Robin Hood the Angry Letter Writer

By Stephen Basdeo

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

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

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

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

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

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National Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card

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

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Engraving of Reform ‘celebrity’, Mr Henry Hunt

It was an unjust system.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope.

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

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The Medusa; or Penny Politician, No. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hood was furious at

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Robin Hood of the Anti-Corn Law League

By Stephen Basdeo

While physical archival research remains the “bread and butter” of the work of any historian, the rise of online repositories of primary sources have proved to be of invaluable use to many a historian over the years. This is particularly the case when you want to investigate what, say, the Victorians thought about a person like Robin Hood. A simple key word search will bring up a number of results from often quite obscure places. And I came across a rather interesting commentary on a Robin Hood ballad, titled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, which was reprinted in Toby Veck’s Facts and Figures: Ten Tables Telling Tales of My Landlord and the Church (1846).

Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford is one of the more humorous songs of Robin Hood that was first printed in the seventeenth century. Robin and John meet with the bishop (The earliest surviving text is in the so-called Forresters manuscript (British Library Additional MS 71158), which dates to the 1670s). The song sees Robin and Little John, disguised as shepherds, poaching in an area of the forest which they know the bishop will pass through. The Bishop does indeed see them and demands that they come with him to face the king’s justice. The outlaws scoff and Robin, blowing his horn, summons his soldiers who surround the bishop and his men. The outlaws tie the bishop to a tree and force him to sing Mass for them; they then hold a feast for which, harking back to earlier Robin Hood tales such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the bishop is compelled to pay.

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Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card. Note how membership comprised the middle and working classes.

The Bishop of Hereford soon became an integral character in the Robin Hood legend. His encounter with the outlaws was featured in Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1719) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734). He is also an integral character in Robert Southey’s unpublished Robin Hood novel Harold; or The Castle of Morford (1791), while variants of the ballad were given in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). In the Victorian era, the Bishop of Hereford was also a rather comic villain in Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838–40).

When Egan was writing, the price of bread was kept artificially high because of the Corn Laws. After the Napoleonic Wars, or the “first” World War, the British industrial and agricultural sectors were on their knees. When the war ended in 1815, British landowning elites, who had done very well out of the war, feared that, with the opening of the continent to British trading again (it had of course been cut off under Napoleon’s Continental System), the price of grain, and their incomes, would be slashed. As the government of the day was dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy for whom few could vote, the ruling class naturally legislated for something that in their narrow party interests against the benefit of the British people-at-large. So tariffs were placed upon imports of grain. The ruling class was happy.

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A meeting of the “Leaguers” in the 1840s

This policy hurt both the middle-class tradesman and the poorer labourer. Everyone had to eat, and everyone had to pay the same high price for bread.

Much opposition to the tariffs, or the “Corn Laws” as they became known, was voiced by radicals and reformers in the press, and the policy even had a few enemies among MPs. Yet it took a while for opposition to the laws to coalesce into a firm, united front. While the tariffs had been legislated for in 1815, it was not until 1836—almost in tandem with the emergence of the Chartist movement—that one of Britain’s most successful pressure groups was formed: The Anti-Corn Law League.

The Anti-Corn Law League certainly alarmed the Tories, whose policy it was. By 1836, the middle classes could now vote and even stand for parliament providing they owned or leased land or property worth over 40 shillings. One response by the league, which was backed by some big names of the day such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, was to donate a 40 shilling freehold to friendly would-be MPs and field them as candidates for parliament in by-elections where “protectionists” stood.

And they wrote, and they printed, and they mobilised mass support among the working classes through large rallies. Much of the opposition came from the industrial towns while support for the laws came from Tory and Whig landowners. But so successful was the Anti-Corn Law League that they even managed to convince the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, of the necessity for ending the Corn Laws and, by all accounts, even secured the backing of Queen Victoria herself!

It is in one such Anti-Corn Law League pamphlet where we find our “free trade” Robin Hood: the aforementioned work Ten Tables by Toby Veck. The name was a pseudonym, for Toby Veck is a character who appears in Charles Dickens’s The Chimes (1844). When reading Veck’s work, we find him making numerous appeals to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past in which, so he believed, Englishmen enjoyed political liberty and did not starve under the benevolent rule of the various Anglo-Saxon kings.

At the end of his work, he decided to share a little anecdote.

He told readers that when he was a boy, he knew “a fine old English gentleman”—a farmer—who could sing from Robin Hood’s Garland for six hours straight! (Slight exaggeration here, most likely—that’s a tall order for any singer, then or now). Of all the ballads this farmer sung to him, he recalled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.

He reprinted the ballad in full and then commenced upon a short explanation.

The Bishop in the ballad was definitely a Tory, so Veck reasoned: he was against the “free trade” in venison, which Veck assures us was a catch-all term which included not only meat but also bread (a reach, certainly, but definitely not the wildest appropriation of a Robin Hood character I’ve seen).

Robin Hood, on the other hand, was a medieval Anti-Corn Law Leaguer: his attempt to go a poaching on the Bishop’s land represented the good Saxon Englishman’s yearning for free trade. Veck even gave his readers a useful key to the antiquated terminology used in the ballad:

Explanations.—“Bishop of Hereford and Company,” the Protectionists and their leader; “ven’son” means cheap corn; six of his men, Repealers in the disguise of conservatives; “Lives away,” to turn ‘em out; a Tree, “public opinion;” “a thorn,” the League; “the horn of Repeal,” three score and ten Leaguers; “cut off his head,” immediate Repeal; “staying at Barnsdale,” delay of three years during which they are in a state of alarm; and at the expiration of that period comes “the reckoning.”

So, let us try and work out that allegory in full now Veck has given us the key to decipher this seventeenth-century rant against the nineteenth-century Corn Laws:

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Late Victorian illustration of Robin Hood’s meeting with the Bishop of Hereford.

Robin Hood is an Anti-Corn Law Leaguer who with “six of his men” ventures into the Tory Bishop’s lands to poach and steal and really put free trade into full practice for they are Repealers disguised as Tories who are venturing into the hostile land of protectionism when all they want is cheap “venison”/Corn—whatever! When the Bishop tries to prevent Robin’s exercise in forest free trade he sounds the horn of Repeal at which many other Repealers flock to his side. Little John, the more hot-headed Repealer, wants to immediately cut off the Bishop’s head and gain an immediate repeal of protectionist forest laws; but the Bishop has by this point been tied to the “tree” of public opinion and just a little stay longer will make the Bishop see the wisdom of forest free trade too! And of course, soon would then come the reckoning: the floodgates of repeal would burst open and there would be forest free trade for all!

While amusing to us, this was not satire: the Corn Laws meant that many poorer families did indeed go hungry due to the high price of bread. Usually, Victorian medievalists were a little more subtle in their appropriation of the Norman Forest Laws to serve different political causes. Thomas Miller’s Chartist novel Royston Gower (1838) is particularly good in this respect, being a novel in which the outlaws seek a “Forest Charter” to reclaim their ancient rights. Robin Hood fans will also be pleased to know that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1819),opposed the Corn Laws.

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Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1846

Repeal finally came in 1846, when Prime Minister Robert Peel used the votes of the opposition to carry through the measure. Yet it split the Tory Party: the “Peelites” broke away and joined with the Whigs and the Radicals in Parliament, and formed the Liberal Party. The Tory party limped on and remained practically on its deathbed for a few years until it was popularly revived under the leadership of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.

Read and download Veck’s pamphlet: Anti-Corn Law League Robin Hood

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Commemorative Banner celebrating an end to the hated Corn Laws (c) Manchester Archives+

Further Reading

Dickens, Charles, The Chimes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844)

Miller, Thomas, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1838)

Turner, Michael, ‘The “Bonaparte of free trade” and the Anti-Corn Law League’, The Historical Journal, 41: 4 (1998), 1011–34

Veck, Toby, Ten Tables Telling Tales of “My Landlord” and “The Church” (London: Longman, 1846)