“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”

By Stephen Basdeo

This post originally appeared on the IARHS website

Amongst the great writers of eighteenth-century literature, the names of two men stand out: Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719). These two quintessentially “Augustan” [1] writers dominated the literary marketplace between 1709 and 1715 through their essay periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Due to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which saw the end of government censorship, there was an explosion of printed material, [2] and Addison and Steele’s periodicals were part of this expansion in the availability of print culture.

Addison and Steele’s periodicals

The public appetite for literature it seemed could not be sated. Although these periodicals had a seemingly modest circulation of just 3,000 copies, Addison claimed a readership for The Spectator that was somewhere approaching 60,000. [3] The fame of The Tatler and The Spectator also spread overseas: James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, recalled having read these periodicals daily (which by his time had been bound into 8 volumes and gone through numerous editions). [4] Addison’s high estimate for the number of readers is not unreasonable, for periodicals such as The Tatler, like many of the other periodicals available in the early eighteenth century, were designed to be read and debated in public arenas such as the coffeehouse and the tavern, and periodicals, or “moral weeklies” as Jurgen Habermas calls them, contributed to the birth of the bourgeois public sphere, or as we might phrase it today, public opinion. [5] Through the essays in these periodicals these authors promoted a culture of aristocratic politeness among urban readers, in which learning and self-improvement were the order of the day. [6]

Frontispiece of Joseph Addison, from Robert Cochrane, ed., The English Essayists: A Comprehensive Selection from the Works of the Great Essayists from Lord Bacon to John Ruskin (London: William P. Nimmo, 1876).

It is Addison’s reference to Robin Hood in the eighty-first issue of The Tatler which I would like to bring to your attention. He opens his essay with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Hic Manus ob Patriam pugnando Vulnera passi,Quique pii Vates & Phaebo digna locuti, Inventas aut qui Vitam excoluere per Artes,Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.

Here are the hands that suffered wounds by fighting for their country and those devoted poets, who spoke words worth of Phoebus or those who improved life through learned arts and those who by their merits caused others to remember them. [7]

Credit: Phoebus, or Apollo, from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Addison tells his reader that he was musing upon the notion of immortality:

“There are two Kinds of Immortality; that which the Soul enjoys after this Life, and that imaginary Existence by which Men live in their Fame and Reputation.” [8]

Marble bust of Alexander the Great

It is with the second type of immortality that Addison concerns himself with in his essay, and he says that he spent the whole afternoon mentally cataloguing the various heroes and “military Worthies” that have appeared throughout world history. [9] He was so preoccupied with this matter, he says, that after many hours awake thinking it over, he fell into a deep sleep and proceeded to have a dream in which he was invited into a great hall in which a number of prestigious persons entered:

The first who step’d forward, was a beautiful and blooming Hero, and as I heard by the Murmurs round me, Alexander the Great. He was conducted by a Crowd of Historians. [10]

Other ancient worthies enter: Xenophon, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey the Great, Augustus; it is all very classical, which of course ties into the neoclassical modes of the eighteenth century.

Augustus of Prima Porta

All of these worthies sit at a table, but it is revealed that there is an empty seat at the table where these illustrious heroes are seated. They begin to whisper among themselves and discuss who, from British history, is worthy to join them at their table. Would they choose King Arthur? He had, after all, been called a “British Worthy” only a few years prior in John Dryden’s opera King Arthur; or, the British Worthy (1691). How about King Alfred, the only English King ever to have been given the epithet “the great”? No—neither of these men are good enough in the estimation of men such as Caesar and Augustus. They conclude by saying that,

“if they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood.” [11]

An outlaw who (supposedly) lived in the thirteenth century was greater than all of the other heroes of English history, and worthy enough to take his place amongst the likes of Alexander and Caesar.


In Addison’s essay all of the ancient worthies are from the Classical period, with the exception of Robin Hood. Indeed, Addison’s placing of Robin Hood—a medieval figure—among all those classical heroes seems incongruent. In the early part of the eighteenth century, whilst it was recognised that the Middle Ages were integral to Europe’s past, the period was “not much liked” by scholars and thinkers.[12] And 1750 is the date that Peter Raedt cites as having been the year when eighteenth-century scholars stopped being dismissive of the Middle Ages as a barbaric interlude between antiquity and the “enlightened” eighteenth century and the period began to be appreciated in its own right.[13] Raedt concentrates his article on Germany, and while some of his points are applicable to England, at the same time England seems to have never truly “lost” an appreciation of its medieval past during the early part of the eighteenth century. Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur has already been cited, and Dryden also “translated” (into perfectly rhyming couplets) parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). Handel also produced a medievalist opera Rinaldo (1711) set during the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thomas Arne and James Thomson also authored the libretto for the opera Alfred (1740), known most famously today for its finale Rule Britannia! An appreciation for England’s medieval past also manifested itself in architecture, most famously in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, designed in 1734 by William Kent. Whilst the marble busts of most of the great men on display there are mostly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there are two medieval figures present: King Alfred and Edward, the Black Prince.

Temple of British Worthies at Stow Gardens

Yet Addison’s idealisation of Robin Hood as a British Worthy is an anomaly when compared to the works of Arne who venerated a King, Alfred, and the establishment figures that were sculpted in marble by William Kent. Robin is different to these other illustrious persons because he is an outlaw. And Addison’s reference to Robin Hood is certainly more positive than the one which would appear in Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) only a few years after Addison was writing, where Robin is described as a “wicked, licentious” individual. [14] This makes it seem odd that Addison would choose Robin Hood to make a point in a “moral weekly.” I have two theories about this. Firstly, it would seem that Robin Hood was by the early eighteenth century gentrified enough in the public consciousness for him to be used in such a way. The gentrification process had begun with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98) where Robin is recast firmly as an establishment figure. [15] The second is that an idealisation of Robin Hood fits in with eighteenth-century contemporaries’ love of liberty. In a later issue of The Tatler, Addison wrote about another vision he had in which he witnessed the goddess of Liberty presiding over the prosperity of the nation. [16] Although crime was increasingly viewed as a problem during the eighteenth century, as indicated by Fielding’s lament that the streets of London would soon become impassable except “without the utmost hazard,” [17] liberty-loving men of Georgian England resisted any attempt by the government to form a professional police force. In a rather odd sort of way, highwaymen (and Robin is the original highwayman) were loved by the people because to many they were seen to embody liberty. [18] People of all ranks held a degree of admiration for highwaymen. At the trial of the “Gentleman Highwayman,” James Maclaine (1724-1750), for example, “many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.” [19] This admiration of outlaws and highwaymen perhaps then explains why Smith, whose Highwaymen is a heavily moralist text, is so keen to recast Robin Hood in a negative light, for he evidently disagrees with the prevailing admiration for both Robin Hood and contemporary criminals.

Addison’s and others’ representations of Robin Hood raise questions as to whether the so-called ‘medieval revival’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was actually much of a ‘revival’ at all. In the eighteenth century, however, the Robin Hood tradition has a neoclassical overlay, in a similar manner to Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631), where the story of Robin Hood is portrayed as a classical and quasi-tragic story of lost pastoral love. [20] Drawing further connections with antiquity, in the play Maid Marian is equated with the goddess Diana. [21] After Addison was writing, Ely Hargroves, in Anecdotes of Archery (1792), catalogues all of the greatest archers in history, highlighting many of the illustrious archers of history such as Pandarus, Ulysees, Aeneas, and Robin Hood. [22] As Robin Hood scholars we are often told that the credit for popularising the medieval period rests largely with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), a novel which, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801-1890),

‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages.’ [23]

Whilst Scott’s historicist vision of the Robin Hood tradition was different to the neoclassical eighteenth-century interpretations of it discussed above, a sustained interest, admiration even, for medieval figures can be traced throughout the eighteenth century, not just from the Gothic Revival of mid-to-late part of the century onwards.

In conclusion, whilst many early eighteenth-century appropriations of Robin Hood are negative, Addison’s elevation of Robin Hood into the status of a “worthy” in the face of negative interpretations is interesting for it confirms to us that the gentrification process was not a linear process but an uneven one. Addison’s essay is the only “gentrified” representation of Robin Hood (gentrified in the sense that he is elevated into someone equal to the heroes of antiquity) which I have managed to find between c.1700 and c.1730 and is certainly deserving of consideration. It is often fleeting comments about Robin Hood in later texts such as The Tatler which allow us to map and construct an idea of how people in past ages interpreted the legend at various points in its history. By 1709 it seems that Robin’s status was firmly gentrified in public consciousness for Joseph Addison to speak about him in a “moral weekly.”


[1] “Augustan,” named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, is the term usually applied to “high” culture in England which flourished during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. It is so called because artists and writers imitated Classical styles in their works, e.g. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (in imitation of the Iliad), or his Imitations of Horace.

[2] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] 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 & Sons, 1880), 19.

[4] Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971), 39.

[5] See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1989).

[6] James V. H. Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, New Approaches to European History 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 96.

[7] “No. 81,” in The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2: 13-21. Bond notes that but “for the last two sentences, this number is by Addison,” 13. The Latin verse from Virgil included at the beginning of Addison’s article for my essay is translated by Richard Thomason (Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

[12] Peter Raedt, “Representations of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Medieval History 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-20 at 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Ed.  Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 412.

[15] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 44.

[16] “No. 161,” in Bond, The Tatler, 2: 397-401. This issue is also authored by Addison.

[17] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.

[18] Lucy Moore, Conmen & Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

[19] Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin ed. “JAMES MACLANE Called ‘The Gentleman Highwayman.’ Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery.” The Newgate Calendar. http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng234.htm (accessed 26 August 2015).

[20] Stephen Knight, “‘Meere English Flocks’: Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd and the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 129-44 at 131.

[21] Ibid., 134.

[22] Ely Hargroves, Anecdotes of Archery from the Earliest Ages to the Year 1791 (York: Printed for E. Hargroves, 1792), 1-17.

[23] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19, no. 4 (1965): 315-32 at 315. 


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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tatler, Number 81

The Spectator, Full Text of Volume One at Project Gutenberg

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

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

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

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