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)

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The ‘Public School’ Robin Hood: Imperial Ideology in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Children’s Books

A paper delivered at a conference entitled: ‘Packaging the Past for Children, c.1750-1914’ at the Senate House, Durham University, 6 – 7 July 2016


Abstract

During the late-Victorian and Edwardian period many children’s books telling the story of Robin Hood were published, such as John B. Marsh’s Robin Hood (1865), Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912), and Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917). Stephanie Barczewski argues that Robin Hood in late Victorian children’s books is an anti-imperialist figure, and she bases this assertion largely upon the fact that Robin Hood children’s books are critical of Richard I’s foreign adventures. Yet the situation was more nuanced than that: many of the late Victorian Robin Hood children’s works that were published in the period projected Robin Hood and his fellow outlaws as men who lived up to the Public School Ethos, cultivating the virtues of athleticism, fair play, chivalry, and devotion to duty. Indeed, Edward Gilliatt’s novel In Lincoln Green (1898) is even set in a very ‘Victorianised’ medieval public school. Thus these works represented the ideal qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country, and thus, as the proposed paper argues, were subtly imperialist.


McSpaddenRH
J. Walker McSpadden’s Robin Hood (1930 edition)

Introduction

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a horde of Robin Hood’s children’s books were published. Imperialism is not often associated with retellings of the Robin Hood legend in the nineteenth century, much less in any era. In fact, Stephanie Barczewski argues that Robin Hood in the nineteenth century, especially in children’s books, was an anti-imperial figure. [1] As this paper will show, however, the relationship of Robin Hood to imperial ideology in the nineteenth century is more nuanced than that: these authors certainly do critique some of the domestic problems caused by the expansion of empire, but no author of Robin Hood children’s books can be seen arguing that Britain should not participate in imperial adventures abroad. Furthermore, these works represented the qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country. Robin Hood is seen to display the values of the Public School Ethos: displaying sportsmanship, manliness and devotion to duty. These values sought to prepare boys for a life of imperial service. [2] The end result of this ethos was intended to be:

A Christian gentleman […] who played by the rules, and whose highest aim was to serve others. [3]

Given the fact that these books are so generic to the extent that to read one is to read them all, this paper takes a thematic approach to discussing these texts, discussing the texts according to the constituent values of the ethos referred to previously. Thus the argument of this paper is that, far from propagating an anti-imperial message, these books were subtly imperialist because they represented the qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country.

Robin Hood in Early Nineteenth-Century Literature

B. A. Brockman condescendingly wrote in 1983 that:

Robin Hood […] remains the property of children and a few (perhaps childlike) academics. [4]

Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved on from this position, and indeed before the period which I am mostly concerned with, Robin Hood was definitely not the sole preserve of children’s literature. Before 1840, literature featuring Robin Hood was expensive and mostly for adults: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) was a scholarly two volume work , lavishly illustrated by the Bewick firm, costing 12 shillings. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) was a three volume work, costing 31 shillings, and dealt with adult themes such as national unity. [5] Even Pierce Egan’s penny serial Robin Hood and Little John (1840) was not written solely for children but an adult audience: themes of democracy and egalitarianism are packed into half a million words printed in minute double-columned typeface. 6] And reviewers were not happy with the way Robin was portrayed in any of these works: the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe was denounced as one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [7] In 1820, Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that

Scott has failed […] in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant. [8]

Egan faced the biggest criticism in having portrayed Robin as:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob. [9]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [10] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [11] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, is at least a grudging compliment. [12] It would therefore take time for Robin Hood to be rendered acceptable to the middle-class reading public, and it is only really in the later books of which I shall now speak that Robin became a respectable hero. It seems that the only way people could portray Robin Hood as non-subversive was to infantilise him, which is what authors did in the late-Victorian children’s books which are now the subject of the discussion going forward.

Muscular Christianity and Athleticism

If one of the aims of the public school ethos was to build ‘a Christian gentleman’, then it was easy for late-Victorian authors to superimpose earlier ideas about Robin’s piety on to the new public school ethos. In Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912) Robin is insistent that his men should hear mass daily:

‘And now, lads,’ went on Robin, ‘though we be outlaws, and beyond men’s laws, we are still within God’s mercy. Therefore I would have you go with me to hear mass. We will go to Campsall, and there the mass-priest shall hear our confessions, and preach from God’s book to us. [13]

Gilbert RH
Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912)

Hand-in-hand with the development of muscular Christianity in the late-Victorian period was an increasing emphasis upon physical fitness. As Nick Watson, Stuart Weir, and Stephen Friend argue:

The basic premise of Victorian muscular Christianity was that participation in sport could contribute to the development of Christian morality, physical fitness, and “manly” character. [14]

The late-Victorian period was the era of the strong-man, when body builders such as Eugene Sandow went topless on stage, displaying what was considered to be the perfect male physique. [15] In late-Victorian Robin Hood’s books and children’s books in general, then, there is an emphasis upon Robin’s physique that is absent from earlier popular works such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). In J. Walker McSpadden’s Robin Hood, in his youth Robin is

A comely, well-knit stripling, and as soon as his right arm received thew and sinew he learned how to draw a bow. [16]

Robin is not merely skilled in the use of the bow, however, but is also an excellent wrestler, and the outlaws, when not robbing people upon the highway, are said to regularly ‘amuse themselves in athletic exercises’. [17] Gilliat in his novel In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (1897), tells the reader how Robin has

Well-made arms and massive shoulders [18]

(Gilliat’s novel is even set in a quasi-Victorian medieval public school). In McSpadden’s novel, as Robin competes in the archery contest,

He felt his muscles tightening into bands of steel, tense and true. [19]

These prime physical attributes were not simply restricted to Robin Hood in these books, for of Will Scarlet is said that

He was not a bad build for all his prettiness […] those calves are well-rounded and straight. The arms hang stoutly from the shoulders. [20]

Cultivating physical prowess would enable boys – the future servants of the empire – to survive and endure in the often inhospitable environments in the colonies. In Henty’s With Clive in India (1888), for example, the hero of the novel, the young Charlie Maryatt, from an early age always participated in sports at home, and it is because of his athletic abilities that he is chosen for a dangerous mission requiring the surmounting of dangerous rivers, mountains and passes for its completion. [21] While a lot of medieval Robin Hood texts celebrate the summer time and give no consideration to how a body of outlaws living in the forest might survive in a harsh winter, some of these children’s books do recognise the fact that life for an outlaw might at times be difficult. H. E. Marshall in Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children (c.1906) reveals a little about Robin’s life in the cold winter months:

In winter the roads were so bad, and the weather so cold and wet, that most people stayed at home. So it was rather a quiet time for Robin and his men. They lived in caves during the winter, and spent their time making stores of bows and arrows, and mending their boots and clothes. [22]

Living outdoors makes the outlaws even tougher: McSpadden tells how

The wind blew the ruddy colour into his cheeks. [23]

The outlaws in Gilbert’s Robin Hood, additionally, undergo very rigorous training drills on a daily basis to keep themselves sharp and ready for battle. [24]

Sportsmanship and Fair Play

Despite having to keep themselves ever-ready for battle, the outlaws are not presented as brutes. The ideals of sportsmanship and fair play were easily superimposed onto Robin-Hood-meets-his-match scenarios by late-Victorian writers (the Robin-Hood-meets-his-match scenarios are those tales of Robin losing a fight to somebody in the forest and then making friends with them afterwards). According to John Finnemore in The Story of Robin Hood (1909), these types of situations display

The old English love of fair play and straight dealing. [25]

Fairfight
Edwardian illustration of Robin Hood meeting Little John

In Marshall’s Stories of Robin Hood, when Robin meets Little John and a fight with quarterstaffs ensues, in which Robin is beaten, afterwards he says to Little John that

It was a fair fight and you have won the battle. [26]

And a similar scene is acted out in Charles Herbert’s Robin Hood as, after having fought Little John, Robin exclaims:

You’ve proved yourself the best man. I own I’m beaten, and the fight’s at an end. [27]

Similarly in McSpadden’s work, when Little John and Will Scarlet first meet and have a fight with quarterstaffs, they laugh about the fight afterwards and make friends. [28] In Gilliatt’s In Lincoln Green, Robin’s son Walter, at the public school he attends, is taught to play

By all the fair rules of fighting. [29]

The fact that these mini-skirmishes in the greenwood had to be conducted according to the rules of fair play meant that real fighting was often portrayed as game in these texts. In Herbert’s text, when Robin asks Little John to join his band, he says:

There is plenty of fighting: a hard life, and fine sport. Wilt throw in thy lot with us, John Little?’ [30]

When the outlaws are faced with real danger – that is, when they face the forces of the Sheriff – this is described as nothing more than a ‘sport’. [31] Gilliat similarly refers to:

The great sport of war. [32]

The portrayal of fighting as a sport reflects how warfare was often seen by prominent imperialists in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. Sir Henry Newbolt in his poem Vitae Lampada (1897), for example, authored the following lines which equated warfare with the games played on public school playing fields as his poem exhorts young men to

Play up! play up! and play the game! [33]

Expressing similar sentiments to Newbolt’s poem is the memorial in the main cloister of Charterhouse College which lists the alumni who have fallen in various campaigns. The deceased, according to the writing on the wall:

Played up, played up, and played the game. [34]

The sad truth is that war, in fact, was not a game in the Victorian era, no matter how ‘brave’, ‘gallant’, or ‘sporting’ war was made out to be by imperialist writers.

Duty and Patriotism

Above everything, in these novels Robin is portrayed as being unwaveringly loyal to the King and his country. In Newbolt’s The Book of the Happy Warrior (1917) which tells various stories of heroic figures from English history, including Robin Hood, the reader is told how they might best benefit from reading these tales of heroic deeds:

You will not get the best out of these stories of great men unless you keep in mind, while you read, the rules and feelings that were in their minds while they fought [… the] main ideas that were in the minds of all these great fighters of the past were these: First, service, in peace and war. [35]

loytalty
Edwardian illustration of Robin Hood meeting King Richard

Gilliatt’s In Lincoln Green sees Robin’s son Walter participating in an archery contest ‘for the honour of your house and country’, [36] and at another point in the novel Robin emphasises his own commitment to ‘duty’ by exclaiming:

I am never tired when honour and duty call me. [37]

Similarly, in Marshall’s story, when the outlaws are made to recite their chivalrous oaths, they are loyal to the King first, and vow to protect the weak and needy second. [38] Towards the end of Marshall’s tale, Robin proudly exclaims:

God Bless the King […] God bless all those who love him. Cursed be all those who hate him and rebel against him. [39]

Serving the King and the nation is presented in late-Victorian and Edwardian texts as a means by which a boy might advance in the world. In Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) young Robin is taken to his uncle Gamwell’s estate. Upon surveying his uncle’s vast land holdings, he enquires how his uncle Gamwell became so rich, and he is informed that he was given lands as a reward for serving in the King’s army. Robin then exclaims that he hopes that he will be similarly rewarded by the King when he grows up and serves in the army. This is a message that is seen repeated in the works of Henty as well, as in With Clive in India where a young parochial boy rises through the ranks of the British army and returns home rich. Service to one’s country could be the making of a man: morally, physically, and financially.

The emphasis upon Robin’s loyalty to the King, and his duty to the nation is to be found in every late Victorian text. From a twenty-first century standpoint, it seems odd that authors adapted Robin Hood – a radical and anti-establishment figure in previous incarnations – to represent the middle-class ethos of duty to the nation and empire. But the appropriation (or misappropriation depending upon one’s point of view), of medieval heroes to this end was not only applied to Robin Hood. In Henty’s laughable A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1898), for instance, Tyler and the peasants revolted, not simply because of the Poll Tax, but because they wanted to fight in the wars of their country but were not allowed to due to feudal laws. [40] For the record, the historic Wat Tyler and his fellow men were not fighting for the right to be able to fight in Richard II’s wars.

There was a class dimension to these ideas of loyalty and duty. Robin is always the Earl of Huntingdon in these books. They lack the democratic political sentiments that are present in Egan’s earlier and superior work. Robin does not have to be elected as he is in Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, and there is a clear sense that he is the leader of his ‘lower class’ counterparts who knows what is best. In McSpadden’s tale, Robin is the leader of the outlaw band because he possesses ‘birth, breeding, and skill’. [41] It is almost as though Robin is the head boy of a public school house.

Conclusion

As we have seen, the story of Robin Hood was adapted by conservative authors who sought to adapt the outlaw’s story to project the ideals of the Public School Ethos. It was hard for authors to set Robin Hood in an actual overseas imperial setting, given that his story has historically always been associated with Sherwood Forest. These books should be viewed, then, as though the greenwood is the training ground for the imperial adventures that will come after Robin and his men have been pardoned. Such a view is borne out by the fact that in Gilliat’s book, for example, where having been pardoned by the King, most of the outlaws join Richard I on his Crusade in the Holy Land. [42] Thus far from being anti-imperial, these books promoted an imperial message and stressed the qualities that would prepare young boys for a life of imperial service.


References

[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p.224.

[2] G. R. Searle, A New England? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.65.

[3] Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1994), p.207.

[4] B. A. Brockman, ‘Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood’ South Atlantic Review 48: 2 (1983), 67-83 (p.68).

[5] For information on production and pricing of Ivanhoe see Jane Millgate, ‘Making It New: Scott, Constable, Ballantyne, and the Publication of Ivanhoe’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34: 4 (1994), 795-811.

[6] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 48-65.

[7] Anon. The Monthly Review Jan 1820, 71-89 (p.82)

[8]Henry Crabb Robinson, ’Diary Entry by Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 Jan. 1820’ in Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers Ed. E. J. Morley, 3 Vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1: 238.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[11] Anon, ‘Modern Perversions’, p.425.

[12] See Lauren Gillingham, ‘Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” and the Crimes of History’ SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49: 4 (2009), 879-906.

[13] Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912), p.51.

[14] Nick J. Watson, Stuart Weir & Stephen Friend, ‘The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond’ Journal of Religion and Society Vol. 7 (2005), 1-21 (p.1); for another discussion on athleticism and Christianity see J. A. Mangam & Colm Hickey, ‘Missing Middle-Class Dimensions: Elementary Schools, Athleticism, and Imperialism’ European Sports History Review Vol. 4 (2002), 73-90.

[15] See David Waller, The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugene Sandow, Victorian Strongman (London: Victorian Secrets, 2011).

[16] J. W. McSpadden & Charles Wilson, Robin Hood (London: Associated Newspaper Books [n.d.]), p.12.

[17] Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood ([n.p. n.d.]) p.8.

[18] Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897), p.45.

[19] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.23.

[20] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.80.

[21] G. A. Henty, ‘With Clive in India’ in British Empire Adventure Stories (London: Carlton Books, 2005), 465-774 (p.570).

[22] H. E. Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, [n.d.]), p.11.

[23] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.33.

[24] Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood, p.48.

[25] John Finnemore, The Story of Robin Hood (1909 repr. London: A. & C. Black, 1935), p.x.

[26] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.16.

[27] Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]), p.18.

[28] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, pp.37-41.

[29] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.116.

[30] Herbert, Robin Hoood, p.19.

[31] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.152.

[32] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.362.

[33] Henry Newbolt, ‘Vitae Lampada (1897-98)’ The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Representing the Great War: Texts and Contexts [Internet <https://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/20century/topic_1_05/hnewbolt.htm&gt; Accessed 21 June 2016].

[34] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004), p.262.

[35] Henry Newbolt, The Book of the Happy Warrior (London: Longman, 1917), p.vi.

[36] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.45.

[37] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.180.

[38] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.8.

[39] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.101.

[40] G. A. Henty, ‘A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (London, 1898)’ The Literature Network [Internet <http://www.online-literature.com/ga-henty/march-on-london/1/&gt; Accessed 21 June 2016].

[41] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.30.

[42] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.365.

Thomas Love Peacock’s “Maid Marian” (1822)

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Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

In honour of International Women’s Day, I discuss Thomas Love Peacock’s ground-breaking novel “Maid Marian” (1822).


The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian does not figure in any of the earliest Robin Hood texts. We know that she was a feature of Tudor May Day celebrations, [1] and that from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98). She was also featured as Robin’s wife in Ben Johnson’s unfinished play The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631). Despite this, Marian never seems to have figured largely in seventeenth-century ballads, apart from Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) and, later in the century, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, although the latter ballad was never very popular, and certainly never made it into the often reprinted versions of Robin Hood’s Garland in the eighteenth century.

In fact, if you lived during the eighteenth century, the lady whom you would be familiar with as Robin’s love interest would have been Clorinda, the ‘Queen of the Shepherdesses’. Clorinda appears in a very popular ballad that was reprinted often throughout the eighteenth century entitled A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Showing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour, and Marriage at Titbury Hall, which, Francis James Child says, first appeared in John Dryden’s Miscellanies in 1716. Even in the afore-mentioned Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, Robin’s true love is a lady named Claribel, which is a nod to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Fairie Queene (1596).

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Title Page to Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)

Marian’s ‘big break’, in fact, only came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novella are based upon Byron and Shelley. [2] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott. [3]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. [4] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. [5] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. [6] Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, [7] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [8]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. She is no delicate little lady; instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. Marian’s headstrong attitude is indicated in the following passage:

‘Well, father,’ added Matilda, ‘I must go into the woods.’
‘Must you?’ said the Baron, ‘I say you must not.’
‘But I am going,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will have up the drawbridge,’ said the baron.
‘But I will swim the moat,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will secure the gates,’ said the baron.
‘But I will leap from the battlement,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will lock you in an upper chamber,’ said the baron.
‘But I will shred the tapestry,’ said Matilda, ‘and let myself down.’ [9]

Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’. [10]

She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. She is an emancipated woman in the Wollstonecraft feminist tradition. [11]

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Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. [12] Early ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) were hastily thrown together from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c.1370). Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent; in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. Hence Stephen Knight speaks of ‘the brilliance and influence’ of Peacock’s novel. [13]

Influential upon the tradition as a whole Peacock’s novel certainly was (I would  disagree with this somewhat, however, for after its first printing it was soon discontinued, being revived only once in the 1830s and then again in the 1890s). But I must respectfully disagree with Stephen Knight regarding the novel’s ‘brilliance’. Throughout the whole novel, we are never allowed to forget that Robin is simply a lord who is playing at being an outlaw, which is the case with all ‘gentrified’ texts where Robin is presented as a Lord. [14] Robin never faces any real danger, and his presentation as a Lord robs him of the power he possesses in Scott’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, although better than the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and the several eighteenth-century criminal biographies of him, Peacock was no Scott. Robin and Marian’s adventures in Maid Marian amount to nothing more than an aristocratic frolic – a game for the lord and lady.

Peacock, however, did set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), which was a sequel to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial, Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.


References

[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 190.
[2] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[3] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[4] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[5] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[6] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[7] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[8] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[9] Peacock, Maid Marian, 28.
[10] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[12] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[13] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[14] This is the case with all gentrified texts, as is the case in Munday’s plays. See Liz Oakley Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Anthony Munday’s Huntingdon Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post Medieval Ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 115.

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

There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). [1] Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).[2]

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

Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world.[3] As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.

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

highwayman

In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:

Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.[4]

The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:

The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.[5]

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

At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.[6]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.[7]

One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:

He usually robbed alone.[8]

In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:

Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.[9]

This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination.[10] The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.

Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

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

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

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

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

At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:

Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.[13]

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

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.[14]

Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff,[15] and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.

There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:

The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.[16]

At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:

The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.[17]

Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:

It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.[19]

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


Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.


 

References

[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.

“The Noble Birth of Robin Hood” (1662)

Introduction

In the sixteenth century a peculiar genre of romance emerged known as picaresque fiction. It originated in Spain and portrayed the lives of rogues and criminals. The first such Spanish work was entitled Lazarillo de Tormes (1554). Works were translated into English such as James Mabbe’s Guzman de Alfarache (1622). Later in the seventeenth century was the famous work The English Rogue (1665) which, in the words of Hal Gladfelder, marked the genre’s full assimilation into English. [1] In the seventeenth century also one of the first prose accounts of Robin Hood’s life was published entitled The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1662). [2] Its author was said to be ‘an Ingenious Antiquary’ who had collected all of the different materials purporting to tell the details of Robin Hood’s life. It was reprinted several times throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, and again by the antiquary William Thoms in his edited collection of Early English Prose Romances (1828). Robin Hood scholars have often been dismissive of this work. But I think it is significant because it appears to be an attempt to situate stories of England’s most famous outlaw within the genre of English rogue fiction.

Authorship

It is not known who the author of The Noble Birth was, other than that he was, as we have seen, ‘an ingenious antiquary’. The authors of English rogue fiction often claimed that their stories were either from the mouths of real criminals, or collected from their memoirs, or delivered directly to the author. Richard Head followed this practice in Jackson’s Recantation (1674) which declared that:

Reader, let me assure thee this is no fiction, but a true relation of Mr. Jacksons life and conversation, Pen’d by his own hand, and delivered into mine to be made publick for his Countrymens good, in compensation of the many injuries he hath done them. [3]

This is a practice which continued with criminal biography in the eighteenth century, as well as later novels. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), for example, claims to have been ‘written from her own memorandums’. The author of The Noble Birth is similarly attempting something of the same with Robin Hood; given the fact that Robin is not a contemporary seventeenth-century figure, however, the author needs to claim that he is an antiquary who has researched the subject.

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Title Page: Anon. The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1678 Edn.)

Content

As the title implies, the author states that Robin was born the heir to the Earl of Huntingdon’s estate. But to the antiquary, the fact that he is of noble birth does not automatically equal being upright and moral. He tells us that Robin was:

Outlaw’d by Henry the Eight for many extravagances and outrages he committed, [and] did draw together a company of such bold and licentious persons as himself. [4]

We are not told why Robin turns to a life of crime, merely that he was ‘bold and licentious’. There are no lofty ideals which make him take to a life in the greenwood. Rather, like many protagonists in seventeenth-century rogue fiction, Robin acts on impulses – self-preservation at any cost, money, revenge. [5] Robin’s actions are thus encouraged by the newly-emerging ideology of bourgeois individualism in the seventeenth century.

garland
17th-century illustration from Robin Hood’s Garland (1663). Courtesy of Rochester University, NY.

The stories that follow the introduction to Robin Hood’s life are taken directly from many of the later seventeenth-century ballads such as Robin Hood’s Delight, Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham, Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Curtall Friar, and Robin Hood’s Chase. As with all seventeenth-century criminal narratives, the action moves at rapid pace. Rarely does the author expend more than two pages detailing the events of each ballad. This is another feature of English rogue fiction; they are episodic, move at rapid pace, and the world they imagine is unstable, characterised by chance meetings and clashes. [6] Adapting the later Robin Hood ballads to this end therefore works well for the author of The Noble Birth here, and further demarcates the work as a piece of English picaresque fiction. The rapidity of narration would be emulated in later criminal biographies during the eighteenth century, and Alexander Smith’s entry on Robin Hood in his A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Charles Johnson’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) owe a lot to author of The Noble Birth.

The major departure which The Noble Birth makes from the Robin Hood tradition is in its account of the outlaw’s later life. In the fifteenth-century poem A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode he is bled to death by the Prioress of Kirklees who conspires with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. And it is a story that is usually repeated in the oft-reprinted garland versions of the ballad of Robin Hood’s Death and Burial, as well as in Smith and Johnson’s eighteenth-century narratives. But in this story we are told that:

He spent his old age in peace, at a house of his own, not far from Nottingham, being generally beloved and respected of all […] Robin Hood dismissed all his idle companions, and betaking himself to a civil course of life, he did keep a gallant house, and had over all the country, the love of the rich, and the prayers of the poor. [7]

The penitence in Robin Hood’s later life is another feature of The Noble Birth which marks it out as a piece of rogue fiction. For example, The Conversion of an English Courtesan (1592) we are told how the author:

I have set downe at the end of my disputation, the wonderful life of a curtezin, not a fiction, but a truth of one that yet liues, not now in an other forme repentant. [8]

In this way the story of The Noble Birth, along with The Conversion, anticipate Defoe’s account of Moll Flanders who ‘during a life of continued variety […] at last grew rich, lived honest, and died a penitent’. [9] These types of narratives are there to provide moral instruction to readers, and they do this by showing the criminal repentant.

Conclusion

The account of Robin Hood’s life in The Noble Birth is not an historicist interpretation of the medieval period. There are no grand knights in shining armour as there is in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) or Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or the Days of King John (1838). In fact Robin is not a medieval figure at all in The Noble Birth, but instead is said to have lived in the early modern period during the days of Henry VIII. The work itself follows the conventions seen in English rogue fiction from the seventeenth century. Despite the fact that the author claims to be ‘an ingenious antiquary’, he pays little regard to scholarship, and is unconcerned with establishing the facts of Robin’s life. If attention to detail was his main concern, there were plenty of historical sources other than ballads which he could have used, such as John Major’s Chronicles. Had attention been paid to historical accuracy (as far as is possible in the Robin Hood tradition), he would certainly not have placed Robin during the time of Henry VIII. Despite being of little value to those who would seek to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood, this work is significant as it appears to be one of the first appearances of Robin Hood in an English mass market prose narrative (if ‘mass market’ can be applied to a seventeenth-century work). It is further evidence of the fact that, by the seventeenth century, the Robin Hood tradition is moving from being a predominantly oral tradition to a textual one. Previously Robin’s story had been told in ballads, poems, and Latin chronicles, but this work marks the assimilation of Robin Hood into the English literary sphere. It is a work that would have clear influences upon Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson’s accounts of Robin Hood’s life, which in turn would subtly influence Walter Scott’s nuanced portrayal of Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe, [10] the greatest Robin Hood novel.


References

[1] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[2] Excepting, of course, the ‘Sloane Life’ of Robin Hood in the British Museum which dates from around 1600.
[3] Richard Head, Jackson’s Recantation or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution : wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road (London: Printed for T. B. 1674)
[4] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood’ in Early English Prose Romances Ed. William Thoms 3 Vols. (London: William Pickering, 1828), 1: 3.
[5] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 7.
[6] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 33.
[7] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth’, op cit.
[8] Cited in Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2004), 249.
[9] Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Ed. John Mullan (1722 repr. London: Everyman, 1991), 1.
[10] Scott owned and read many criminal biographies and was particularly fond of Johnson’s Highwaymen. See Walter Scott, Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns Eds. Gerard Carruthers and Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 254n.

Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” (1742)

Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)
Illustration from Joseph Andrews (1742)

I return once again to my favourite author, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and discuss his novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote (1742). The title is usually shortened to just Joseph Andrews…(they loved long titles in the 18th century).

(My post on one of Wild’s other novels The Life and Death of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743) can be found here)

Joseph Andrews tells the story of its eponymous title character, Joseph. He is the lowly-born footman in the household of Lady Booby. He is a good-looking, kind-natured, and polite young man. Pious and virtuous. He learns music in his spare time and is always endeavouring to improve himself. Although he does not possess a title to the effect, he is de facto a gentleman.

But his virtue and innocence are in danger, for Lady Booby desires Joseph Andrews, and tries to seduce him. He is such a virtuous young man, however, that nothing can tempt him away from the path of virtue. Enraged, embarrassed, Lady Booby dismisses him from service.

After his dismissal from service, Joseph decides to make his way back home in the country to be reunited with his sweetheart, Fanny. On the way many misfortunes befall him. First he gets what little money he has stolen from him by highwaymen (one of my favourite scenes, obviously). He is then stript naked and left for dead. A stagecoach passing by then rescues Joseph and takes him to an inn and Joseph gets better (but not without the doctor mistakenly pronouncing him dead to begin with). While he is recovering, Betty, a chambermaid at the inn takes a fancy to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Again he resists, because he is such a virtuous young man.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Arriving at the inn in the meantime is Joseph’s old friend, Parson Abraham Adams. He was on his way to sell copies of his Sermons in London but, his wife forgot to pack them. He and Joseph have a catch up and decide to travel back to Adams’ parish together because that is where Fanny is from. Further down the line many more slapstick adventures befall Adams and Joseph, and a few more people try to corrupt Joseph’s innocence but he resists temptation. When finally Joseph meets Fanny again, someone comes and ruins their marriage prospects by saying that Joseph and Fanny may actually be brother and sister, but thankfully this turns out not to be correct. The tale then ends happily with the marriage of Fanny and Joseph.

Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742)
Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742)

This is a comedy. But Fielding still has a point to make: out of all of the supposedly “high-born” members of the middle classes and the aristocracy, it is only Joseph, Fanny, and Parson Adams – of no particularly high status in society – who are virtuous people. It is the aristocracy who are corrupt and degenerate; it is the way that Joseph conducts himself in daily life which marks him out as a true nobleman:

He an Air, which to those who have not seen many Noblemen, would give an idea of Nobility.

Moreover, in contrast to the aristocracy, Joseph’s ‘morals remained entirely uncorrupted…he was at the same time smarter and genteeler than any of the beaus in Town’. This is in keeping with Fielding’s own patrician country upbringing, an outlook which stressed the virtues of the country against the moral corruption of those who lived in the town.

There is also some funny and interesting intertextuality at play in Fielding’s novel. Joseph has a sister called Pamela (a virtuous young lady) who is married to Mr. Booby, the brother of Lady Booby. Fielding was quite disparaging of another author, Samuel Richardson. I have previously written of my dislike for Richardson’s works. (Perhaps its Fielding’s influence on me which made me dislike it). Richardson’s novels are unnecessarily long, whereas Fielding’s is light and short in comparison. So in a direct attack on Richardson (whose characters Fielding stole), Fielding assures us that there will be no long, drawn out sequel. Fielding had dedicated an entire work to the piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela the year before when he wrote An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. So like me he wasn’t Richardson’s biggest fan as you can gather.

I’ve read quite a lot of 18th-century literature, and if you’re going to begin to make your own foray into the 18th-century world, I urge you to start with Fielding’s works…definitely don’t start with Richardson’s!