“Robin Hood’s Rescue of the Three Squires” and the Political Economy of Banditry

Many Robin Hood ballads were printed as broadsides during the seventeenth century. The majority of them depict Robin Hood as a rather inept outlaw who, every time he stops somebody, tends to get beaten up. Some of them do, however, present us with a picture of what we expect Robin Hood to do: mount a heroic fight against the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. One such ballad is Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires, which is the title that the American Scholar, Franis J. Child gave it. However, the ballad sometimes has variant titles such as Robin Hood Rescuing the Widow’s Three Sons (Child actually records three different versions of this ballad, though none of the stories in any of them significantly diverge from the other).

RH and Woman
Robin Hood talking to the ‘silly’ old woman

The story is a basic one in which one day Robin comes across an old woman who is weeping. Robin approaches her and asks her what is wrong:

What news? What news? Thou silly old woman?

What news hast thou for me?

Said she, There’s three squires in Nottingham town

Today is condemned to die.[i]

(‘Silly woman’ was not meant to sound disparaging. Instead it meant ‘old’ or ‘frail’ woman). The sheriff has had three young men arrested and they have been sentenced to be hanged. In some versions of this tale, it is the woman’s sons who are to be hanged.

What happens next is rather interesting, however: everybody knows that Robin Hood’s sworn enemy is the Sheriff of Nottingham. In most stories, from the medieval poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450) down until modern films, he will often do anything he can to get one over on the sheriff.  However, in this ballad it is clear that Robin has a criteria for judging whether someone is worthy of being rescued:

O have they parishes burnt? He said,

Or have they ministers slain?

Or have they robbed any virgin.

Or with any man’s wives lain?

They have no parishes burnt, good sir,

Nor yet have ministers slain,

Nor have they robbed any virgin

Nor with other men’s wives lain.

O what have they done? said bold Robin Hood,

I pray thee tell to me.

It’s for slaying of the king’s fallow deer,

Bearing their long bows with thee.[ii]

Robin does not decide to automatically ride to their rescue, it will be noticed. He first ascertains what type of criminals the men due to be hanged are; whoever the writer of this ballad was it is obvious that he is a very moral, asking as he does whether they have killed any ministers or committed adultery. Furthermore, several medieval and early modern texts state that Robin never harmed women, so in this case he has to ascertain that too. Robin’s attitude here, in fact, demonstrates a rudimentary awareness of the political economy of organised crime and its relationship with the state and law enforcement.[iii] Throughout history, organised crime networks are content to not cause too much trouble for local law enforcement. In fact, laying low and not bothering law enforcement in their daily duties is often beneficial for bands of criminals: it takes the heat away from them. Furthermore, the merry men need to be seen as the ‘good guys’; they depend, as all bandits do (cf. Hobsbawm’s Bandits, 1969) upon the goodwill and favour of the people; not a single soul would look favourably upon Robin and his men if they were to rescue from the gallows arsonists, adulterers, or those who mistreated women.

RH and Gallows
Robin Hood rescuing three men from the gallows

Luckily for the woman and her three sons, it seems that the sheriff has indeed unjustly arrested them. The men appear to be kindred spirits of Robin’s for they have only hunted the king’s deer. Robin, therefore, decides to rescue all of the men. On his way to Nottingham, he meets a beggar and asks to change clothes with him (presumably, he thinks he will be too recognisable in his suit of Lincoln green). The execution is taking place just outside the castle walls. Once there, Robin finds a crowd gathered around the gallows, and the sheriff asks if anyone will serve as the hangman for the three young felons. Robin (as the beggar) volunteers. At the foot of the gallows, Robin blows his horn and

The first loud blast that he did blow,

He blew both loud and amain,

And quickly sixty of Robin Hood’s men,

Came shining over the plaini.

O who are you the sheriff he said,

Come tripping over the lee?

The’re [sic] my attendants brave Robin did say,

They’ll pay a visit to thee.[iv]

In revenge for attempting to execute some poor young lads who probably only wanted to feed themselves, the outlaws grab hold of the sheriff and take him back to the forest. They then erect a gallows there and hang him instead.

In conclusion, although the legend of Robin Hood seldom features in discussions of organised crime, banditry, and its relationship to the state, it is clear that whoever wrote this ballad had an idea that bandits could not simply thwart the actions of members of law enforcement as they pleased. Modern portrayals of Robin Hood also hint at this pattern of behaviour in Robin Hood’s gang; in the 1980s television series entitled Robin of Sherwood (1984–86), Robin recognises the value of not killing the sheriff; the outlaws need the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne to stay alive because, in spite of the fact that the sheriff is ever ready to hunt them down, the outlaws must not be seen as the aggressors and certainly not as people who would kill wantonly. To quote a very recent, though entirely unrelated, fictional portrayal of organised crime, the television series Gotham: when a low-ranking member of an organised crime is holding Jim Gordon captive and is ready to kill him, the big boss comes along and stops them from being killed; he reminds his minion that “there are rules”. Similarly with Robin Hood, there were rules to be followed; Robin’s arch-enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, but that did not necessarily mean that Robin was ever ready to defy the sheriff for no good reason.


[i] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. by Francis J. Child, rev. ed., 5 vols (New York: Dover, 2003), 3: 180.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See the following works for more information on the operations of organised crime and the history of organised crime: S. Skaperdas, ‘The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not’, Economics of Governance, 2: 3 (2001), 173-202; Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’, Global Crime, 9: 1 (2008), 35-51; Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)

[iv] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, 3: 181.

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‘By god that dyed on a tree’: Crux Simplex in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)
Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)

A purely speculative post; I am not a medieval historian or linguist, and this is just something I’ve noticed whilst reading A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (1510). I may be wrong, and am certainly willing to be corrected; comments are most welcome!


It is generally agreed amongst most major Christian religions that Jesus Christ died on a cross; an upright stake with a crossbeam. That Christ died on a cross, however, has been debated over the centuries, and some early-modern scholars such as Justus Lipsius illustrated the different ways in which a crucifixion could be carried out. In particular, his illustration of the crux simplex in De Cruce Libri Tres (1594) shows a man suspended upon an upright stake, [1] indicating that the instrument of death used to torture Christ could have been a simpler device compared to the cross that is commonly accepted in many Christian religions, [2] although Lipsius does also include illustrations of more recognisable crucifixions carried out upon a standard cross. Even in the modern period Patrick Fairbairn in The Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874) suggested that the ‘cross’ which Christ died upon may originally have been an upright pole. [3]

It is not the intention here to debate whether or not Christ actually died upon an upright stake, but to highlight a surprisingly interesting source where it appears as though it is implied that Christ died, not on a cross but upon a tree. This source is the medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. No precise date can be given for the original composition of this ballad as it is a compilation of a number of Robin Hood tales that were originally disseminated orally, [4] although somewhere between c.1400 [5] and c.1450 [6] seems to be the consensus among researchers. The first printed appearance of the Geste, however, appeared in 1492, with successive editions appearing throughout the sixteenth century. [7] The Geste then made its appearance again in eighteenth-century ballad collections such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), and Francis James Child’s five-volume work English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1882 and 1898). It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes’ and sees Robin and his men relieve a financially distressed knight; participate in archery contests; meeting with the King; and the Geste also tells of Robin Hood’s death at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

It is in Robin’s meeting with the poor knight in the first fytte that the first reference Christ dying upon a tree is found. Robin asks the knight why he is poor. The knight has had to post bail for his son who slew a man of Lancaster, and to get the needed funds he has had to mortgage his lands to the corrupt abbot of St. Mary’s in York. When Robin meets the knight, it is the day that the repayment is due, the funds for which the knight does not have. And neither does the Knight have any friends who can help him out of his financial difficulties:

Hast thou ony frendes sayd Robyn

The borowes that wyll be

have none then sayd the knight

But god that dyed on a tree. [8]

Robin lends the knight the £400 that he needs to repay the abbot, and sends the knight on his way to York with Little John acting as a man-servant. When John and the knight arrive at the Abbey of St. Mary’s, the knight initially pretends that he cannot repay the loan. He initially pleads for mercy from the abbot, but to no avail for the abbot refuses to show any leniency:

The abbot sware a full grete othe

By god that dyed on a tree

Get the londe where thou may

for thou getest none of me. [9]

To the abbot’s chagrin, the knight reveals that he does indeed have enough money to repay the abbot, and that if the abbot had been willing to show courtesy and mercy towards him, he would have been rewarded. The abbot turns to the justice who is in the room and says:

Take my golde agayne sayd the abbot

Syr justice that I toke the

Not a peny sayd the justice

By god that dyed on a tree.[10]

Whoever the anonymous author(s) of the Geste was, it is clear that he is here referring, not a cross, but to a more simple structure. When the Sheriff of Nottingham sees Little John’s archery skills on display at a shooting match, he makes a similar oath ‘by hym that dyed on a tree.’[11] There is also another similar reference later on in the ballad. After an archery contest in Nottingham, when Robin splits the arrow in two, the Sheriff recognises them and the outlaws rush to make their escape. In the ensuing affray Little John is wounded, and he asks Robin:

Mayster then sayd Lytell Johan

If thou ever lovest me

And for that ylke lordes love

That dyed upon a tre

And for the medes of my service

That I have served the

Lete never the proud sheryf

Alyve now fynde me.[12]

Now it might be thought that too much is being read into these passages, and I could just be splitting hairs (feel free to comment below). After all, a tree can indeed mean a cross. The only time that the author uses a variation of the phrases previously highlighted is at the end of the eighth fytte where it says:

Cryst have mercy on his [Robin’s] soule

That dyed on the rode.[13]

According to the Middle English Dictionary Online, the word ‘rode’ can mean ‘cross’ in the term by which it would be popularly understood.[14] It remains to ask, however, why the author, or authors, of the Geste used ‘tree’ throughout the ballad when there were words which would have more clearly conveyed the sense of a cross proper?


References

[1] Justus Lipsius De Crvce Libri Tres Ad sacram profanamque historiam utiles. Vna cum Notis (Antwerp: 1594), p.10.
[2] The exception to this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion. They believe that Christ died upon an upright stake, or pole with no crossbeam. Their position is explained in one of their society’s publications. See Anon. Insight on the Scriptures (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1988), pp.1116-1117. [See jw.org]
[3] Patrick Fairburn The Imperial Bible Dictionary (London: Blackie & Son, 1874), p.376.
[4] Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p.24.
[5] A. J. Pollard writes that ‘textual and linguistic analysis has suggested a possible date of composition of the elements [of the Geste] as early as c.1400 and dates for the compositions to be committed to writing about 1450. See A. J. Pollard Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2004), p.6.
[6] There is debate about the dating of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, but James C. Holt argues that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400. See James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ ed. by Kevin Carpenter Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), pp.27-34.
[7] Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood, p.6.
[8] Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode and his meyne And of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510) Cambridge University Library Shelfmark: Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Frances McSparran (ed.) Middle English Compendium (University of Michigan, 2006) [Internet <<http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mec/index.html>&gt; Accesssed 14/08/2015].

Robin Hood’s Garland (1856)

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

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

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