Paper Presented to the Women’s History Network Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 16-17 September 2016.
Abstract: The earliest ballads of Robin Hood such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) and Robin Hood and the Potter (c.1450) give no clue as to the manner of Robin Hood’s birth. This was still the case when Joseph Ritson published his influential ballad anthology entitled Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). Five years after Ritson, however, Robert Jamieson published Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). In that collection two new never-before-seen Robin Hood ballads appeared entitled The Birth of Robin Hoodand The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John. Jamieson had transcribed the ballads from Anna Gordon Brown of Falkland, Scotland. Although twentieth-century Robin Hood critics have derided Mrs. Brown’s ballads as being of little merit compared to earlier material, Mrs. Brown enjoyed a ‘literary afterlife’ in the tradition as Goody – the old woman who recites Robin Hood stories to dinner guests – in the first ever Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). The proposed paper, therefore, is intended to fit into the panel ‘Women Collectors and Collected Women’.
Throughout history many Scottish authors have shaped the Robin Hood legend. For example, it is in medieval and early modern Scottish chronicles written by Andrew of Wyntoun, John Major, and Walter Bower, for instance, that Robin is first established as a ‘historic’ figure, and not merely a man who exists in ballads. During the nineteenth century, the first two Robin Hood novels entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, both of which were published in 1819, were written by Scottish authors and first published in Edinburgh. There is not a single scholar who would question the appearance of the works of Wyntoun, Bower, Major, or Scott within the Robin Hood canon – that is to say, those texts which scholars have agreed are an undeniable part of the Robin Hood tradition. Yet as this paper illustrates, there has been a certain amount of hesitancy on the part of modern critics to include within the tradition three Robin Hood ballads which first appeared when Robert Jamieson transcribed them from Mrs. Brown of Falkland (1747-1810).
To begin with, it is necessary to provide a very brief history of Robin Hood scholarship during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There was a significant degree of interest in the medieval English past during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and much of this amateur scholarship focused upon medieval and early-modern ballads, especially those relating to historic worthies such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, with ballads about him appearing repeatedly in various antiquaries’ works. Thomas Percy’s three volume Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 featured the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and in the four volume work Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative published by the Welsh bookseller and antiquary in 1784 almost every post medieval Robin Hood ballad was printed. The most famous eighteenth-century Robin Hood scholar, however, was Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). His two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was, upon its first publication in 1795, the definitive collection of Robin Hood texts. Ritson made available in two volumes texts such as the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, and Robin Hood and the Monk. In his collection Ritson also included the texts of seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, and Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham.
None of the ballads in Ritson’s collection, however, provided the story of Robin Hood’s birth. It was not until Jamieson published a collection of ballads entitled Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions in 1806 did an account of Robin’s birth appear in a ballad entitled The Birth of Robin Hood. Another never before seen ballad relating to Robin’s life entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John also appeared in the same collection. Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border published in 1802 included another of Mrs. Brown’s Robin Hood ballads entitled Rose the Red, and White Lily. Jamieson and Scott transcribed these ballads from Mrs. Brown. Usually the only woman associated with the Robin Hood legend is Maid Marian, and the only writers who have represented her have usually been men. Thus, a conference which focuses upon women’s history is the perfect opportunity to discuss these ballads and explore what I shall call the ‘literary afterlife’ and subtle influence of Mrs. Brown upon later manifestations of the Robin Hood tradition – a woman whose contributions to the legend, if she is remembered at all, have often been dismissed by late-nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars.
Mrs. Brown’s Ballads and their Critical Reception
Anna Gordon was born in Aberdeen in 1747, the daughter of Thomas Gordon, a Professor of Humanities, and Lilias Forbes. She grew up in a Scotland in which ballads were central to both elite and popular culture’. The most significant ballad which was transcribed from Mrs. Brown of Falkland was the aforementioned The Birth of Robin Hood. The story follows the daughter of Earl Richard who falls in love with a servant named Willie – a union of which she knows her father the Earl would disapprove. The Earl’s daughter and Willie often have secretive meetings in the forest, and it is soon revealed that she is pregnant. The Earl’s daughter escapes from her home to go and give birth in the forest. Realising that his daughter is missing, the Earl convenes a search party and goes out after her. He finds his daughter in the wood, exhausted from having given birth and, despite the circumstances of the illegitimate birth the Earl is overcome with happiness upon seeing the child:
He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim;
And Robin Hood in the gude green wood,
And that shall be your name.’ 
Thus the ballad sets up a noble parentage for Robin Hood. While The Birth of Robin Hood has at least made into Barrie Dobson and John Taylor’s critical anthology of Robin Hood ballads Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976), Brown’s second Robin Hood ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John did not, and has received very little critical attention. The ballad relates the story of two women who one day decide to dress in men’s clothes and travel into the greenwood under the assumed names of Nicholas and Roger Roun. The two women are found sleeping in the wood by Robin Hood and Little John, and eventually one of the women, Roger, becomes pregnant:
“When we were in our father’s ha’,
We wore the beaten gold;
But now we wear the shield so sharp,
Alas! We’ll die with cold!”
Then up bespake him Robin Hood,
As he to them drew near;
“Instead of boys to carry the bow,
Two ladies we’ve got here.”
So they had not been in gud green-wood,
A twalmonth and a day,
Til Roger Roun was as big wi’ bairn
As ony ladie could gae.
During the early nineteenth century when the ballads first appeared, there appears to have been little question over whether the ballads should be included as part of the developing canon. Ritson’s original text was reprinted in 1820, 1823, 1832, and then revised and expanded in 1865. Brown’s ballads appeared in both the 1832 and the 1865 editions of Ritson’s text. Furthermore, the historian John Mathew Gutch included Brown’s ballads in his two volume critical anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode published in 1847. Gutch justified the inclusion of Brown’s The Birth of Robin Hood by writing that:
It is certainly characteristic, and perfectly consistent with [Robin Hood’s] subsequent life and conduct; insomuch, that it cannot be said of the renowned hero of Sherwood, as Deianira says of Hercules, – “Dissimiles hic vir et ille puer”.
And of Rose the Red, and White Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John he says that
There can be no doubt that the three following ballads relate to Robin Hood and Little John and have their origin in the same tradition.
However, the attitude towards these ballads changed as the nineteenth century progressed. A further edition of Ritson’s work appeared in 1884 which did not include Brown’s ballads. Between 1882 and 1898 Francis J. Child published the multivolume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His third volume was devoted almost entirely to Robin Hood ballads. Yet Brown’s ballads were not to be included alongside other ‘canonical’ Robin Hood texts but were placed in the second volume which dealt with songs of Scottish origin. The main reason that he gave for placing Brown’s ballads outside of the Robin Hood canon was that many of them bear resemblance to other popular Scottish ballads, and Child stated that all of Brown’s songs were said to be variants upon the popular Scottish ballad Willie O’ Douglas Dale.
He justified excluding Rose the Red, the White and Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John from the Robin Hood tradition because:
Robin Hood has no love-story in any ancient ballad, though his name has been foisted into modern love ballads, as in “Robin Hood and the Tanner’s Daughter” […] Maid Marian is a late accretion. There is a piteously vulgar broadside, in which Maid Marian, being parted from Robin, dresses herself “like a page” (but armed fully), meets Robin Hood, also under disguise, and has an hours fight with him.
When discussing The Birth of Robin Hood Child made a break with established scholarly practice and renamed the ballad as Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. To justify this he stated that:
This ballad certainly does not belong to the cycle of Robin Hood, and for this reason the title hitherto held by it could not be retained […the title of] the Earl of Huntingdon has no place in the ancient traditional ballads of Robin Hood, but is of later literary invention.
Child was correct, of course, for Robin was not named as the Earl of Huntingdon until 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.
Taken at face value, Child’s justifications for excluding these ballads appear to be relatively sound. What is perplexing, however, is that despite the objections listed above, Child includes as part of the Robin Hood canon certain ballads at which his afore-mentioned rationale could also be raised. For example, most of the later seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner and Robin Hood and the Scotchman are merely variations upon the theme of The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield. Although very few ballads reveal that Robin has a love interest such as Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage which sees Robin marry Clorinda, the Queen of the Shepherdesses, Child has no compunction about including these in the tradition. Child also includes Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood originally published in 1632. This ballad names Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon, yet is included despite his remarks that any ballad stating that Robin was a nobleman was of dubious canonicity.
The reasons why Child applied these double standards to these ballads will likely have died with Child himself. Child’s view has persisted into modern scholarship. Barrie Dobson and John Taylor state in Rymes of Robyn Hood that
Mrs. Brown’s ballad owes nothing but Robin Hood’s name to the native English cycle of stories.
While they even went so far as to suggest that Brown simply invented the stories, saying that
It remains suspicious that for the missing story of [Robin Hood’s] birth we have to wait until the recitation of a remarkable Scottish woman delivered five years after the first (1795) edition of Ritson’s comprehensive collection.
The suggestion that Brown invented these ballads contradicts David C. Fowler’s earlier argument that Mrs. Brown’s ballads were learned from her mother, aunt, and her maidservant. Moreover, Mrs. Brown’s ballads appear nowhere in the even more recent ballad anthology by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren entitled Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (2000). But the exclusion of Brown’s ballads from the overall tradition, especially in the face of the double standards applied to their ‘authenticity’ when compared to other Robin Hood tales, should encourage a rethink of what scholars mean by ‘canon’ when discussing legends such as Robin Hood.
However, Mrs. Brown would go on to enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’ as the old village woman Goody in the framing narrative of the first Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time published in 1819. The novel begins in the nineteenth-century lawyer’s home in Oxfordshire where he is holding a dinner party, and the subject turns to ancient songs and ballads. The lawyer reveals that there is a woman named Goody living in the village who is descended from Welsh bards and knows by heart several tales of Robin Hood. On the next evening the whole village descends on Goody’s cottage to hear a tale of Robin Hood and his merry men. Stephen Knight, who has studied this novel in depth, agrees that Goody is modelled upon Mrs. Brown.
Robert Southey in his unfinished poem entitled Robin Hood: A Fragment which was published in 1847 utilises the plot of The Birth of Robin Hood. Earl William – a name obviously taken from Brown’s ballad – and his lover Emma are now respectably married:
O! Emma! fairest, loveliest of thy sex!
For sure, if ever on a marriage day
Approving angels smiled
Upon their happy charge,
‘Twas when her willing hand
Was to Lord William given.
The noble to the noble — blooming youth
To manhood in its comeliness and prime:
Beauty to manliness and worth to worth;
The gentle to the brave —
The generous to the good.
In fact, Southey expanded and continued the plot of Brown’s ballad, which sees Robin’s mother die and Earl William descend into depression. Thus the situation is this: works which are considered to be canonical have taken some of their inspiration from a supposedly non-canonical work, and in view of this, perhaps it is time to reconsider the status of Mrs. Brown’s ballads within the Robin Hood tradition.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp.36-54.
 See Monica Santini, The Impetus of Amateur Scholarship: Discussing and Editing. Medieval Romances in Late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).
 Ruth Perry, ‘The Famous Ballads of Anna Gordon, Mrs. Brown’ in A Cultural History of Women in the Age of Enlightenment ed. by Ellen Pollack 6 Vols. (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2012) 4: 2 [Internet <https://lit.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/Famous-Ballads.pdf> Accessed 27 July 2016].
 For a critical edition, see Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), pp.195-197.
 Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’, p.197.
 Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood ed. by J. M. Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 2: 391.
 Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Longman, 1820).
 Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: C. Stocking, 1823).
 Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. 2 Vols. London: William Pickering, 1832).
 Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Bell and Daldy, 1865).
 A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 373; the translation of the Latin reads ‘how different from the present man was the youth of earlier days’.
 A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 377.
 Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. [n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]).
 The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis J. Child (5 Vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1882-1898; repr. 5 Vols. New York: Dover, 2005), 2: 406.
 Child, 2: 417.
 Child, 2: 412.
 Child, 3: 130.
 Child, 3: 227-233.
 Dobson Taylor, p.195.
 Suzanne Gilbert, ‘Orality and the Ballad Tradition’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing ed. by Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 35-43 (pp.39-40).
 Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).
 Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54-78.
 Knight, Reading Robin Hood, p.146-147.
 Robert Southey, Robin Hood: A Fragment (London: William Blackwood, 1847), pp.1-2.
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’.  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,  no female authors ever adopted her.
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 poemsA Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, or Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.  In fact, the first clear association of Robin with a woman named Marian was in Tudor May Day celebrations.  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.  However, ballads featuring Marian do not appear to have been very popular and went quickly out-of-print.  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.  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. 
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.  Neither does Marian appear in the two volume novel Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time also published in 1819.  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,  in fact it is rumoured that the character of Marian was based upon Peacock’s friend, Mary Shelley.  In the novel, Marian disregards the wishes of her father by joining Robin in the woods,  is fond of traditionally masculine pastimes such as hunting,  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’.  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). Egan’s vision of Sherwood society is truly egalitarian: Robin is elected as the leader of the downtrodden Anglo-Saxon serfs,  while Little John also has to be elected as his lieutenant.  Whilst critics such as Stephen Knight have interpreted Egan’s Robin Hood as a gentrified and conservative text,  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. 
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’.  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.  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,  while another character, Christabel, has ‘scarce ever been from her chamber’.  Apart from Marian, then, the women in late medieval society are portrayed as thoroughly Victorian.
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.  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.  She enthusiastically participates in hunting with her fellow outlaws,  and at one point even wrestles with a wild boar.  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. 
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.  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’.  The outlaws need women in their band: they are not there for decoration, but play an active role in the outlaws’ activities.
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’.  She often requires rescuing by Robin from the clutches of the Sheriff,  and has a habit of getting captured by Norman soldiers travelling through the forest,  and from wild animals in the forest.  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.  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.  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.
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,  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’,  a point which has also been echoed by Amanda Vickery.  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’.  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.
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,  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.  Nevertheless, women who poisoned men were seen as perversions of ideal femininity.  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. 
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’.  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.’  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.
 Penny Tinkler, ‘Women and Popular Literature’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 Ed. June Purvis (London: UCL Press, 1995), 131-156 (133).
 Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.
 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).
 James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 34.
 See Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 176-178.
 See Knight & Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, 527-540.
 Walter E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’ The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
 Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819).
 Marilyn Butler, Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context (London: Routledge, 1979), 151.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
 Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. George Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 29.
 Peacock, Maid Marian, 20 & 36.
 Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
 Pierce Egan the Younger, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 191.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 144-146.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 146.
 Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 128.
 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.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 101.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 191.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 94.
 Egan, Robin Hood, 88.
 J. H. Stocqueler, Maid Marian, the Forest Queen, being a companion to “Robin Hood” (London: G. Pierce, 1850), 2.
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40 & 139.
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 53.
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40.
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 26.
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 205.
 Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, or, The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (London, 1865), 11.
 Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, 60.
 George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House, 1885), 76.
 Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 176.
 Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 251.
 Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 201.
 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).
 Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’, 58.
 John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2005), 135.
 John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 77.
 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).
 June Hannam, ‘Women and Politics’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (London: UCL Press, 1995), 217-246 (218).
 Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 132.
 See Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon, 2004).
 Radojka Startup, ‘Damaging Females: Representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid nineteenth century’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, UCL, 2000), 10.
The Renaissance poet Michael Drayton authored a monumental work entitled Poly-Olbion which was published in 1612. It is often described as a ‘topographical poem’ and deals with the history of England and Wales. In one part of this poem he wrote the following lines:
In this our spacious isle I think there is not one,
But he of ROBIN HOOD hath heard, and Little John;
And to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done
Of Scarlock, George-a-Green, and Much the Miller’s son,
Of Tuck, the merry friar, which many a sermon made
In praise of ROBIN HOOD, his out-laws, and their trade.
I would like to echo Drayton’s words and say that surely everybody here ‘in this our spacious isle’ no doubt has heard of Robin Hood. He is the quintessential noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. His true love is a woman named Marian. His fellow outlaws include Little John, Will Scarlet, Allen-a-Dale, and Friar Tuck. Their stories have been immortalised in books, films, and television series, and with three movies forthcoming, it seems that Drayton’s prophecy that ‘until the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’ will continue to ring true. I want to talk to you today about the legend of Robin Hood as a whole. I will briefly discuss some of the historical outlaws whom researchers have identified as being possible candidates for the ‘real’ Robin Hood. I then want to move on to discussing how the legend has been continually reshaped over time, and how Robin Hood has been appropriated by different authors for various purposes. My talk, therefore, will take you on a journey through social, cultural, and literary history from the middle ages until the twentieth century.
A Real Robin Hood?
When I have given public talks before on the legend of Robin Hood, the one question that continually arises is: was Robin Hood a real person, and if so, who was he? It is a question to which there will never be a definitive answer simply due to the paucity of evidence surrounding his life. That being said, this has not stopped people attempting to identify an historic outlaw. I am going to pre-empt your questions by dwelling upon the most likely candidates we have who may be the real Robin Hood.
The late Professor James C. Holt in his work Robin Hood (1982), believed that a man listed in the Yorkshire Assize Rolls between 1225 and 1226 as ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’ was the most likely candidate for the real Robin Hood. And in the image above you can see the entry for this man in the court rolls. The same outlaw turns up years later under the sobriquet of ‘Hobbehod’. Allen Wright, an independent Robin Hood scholar based in Canada, lists in one of his articles several of the other candidates that have at one time or another been identified as the real Robin Hood. Among them is one Robert of Wetherby who is listed in the Court Rolls as ‘outlaw and evildoer of our land’. Other potential candidates include a Robert Hood from Cirencester who, sometime between 1215 and 1216 murdered a man named Ralph in the local Abbott’s garden. And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences.
Most pertinently for audiences here today, perhaps, there is also the case of the supposed Robin Hood of Wakefield. The Robin Hood of Wakefield was identified by a nineteenth-century antiquary named Joseph Hunter (1783-1861). Hunter was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office, or National Archives as we know it today. In a tract entitled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood, published in 1852, he argued that Robin Hood was from Wakefield. Hunter aimed to fit known facts to the early tales of Robin Hood. Hunter first identified a Robert Hood who with his wife Matilda appears in the Court Rolls of the manor of Wakefield in 1316 and 1317. Without any evidence, he argued that this Robert Hood became an outlaw between this time and 1324, when Hunter discovered that there was a valet de chambre to Edward II named Robyn Hode. For Hunter, this seemed to confirm that that this man was the same Robin who enters into the King’s service at the end of the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, when the King travels into the forest and meets Robin, and asks him to join his service. The problem with this approach is:
1) There is no indication that this Robyn Hode from 1324 was ever an outlaw.
2) The idea of a monarch going into the woods, as the king does at the end of the Gest, was a common trope in medieval ballads, and it is highly unlikely that the King ever went incognito among the populace.
This has not stopped local historians from sticking to Hunter’s assertions that Robin Hood was a man from Wakefield. To say that the real Robin Hood was from Wakefield, however, is to mix shaky historical methodology with wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is this: yes there was a man named Robin Hood who lived in Wakefield, but we do not know if he was an outlaw.
Indeed, what if Robin Hood was simply an alias? The name ‘Robin Hood’ was often used as an alias by criminals in the medieval period: ‘In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.’ Furthermore, ‘in 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war”.’ And finally ‘in 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale. Clearly Robin was a name associated with rebellion’. The nineteenth-century antiquary John Timbs in his work Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870) said that there was a term in use from the time of Edward III, ‘Roberdsmen’ which denoted any type of thief or robber.
Thus I hope I have shown you how difficult it is for anybody to identify an historical outlaw whose life and deeds match those of the legendary Robin Hood. We really are dealing with scraps of information: little notes in court rolls; men who used the name of Robin Hood as an alias. But I think it is the very paucity of evidence regarding a real Robin Hood which has allowed the legend to grow over time, and be adapted continually by different people in different ages. Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved beyond trying to identify a historic outlaw who could have been the ‘real’ Robin Hood. And I think this is a move in the right direction: the tale of Robin Hood has been appropriated and adapted many times, and we will never identify a historic outlaw simply due to the lack of evidence. In the words of Professor Alexander Kaufman, ‘the origins of Robin Hood the person and his original context are perhaps best left to those individuals who wish to search for that which is forever to be a quest’.
A Popular Hero: The Medieval Period
While there is little evidence that enables us to definitively identify a single outlaw whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood, stories about Robin Hood circulated at an early period of English history. In a thirteenth-century poem by William Langland entitled The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c.1370), we meet a lazy Priest named Sloth. Poor Sloth is not a very good cleric. He cannot read or write, and he does not even know his Paternoster by heart. However, the one thing he can recite from memory is ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’. He tells us in the poem that:
I can noughte parfitly my Paternoster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hode, and Randalf Erle of Chestre.
These words from c.1370 are the first literary reference to Robin Hood. They make clear that during this period ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, or ballads were circulating orally. Transmission of these tales was often by word of mouth, for England was not a predominantly literate society in the fourteenth century. In fact, the skill of reading and writing was mainly confined to members of the Church and the upper classes.
In time, however, the ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ were written down. We have five surviving examples of these early rhymes, or ballads, of Robin Hood, and these are: Robin Hood and the Monk which survives in manuscript form and is dated c.1450;  Robin Hood and the Potter, which survives in a single manuscript of popular and moral poems that can be dated to c.1500;  Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is dated to the mid-fifteenth century;  and A Gest of Robyn Hode, the content of which is dated to c.1450, but only survives in printed copies from the sixteenth century.
The Robin Hood of these early ballads is very different to the outlaw that we would recognise today. While modern audiences are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon, Robin is not a nobleman in these early texts but is described as a ‘yeoman’. Broadly speaking, a yeoman was a member of the medieval middle classes, for want of a better term, occupying a social position between the aristocracy and the peasantry. This is clear from the outset of the Gest which opens with the following lines:
Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode. 
All of Robin’s fellow outlaws such as Little John and Much the Miller’s son hail from the same social class of yeomanry. And Robin and his men are quite violent characters. In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne he cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks his head upon the end of his bow:
Robin thought on Our Ladye deere,
And soone leapt up againe,
And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke,
Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.
He tooke Sir Guy’s head by the hayre,
And stickt itt upon his bowes end:
“Thou has beene a traytor all thy liffe,
Which thing must have an ende.”
Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne,
Could tell who Sir Guye was.
In Robin Hood and the Monk, one of Robin’s men, Much the Miller’s son and Little John kill a travelling monk and his young page:
John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.
There are also characters whom we would count as staples of the Robin Hood legend today that actually appear nowhere in these early texts. Maid Marian is notable absent from these texts. In fact, Robin has no love interest at all. Marian entered the legend via a different route to the ballads. The first time that two people named Robin and Marian were associated together was in a French pastoral play entitled Jeu de Robin et Marion, dating from c.1282. It is unclear, however, whether the Robin and Marian of this play were understood to be outlaws. There is certainly no proven link between the play and the Robin Hood tradition. We do know, however, that Marian appears alongside the ‘proper’ Robin Hood in sixteenth-century Tudor May Day celebrations. It seems from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon written between 1597 and 1598. Despite these two plays, however, Maid Marian would not get her “big break” until the nineteenth century with a short novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marianpublished in 1822, although of this novel I shall speak later.
The poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) is the most significant of all the medieval texts. While Robin was an outlaw in Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he did not really have a social mission as such. It is with the Gest that this changes. It is a long poem, 1.824 lines in total, and appears to have been constructed from a variety of existing tales which somebody, at some point, endeavoured to give unity to. It is a type of the ‘good outlaw’ tale. Robin will help poor, honest people whom he meets: the first ‘fytte’ of the poem sees him lending money to an impoverished knight named Sir Richard of the Lee, whose lands have been mortgaged to pay a debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York. And in this poem many familiar scenes occur, such as the archery contest, or his meeting with the King and subsequent pardon. At the end of the poem, Robin falls ill and goes to Kirklees Priory to be bled. The prioress, in league with Sir Roger of Doncaster, bleeds him to death. The poem then ends with a benediction:
Cryst have mercy on his soule
That dyed upon the rod.
For was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch gode.
Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in the poem (it was not until John Stowe’s Annales of England in 1592 that this idea would become current), it is in the Gest that we first get the idea that Robin is kind to the poor and ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.
The Seventeenth Century
Robin moved up in the world during the seventeenth century. In the afore-mentioned plays by Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, Robin was cast for the first time as an Earl. There was no precedent in the ballad tradition for Robin being an Earl. Munday did this because he was catering to a primarily aristocratic audience. Although largely forgotten about today outside of academic circles, these plays established a new narrative in the Robin Hood legend: Robin is depicted as an aristocrat; he is outlawed because of a plot against him by rival courtiers; and instead of a bold yeoman outlaw/rebel, the reason that Robin is outlawed is because he has stayed loyal to King Richard. Hence any subversive political traits are extracted from his character. Thus instead of challenging the establishment, in these plays Robin becomes an upholder of the established order.
In fact, in the area of high culture, Robin becomes a very non-threatening and gentle figure. This is the case in a play written by Ben Jonson entitled The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1641). Firstly, it’s unclear whether Robin is actually an outlaw at all: he is described as ‘Chief Woodsman, and Master of the Feast’. His men refer to him as ‘gentle master’. Furthermore, in the play, Robin never actually steals from anybody. Instead the story is what we call a ‘pastoral’, which is defined as:
A literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner, and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life.
In the play, Robin Hood has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the Vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, and then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his true love has drowned in the river – hence The Sad Shepherd. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved. Jonson never finished the play – that was a task left to subsequent writers. However, as among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, one academic named Ann Barton suggests that Jonson would probably have had the witch and her children forgiven and present at the final delayed banquet of venison. However Jonson might have ended, as you can see, it’s a very different tale of Robin Hood than the one that we are used to seeing.
At the same time as Jonson was writing, more exciting tales of Robin Hood were appearing in broadside ballads. Broadsides were large folio size sheets of paper with the lyrics of a song printed on one side. They were sold usually for a penny by itinerant hawkers. The ballads which appear in the seventeenth century are not the long type of medieval narrative poem, but rather are shorter stories, supposed to be sung, and they depict Robin as something of a buffoon. Ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, which dates from the seventeenth century, for instance, see Robin meeting a stranger in the forest. Robin bids him to stand, and the traveller takes offence. The traveller challenges Robin to a battle with quarterstaffs. The stranger wins the fight, and afterwards the two fellows make friends, and the stranger usually joins Robin’s band. Now although this is not quite the ‘heroic’ Robin Hood we expect, you may already realise that even these relatively unimportant later texts have left their mark upon modern-day portrayals: anybody who has seen a Robin Hood film or television show will no doubt recall that, in most instance, when Robin meets Little John for the first time, the two men fight and then become friends.
The Eighteenth Century
The eighteenth century is a very interesting century for the Robin Hood legend. On the one hand, he’s depicted as a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he is celebrated. But let us begin at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Between 1714 and 1737, Robin Hood’s reputation took a beating. In criminal biography, the most popular genre of literature, Robin was portrayed as a cold-hearted killer. It is best to briefly digress, however, to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did.
In the 18th century crime was the subject on everybody’s lips, and people believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. The situation apparently became so bad by mid-century that Henry Fielding gloomily prophesied ‘I make no doubt, but that the streets of [London], and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard’. The legal response to this crime wave was the introduction of a bloody law code, when 200 offences became capital felonies. This resulted in the proliferation of cheap criminal biographies. Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies, and Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722) is often seen as a more sophisticated example of the genre. The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ Robin also makes an appearance in Captain Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), as well as the anonymous The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737). The content of Smith’s Highwaymen was heavily plagiarised for subsequent accounts of Robin’s life, and it is Smith’s text which is focused upon here.
Today Robin Hood is usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, which is a legacy of Munday’s plays, but Smith was not convinced:
This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second.
Robin Hood’s social status, however, is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the 18th century: all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners – there was no concept of a ‘criminal class’. You became a criminal if, like Robin, you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.
Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws’. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the 18th century people often rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. When one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told an official that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the sarcastic response was that this was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers’. Even Robin’s meeting with the king is played out differently to how it is portrayed in movies today, for in Smith’s work, instead of the meeting ending amicably, Robin simply robs him:
The King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.
Evidently, the 18th-century Robin Hood is loyal to no man, not even the King. Finally, Smith portrays Robin Hood as a man who is wicked until the day he dies, for he records that:
Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay.
Criminal biographies were intended to serve as pieces of moralist literature. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led felons to the gallows. Eighteenth-century authors had a more nuanced and, dare it be said, ‘realistic’ impression of the type of man that Robin may have been like, if he existed at all. If you lived in the eighteenth century, it was this version of Robin’s life which you were most likely familiar with: criminal biographies such as Smith’s Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar were the third most common book to be found in the middle-class home, after the Bible and The Pilgrims Progress.
It was only in the latter part of the century when Robin became reimagined as a hero in the conventional sense of the word, with the publication of Joseph Ritson’s two-volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and was a conveyancer by trade. In his spare time, however, he was an antiquary. He was interested, not in the ‘high’ culture of people in times past, but in the culture of the common man. He published many collections of ancient ballads and songs such as A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) and Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791). Ritson quickly established himself as an authority on many historical subjects owing to his willingness to seek out obscure primary sources from archives and libraries across the country. He was also cantankerous, and fiercely critical of his rivals such as Thomas Percy who took it upon himself to edit and ‘refine’ Old and Middle English texts.
Ritson’s work is significant in the overall construction of the legend because, as his title suggests, he collected together and made accessible in printed form every Robin Hood text he could find ranging from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The Middle English ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, for instance, was first printed for a mass market readership in Ritson’s publication. Some of the other ballads which he included in his collection had been printed before, of course, by antiquaries such as Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical & Narrative (1784), and in the often reprinted Robin Hood’s Garland chapbooks (‘garlands’ were cheaply printed collections of popular songs). But Ritson’s Robin Hood was the first book to include all of these ancient and modern Robin Hood texts in one place.
The most important part of Ritson’s work, however, was the section entitled ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the collection of ballads. In this Ritson laid down the “facts” of the legend, saying:
Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the County of Nottingham, in the reign of king Henry the Second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble. […] he is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon.
Ritson, furthermore, decides to lay down the ‘facts’ about his character:
With respect to [Robin Hood’s] personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent; possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers and adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.
Another thing about Ritson is that he is a bit of an armchair republican/revolutionary. His letters from the 1790s are full of praise for the French Revolution. And so Ritson fashions Robin Hood into an almost quasi-revolutionary leader:
In these forests, and with [his] company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the king of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy, and such as were ‘desolate and oppressed,’ or stood in need of his protection.
And finally, Ritson tells us that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor:
That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denyed. Testimonies to this purpose, indeed, would be equally endless and unnecessary […] But it is to be remembered […] that, in these exertions, he took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would never suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.
As you can see, the story of Robin Hood, due in large part to Joseph Ritson, is beginning to look familiar to the story which we see depicted on film and television today. Ritson died shortly after the publication of Robin Hood, but we know from his letters that he was in contact with a young Scotsman, Walter Scott. It is Scott, as we shall see in a few moments, who carried Ritson’s portrayal of Robin Hood even further in his novel Ivanhoe (1819).
The Nineteenth Century
It is indeed during the nineteenth century when the Robin Hood legend assumes the form that we are familiar with today. This was primarily due to three literary works: Scott’s Ivanhoe, Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840). Scott is perhaps the most famous of all Scottish novelists. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Percy’s Reliques. Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.
Most of Scott’s novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish eighteenth-century history. Waverley – regarded as the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period, and it is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.
Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Ritson. Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:
I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels].
England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them. Scott says that:
The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia.
The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:
A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.
The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.
Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Richard finds his his land in chaos: outlaws roam in the forest; the Normans oppress the good Saxons; and Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.
Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another: ‘the serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’. Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century. England in 1819 was in fact a very divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured. Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:
From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest.
Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.
Walter Simeone, an early twentieth-century academic, argued that the modern idea of Robin Hood was practically ‘invented’ by Scott. Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights. Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.
The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819) and Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian’s ‘big break’ came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novel are based upon Byron and Shelley. Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As the Robin Hood critic Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott.
The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power on the continent. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted what he called the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.
Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:
Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. 
As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. However, she is no delicate little lady. Instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:
Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’.
In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. Marian in Peacock’s novel is essentially a proto-feminist.
The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. Early ballads such as the Gest were compiled from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent: in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. And neither does Robin have a backstory before Peacock’s novel.
Peacock set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.
The man who really brings together the ideas of both Scott and Peacock is an author who is relatively unknown today: Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). Egan was a prolific author who penned a number of medievalist novels, most of which were sold in weekly penny instalments. His quite radical work Robin Hood and Little John (1840) told the story of the hero from birth to death. Robin is portrayed as a freedom fighter, but also at the same time a chivalric, almost “Victorian” gentleman. And neither did Egan flinch from making his novels violent. Illustrating many of the scenes in his novel himself, the pages are full of arrows in people’s eyes, and in the text limbs are cut off and there’s a high body count. It is the perfect novel for a young male readership, even if Egan himself intended his novel to be read by adults as well. Egan’s novel was highly successful, went through six editions, and was even translated into French by the famous author Alexandre Dumas as Le Prince des Voleurs and Robin le Proscrit (1863) which was then retranslated back into English as two novels entitled Robin Hood the Outlawand The Prince of Thieves (1904).
After Egan, the quality of Robin Hood novels declines somewhat. And there are some terrible, highly moralistic novels. Some of them were written by Churchmen, and they are all overtly patriotic, stressing the duties of loyalty and service to the crown. Whereas the Robin Hood of earlier novels had always represented something of a challenge to the establishment, in this any subversive traits Robin has are totally neutered. He is now a thoroughly Victorian “drawing room hero” – a gentleman, a worthy subject, and in some novels it is unclear whether he is an outlaw or not. The one exception to these late nineteenth-century novels is perhaps Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Until Pyle, most Robin Hood novels had followed Scott in portraying him as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter. But Pyle returned to the earlier ballads, and from them constructed quite a lengthy narrative, telling the story of Robin’s life from birth to death. This was one of the more successful novels, and if you pick up a Penguin Classics edition of the story of Robin Hood today, it will most likely be Pyle’s novel.
The Twentieth Century
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, it is clear that the medium for telling tales of Robin Hood was shifting from the book to the screen. And no twentieth-century Robin Hood novel has ever really had the power to truly have a lasting impact upon the tradition as Scott, Peacock, and Egan did. Robin Hood movies were released in 1912 and 1913, but the first major Robin Hood movie was released in 1922 and starred Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The idea of Robin wearing tights was something which Victorian actresses adopted so that they could, with propriety, show their legs on stage, but in the 1922 movie the semi-acrobatic costume allowed Fairbanks to make darting leaps from castle edges, and Robin becomes a true swashbuckling hero.
The next major Robin Hood movie was Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood is very much influenced by Fairbanks’ movie and Walter Scott’s novel. Robin Hood is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, but he is more of an American hero than an English hero in this movie. And the movie endorses Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which can be seen in the oath that Robin makes the outlaws swear to:
You the freemen of this forest swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless, to protect all women rich and poor, Norman or Saxon, and swear to fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign Richard the Lionheart, and swear to fight to the death against all oppression.
It is this American, populist vision of Robin Hood that has persisted in cinematic portrayals. Hollywood has always far outstripped the British Film industry in terms of quantity of output, if not in terms of quality. Robin Hood is perhaps the perfect hero to be “Americanised”: he is the man who stands up for the common man against the strong and powerful, much like an American superhero. There is the idea that Robin is a Lord, but on the whole cinematic portrayals of the outlaw myth are relatively classless, just as American society is supposed to be. Perhaps the most memorable American portrayal of the outlaw legend, for many here today at least, is the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). So Americanised it was, that the filmmakers seemingly never even made the effort to have key members of the cast speak with an English accent. Costner’s Robin Hood is a relatively two-dimensional character, and the movie is full of big Hollywood action sequences – Robin catapulting into Nottingham castle to rescue Marian, for instance, is definitely an “American” addition to the legend.
The Costner movie was a piece of pure Hollywood fancy, a product of a time when cinema audiences evidently required little historical realism when watching a period film. The most recent movie Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe, although criticised by some reviewers, was an attempt at least to ground the story of Robin Hood in historical “fact”, with the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. It is essentially what, if it was a superhero movie, might be termed an ‘origins’ story. It is not a tale of merry men in Lincoln-Green costumes r big Hollywood set pieces, but a thoughtful and well-executed portrayal of a man who leads his people in an attempt to secure political rights from the monarch.
This is not to say that the British have not produced some good adaptations of the legend, but the most successful British portrayals have tended to be television affairs. There was the weekly TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the gentlemanly, and quite bland, Richard Green, which was broadcast between 1955 and 1959. In this series, following Scott, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who has returned from the Crusades and becomes an outlaw. But although the TV series may appear to be a thoroughly English affair, the hidden hand of the Americans was not far away: many of the series’ writers were Americans who held communist sympathies and who had fled the States after being accused of ‘Un-American Activities’ by the McCarthy government. So in effect we have America giving us a quintessentially English Robin Hood. The television series Robin of Sherwood which aired in the 1980s is certainly my personal favourite. For me this series represents a return to the bold outlaw of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Robin is no lord in this series, and he does not declare his loyalty to the King at the end of the series. To me, he appears to be closest to how the medieval ballad writers imagined Robin Hood: an outlaw who owed allegiance to nobody.
I just want to finish off by saying that hopefully what you’ve learned today is this: that the legend of Robin Hood has always been varied and adaptable. There may or may not have been a man whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend that was to become Robin Hood. We shall never know, mainly due to the lack of evidence surrounding his life. From early poems and rhymes, the legend rolled on, and acquired new features: in the fifteenth century Robin Hood was a bold yeoman forester; in the sixteenth century he became a member of the aristocracy; in the eighteenth century he was portrayed as both a wicked criminal and simultaneously praised as ‘the celebrated English outlaw’; in the nineteenth century in Ivanhoe, he became an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter; and in the twentieth century he is now more or less an American hero. It is difficult to know what further turns the legend of the outlaw of Sherwood will take. One thing is certain, however, and that is that, as Drayton prophesied in 1612 that ‘to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’.
 Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion cited in Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: i.
 James C. Holt, ‘Hood, Robin (sup. fl. late 12th-13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24741> Accessed 11 April 2016].
 Allen Wright, ‘The Search for a Real Robin Hood’ Bold Outlaw [Internet <<www.boldoutlaw.com/realrob/realrob2.com>> Accessed 11 April 2016].
 James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.45.
 See Mark Truesdale and Stephen Basdeo ‘Medieval Continuities: Nineteenth-Century King and Commoner Ballads’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [Forthcoming].
 John Timbs, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (London: F. Warne & Co. 1870), 356.
 Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Contexts: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164 (146).
 William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman Eds. Elizabeth Robertson & Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2006), 82.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 31-56.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 57-79.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 169-183.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 80-168.
 See R. Almond and A. J. Pollard, ‘The Yeomanry of Robin Hood and Social Terminology in Fifteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 170: 1 (2001), 52-77.
 Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, 178.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 43.
 Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 58.
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 43.
 Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood Ed. Frances Waldron (London: J. Nichols, 1784), 6.
 Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, 12.
‘Pastoral’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [Internet <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pastoral> Accessed 21 April 2014].
 Roy Booth, ‘Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd’ [Internet << http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhle/001/Jonsonsadshepherd.htm>> Accessed 18 April 2016].
 A version of this section originally appeared in History Today, October 2015.
 Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.
 Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
 Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), 60.
 Smith, Highwaymen, 411.
 Smith, Highwaymen, 412.
 A version of this section originally appeared in History Vault, October 2015.
 Joseph Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: iv.
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: xii.
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: v
 Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: ix.
 David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
 John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
 Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
 Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
 W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
 Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
 Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
 Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
 Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
 Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
 Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
 Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
 Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
 See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [FORTHCOMING].
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 153.
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 152.
 The Adventures of Robin Hood, dirs. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (1938) [DVD]
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 161.
 Drayton, op cit.
One of the more interesting characters that I have come across in the course of my research is the antiquarian, Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees northern England. Not a lot is known of his early life. His tutor, Rev. John Thompson, however, spoke of him as one of his best pupils.  He never went to university but was instead apprenticed to a solicitor. Ritson is remembered, however, for his antiquarian pursuits; an interest he maintained throughout his life.
Before going into detail about his antiquarian research, however, I would like to dwell upon some of his eccentricities. Unusually for people in the eighteenth century, Ritson was a vegetarian. Nicholas Harris explained in his biography that:
A perusal of Maudeville’s Fable of the Bees, induced […] serious reflection and caused him firmly to adhere to a milk and vegetable diet, having at least never tasted, during the whole course of those thirty years, a morsel of flesh, fish, or fowl. 
At a time when eating beef was seen as patriotic (it was the era of ‘the roast beef of old England), Ritson’s diet must have raised a few eyebrows. He published the reasons for his vegetarianism in An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty (1802).
He was also an atheist. When he died, for instance, he was in the middle of completing a tract that attempted to prove that Jesus Christ was an imposter. Indeed, throughout his life he was known to have told his associates that:
He did not believe that there was any such being as Almighty God, or that there was any future state of rewards or punishment, and the greatest devil he knew was a nasty, crabbed, ill-natured old woman. 
But he was always a kind man, and would do anything to help his friends. His kindliness manifested itself in various ways. He was known to be very charitable towards the poor. Not out of the hope of ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ but simply out of fellow human goodness.  He did not need a God to tell him to do good works.
Ritson could also be cantankerous, although this was probably a result of the mental health issues he suffered from throughout his life. He was one of a group of antiquarian scholars who came to prominence during the eighteenth century, but he constantly criticised other scholars’ methodologies in the press. Thomas Percy, who took it upon himself to ‘edit’ old English ballads, came in for a lot of criticism by Ritson. The criticism was often justified; Percy, for instance, ‘edited’ the medieval ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne so as not to offend the polite sensibilities of his eighteenth-century readers. Consequently, Robert Southey would later remark of Ritson that:
Ritson is the oddest, but most honest of all our antiquarians, and he abuses Percy and Pinkerton with less mercy than justice’.
Luckily, despite his severe criticism of other scholars, people such as Sir Walter Scott appeared to know how to handle him and his eccentric ways.
He published many collections of ‘ancient’ (I will discuss the implications of this below) poetry, such as The Northumberland Garland (1793) and Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802). Ritson is chiefly remembered nowadays, however, for the work that he did on the Robin Hood legend. In 1795 he published his two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). In this publication Ritson gathered together every known Robin Hood text then known, and made available for the first time in an accessible printed form the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). As well as Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, both of which date from the fifteenth century, he included many of the later seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631), and Robin Hood and the Tanner (late 17th century). Ritson, however, was quite cunning in including these later ballads in a collection of ‘all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads’. Except for the Geste, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter, most of the later ballads in his collection were not ‘reliques’ of an ancient English past; they were still being sold as broadsides for a penny during the eighteenth century.
Ritson also offered readers ‘historical anecdotes’ of Robin Hood’s life which he prefaced to the beginning of the collection of ballads. But before we discuss the biography of Robin Hood that he had written, let me give you some background in regards to Ritson’s political beliefs. Ritson was an outspoken republican who wished to see an end to the monarchy. But these beliefs, with the commencement of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), and the repressive legislation on political freedom of thought brought in by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, meant that it was quite dangerous to express republican sympathies in public. Ritson himself was conscious that he was being watched by the authorities. While in the early years of the Revolution he referred to his friends by such names as ‘Citizen Equality’, by 1793 he decided to stay silent in all political matters:
I find it prudent to say as little as possible on political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate. 
Consequently, he needed an outlet for his republican sympathies. So when he was writing his biography of Robin Hood, he transformed Robin Hood from being a small-time medieval outlaw who lived in the woods to a radical, almost revolutionary bandit:
In these forests, and with this 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. 
Ritson states, furthermore, that Robin’s acts of defiance against the King should be viewed as the highest form of patriotism:
It is not, at the same time, to be concluded that he must, in this opposition, have been guilty of manifest treason or rebellion; as he most certainly can be justly charged with neither. 
In short, Robin was a man whom:
In a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. 
In Ritson’s view Robin was a true patriot, the epitome of the eighteenth-century ‘independent man’ who would brook no interference from those in authority. 
Ritson’s Robin Hood was published at a time when other radical authors were appropriating figures from England’s medieval past. Ritson strains the figure of Robin Hood somewhat in order to make him fit his vision of a medieval Thomas Paine. But Robert Southey had the year previously also wrote Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (1794), a highly anachronistic view of the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, in which Tyler fights for ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’. Despite Ritson’s best efforts, however, reviewers of his work in literary magazines raised an eyebrow at his interpretation of Robin Hood’s life. One reviewer in The Critical Review, for example, said that:
Robin Hood’s character is here estimated too highly. He certainly possessed a spirit of freedom and independence; but, however we may be inclined to excuse the manner in which that spirit was displayed, it was not without a smile that we saw it denominated patriotism. 
Most likely the anonymous reviewer was aware of Ritson’s radical sympathies. Indeed, before William Pitt’s repressive legislation, Ritson had hardly been secretive about his republican sympathies.
History is silent about the particulars of Ritson’s later life. It is known that his mental health deteriorated rapidly in the late 1790s. In September 1803 he barricaded himself in his room and violently tried to attack all who approached him. He was thereby forcibly removed to the country house of Sir Jonathan Miles and attended to by doctors. Four days later, however, he sadly died. 
He certainly made his mark upon the world, however. He was viewed as an authority on all things antiquarian. Although their politics were different, furthermore, he appears to have maintained a friendship with Walter Scott, to whom he gave advice while he was composing his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). In Scott’s novel The Antiquary (1816) we meet a cantankerous old lawyer-cum-antiquary named Jonathan Oldbuck (perhaps inspired by Ritson himself). Oldbuck regularly engages in debates with his fellow antiquaries, and Ritson is referenced in a very humorous exchange between Oldbuck and Sir Arthur Wardour (the fictional character whose name would be given to the ‘Wardour MS.’ – a medieval document which is supposedly where Scott found the tale of Ivanhoe recorded). 
Although Francis James Child’s collection of ballads in the late 1800s is usually given more authority than Ritson’s work, were it not for his tireless endeavours in researching Robin Hood some of the materials relating to the outlaw legend may have been lost.
Nicholas Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.ii.
Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’, pp.iii-iv.
Alfred Henry Burd, Joseph Ritson: A Critical Biography (Illinois, 1916), p.102.
Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855), p. 159.
Joseph Ritson, ‘CVI: To Mr. Wadeson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), pp.5-7 (p.7).
Joseph Ritson (ed.) 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, p.v.
Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, p.vi.
Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, pp.xi-xii.
See Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: MUP, 2005).
Anon. ‘Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw; to which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. 2 vols. 8vo. 12s. Boards’ The Critical Review or Annals of Literature, No.23 (1798), p.229.
Burd, Joseph Ritson, 193.
Walter Scott, The Antiquary  Ed. N. J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002), p.64.
But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)
John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.
Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.
Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.
Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:
They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.
Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:
There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.
Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.
Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:
This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.
My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.
This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.
Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.
As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.
Dick 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.
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,
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Highway robbery is predominantly thought of as a male-gendered crime, and it is true that the vast majority of those found in the dock at the Old Bailey in eighteenth-century England were men. But were there any women who got in on the act too? After all, why should men have all the fun?
From a researcher’s point of view, however, it is notoriously difficult to find out if any women became highway robbers, in the sense that we might think of today, riding a horse and shouting “Stand and Deliver!” Firstly, whilst some people were charged specifically with highway robbery, many people who robbed upon the highway were also charged with robbery with violence. Then there were footpads, who often were charged with highway robbery or robbery with violence, but often carried on their misdemeanours in urban areas and, as their nickname implies, did not rob people on horseback but upon foot. Thus it would be difficult to search the archives through gender and offence alone.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660). According to legend, after the Cromwellian government deprived her of the income from her estates, she turned to highway robbery to increase her dwindling income. If the legend is true, she would have been among the ranks of many Royalist supporters who turned to highway robbery during this time, such as James Hind (1616-1652), who, according to Capt. Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), allegedly once robbed ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as he was travelling from Huntingdon to London’. The details of Ferrers’ death are unknown, however, though it is speculated that she died of a gunshot wound during a robbery-gone-bad. As with most legends, however, one has to take the account of Lady Ferrers with a pinch of salt.
The exploits of female highwaymen were also celebrated in fiction such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). In the story, Latroon, a highway robber and all-round rogue, is held up by a handsomely-dressed ‘gentleman robber’. Meriton and the robber fight, and the robber is overpowered. When Latroon frisks the robber, intending to rob him, he discovers that the robber is woman. The woman tells Latroon all about her life, and then she is soon joined by two other female robbers, and, it is hinted, Latroon and the three women then have a sex-fuelled night. It is difficult to know if Head was recounting a true story; it is certain that he plagiarised material from many sources, such as criminal biographies, and whilst many criminal biographies survive, many have also been lost.
Another highly sensationalised source is the broadside ballad The Female Frollick: or, An Account of a young Gentlewoman, who went upon the Road to rob in Man’s Cloaths, well mounted on a Mare, etc. To an excellent new Tune called The Rant(c.1690). Most of her victims are members of unpopular social groups such as a Quaker, a miller, and an excise man, and according to Gillian Spraggs, the ballad is actually satirising these types of people; they are men who have been robbed by a woman. They are, effectively, impotent against this woman, and in the seventeenth century, if you allowed yourself to become a slave (in any way, shape, or form) to a woman, you were seen as unmanly. Still, the female hero is not allowed to have too much freedom, for when the sheattempts to rob a highwayman, unfortunately for her, when her sex is discovered, the highwayman rapes her, and the ballad makes a light-hearted joke about this:
The High-way-man stood all amazed;
But she had no cause to complain.
Tho’ with her he did what he pleased,
He gave her the Money again.
The ballad itself is probably a somewhat loose adaptation of Head’s earlier account of a meeting between a highwayman and a woman and their ensuing sexual intercourse, though the ballad makes for unpleasant reading due to the fact that, instead of consensual sex, she is raped.
In the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), he gives the reader the story of Mary Frith alias Moll Cutpurse, born in the year 1589. From the beginning of the narrative, Smith effectively robs her of any feminine qualities, and, she is a man in all but name, only fitted to ‘manly’ employments:
She would fight with boys and courageously beat them; run, jump, leap, or hop, with any of the contrary sex […] she lived too much in common to be inclos’d in the limits of a private, domestic life; a quarter-staff was fitter for her than a distaff; stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling.
Perhaps worst of all, she is shown to be entirely devoid of maternal feeling:
She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.
Her wicked inclinations eventually lead her to begin a short career of highway robbery, but after a near-miss at being apprehended by General Fairfax, she decides to become a receiver of stolen goods. Throughout the narrative Smith strongly disapproves of Moll’s course of life; the smallest vices she has are made to appear as signs of her inner depravity. Smith even blames her for enticing the entire female sex into the harmful habit of smoking:
In her time tobacco being grown a great mode, she was mightily taken with the pastime of smoking, because of its singularity and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of the sex have since followed her example.
The passage about tobacco is literally inserted into the narrative between the accounts of two robberies she committed, and, as we have seen, are merely a sign of her sinfulness. Of course, we should also take Smith’s Highwaymen with at least a pinch of salt; as a specimen of his commitment to historical authenticity, it should be noted that he includes in his compendia the life of Sir John Falstaff…John Falstaff is a Shakespearean character, appearing in Henry IV: Part One, Henry IV: Part Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Smith and other criminal biographers in the eighteenth century were rarely concerned with reporting facts.
In reality, however, it was rare indeed to come across a female highwayman, according to J. M. Beattie’s study of crime in the eighteenth century. And Beattie actually only cites one case in his study of a female highwayman which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine on 24 November 1735, and here it appears as though she was acting in concert with a man:
A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.
Many women often acted as decoys for their partners who would rob people. The woman would usually entice an unsuspecting male down a dark alleyway with the prospect of sex, and then the man would come up behind the victim, knock him out, and rob him. This type of criminal partnership was known as the ‘buttock-and-file’. It was such a partnership that the notorious ‘Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, engaged in with Mary Milliner, a prostitute, during the early years of his criminal career.
Accounts of female highway robbers, scarce as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, almost disappear by the nineteenth century. In fact, the crime of highway robbery itself disappeared in the 1800s, with the last mounted robbery having taken place in 1831. One of the latest accounts of a female highwayman appeared in the 1890s. Sabine Baring-Gould, an antiquary and Anglican priest, collected a number of folk songs from the common people of West Country and published them in Songs and Ballads of the West, published in four parts between 1889 and 1891. Amongst the songs he transcribed was a ballad entitled The Female Highwayman. It’s a rather more pleasant story than the seventeenth-century ballad The Female Frolick. The woman dresses herself in man’s clothes and goes out and robs someone. She sees a man and robs him of a diamond ring and a watch. The next day, the man sees the woman (this time dressed as a woman) with the watch hanging out of her pocket. He enquires where the woman got the watch and she confesses that it was her who robbed him. He then scolds her for involving herself in a dangerous pastime, but is also a bit smitten with her, and the pair fall in love and are married. It is highly doubtful, again, that this was based upon a real story, and is most likely just an entertaining song.
In conclusion, when highwaywomen are represented in fiction and in folk ballads (written usually by male writers), they are figures which have to be contained; Latroon, although initially overcome by the female robber, he re-establishes his male authority by having sex with three female robbers; in The Female Frolick, the man again establishes control over the highwaywoman in a very unpleasant manner by raping her; In Smith’s Highwayman, Moll Cutpurse is, essentially, stripped of any feminine attributes; in the late nineteenth-century folk ballad The Female Highwayman we again see that, whilst it is a pleasanter story than The Female Frolick, the woman is again ‘contained’ so to speak for she ends up marrying her victim. It is evident then that writers in the past were uncomfortable with the prospect of women taking to the roads and robbing people upon the highway. Women were supposed to be relatively confined to the domestic sphere – that Moll Cutpurse has no liking for home life is another stick with which Smith beats her – and their appropriation of what was essentially a ‘manly’ thing to do would have been seen as subverting gender norms. Hence to male writers the female highway robber was a threatening figure, and one which had to be contained. As it happens, actual female highwaymen were rare, and this probably made any accounts of them all the more sensational (and profitable, if you were a writer or a ballad publisher), and most real-life highwaywomen usually committed their robberies in collaboration with male partners.
Gillian Spraggs, Outlaws and Highwaymen (London: Pimlico, 2001).
Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Harper, 1987).
Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1987).
Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (eds.) The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs (London: Penguin, 2012).
Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.
National Institute of Criminal Justice
I will talk here again about the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode(referred to hereafter as the Geste). It is a poem that was composed c.1450 but not printed until much later, most probably between the years c.1490 and c.1510. It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes,’ and chronicles many of the deeds and exploits that Robin becomes embroiled in. It is a long poem at 1,824 lines.
I will dwell here upon fyttes seven and eight in the Geste. Before going further, let me say that Robin Hood is first and foremost a criminal. He’s an outlaw who sets himself up in defiance of the authorities. People seem to forget this. Anything he is taken to represent, such as a love of liberty, or “the fellowship of free and equal men” as some scholars say, are meanings which people ascribe to the legend rather than anything which Robin in the early texts says that he represents.
Let us begin at the end of fytte six, where Robin has killed the Sheriff:
Robyn bent a good bowe,
An arrowe he drew at his wyll,
He hyt so the proude sheryf,
Upon the grounde he lay full styll.
And or he myght up aryse,
On his fete to stoned,
He smote of the sheryves head,
With his bryght bronde.
The King is understandably a bit annoyed that this outlaw has killed his representative of law and order, and in the seventh fytte we are told that:
The kynge came to Notynghame,
With knyghts in grete araye,
For to take that gentyll knight,
And Robyn Hode, yf he may.
The King is also a bit miffed that when he has been hunting, he cannot find any deer, for Robin and his men have been feasting upon them. So the King resolves to travel into the forest in disguise to meet Robin Hood and capture him. Dressed as monks, the king and his men happen to come across Robin and his men. This part of the poem is a rehash of medieval and early-modern ‘King and Commoner’ ballads, and cannot be taken to be factually true. When Robin meets the King (in disguise as a monk) Robin praises the King, and the King is impressed with this.
Robin invites the disguised King and his men for a meal in the forest and they have a feast. Afterwards, Robin demands payment from the King, at which point the King reveals himself to Robin and the outlaws:
Robyn behelde our comly kynge
Wystly in the face,
So dyde Syr Rycharde at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place.
And so dyde all the wylde outlawes,
Whan they see them knele:
“My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
Now I knowe you well.”
“Mercy then, Robyn,” sayd our kynge,
“Under your trystyll-tre,
Of thy goodnesse and thy grace,
For my men and me!”
The King forgives Robin for his crimes and invites him to live at Court with him, which Robin readily accepts.
He stays with the King for a full year, after which time Robin begins to get itchy feet. In reality, he is more like the King’s hostage than his servant – what better way to control England’s most notorious outlaw than to have him directly in sight at all times, right? Anyhow, Robin asks the King if he might have a few days’ leave of the King to travel back to Barnsdale to visit a chapel he had built to Mary Magdalene in the woods:
“Yf it be so,” than sayd our kynge,
“It may no better be,
Seven nyght I gyve the leve,
No lengre, to dwell fro me.”
“Gramercy, lorde,” then sayd Robyn,
And set hym on his kne;
He toke his leve courteysly,
To grene wode then went he.
Granted seven days’ leave and no more, Robin returns to Barnsdale. Once there, he cannot help himself but break the law again:
Whan he came to grene wode,
In a mery mornynge,
There he herde the notes small
Of byrdes mery syngynge.
“It is ferre gone,” sayd Robyn,
“That I was last here;
Me lyste a lytell for to shote
At the donne dere.”
Robyn slewe a full grete harte,
His horne than gan he blow,
That all the outlawes of that forest
That horne coud they knowe,
And gadred them togyder,
In a lytell throwe;
Seven score of wyght yonge men
Came redy on a rowe.
He really cannot help himself-once back in the green wood he slays another deer, and immediately sounds his bugle horn and rejoins the other outlaws living in the forest. He remains an outlaw for another 22 years until he finally dies at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.
Now, obviously caution has to be exercised when applying a modern theoretical concept such as recidivism to an early English text, for the legal system of the 1400s was very different to the legal system in England today. But the fundamental principle – that offenders can reoffend – remains the same. To repeat the definition of ‘recidivism’: It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. The ‘intervention’ Robin receives is being invited by the King to live at his court. Robin even receives a fee from the king – like a salary – for the duties he carries out at Court. Yet he still cannot help himself but reoffend the moment he is given a little bit of freedom from the King. Were this a more recent outlaw/highwayman from the 1700s, we would term this ‘recidivism’.
Disclaimer: I’m not a medieval historian – I study the later Robin Hood texts from the 18th and 19th centuries; this post is rather just a few things that have sprung to mind when reading the earlier tales of Robin Hood.
The medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of RobynHodewas composed after c.1450, although it was not printed until the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century. It is the most well-known of all the early Robin Hood ballads, and one of the longest at 1,824 lines. It is also most likely a compilation of various Robin Hood tales that were in circulation prior to its composition. In the poem, Robin is described as ‘a good yeman [yeoman]’. His fellow outlaws Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son are similarly described as ‘good’. In the tale Robin lends money to a poor knight, robs corrupt churchmen, kills the Sheriff, meets with the King, and is finally killed by the Prioress of Kirklees. The poem ends with a blessing upon Robin Hood who ‘dyd pore men moch god.’ Although the poem is as close to any early biography of Robin Hood (in its tone, at least) we will perhaps ever have, it is doubtful that it is actually a biography of the deeds which the legendary outlaw undertook during the 13th and 14th centuries.
The poem has been interpreted in various ways, beginning with the debates between Rodney Hilton and James C. Holt in the journal Past and Present in the 1950s & 1960s. Taking a Marxist approach, Hilton argued that Robin Hood was an expression of peasant discontent during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. As a more conservative historian, for Holt Robin Hood was representative of knightly or aristocratic interests. Maurice Keen assessed the arguments of both historians in another article for Past and Present but concluded that the early Robin Hood tales were written for the socially oppressed – not limited to a particular class of people but to all who felt that, for whatever reason, they could not obtain justice in the medieval world. To this day the debates still rage as to who the audience was for Robin Hood ballads in the late medieval period, with authors such as Stephen Knight rejecting a historicist interpretation altogether and arguing that the Geste cannot, indeed should not, be related to any real life event.
Perhaps we are missing one dimension here. For all of the debates I have read and come across, relatively few seem to consider the ballads in the context of being a reaction to crime in the fifteenth century. My background is in 18th-century criminal biography, and, having been influenced by Lincoln B. Faller’s work Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987), I wondered if we might apply one of his theories to our readings of the Geste, which is that people consume stories about crime to palliate their fears and anxieties towards crime, in particular violent crime.
Whilst we should be aware of the pitfalls of applying theories relating to the 18th century to medieval England, I believe that in the case of the Geste it can be done. After all, both periods had their ‘crime waves’ to use an anachronistic expression. The research of Henry Summerson points to the existence of highly organised and mobile bands of thieves who infested the forests, along with high rates of urban crime, and child exploitation. Similarly in the 18th century writers such as Henry Fielding in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) prophesied that unless something were done about the problem of violent crime, the streets of London would soon be impassable without the utmost hazard. And both time periods seem to have shared a – sometimes ambiguous – admiration for highway robbers; James Hind, Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, and James Maclaine were all at one point just as popular during the 18th century as Robin Hood was in medieval ‘popular’ culture. So perhaps you will agree that it is not altogether injudicious to make an analogy between two periods.
So what does Faller say regarding the ways in which the popular culture of crime was interpreted by readers in past ages? Why did such popular culture seemingly glamorise and idealise robbers in particular? Faller says that:
The fictions that so lightly informed their lives – fictions nowhere so completely present as in the utterly fictional, utterly idealised MacHeath [the gallant highwayman of The Beggar’s Opera (1728)] were entertaining largely because the actualities these fictions displaced were hardly to be entertained.
That is to say that people warmed to highwaymen in popular culture because their real brutality was masked under an air of gallantry and politeness, which made them appear to many people as someone on ‘the right side of danger’ so to speak. My question is: could/would we find the same thing happening in the medieval period? The violence of certain medieval outlaws is well documented even in ballads. Even Robin Hood in the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (15th century, probably before 1475) brutally cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks Guy’s head upon his bow’s end. In Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450), one of the merry men, Much, brutally kills a young boy. Whilst in the ballads Robin is often said not to do any harm to any company that a woman was in, a study of 13th-century homicide showed that 37 per cent of the victims of outlaw robberies were woman, and Barbara Hanawalt concludes by saying ‘bandits had no social conscience than the ordinary thieves who stole primarily from fellow villagers.’ The Geste is much less violent in tone in than The Monk and Guy of Gisborne. And Robin Hood is on numerous occasions in the Geste said to full of ‘courtyse’. To me, and I may be wrong, this sounds suspiciously like the ‘politeness’ that 18th-century highwaymen were said to affect when robbing their victims, and of course any politeness, or in Robin Hood’s case, ‘courtesye,’ whilst committing robbery was most likely pure fiction.
That the Geste may have palliated readers’ fears of violent crime in the same way that 18th-century criminal biography did is not a concept that is outside the bounds of possibility, although, as I have stated above, I am not a medieval historian, and this idea is free to be developed/trashed accordingly by anyone who reads it. Neither is it an idea that is supposed to be profound and overturn everything that has gone before it. Indeed, Robin Hood, if the Geste did assuage contemporary listeners’/readers’ fears of violent crime, it can still be representative of the ‘aspirational’ classes or the need for justice in an unjust world. As Lucy Moore says of 18th-century criminal narratives, crime holds about it an air, however illusory, of glamour and liberty. And Gillian Spraggs says how in the 18th-century ‘many a lad’ idolised highwaymen because it seemed as if they rose, almost instantaneously, into a life of riches, glamour, and gaming. Indeed, why in this day and age do we glamorise the lives of mobsters in movies and TV shows? They show us a life of glamour and easy money, though the reality of organised crime is probably a long way away from how it is represented on TV, and I expect that any ‘courtesye’ of Robin’s is similarly pure fiction. In short, what I want to say here is that people needed good outlaws like Robin and his men because the reality was that the real outlaws who preyed upon people in the woods were brutal, callous killers.
 R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.) Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), p.xxix.
 Anon. Here begynneth a lytell geste of Robyn hode, and his meyne and of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510?) Cambridge, University Library Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689.
 Rodney Hilton ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 14 (1958), pp.30-44.
 James C. Holt ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 18 (1960), pp.89-110.
 Maurice Keen ‘Robin Hood – Peasant or Gentleman?’ Past & Present No. 19 (1961), pp.7-15.
 Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
 Henry Summerson ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’ The Journal of Legal History 17: 3 (1996), pp.197-224.
 Henry Fielding An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
 Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) p.124.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.123.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd End. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), pp.113-122.
 Barbara Hanawalt ‘Ballads and Bandits: Fourteenth-Century Outlaws and Robin Hood Poems’ ed. by Stephen Knight Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), p.277.
 Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode…
 Lucy Moore Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), p.iii.
 Gillian Spraggs Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001).