The Critical Reception of Mrs. Brown of Falkland’s Robin Hood Ballads

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 Hood and 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’.


Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

rh-books-1700s
Eighteenth-Century Robin Hood Scholarship: Percy’s Reliques (1765), Evans’ Old Ballads (1784) and Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

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’.[3] The most significant ballad which was transcribed from Mrs. Brown of Falkland was the aforementioned The Birth of Robin Hood.[4] 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:

abrownballad
Anna Gordon’s ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Jamieson’s Popular Ballads (1806)

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.’ [5]

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.[6]

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,[7] 1823,[8] 1832,[9] and then revised and expanded in 1865.[10] 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”.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.

fjchild
American Scholar F. J. Child (1825-1896)

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.[18] 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.

Conclusion

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.[19]

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).[21] 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.

rh1
Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh, 1819)

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.[22] Stephen Knight, who has studied this novel in depth, agrees that Goody is modelled upon Mrs. Brown.[23]

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.[24]

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.


References

[1] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp.36-54.
[2] See Monica Santini, The Impetus of Amateur Scholarship: Discussing and Editing. Medieval Romances in Late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).
[3] 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&gt; Accessed 27 July 2016].
[4] 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.
[5] Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’, p.197.
[6] 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.
[7] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Longman, 1820).
[8] 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).
[9] 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).
[10] 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).
[11] 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’.
[12] A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 377.
[13] 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.]).
[14] 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.
[15] Child, 2: 417.
[16] Child, 2: 412.
[17] Child, 3: 130.
[18] Child, 3: 227-233.
[19] Dobson Taylor, p.195.
[20] 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).
[21] Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).
[22] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54-78.
[23] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, p.146-147.
[24] Robert Southey, Robin Hood: A Fragment (London: William Blackwood, 1847), pp.1-2.

Last Dying Speeches, Trials, and Executions: The Changing Format and Function of Crime Broadsides, c.1800 – c.1840

A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016.


Abstract: Crime broadsides are usually assumed to be unchanging and static. Yet this paper argues that subtle changes appeared in their format and content over time which reflect changing public attitudes to crime and criminality.


The morning dawned […] the clock had just struck eight, when the voice of a man in the street fell upon his ear. He heard the following announcement: –

“Here is a full account of the horrible assassination committed by the miscreant William Bolter upon the person of his wife […] only one penny! The fullest and most perfect account – only one penny!”

G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45).[1]

Introduction

As G. W. M. Reynolds’ statement implies, crime broadsides were a regular feature of Victorian street life. Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) remarked how a ‘very extensive […] portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by “Sorrowful Lamentations” and “Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution” of criminals’.[2] The association of crime broadsides with the poor persisted into twentieth-century historical criticism, even though they addressed readers of all classes.[3] Indeed, crime broadsides were once denounced by F. W. Chandler as

Catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many’ and falling ‘below the dignified historian’s line.[4]

Thankfully, academics such as Vic Gatrell, Andrea McKenzie, and Phillipe Chassaigne now recognise the value of these sources and what they can tell historians about constructions of criminality in the past.[5] Yet even by modern scholars broadsides are usually written about as though they were unchanging, static pieces of literature. The digitisation of broadsides by Harvard Library School of Law and the National Library of Scotland, however, has been especially useful for the research presented in this paper which examines change over time in the content of broadsides;[6] no longer are broadsides

So widely scattered as to be reassembled for the purposes of study only at a cost of pains and patience out of all proportion to their apparent merit.[7]

This paper analyses broadsides relating to property theft between c.1800 and .1840. It is best to focus upon one type of crime because others provoked different responses in the press: murder was a sin against God, whilst forgery was viewed essentially an act of treason. The argument of this paper is that subtle changes occurred in the format and content of crime broadsides reflected changing public attitudes to criminality, thus building upon an undeveloped statement by Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged (1991) where he stated that ‘there has hitherto been a tendency to overlook the changing nature of broadsides’.[8] This paper will show how late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century broadsides reflect the Georgian attitude to criminality, in which a degree of sympathy is extended to the condemned felon. This paper then shows how the content gradually evolved and manifested a typically Victorian view of criminality, where empathy with the accused gradually disappeared in favour of emphasising the offender’s guilt and just punishment through an increased focus upon the victim and the trial.[9] Hence ‘Last Dying Speeches’ gradually became the ‘Trial and Execution’ of a felon.

Context: Shifting Perceptions of Criminality during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth century, criminals could come from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) usually highlighted the fact that most criminals such as the highwayman Ned Bonnet were ‘born of very good and reputable parents’.[10] This was in order that, as Henry Fielding mused in a revised edition of Jonathan Wild (1743), the offenders ancestors ‘might serve as a foil to himself’.[11] Yet a criminal’s family could be ‘good and reputable’ whether they were rich or poor. Social status had no bearing upon criminality because ‘all men [were] equally tainted by original sin’, hence ‘criminals [were] not different in kind from other people, only in degree. Anyone might become a criminal.’[12] Like Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), whose love of women and good living eventually brings him to the gallows, criminals were simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations.[13] It is this idea that criminals could be ‘everyman’ which accounts for the sympathy extended to some felons in eighteenth-century criminal accounts.

The situation changed as the nineteenth century progressed, when the poor migrated to cities as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation. One effect of having so many people living in dire poverty in close proximity is that the areas where they do live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England stated that ‘the incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world’.[14] In the early Victorian press, then, references to ‘professional criminals’ and ‘criminal classes’ began to appear. This type of offender is represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes and Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabit an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. Thus the Victorian elites began to believe that there was a “criminal class”, drawn from its poorest ranks, who was responsible for the majority of crime. In other words, there was now a sociological explanation for criminality. Criminals were no longer dashing highwaymen such as James Maclean or Claude DuVall. Instead they were largely portrayed as desperate and wicked fellows.

Broadside Images

The public execution of criminals by hanging was a common occurrence in Britain. For example, a Londoner born in 1780 would have had the opportunity to witness four hundred hangings by 1840.[15] Early broadsides usually contained a crude woodcut of a man being hanged, or the moment that they were ‘launched into eternity’. These woodcuts did not depict the actual felon from the text, however, because they were stock images that were often reused on several occasions. The same woodcut, for instance, is used by the Leicestershire-based publisher, Martin, to depict the hanging of both Thomas Wilcox at Nottingham in 1820,[16] and of William Oldfield at Bradford also in 1820.[17]

comparison
Courtesy Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS IDs: 009799979 & 009799658

To a modern reader these images appear macabre. Precisely what individuals during the nineteenth century felt upon seeing such images may never be known. Gatrell does speculate, however, upon what contemporaries may have thought, arguing that they were

Totemic artefacts […] symbolic substitutes for the experiences watched […] mementoes of events whose psychic significance was somehow worth reifying.[18]

epsom
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007076646

Gatrell further hints that the images may have allayed readers’ fears regarding their own mortality, making them inwardly thankful that they were not upon the scaffold themselves.[19] The further emotion that may have been elicited by the crude and macabre woodcuts is sympathy. Sympathy can be extended to a man depicted in the moment of dying upon the gallows, a point raised recently by Rachel Hall in her research on American outlaws in visual culture.[20] But by the 1820s broadside images began to become more detailed, and many were including images of the crime being perpetrated. For example, the only image included upon the broadside detailing the Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery in 1834 committed by Charles Cottrell is literally of the victim’s brains being blown out.[21] Sympathy can easily be extended to a man about to die, but it is harder to empathise with a person who is depicted as committing a brutal criminal act.[22]

dormand
Courtest of The National Library of Scotland Shelfmark: 6.314(31)

Headline and Text

Broadside images alone are not sufficient to illustrate the argument of this paper because some obscure publishers were reusing eighteenth-century woodcuts as late as the 1860s,[23] thus it is better to concentrate upon changes in the textual content of broadsides. Headlines usually followed a similar formula of words. For example, there is The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand in 1793.[24] Similarly, nine years later there was The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham on Wednesday 31st March 1802 (1802).[25] Broadsides recounted what their respective titles advertised: an account of the life of the criminal, their dying speech and last moments. A great deal of continuity is apparent in these late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century broadsides with the way that earlier criminal biographies presented their accounts of criminals’ early lives. For example, James Dormand was born to ‘honest and respectable parents’.[26] The same goes for the highway robber Thomas Hopkinson who was executed at Derby in 1819. Born of ‘respectable’ parentage but:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till he was “driven away with his wickedness”.[27]

That account is reminiscent of a 1724 account of the life of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) who was said to have first turned to crime after having associated with the prostitute Edgeworth Bess, thereafter committing a string of robberies.[28] As already stated, in the eighteenth century all people were assumed to be capable of crime because everybody was guilty of original sin, and therefore anyone might become a criminal. A person usually became a criminal when they began committing small sins, such as the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and this gradually led them on to bolder offences.[29]

broadside-1802
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799953

Yet by the 1820s broadsides began to include a mention of the trial in both the headline and the body of the text. They began to carry titles such as Trial and Sentence,[30] or, as in the case of the burglar William Harley in 1836, The Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley for the Chipstead Burglary.[31]

broadside-1836
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007053667

These later broadsides contained a very brief account of the life of the criminal. Indeed, all that is said of Charles Cottrell, the perpetrator of the Epsom robbery cited above, is that he was ‘known to be a desperate fellow’, thus associating him with the poor and dispossessed, or the criminal or dangerous classes.[32] The depiction of the trial in the main body of the text would have left readers in no doubt as to the felon’s guilt. James Mitchell and John Sharp in 1825, for example, are depicted as being unequivocally guilty because

After a few minutes’ absence, [the jury] returned a viva voce verdict, finding the pannels [sic] guilty.[33]

That is a very simplistic representation of the particulars of the case: Mitchell and Sharp committed a heinous crime, had been found guilty by a jury of their peers, and sentenced to death. Justice had been served. The inclusion of the trial served an important function when many people’s exposure to the workings of the judicial process would have been rare. It included people into the judicial sphere, and with the gradual focus upon the victim in the text, the trial allowed ‘the whole community to unite against the criminal’.[34]

Michel Foucault states that public executions during the eighteenth century, and their representation in print, effectively shamed both the executioner (the state) and the condemned. But when publicity shifts to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution of a criminal becomes something that justice is ashamed of but deems necessary to impose upon the condemned criminal for breaking the social contract.[35] Changing sensibilities and the rise of respectability during the nineteenth century meant that by the 1820s and 1830s the highwaymen depicted on broadsides were not the semi-glamorised and heroic individuals that they had been in the eighteenth century (unless they were historic, of course, as in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novels). Instead they were simply felons who were deserving of their fate. While Charles Dickens (1812-1870) may have criticised public executions for their effect upon the morality of the spectators, he never argued that these men should not be executed, and in the latter part of his life he declared that ‘I should be glad to abolish both [public executions and capital punishment] if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them.’[36]

One aspect of broadsides which appears to have remained constant was the moment that the criminal was ‘launched into eternity’, which was a common phrase to appear on broadsides. Other such phrases include burglars such as Thomas Boggington and Thomas Francis who in 1813 ‘met their awful fate’.[37] Being ‘launched into eternity’ through hanging was a painful, degrading experience: the hanged felon would feel cervical pain along with an acute headache as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck; sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve would continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocked them; male sufferers would have an erection after hanging due to the pooling of blood in the legs and lower body, and might also ejaculate while dangling on the rope.[38] These euphemisms, however, sanitised the state-sanctioned violence of the death sentence:[39] it seems that ‘it [was] ugly to be punishable, but there [was] no glory in punishing’.[40] The execution really was something that the state was ashamed to have to impose.

Conclusion

The digitisation of crime broadsides in recent years has facilitated an examination of their changing format and content. This paper has shown that while their general format and appearance changed little over the course of this period, there were subtle differences that can be discerned from studying their content over time. The earliest broadsides represented continuity with an eighteenth-century view of criminality which held that all people were capable of committing crime because of original sin, and which consequently accounts for the sympathetic view of criminals in them. Broadsides from the 1820s and 1830s, however, told a different story. The inclusion of the trial inculcated a respect for the law, with death being presented as something that the justice system was ashamed to impose upon its offenders who were, if broadside accounts are to be believed, deserving of their fate.


References

[1] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (2 Vols. London: J. Dicks, 1845; repr. London: Printed for the Booksellers [n.d.]), p.42.
[2] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (3 Vols. London: George Woodfall & Sons, 1851; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.93.
[3] Last Farewell to the World of John Cashman, for Burglary, who is Ordered for Execution on Wednesday next, Opposite Mr. Beckwith’s House, on Snow Hill; Andrew Barton and James Frampton, for Highway Robbery, who will be Executed on Friday in the Old Bailey ([London]: Pigott, Printer, Old Street, London [1817]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 008108832; for example, ‘Good people all a warning take’ appears in this broadside and many others, implying that broadside publishers at least anticipated a wider readership for their wares.
[4] F. W. Chandler, The Literature of Roguery 2 Vols. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1907), 1: 181
[5] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007); Phillip Chassaigne, ‘Popular Representations of Crime: The Crime Broadside – A Subculture of Violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies 8: 2 (1999), 23-55.
[6] Harvard Library School of Law Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides [Internet << http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu/faq.php Accessed 11 September 2016] & National Library of Scotland Word on the Street [Internet <http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/&gt; Accessed 11 September 2016].
[7] Chandler, The Literature of Roguery, 1: 181.
[8] Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Penguin, 1991), p.89.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.54.
[10] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward (3 Vols. London: J. Morphew, 1719; repr. London: Routledge, 1933), p.56.
[11] Henry Fielding ‘Jonathan Wild’ in The Works of Henry Fielding 12 Vols. (London, 1743; repr. London: J. Bell, 1775), 5: 4.
[12] Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
[13] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 2013), p.351.
[14] Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009).
[15] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.32.
[16] Account of the Life, Character and Behaviour of T. Wilcocks, Who was Executed this Day, March 29th, 1820, on Nottingham Gallows, for Highway Robbery ([Leicester]: Re-printed by Martin, Leicester [1820]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799979.
[17] The Full Confession and Execution of William Oldfield, Innkeeper, of Bradford, Yorkshire, Who Suffered on Thursday Last, July 27, 1820, at York for the Murder of his Wife Mary Oldfield ([Leicester]: Re-printed by Martin, Leicester [1820]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799658.
[18] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.175.
[19] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.243.
[20] Rachel Hall, Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009), p.37.
[21] The Latest Particulars: The Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery: Committed, as Supposed to be, by Two Ruffians, on Mr. John Richardson, Farmer of Bletchingly, Who was Robbed, and Barbarously and Inhumanly Murdered about Half-Past Six O’Clock in the Evening of Wednesday the 26th of February 1834, on his Return Home from Epsom Market ([n.p.] [n.pub.], 1834). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 007076646.
[22] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p.107; the representation of such violent acts, naturally, was also a part of the increasing demand on the part of nineteenth-century audiences for violent entertainment.
[23] Life, Trial, Sentence, and Execution of Catherine Wilson, for the Murder of Mrs. Soames ([London]: Taylor, Printer, 93, Brick Lane Spitalfields, [ca. 1862]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 008120856.
[24] The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand, Who was Execute [sic’] at Perth, on Friday 31st May 1793 for Highway Robbery ([n.p.] [n.pub], 1793). National Library of Scotland, Shelfmark 6.314(31).
[25] The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham on Wednesday 31st March 1802 ([Leicester]: Throsby, Printer, Leicester, [1802]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799953.
[26] The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand.
[27] The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson, Jun.: Who Suffered this Day on the New Drop, in Front of the County Gaol, Derby, for Highway Robbery ([Derby]: G. Wilkins, Printer, Queen Street, Derby [1819]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 005949713.
[28] Anon. ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild ed. by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), pp.5-6.
[29] McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.59.
[30] Trial and Sentence: A Full and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of James Mitchell and John Sharp ([n.p.] [n.pub.], 1825). National Library of Scotland. F.3.A.13(99)
[31] Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley, for the Chipstead Burglary at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Old Montague Street, Whitechapel (London: Carpue, Printer [1836]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 007053667.
[32] The Latest Particulars: The Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery.
[33] Trial and Sentence: A Full and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of James Mitchell and John Sharp.
[34] Chassaigne, Popular Representations of Crime, p.40.
[35] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System Trans. by A. Sheridan 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1977), p.9.
[36] Charles Dickens cited in Michael Fraser, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p.249.
[37] The Trial and Execution, of Thos. Boggington, Sen., Thomas Francis, Thomas Norman, William Hasledon, alias Samuel Moss, for Burglaries; and Luke Marin, for Coining, who Suffered Death, this Morning, at the Surrey County Gaol, Horsemonger-Lane ([London]: Printed by Jennings, 13, Water-Lane, Fleet-Street, London. [1813]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 003184872.
[38] Capital Punishment UK, ‘Hanged by the neck until dead! The processes and physiology of judicial hanging’ [Internet] http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/hanging2.html#pain [Accessed 12/08/2014].
[39] Crone, Violent Victorians, p.103
[40] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p.10.

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

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

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

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

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

highwayman
Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

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

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

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

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

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

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

sb1
18th-century illustration of Murderer and Highwaymen, Sawney Beane.

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

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

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

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

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns. [9]

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

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

At the end of the tale readers are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

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

However much readers may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history. [12]

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

Mollflanders
Moll Flanders (1722)

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


References

[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (p.701)

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

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

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

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

FullSizeRender-1
William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867)

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

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

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

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

Ivanhoe 1871
Micklegate, York in the 19th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FullSizeRender(23)
Illustration of a criminal being executed from The Newgate Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ARE SCANNED IMAGES TAKEN FROM COPIES OF BOOKS IN MY OWN COLLECTION.

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

A conference paper to be delivered at the Forthcoming MEMS Festival, University of Kent, 17-18 June 2016.

Introduction

A number of excellent scholarly examinations have been carried out upon A Gest of Robyn Hode, notably by Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, John Marshall, and Alexander Kaufman, as well as older discussions by James C. Holt and R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor.[1] For the most part, these essays have focused upon the content of the Gest within its medieval context. It is the most significant of all the early Robin Hood poems, and at 1,824 lines long is certainly the longest, in all likelihood being a compilation of various Robin Hood tales to which somebody, at some point, gave unity.[2] It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.[3] The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century.[4] It was not printed, however, until the early sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; a further edition was printed by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560.[5]

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

When the Gest was being printed, a new type of criminal was emerging: the rogue and the vagabond. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and were relatively indistinguishable from the law-abiding. This paper suggests that changes in the nature of crime, and its concomitant cultural expression – the emergence of rogue literature – contributed to the idealisation of Robin Hood and his gentrification. This paper will therefore discuss the Gest in the context of it being printed alongside sixteenth-century rogue literature, such as Robert Copland’s The Highway to the Spitalhouse (1535-36), Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), John Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), and Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). This is not to say that these works are taken here to represent a ‘true’ picture of crime during the early modern period. Instead these texts are viewed as ‘factual fictions’: they were real to contemporaries, being an outlet ‘through which the various classes of the “middling sort” of Tudor and Stuart England projected their anxieties’.[6] People needed to believe in the myth of a good outlaw, even if such a myth was ultimately based upon a fiction, because real, contemporary criminals were altogether more menacing.

Context

The medieval period certainly had its fair share of crime,[7] and it is of course during the medieval period that tales of Robin Hood and Adam Bell first emerge. The sentence of outlawry literally placed an offender beyond the protection of the law. But the sentence itself began to lose much of its potency by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[8] It was a sentence that existed prior to the establishment of the legal precepts of habeus corpus. It fell into disuse by the late medieval period because the social and legal system of England was changing from one based upon the exclusion of felons, to one based upon the confinement of offenders.[9] Thus by the time that the Gest was printed, it would have been rare to find somebody who had been placed beyond the law: in the early modern period all people were subject to the law.

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

Additionally, when the time the Gest was being printed, the breakdown of medieval economic and social structures was occurring and society was on its way to becoming capitalist. As a consequence, the perceived increasing numbers of supposedly ‘masterless men’ were becoming a problem for the Tudor state, and were legislated against in the Vagabonds and Beggar’s Act (1495):

Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.[10]

The problem remained a source of irritation to the authorities throughout the century. While the ‘rogue’ had appeared as a named literary type in Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds in 1561, by the next decade the Vagabonds Act (1572) was also legislating against this new type of criminal:

All the partes of this Realme of England and Wales be p[rese]ntlie with Roges, vacabonds and sturdie beggers excedinglie pestred, by meanes wherof dailye happenethe in the same Realme horrible murders, thefts and other greate owtr[ages], To the highe displeasure of allmightie god, and to the greate anoye of the common weale.[11]

J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’.[12] But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth,[13] and a new type of ideology was emerging: individualism. Rogues and vagabonds, due to the breakdown of medieval social and economic structures owed loyalty to nobody. It is for this reason that Hal Gladfelder, writing about rogue literature, says that the genre’s emergence, and its portrayal of socially marginal people struggling to survive within a new economic system, was a response to the breakdown of feudalism.[14] The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.[15]

Outlaws and Rogues – Modus Operandi

There are some similarities between the ways in which greenwood outlaws such as Robin Hood and the rogues and vagabonds in Tudor rogue literature operated, As illustrated in the Gest, when Robin wishes to steal from somebody, he first invites them to dine with him in the forest. The traveller is treated to a sumptuous feast, and at the end of it Robin asks him to pay for the meal.[16] If the traveller pleads poverty and is found to be lying to Robin, when the traveller’s effects are searched he is robbed of all the money about his person.[17] Similarly, trickery is employed by many of the various types of rogues in the works of Walker, Awdley, and Harman. Often this was done, as illustrated in cases of Cheaters and Fingerers, described by Awdley, through conning unsuspecting victims out of their money while gambling.[18]

index
Thomas Harman’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

But there were differences between outlaws such as Robin Hood and Tudor rogues. Firstly, outlaws lived in the forest. There is a sense of unity between the outlaws and the natural world: [19] the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree.[20] In another outlaw ballad that is of medieval origin, although not printed until c.1557-58, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie, [21] the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’.[22] At no point is it ever implied in the Gest that the outlaws wish to live in the urban environment. The outlaws encounter trouble, for example, whenever they leave the forest and venture into the town:.[23] For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest;[24] and after being pardoned by the King and entering his service, Robin finds the world of the Royal court unpalatable, returning to the greenwood after an absence of only ‘twelve moneths and thre’.[25] Outlaws who value freedom see themselves as having no place in urban environments.

In contrast, rogues do not operate within a separate physical space such as the greenwood. At this point it should be noted that rogues were not a homogenous criminal group: Awdley’s Fraternity or Vagabonds and Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors, for example, give different names to a number of various types of criminals. They could masquerade as common beggars, as Copland remarked in The Highway to the Spitalhouse.[26] Or as in Walker’s A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, when his gentleman ‘haply […] roamed me in the Church of Paul’s’, the rogues that he is introduced to are seemingly gentlemanly tricksters from the shady world of dice play.[27] Awdley in the Fraternity of Vagabonds makes reference to another different type of rogue: the Courtesy Man. This type of rogue, says Awdley:

Is one that walketh about the back lanes in London in the daytime, and sometimes in broad streets in the night season, and when he meeteth some handsome young man cleanly apparelled, or some other honest citizen, he maketh humble salutations and low curtsy.[28]

The Courtesy Man will ingratiate himself into the honest gentleman’s service, but he will then repay their generosity by ‘stealing a pair of sheets or coverlet, and so take their farewell in the morning, before the master or dame be stirring’.[29] Evidently, rogues are a product of the urban environment, and instead of wearing suits of Lincoln Green as Robin Hood is portrayed as doing in the Gest,[30] Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’,[31] spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.[32]

Robin and the outlaws in the Gest do not steal from people indiscriminately, and instead they adhere to a strict moral code. In the first fytte of the Gest, Little John asks Robin:

“Where we shall take, where we shall leve,
Where we shall abide behynde;
Where we shall robbe, where we shal reve,
Where we shall bete and bynde.”[33]

Robin’s reply as to whom the outlaws are permitted to steal from is clear and concise: they are not permitted to steal from any husbandman, nor any good yeoman, nor from any knight or squire. The only people that the outlaws are permitted to rob are corrupt clerics and the Sheriff of Nottingham:

“These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.”[34]

As Maurice Keen stated in the 1960s, ‘to the poor they [the outlaws] shall be all courtesy […] but to the rich and unjust no mercy is shown’.[35] Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in Gest, it is clear that he and his outlaws do not rob people indiscriminately.

Rogues, on the other hand, would steal from people of all social classes, and their victims could hail from both the poorer and wealthier classes. A ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance, ‘goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’[36] The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[37] Robert Greene would say of ‘devilish cony-Catchers’ in 1591 that:

The poor man that cometh to the Term to try his right, and layeth his land to mortgage to get some crowns in his purse to see his lawyer, is drawn in by these devilish cony-catchers that at one cut at cards looseth all his money, by which means he, his wife, and children [are] brought to utter ruin and misery.[38]

Tradesmen could also be targets of these thieves, as Awdley says of the ‘whipjack’ that ‘his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer ware from stalls, which they call “heaving off the booth”’.[39] Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay who spent their nights ‘taverning with trumpets, by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’ (emphasis added).[40] The rogues and vagabonds presented in Tudor rogue literature were people who were willing to make money by cheating and stealing. As the Gest makes clear, these are things that outlaws of Robin Hood’s type also aspired to, admittedly, but the difference was that people knew who outlaws were, and if they were truthful with them, and were not a member of the corrupt classes of society such as the clergy, they might have passed them unmolested.

Conclusion

It is clear that there was an emerging dichotomy between rogues, vagabonds, and greenwood outlaws during the sixteenth century. The changing reputation of Robin Hood between the late medieval period and the sixteenth century illustrates this: in Walter Bower’s Continuation of John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon (c.1440), Bower says that:

Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.[41]

Bower was a member of the Clergy and, judging by the treatment that clerics receive at the hands of Robin Hood in the Gest, it is perhaps no surprise that he treats of Robin negatively. But when chronicles from the sixteenth century are studied, however, the depiction of Robin Hood becomes less ambiguous. In John Major’s Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), it is said that:

About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, and Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods only those that were wealthy […] He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of the man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humanest and the chief.[42]

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

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

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

Despite his genteel outward appearances, however, he is a threatening figure, and would ‘bung or cut a good purse’ from either a man or woman if he could.[46] Early during the next century, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light (1608) represented ‘the laws, manners, and habits of these wild men’ of London.[47] Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures,[48] was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.[49]

525px-Richard_Head_1666
William Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff.[50] The rogue continued as a literary type in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) which is essentially a ‘fond’ examination of excess and deception in the life of the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, linking the low-born rogue to his aristocratic counterpart, the rake.[51] It would be rare for Robin Hood to receive negative treatment after the sixteenth century. An attempt would be made during the eighteenth century, when criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) described him as a man of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’ who ‘followed not his trade’.[52] It was perhaps easier to gentrify the outlaw and make him appear semi-respectable: he robbed according to a clear moral code, and he was easily identifiable. This way of operating set him in contrast to his more menacing, sinister underworld counterparts: the rogues, vagabonds, fraters, cony-catchers, and prigs who existed in urban settings in early modern England.


References

[1] See the following works by Stephen Knight: Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994). Works by Thomas Ohlgren include: Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2007); ‘The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice Ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 175-190. There is also John Marshall’s research: ‘Picturing Robin Hood in Early Print and Performance: 1500-1590’ in Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern Eds. Lois Potter & Joshua Calhoun Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 60-82, as well as Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Context: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164. Older works include James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) and R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
[2] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
[3] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 80-168 (148).
[4] There is debate about the dating of A Gest of Robyn Hode: James C. Holt originally argued that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ – Robin Hood, 11. He subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400 – James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ in Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Kevin Carpenter (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), 27-34.
[5] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
[6] Craig Dionne, ‘Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 33-61 (38).
[7] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
[8] McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
[9] Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
[10] Vagabonds and Beggars Act 11 Henry 7 c.2 1494 cited in J. R. Tanner (ed.), Tudor Constitutional Documents, AD 1485-1603 with an Historical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 469-470. Admittedly this was not the first piece of legislation passed against vagabonds and beggars. Two statutes of Edward III punished ‘who wandered at night or otherwise acted suspiciously’, while another statute of Richard II similarly brought punitive measures against vagrants. But the Tudor legislation against vagabonds and suspected persons was different in several respects: the Reformation had eroded the Church’s welfare provisions for the poor, with the State forced to intervene (often in a haphazard and inefficient manner) in the granting of poor relief to those in need; Tudor legislation was more repressive than earlier laws, given the fact that the Tudor monarchs viewed the poor with suspicion, conscious of the lack of legitimacy for their rule – See J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977).
[11] An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
[12] Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[15] Brooke A. Stafford, ‘Englishing the Rogue, “Translating” the Irish: Fantasies of Incorporation and Early Modern English National Identity’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 312-336 (323)
[16] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
[17] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
[18] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds [1561]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 85-102 (95-97).
[19] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] For a critical discussion of Adam Bell, see Thomas Hahn, ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley’ in Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English Ed. Thomas Ohlgren (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 239-252.
[22] Anon. ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. Eds. R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 258-273 (260).
[23] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[24] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
[25] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
[26] Robert Copland ‘The Highway to the Spitalhouse [1535-36]’ in Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727: Classics from the Underworld, Volume One 3rd Edn. Ed. A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-25 (5).
[27] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same [1552]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 59-84 (66).
[28] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
[29] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[30] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
[31] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[32] Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 240-260 (240).
[33] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
[34] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
[35] Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
[36] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage [1591]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 155-186 (164).
[39] Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[40] Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
[41] Walter Bower, ‘Scotichronicon [c.1440]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 25-26 (26).
[42] John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae [1521]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
[43] Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
[44] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
[45] Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger [1592]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 193-205 (193).
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light [1608]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 213-260 (214).
[48] Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz, ‘Introduction’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1-29 (2).
[49] Ibid.
[50] Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
[51] Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
[52] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.

Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood

Edwardian Illustration of The Babes in the Wood [Source: Wikipedia]

In an issue of The Spectator in 1711 the aristocratic writer, Joseph Addison (1689-1729) remarked upon an old English nursery rhyme entitled The Two Children in the Wood, saying that it had ‘been the Delight of most Englishmen in some Part of their Age.’

Some readers may be familiar with this curious ballad. It is the story of two children who are left orphaned when their father dies. On his deathbed the father entrusts the children to the care of their uncle. However, their uncle realises that the father’s will provides for the children inheriting £500, but if they should die before they come of age, the uncle will inherit the lot. After the father’s death the uncle then conspires to murder the children. The uncle hands the children over to two ruffians and pays them to take the children into the woods and kill the children. On the way, the two men quarrel as one of them cannot find it in their heart to commit the foul act. The two men fight, and the man who does not want to murder the children kills the other man. He then leaves the children, scared and alone, in the wood. The children die there in the wood, and a robin-red-breast covers them with leaves. However, God has his revenge on the uncle; his own sons die; he gets into debt; and is hanged for a crime at the end of the ballad

Illustration from The Babes in the Wood [Source: Wikipedia].

Quite why this was such a popular ballad is unclear; it is not the most pleasant subject, depicting as it does the death of two innocent children. It is derived from an earlier play entitled Two Lamentable Tragedies; the One of the Murder of Maister Beech, a Chandler, in Thames-Streete, &c. The Other of a Young Child Murdered in a Wood by Two Ruffians, with the Consent of his Unkle (1601). Folklore has always seemed to occupy a hazy ground on the periphery of modern scholarship, which has only recently begun to be addressed in recent years. A local history society based in Norfolk says that the tale was based on an actual event which occurred in the 1500s.

But why was it a popular tale? It should be remembered that, before the 1700s, predominantly people did not have the same conception of childhood, innocence, and indeed the value of life as we do today. People were accustomed to the fact that children died early. As Linda Payne explains:

One measurement of health in early modern England is revealed in the statistics of the number of deaths kept by church parishes. From these records historians have gleaned that infant mortality (death during the first year of life) was approximately 140 out of 1000 live births. The average mother had 7-8 live births over 15 years. Unidentifiable fevers, and the following list of diseases, killed perhaps 30% of England’s children before the age of 15 – the bloody flux (dysentery), scarlatina (scarlet fever), whooping cough, influenza, smallpox, and pneumonia.

On the Continent, other regions had tales in which a number of children disappeared, or were carried off, for example in the German folk tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which is of medieval origin. It is a tale where a mysterious piper, after having rid the town of Hamelin of its rat infestation, carried off its children under a mystical spell. Similarly, modern theorists attribute this folk tale to medieval infant mortality rates. This is not, of course, to say that people in the early modern period, and before, did not care for their children. Testimonies of grief on the part of the parents at a child’s death could be provided to this effect. It is rather to say that they were accustomed, or more used to, the fact that death, particularly amongst children, was a fact of life.

The Oldest Picture of the Pied Piper of Hamelin [Source: Wikipedia].

What, if anything, however, does the story of The Two Children in the Wood have to do with the legend of Robin Hood?

Well, during the Victorian period, child mortality rates began to improve (despite what sensational TV history documentaries would have people believe-in their view it’s a wonder anyone survived the 1800s at all!). It was still bad, but the year 1850 especially is marked as a ‘turning point’ by researchers, as the year in which a definite downward trend can be traced.

Thos. Cooper Gotch, ‘The Child Enthroned’ (1894) [Source: Wikipedia].

In the Victorian period also, the concept of childhood changed. Children, who were depicted in the preceding era often as mini-adults, who, especially if they were of plebeian class, worked as soon as they were able. In the 1800s the child’s status, however, had been elevated, and they were seen as almost angelic, god-like even.

The death of children in a popular tale such as The Two Children in the Wood would not have matched Victorian audiences’ sensibilities. Hence the popular nursery rhyme was amalgamated with the Robin Hood legend. A play bearing the title Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre in 1864. The incorporation of the Robin Hood legend into the narrative of The Babes in the Wood would continue into the twentieth century in pantomime, and still continues to be a popular attraction for Variety Venues to this day.

1920s Advertisement for “Robin Hood, or the Babes in the Wood” at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh.

In the new narrative, the narrator is usually the minstrel of Robin Hood’s outlaw band, Allen-a-Dale, or another member such as Will Scarlet. The children’s evil uncle is cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham. When the children are left alone in the wood, it is usually Maid Marian, or Robin Hood (perhaps standing in for the part of the robin-red-breast bird?) who finds the children and leads them to safety. When Robin Hood is incorporated into the narrative, The Babes in the Wood has a happy ending. Robin Hood reveals the evil machinations of the Sheriff and is taken to task for it.

One of the themes which I am exploring in my own PhD research is the way that in the nineteenth century Robin Hood came to symbolise middle-class respectability. The fact that Robin Hood’s story is being “used” to sanitise the grim content of other folk tales and nursery rhymes to me speaks volumes about how “respectable” the popular outlaw hero has become.


Joseph Addison, ‘Number Eighty-Five’. The Spectator, June 7th, 1711.

Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (London: Routledge, 2005).

Linda Payne ‘Health in England’. Children and Youth in History [Internet] <<http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/166>> [Accessed 20/02/2015].

Thomas Percy, ‘The Children in the Wood’. In Thomas Percy, ed. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry [1765]. (London: F. Warne and Co. 1880).

D. Wolfers ‘A Plaguey Piper’. The Lancet 285: 7388 (1965), pp.756-757.

Robert Woods et al. ‘England’. In Carlo A. Corsini & Pier Paolo Viazzo, eds. The Decline of Infant Mortality in Europe, 1800-1950: Four National Case Studies (Florence: Istituto Degli Innocenti Di Firenze, 1992).

“Launched into Eternity”: Public Hangings and Last Dying Speeches in 18th-Century England

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

During the 18th century crime was the talk of the town in England. In 1751, the crime rate had reached such hellish proportions that the Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (the author of the novel Tom Jones), wrote a tract entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals to remedy this Growing Evil (the Georgians were fond of long titles). He reported that:

I make no Doubt […] that the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the Banditti.

The eighteenth century was the age of highwayman, when famous criminals such as Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin roamed the roads leading to the capital in search of victims to rob.

Typically, a bandit’s career, says Eric Hobsbawm, on the roads lasts about two years before they are finally captured. In the 18th century there was no police force as the public feared that if such a force was introduced, it would become an instrument of state tyranny and oppression. So a proliferation of criminals, whilst unfortunate, was the price that the public were willing to pay to safeguard their civil liberties. In the absence of a police force, the state turned over 200 previously minor misdemeanours into capital felonies.

A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

When highwaymen were captured in London, they were taken to be hanged at Tyburn, the triple tree upon which a number of felons could be executed at once. These hangings were big public spectacles, whereby tickets could be procured to get the best view of the hanging.

Hangings functioned as both divine justice in action and public entertainment. We shouldn’t judge the Georgians for enjoying a good hanging, distasteful as it is to us today. We may think it’s violent, but as argued by the historian John Carter Wood, the concept of “violence” did not emerge until the early nineteenth century. The hanging was thus a piece of theatre.

And like visiting the theatre today, you could also buy a souvenir program from the event, or as contemporaries called it, a “Last Dying Speech”. These were single-sheet publications, often with an image of a hanging that was re-used on several occasions, that told of the birth, parentage, life and crimes of the person who stood upon the scaffold. Usually the account of the life would also include “A Copy of Verses” found by the supposedly contrite criminal in his cell, or a copy of a letter written by the felon to a loved one.

William Harley's 'Last Dying Speech' (Early 1800s)
William Harley’s ‘Last Dying Speech’ (Early 1800s)

These publications were once dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many […] falling below the dignified historian’s line’. However, a study of them can illuminate the different ways that people in the eighteenth century thought about crime and the causes of criminality.

These days, it suits the media and the public at large to believe that crime is committed ‘by other people’ who are not representative of the great part of society. Sometimes crime is spoken of in class and/or ethnic terms; as though it exists only in the sink estates of Britain, peopled by, if you were to believe the Daily Mail, immigrants and those on benefits, whilst the suburbs of the middle classes are relatively free from crime and criminals.

In the eighteenth century, however, anyone could become a criminal. The reason for this was that, as all men were sinners, anyone could potentially become a criminal. This is why broadsides recounting people’s dying speeches set much store, and the narratives contained in all of them followed a similar formula. The sinner usually had a good start in life, as the cases of Jack Sheppard (d. 1724) and Thomas Thomas Hopkinson (d. 1819), testify. Jack Sheppard:

Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)
Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)

A youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin […] received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter […] But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon [a prostitute] […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In Sheppard’s case, in an echo of the Bible passage at 1 Cor. 15: 33, it was bad associations which spoiled good character. Hopkinson’s case almost 100 years later was similar:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end  […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder and offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of  its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on ’til he was driven away with his wickedness’

The role of sin and its relation to criminality in the 18th century cannot be overstated. The two were linked together. Hence the reason that some broadsides began the account of the crime with phrases such as ‘[Mr – ], having not the fear of God before his eyes…’. Crime and sin in the eighteenth century, the historian Andrea McKenzie says, was both ‘addictive and progressive’. From petty pilferings at the workplace the sinner would then lead on to bolder offences. There are echoes of this type of thinking, she says, in the UK’s current attitude towards drug use and the law. These people in the Georgian period were not “inherently criminal” (an attitude which we today still retain from the Victorian period regarding certain types of crimes), instead they were, as John Brewer says, people with a tragic fatal flaw.

Thos. Hopkinson - Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery
Thos. Hopkinson – Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery

Lastly came the account of the criminal’s death, the moment that the condemned person was “launched into eternity”. Even though the State had ordered the execution, it was not the job of the state to publicly carry out the sentence. Various parts of the procession to the gallows were ‘outsourced’ or ‘privatised’ to the Church, gaol keepers (prisons were run as private enterprises in the 18th century). This was the reason that statements such as ‘launched into eternity’ or ‘ceased to live’, which effectively sanitised the death sentence, were used. Instead the punishment was divine retribution for a sin against, not simply the offender’s society, but also God. The hanging, as Vic Gatrell says, mended the tear in the fabric of society which the sinner’s crime had created, and through his/her death, restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous.

These ‘Last Dying Speeches’ were, admittedly, simple publications written by hack authors seeking to make a fortune out of another man’s misery. They were formulaic, but they do illuminate small aspects of the way that people in the viewed and conceived of the world around them. Crime was not down to a person’s class, or race, as certain right-wing newspapers would have people believe. Instead anyone might become a criminal.


Scanned copies of all the broadsides used in this blog can be accessed from Harvard Library School of Law’s Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders project.

Further reading:

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture  in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1994).

Faller, L. B. Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1775-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Pelican Books, 1969).

McKenzie, A. Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (Continuum Books, 2007).

Moore, L. ed. Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001).

Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Robin Hood’s History

Whilst re-organising my home work space, I came across my undergraduate dissertation. I focused upon representations of polite society in eighteenth-century print culture, with a particular focus upon the periodicals of two men: Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).

The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]
The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]

Between them these two men created the most important periodicals of the eighteenth century, entitled The Tatler and The Spectator. Each issue was printed on one sheet of paper, and numbered approximately 2,000 words.

The content was mainly satirical – not ‘satirical’ in the way that a modern TV show like Mock the Week was satirical – rather, it was a more subtle satire, which aimed to represent to its readers aspects of eighteenth-century life through the eyes of fictional characters, or correspondents.

The main correspondent in The Tatler was the fictional Isaac Bickerstaffe. He wrote his articles out of the various coffeehouse locations of early eighteenth-century London. In the first issue he explained that readers would receive:

Poetry under that of Will’s coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestick news…from Saint James’s Coffee-house – The Tatler, April 23rd, 1709

Interior of a London Coffeehouse [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]
Interior of a London Coffeehouse c.1700 [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]

In fact, these periodicals were designed to be read and discussed in coffeehouses. The coffeehouse was, in the words of Brian Cowan, ‘a unique social space’ where, irrespective of rank, men (and it was primarily men who frequented coffeehouses) could gather together and discuss the news of the day, as illustrated by the image ‘Interior of a Coffeehouse held by the British Museum’. Look closely at the image, and you can see that whilst the men are enjoying their coffee, there are copies of a periodical freely available to them.

The correspondents in The Spectator were an interesting lot, and these fictional characters were supposed to represent an eighteenth-century gentleman’s coffeehouse club: there was Mr. Spectator who ‘lived in the world, rather as a Spectator of mankind than as one of the people’. Next there was Sir Roger De Coverley, who was the “nice old man” type – a Tory Lord whose political views no one really took very seriously. After the aristocracy members of the increasingly influential middling sorts were represented: Andrew Freeport, a merchant; a lawyer from the Inner Temple; a retired army officer named Captain Sentry; a rakish young gentleman named Will Honeycomb, and finally an unnamed clergyman (who visited the coffeehouse club but seldom).

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).
Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

What, if anything, does this have to do with Robin Hood? In issue 81 of The Tatler in 1709, the character Isaac Bickerstaff recounted a dream in which he met many ancient worthies such as Hercules, Jason, Achilles, Aenaeus, Socrates, Caesar, and Augustus. You will notice that the foregoing list of heroes is mainly comprised of figures from the classical period.

In fact, the eighteenth century is not a period usually associated with any significant interest in the medieval past. The Georgians were living in the age of the Enlightenment, and for cultural and intellectual inspiration looked to the continent and the Classical period, which explains why many Georgian and Regency buildings were built in the neo-Classical style. To the Georgians the medieval period was a “dark age” dominated by monks and tyrant kings.

Which is why it is surprising that, in Bickerstaffe’s dream, when they are searching for another hero to join them at the table, the ancient heroes of old tell Bickerstaffe that:

…If they must have a British worthy, they would have Robin Hood – The Tatler, Number 81, 1709.

Cultural and intellectual interest in medieval times and persons was not, it seems, restricted to the gothic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and our hero, Robin Hood, can sit comfortably alongside the great heroes of the ancient world.


The Tatler, Number 81

The Spectator, Full Text of Volume One at Project Gutenberg

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013).

Cowan, B. The Social Life of Coffee (Yale University Press, 2005).

Habermas, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Polity, 1989).


The newest research on Addison and Steele’s periodicals which I have recently been made aware of has been undertaken by Dr. Adam James Smith – see his blog!

‘The Outlaws’ Code’. Robin Hood: Research Update, Number 7, December 24th, 2014

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).
Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

All organised crime gangs have certain codes of conduct which, to be counted as part of their respective gangs, they must adhere to. For the Italian Mafia there is Omerta, a code of silence which forbids them to talk about the gang to non-members. Members of the mafia are also forbidden from committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, theft (burglary, mugging, etc.), and in the past even to stay away from drug and human trafficking. The Italian Mafia was supposedly above these types of crimes, and forbade their respective members from carrying them out.

In the one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), Robin Hood similarly laid down a code of conduct for his men to follow. Little John asks Robin how they should conduct themselves:

Mayster, than sayd Lytell Johan / And we our borde shall sprede / Tell us whether we shall gone / And what lyfe we shall lede.

Where we shall take, where we shall leve /  Where we shall abide behynde / Where we shall robbe, where we shall reve / Where we shall bete and bynde.

To which Robin Hood replies, firstly, that the outlaws should never harm any company where there were women present and also:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn / We shall do well ynough / But loke ye do no housbonde harm / That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman / That walketh by grene wode shawe / Ne no knyght ne no squyer / That wolde be a good felawe.

The outlaws, therefore, are to protect women, husbandmen, and those that work the land, as well as yeoman, knights, and squires. But as for members of the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin is less kind:

These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes / Ye shall them bete and bynde / The hye sheryfe of Notynghame / Hym holde in your mynde.

Robin Hood had two main enemies: the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and gave his outlaws free rein to beat and bind them.

Organised crime historically emerges and flourishes in times where the state and its ability to enforce the law is weak (as the English State was in the late medieval period) and the local populace at the mercy of tyrant landlords. In these situations, groups that would normally be classed as criminal emerge as friends of the poor, they become, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm named Robin Hood ‘the international paradigm of social banditry’. Social Bandits, according to Hobsbawm:

Are peasant outlaws whom the Lord and State regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…men to be admired, helped, and supported.

The ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ makes no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, it merely says at the end that he ‘did pore men moch god’. This detail was added to the legend between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time that Joseph Ritson produced his pioneering work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood had become the ultimate social bandit:

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 denied…[But] in these exertions of power, he took away the goods of rich men only, never killing any person, unless  he was attacked or resisted; that he would not 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…he was the most humane, and the prince of all robbers.

Perhaps these medieval ballads of Robin Hood and his men are recounting and glorifying the actions of medieval mobsters in the same way that movies like Goodfellas today do for us? Outlaw gangs were loosely organised, had customs, and codes of conduct, and were social bandits in the sense that they were supported by local people. Dr. Kelly Hignett of Leeds Beckett University has written a study of what is a comparable case of late-medieval organised crime gangs in Southern Russia, Dalmatia, and Bohemia, and the role which they assumed in the absence of effective state law enforcement. It was these outlaws’ codes of conduct, in which they did not (supposedly) hurt poor people, which earned them the support of local communities.


Further Reading:

Hignett, K. ‘Co-Option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’. In Galeotti, M. ed. Organised Crime in History (London: Routledge, 2008).

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

Robin Hood’s Garland (1856)

When you begin researching the original Robin Hood ballads, the names of a few late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century antiquarians become familiar to you. The likes of Thomas Percy, an Irish Bishop who rescued a collection of manuscripts from a house fire, and without whose efforts the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ (c.1450) would have remained unknown to us. Another, and perhaps more famous antiquarian, is Joseph Ritson, who in 1795 published Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. His really is a fine collection, doing exactly what it says on the tin, comprising examples of the earliest medieval ballads down to compositions from the eighteenth century. Later on, in the nineteenth century, John Gutch would expand, and critique Ritson’s work and methodology with A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode: With Other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman (1847). Finally, most Robin Hood scholars will be familiar with the work of Professor Francis J. Child in the 1880s, who collected a total of 37 extant ancient and modern Robin Hood ballads, and whose collection of Robin Hood material is said to be the most extensive.

Life and Ballads of Robin Hood (1859)As an avid ebayer,  I managed to pick up the following second hand book from 1865 entitled: The Life and Exploits of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood’s Garland (1859). It is, despite its relatively small size, a lengthy work at 447 pages (longer than the 1823 edition of Ritson’s anthology), and as far as I can ascertain contains more examples of Robin Hood ballads than either Percy, Ritson, or indeed Child. It even has examples of early eighteenth century satirical ballads such as the (it seems hitherto untapped by Robin Hood Scholars) one entitled ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’. There is also a scholarly critique of the existing theories surrounding Robin Hood’s birth, exploits, noble descent, etc., as well as the script for one of the fifteenth century May Games. It is, despite its small appearance, one of the most comprehensive collection of materials pertaining to Robin Hood, containing 45 ballads, poems or songs about the outlaw.

I have yet to fully explore some of the (hitherto unknown to me) treasures contained in this little book, but I was surprised when I did not find this work referenced in the works of modern historians and literary critics such as Dobson and Taylor’s Rymes of Robin Hood, Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood, or Stephanie Barcziewski’s Myth and National Identity. Although, given the fact that some cheap nineteenth-century chapbooks such as the one i am speaking ofabove were sometimes published under different titles, it is entirely possible that this work has been scrutinised before by historians. At the very least, however, at my next PhD supervision meeting with Prof. Hardwick and Dr. Mitchell I’ll have an interesting talking point!