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.

The Birth of Robin Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Lyrics – Unaltered from Mrs. Brown in 1800.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lyrics in Modern English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

‘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).