The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or, The Castle of Morford” (1791)

(This is an updated version of an earlier post I made)

Scholars generally point to 1819 as the year that the first Robin Hood novels appeared, these being the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.[i] However, an attempt was made during the late eighteenth century, well before the aforementioned works, by Robert Southey, to give Robin Hood his ‘big break’ in that most famous of literary genres. Held in the archives of the Weston Library, Oxford is an unpublished manuscript by Robert Southey for a Robin Hood novel entitled ‘Harold; or, the Castle of Morford’ (1791).[ii]

delphi-complete-poetical-works-of-robert-southey-illustrated-robert-southey-google-books
Robert Southey

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. He was a pioneering medievalist, for in addition to ‘Harold’ he authored Wat Tyler (1794), Joan of Arc (1796), and also edited a version of the Icelandic Edda in 1797 and a version of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1817 (to Southey is credited the first English prose account of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as the first use in English of the word ‘zombie’, although the word was used in a different context than it is understood today).[iii]

There is one main issue with the manuscript: it was bound in a codex at some point during the nineteenth century; while such a practice has the obvious advantages of keeping all of the pages together, it has also meant that many of the words on the margins of the leaves have been obscured. While close attention to the context can offer clues as to the meaning, ultimately it means that oftentimes, when these words are not clear, you are guessing what Southey originally wrote. Furthermore, binding all of the leaves so tightly together has meant that, in some cases, the ink from one page has rubbed off on to the opposite page, which can in some cases render the job of transcription even more difficult. The saving grace, as far as practical issues are concerned, is that the young Southey’s handwriting is neat and legible.

The novel was clearly envisaged as a gothic tale. It opens with the short and perhaps rather dramatic sentence: ‘it was night’, which anticipates Edward Bulwer Lytton’s ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ from Paul Clifford (1830).[iv] Further gothic motifs include aristocratic villains, family secrets, betrayals, murder, as well as ghostly visions in ruined castles, as related in the following scene:

Harold […] arrived at the borders of the forest about midnight. By the pale light he discovered a castle which at first struck him as his paternal seat he advanced towards it with a hasty step. It was [illegible] and he concluded that it was not the Castle of Alnwick. He roam’d for some time amongst the ruined courts in an agony of grief the stair case was entire he determined to explore the building and if possible acquire some spot where he might rest in safety. He ascended and passed along an extensive gallery with several apartments on either side. He entered one of the smaller ones and threw himself upon the ground determined there to pass the night. He had not remained long in this situation the dismal toll of a bell from the turret roused him […] The firm footsteps of a person in the gallery struck his ear he rush’d into it and beheld at the northern end a figure in armour stalking along it turned and look’d at him by the moon beams which shone thro the broken pane he perceived the armour was bloody. He exclaimed My Father! The spectre turned into a room at the farther end of the gallery. Harold followed him but he saw no more. The appearance overcame him entirely.[v]

As with most nineteenth-century Robin Hood novels, Robin Hood is not the main protagonist but is a man who comes to the aid of Harold and King Richard I, the latter who is in disguise as a knight-errant, in a similar manner to his role in Scott’s Ivanhoe. In fact, there are some passing resemblances to Ivanhoe which definitely are deserving of further consideration: Harold is a returning crusader, just like Scott’s eponymous title character; some of the characters also bear some curiously Saxon names which are comparable to those found in Ivanhoe: there is one character named Athelwold, similar to Athelstane in Ivanhoe (Southey actually misspells Athelwold as Athelstane on one occasion).[vi] A character named Ulfrida also appears in Southey’s novel, a name similar to the crazed Ulrica in Scott’s tale. The fact that Southey and Scott were friends may suggest that Scott knew about this MS. and borrowed ideas from his unpublished novel.

There is also a clear attempt by Southey to draw upon the early modern Robin Hood tradition. A character named Aeglamour is a member of Robin Hood’s band, which suggests that Southey was aware of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641), in which Aeglamour is the eponymous sad shepherd who Robin assists with his troubles (Jonson’s work had been edited for a scholarly audience a few years prior to Southey’s authoring of Harold).[vii] The Bishop of Hereford makes an appearance as one of the villains who has deprived Harold’s brother, Tancred, of his estate.

The character of Robin Hood has all the usual traits, being described as,

the famous outlaw Robin Hood, a man worthy of a better fate; the spoils which he takes from the wealthy he distributes among the poor; his birth is unknown, and it is but a very few years since he chose this barbarous way of life.[viii]

Refreshingly, there is not attempt to ‘gentrify’ Robin Hood by making him a member of the upper classes. Instead, in keeping with earlier traditions, he is depicted as a yeoman forester. We first meet him when Richard and Tancred wander into the forest, and they find that Robin Hood has kidnapped Marian, the daughter of the villainous Baron of Morcar, to marry her:

Welcome my good friends exclaimed the outlaw and you too strangers my assistants in this happy enterprise welcome. Let all be happy. Mirth and pleasure reign. My trusty friends pay homage to the queen of the forest the wife of Robin Hood. For as such I may now present her to you. What monarch can be more blest than me?[ix]

Southey’s Robin Hood is also something of a political reformer, and resolves to help Richard to rid his land of corrupt politicians. The young Southey was a firm believer in the ideals of the French Revolution, and no doubt his portrayal of Robin Hood and Richard as a reformist king stems from his enthusiasm for the rights of man.

Southey also inserts several poems into his narrative which are written in the style of ballads. This is the song celebrating the outlaws’ life:

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [illegible…illegible…] and field hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the [illegible]

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.[x]

All of Southey’s unpublished works remain in copyright until 2039, so there will be no edited version of the text before then. It is part of his juvenilia, and it is not his best work, therefore I doubt Robin Hood studies will suffer too much from its absence. Copyright issues prevent me from making my transcriptions of the manuscript publicly available, however I will be happy to answer any queries about it.


[i] See Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[ii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 is the original manuscript. There is also a duplicate of the novel, copied out, apparently, at some point during the nineteenth century: Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114.

[iii] “Zombie”, in The Oxford English Dictionary Online

[iv] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3v.

[v] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 15v.

[vi] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 21r.

[vii] Francis Waldron (ed.), The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (London: J. Nicholls, 1783).

[viii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3r.

[ix] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 10r.

[x] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 12v-12r.

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Wat Tyler: 18th- & 19th-Century Literary Afterlives

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
– John Ball, Radical Preacher, 14th Century

Late fourteenth-century England had its fair share of problems: socio-economic tensions had been fuelled by the Black Death, and the people were hit hard by taxes in order to fund foreign wars. In addition, England had ineffectual leadership, especially given the fact that the new King, Richard II, was only ten years old upon his ascension to the throne in 1377. To pay for further foreign adventures, the new King, acting under the counsel of his advisors, levied a Poll Tax on the population. Issues came to a head when John Bampton, an MP and Justice of the Peace, travelled to Fobbing in Essex to investigate why the tax from that region had not been paid. Thomas Baker, representing the region, said that the taxes had been paid and that no more funds would be forthcoming. Bampton attempted to have Baker arrested, but violence from the townspeople broke out, and Bampton made a quick retreat to London. This revolt soon spread and other contingents of rebels from Kent, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched on London (their rebellion seems to have been coordinated with rebels from Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk) to demand redress from the King.

Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 by William Blake 1757-1827
Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797, published 1798 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06588

When the rebels reached London on 13 June, the gates of the city were thrown open to them, and the following day they took possession of the Tower of London. Some of the rebels met with the King and put forward their demands including the King’s officials who were on their lists for execution; the abolition of serfdom and unfree tenure, the right to self-governance, and a general amnesty for the rebels. The King appeared as though he would acquiesce to the rebels’ demands. The next day at Smithfield just outside the city walls, the mob gathered and Richard went out to meet them. He called Wat Tyler forth and Tyler demanded he also sign a new charter, and requested that some refreshment be brought to him. After this, Tyler attempted to leave but the King’s guards set upon him, stabbing him repeatedly. Richard then commanded all of the rebels to disperse. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed upon a pole.

Wat Tyler died a premature death at the hands of a tyrannical monarch, but he was never forgotten. He has been a prominent figure in radical and socialist literature: the younger Robert Southey authored a ‘dramatic poem’ named Wat Tyler (1794), while in the nineteenth century Tyler features in the socialist William Morris’ work A Dream of John Ball (1888). But there were a host of various cultural afterlives in addition to the work of Southey and Ball, and I am going to provide an overview of Tyler’s representations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Wat Tyler 2
Death of Wat Tyler (1746) BM1875,0508.1498

History books authored during the eighteenth century took a very negative view of Wat Tyler’s insurrection. The anonymously-authored A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (1718), written in a style not unlike criminal biography, was less than positive in its assessment of the revolt:

The principal heads of the said giddy multitude were Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. The rebels of Kent embattled themselves upon Blackheath near Greenwich, from whence they march’d to London, where the common sort siding with them, they committed a great many outrages and barbarities. [1]

Such a view of Tyler’s insurrections is hardly surprising given the fact that it comes from a conservative historian. Since the 1690s, the British public had developed a habit of taking to the streets and rioting whenever they felt that their needs were not being met. Numerous protests accompanied the Hanoverian succession in 1714, and indeed it was during the eighteenth century when the word ‘mob’ first emerged, being a contraction of the Latin term mobile vulgus. Riots occurred in 1706, 1707, 1710, 1736, 1743, 1754, 1766, 1769, 1780, 1791 and 1797. The most famous of all of these is perhaps the Gordon Riots of 1780, immortalised by Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge (1841). While it is true that the majority of people did not have the vote, politicians had to be ever mindful of the effects that their decisions might have upon the public, as ‘King Mob’ was ever ready to rear his head and resume his reign. [2]

References to Wat Tyler’s insurrections and the mob occur more explicitly in the anonymously-authored play Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (1730), which was performed at the theatrical booths of the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations (probably alongside that Robin Hood plays). The play is a something of a farce, which pokes fun at both the mob (for Tyler ridicules the them) and also the establishment:

Mob. Huzzah! Huzzah! Wat Tyler and Liberty!
Tyl. Friends, hear me speak; nor let your smoaky brains hurry you on to do you know not what! [3]

But the play contains some subtly subversive elements. Immediately after taking about how they will whip the politicians for causing trouble with a ‘bubble’ from the South Sea (referring to the economic crisis known as the South Sea Bubble), Tyler exclaims:

On the proud wings of great revenge I fly;
Tyrant sit fast, or you may chance to know,
The mighty kick of Watty Tyler’s toe. [4]

Further literary representations of Wat Tyler from the eighteenth century were more radical, especially during the years of the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) – a book which advocated independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – sits in stark contrast to previous portrayals:

Tyler appears to have been an intrepid and disinterested man, with respect to himself. All his proposals made to Richard, were on a more just and public ground, than those which had been made to [King] John by the Barons; and notwithstanding the sycophancy of historians, and men like Mr. Burke, who seek to gloss over a base action of the Court by traducing Tyler, his fame will outlive their falsehood. If the Barons merited a monument at Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield. [5]

At the height of the French Revolution, the young Robert Southey authored Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794). In this poem, Wat is a freedom fighter, taking up the country’s cause against the unjust taxes that have been levied to finance Richard II’s wars (with a message for his own day regarding the war against Revolutionary France):

Think you we do not feel the wrongs we suffer?
The hour of retribution is at hand,
And tyrants tremble – mark me, King of England.[6]

There appears to have been a trend at this point for radicals appropriating figures from England’s medieval past: one year after Southey there appeared Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) which attempted to portray Robin Hood as a medieval Thomas Paine.

Wat Tyler egan
Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Wat Tyler (1840)

Perhaps the greatest account of Wat Tyler’s life comes from Pierce Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler, or, the Rebellion of 1381 (1841). In this novel, Tyler is truly allowed to live up to his potential. Thomas Paine held him up as a working-class hero, while Robert Southey envisioned him as a man who fought for ‘Liberty! Liberty!’ Circumstances had changed when Egan was writing, and Britain saw the emergence of Chartism between 1838 and 1858. It was a working-class political reform movement which sought to establish a People’s Charter:

• A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
• The Secret Ballot.
• No Property Qualification for MPs.
• Payment of MPs, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
• Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
• Annual Parliamentary Elections.

In Egan’s novel, then, Wat Tyler is a man who fights for a medieval form of a People’s Charter (the Chartists, in actual fact, even had a Wat Tyler Brigade). Egan borrows the Saxon versus Norman theme from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). The Normans represent the nineteenth-century political establishment, while Tyler – of Saxon descent in the novel – represents the British working classes. Egan’s Tyler attempts to obtain the end of serfdom for the Anglo-Saxons (which means enfranchisement for the nineteenth-century working classes) through ‘petitions’ but to no avail. Tyler then leads a peasants’ revolt in order to obtain ‘a code of laws or charter’. [7]

Egan’s novel was practically plagiarised and abridged in the anonymously authored The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (1851). Given the fact that it is a slimmed down copy of Egan’s text, the radical sentiments are still present within it, and Tyler is described as:

‘The friend of the poor, [who] supported their cause against the tyranny of their oppressors’. [8]

Wat Tyler’s next big break came in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Merry England, or Nobles and Serfs (1874). Ainsworth is a novelist who has featured frequently on this website due to having published Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839). Merry England starts out promisingly, and sees Tyler and Jack Straw ‘conspiring’ together to overthrow the nobles. Although Ainsworth was not a confirmed radical (although I suspect he enjoyed causing sensation in the press, however), the novel is fairly critical of the nobles:

They [Tyler and Jack Straw] both hated the nobility, and burnt to avenge the wrongs inflicted on the serfs. Both desired to level all distinctions of rank, and partition all property among the people.[9]

The novel might have ended up being a perfectly enjoyable historical romance were it not for one majorly unconvincing subplot: Ainsworth tried to emulate Romeo and Juliet by having Tyler’s daughter fall in love with Richard II.

Perhaps the worst novel is G. A. Henty’s A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1897). Henty was a fervent imperialist who wrote a score of (now thankfully forgotten) children’s historical novels. Usually they centre round a boy hero who gets embroiled in major historical events. In the novel, Wat Tyler and his rebels fight not only against unjust taxes but also for the right to fight alongside their King in foreign wars. For the record, Tyler never demanded that he be able to fight for the King: he simply desired an end to serfdom and the alleviation of the harsh poll tax.

Wat Tyler did not lose his radical appeal, despite the fact that Henty portrayed him as an immoral man (the boy hero in Henty’s novel helps to protect the King from the mob rather than participating in the rebellion). In the twentieth century, during the Poll Tax Riots of the 1980s at Trafalgar Square in London people carried placards bearing the words:

“Avenge Wat Tyler”


References

[1] Anon. A General History of all the Rebellions, Insurrections, and Conspiracies in England (London, 1718), pp.28-29.
[2] See Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.73-74.
[3] Anon. Wat Tyler and Jack Straw; or, The Mob Reformers (London, 1730), p.2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (London, 1776), p.112.
[6] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (London: Sherwin, 1813), pp.10-11.
[7] 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), pp.48-65.
[8] Anon. The Life and Adventures of Wat Tyler: The Good and the Brave (London: Collins, 1851), p.8.
[9] William Harrison Ainsworth, Merry England, or, Nobles and Serfs 3 Vols. (London: Tinsley Bros. 1874), p.15.

Header Image: King Richard in Great Danger (1803) BM 1880,1113.4126

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited

King Richard in great danger … and the rebels discomfited