stranger in the forest, Little John tells his master to stay behind whilst he approaches the stranger in the forest, and Robin’s reply is:

“Stand you still, master,” quoth Litle John,
“Under this trusty tree,
And I will goe to yond wight yeoman,
To know his meaning trulye.”

“A, John, by me thou setts noe store,
And thats a farley thinge;
How offt send I my men beffore,
And tarry myselfe behinde?

“It is noe cunning a knave to ken,
And a man but heare him speake;
And itt were not for bursting of my bowe,
John, I wold thy head breake.”

But often words they breeden bale,
That parted Robin and John;
John is gone to Barnsdale,
The gates he knowes eche one.

Arrow and his Companions. Arrow Series 3 Promo-Shoot
Arrow and his Companions.
Arrow Series 3 Promo-Shoot

Arrow is, of course, admired by the mass of people in the city, even though the police view him with suspicion; all of which makes him more of a social bandit; a social bandit being an outlaw whom ‘the lord and the state regard as criminal, but…is considered by [the] people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.18).

Seventh. He dies invariable and only through treason, since no decent member of the community would help the authorities against him.

Eighth. he is – at least in theory – invisible and invulnerable (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.43).

Hobsbawm’s seventh point cannot be commented upon, for Arrow is still very much alive. His eighth point, however, stands; Oliver Queen, whilst he was in exile on the island, learned many hunting and survival skills, and of course, throughout the series, has proven himself to be a match for even the most sophisticated of baddies; from large and faceless figures of  multinational corporations and organised crime to the heads of shadowy transnational organisations such as the League of Assassins.

Finally, and this goes back to an earlier point:

He is not the enemy of the king or emperor, who is the fount of justice, but only of local gentry, clergy, or other oppressors (Ibid).

The “King” in the case of Arrow would be the US President; Arrow never calls for a revolution and an overthrow of the current political regime; hence he is not a revolutionary as such; the “local gentry” in his case are the rich business magnates who exploit the poor of his Starling City. In fact, when you think about it. vigilantes/outlaws, etc. are always quite localised figures; Robin Hood, if he existed, operated only in and around Nottingham. Similarly, Arrow can only operate in and around his home city, Starling City.

Marian wasn't Robin's only love interest...he also had a woman called Clarinda too!
Marian wasn’t Robin’s only love interest…he also had a woman called Clarinda too!

One point not mentioned by Hobsbawm, but which I shall mention here, is the Arrow’s love interest. Throughout the series (I am, I confess, not familiar with the comics…yet), it seems Oliver has two main love interests: Laura Lance and Felicity. Most people think that Robin Hood only ever had one love interest, but this is not true. In 17th-century ballads such as Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, and Valour, the famous outlaw meets a shepherdess in the Forest, named Clarinda, whom he has a romance with, but it torn between her and Marian. But ultimately, a social bandit, or a vigilante, has to be celibate. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe recognised this; his Robin of Locksley character is celibate, in order to concentrate on saving the nation. In fact, most movie and TV adaptations of the legend feature Robin Hood and Marian settling down and marrying after he has returned to normal society. Similarly, poor Oliver Queen! He’s tried, yet it never seems to work out, and only once he stops being a vigilante will he be able to have a “normal” life.

Thus in what I hope has been an enjoyable post, it is clear that Arrow is, aside from his appearance, a modern-day Robin Hood; he fulfills the criteria of social banditry. Perhaps I’ll write the first academic paper on Arrow, and I have no doubt but that in a few years’ time the International Association of Robin Hood Studies will feature an Arrow-themed paper or two! (hopefully read by me…)


Further Reading:

Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).