Judging Robin Hood: Negotiating Outlawry in Nineteenth-Century Texts

Paper Read at Plymouth University Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference 23-24 June 2016.

Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.

In the recent television series Arrow (which tells the tale of a superhero who is a skilled archer, dresses in green, wears a hood, and in some instances steals from the rich and gives to the poor) it is said that: ‘People forget that Robin Hood was a criminal’. [1] It was no different during the nineteenth century. Whilst there was a general understanding that Robin was an outlaw, he is usually represented in nineteenth-century literature, not as a common cut-throat but as a patriotic social bandit.[2] He is loyal to the King, opposes the schemes of ‘bad’ Prince John who plots to take the English throne from Richard the Lion-heart, thereby upholding the true order.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe (1819 – 1871 Edition)

If one studies representations of Robin Hood solely in canonical nineteenth-century texts such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840), as this paper argues, Robin’s status as an outlaw was often downplayed. This was to distinguish him – England’s great national hero – from the regular criminals. This discussion is needed because, despite the fact that nineteenth-century novelists depicted Robin favourably, less-canonical texts were still ambivalent towards the legendary outlaw.

Many people will be familiar with the Scott’s Ivanhoe and Peacock’s Maid Marian, but just a few months prior to Ivanhoe an anonymous author published Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). [3] Robin is no ordinary bandit in this novel, and in the lengthy introduction there is a deliberate effort to ensure that readers think Robin is better than ordinary highwaymen and banditti, declaring that he was ‘an innocent and harmless freebooter’. [4] The plot sees Robin cheated out of his Huntingdon estate by his villainous cousin, and left homeless. He subsequently becomes the leader of a band of men living in the forest. The circumstances of his outlawing are out of keeping with both the ballad tradition and novels that would come afterwards: he is outlawed because he interrupts a wedding and stops a bride marrying somebody she does not want to. For this deed Robin is seized by soldiers and reluctantly outlawed by his friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham. In another part of the novel, after he has been outlawed, Robin declares that the word ‘robber’ had ‘become hateful to his thoughts’. [5]

In Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the outlaw Robin of Locksley appears in only ten out of forty-four chapters in the novel, although he is to all intents and purposes its hero. In the preface to the novel, Scott declares that England should be as proud of its historic outlaw as Scotland was of Rob Roy:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

It is as a patriot that Scott wished Locksley to be seen, rather than an outlaw. Scott links Robin to a conservative agenda. He is now a man who is loyal to the King, and he is never depicted committing any criminal act. Indeed, Locksley is rarely called an outlaw in the text. He is called ‘a stout well-set yeoman, arrayed in Lincoln green’, [7] or simply as a ‘yeoman’, [8] ‘Locksley the yeoman’, [9] or ‘captain’. [10]

Scott is hesitant to name Robin as an outlaw, and there are only two scenes where Locksley is addressed as such. The first is when he is negotiating a ransom for Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, [11] and towards the end of the novel. Even in these scenes, however, he is not robbing anybody. This may explain why Scott chose to call his character Robin of Locksley: throughout the novel, the reader is never told that Robin of Locksley is the same outlaw as Robin Hood. Readers may have suspected it, but it is not confirmed until the end of the novel, when Richard (who has been disguised as the Black Knight for the majority of the novel) and Locksley reveal their true identities to each other:

“Call me no longer Locksley, my Liege, but know me under the name, which, I fear, fame hath blown too widely not to have reached even your royal ears – I am Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest.”
“King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows!” said the King, “who hath not heard a name that has been borne as far as Palestine? But be assured, brave Outlaw, that no deed done in our absence, and in the turbulent times to which it hath given rise, shall be remembered to thy disadvantage.” [12]

Even after Locksley has revealed to the King that he is the famous outlaw, Robin Sherwood, Scott allows Richard to effectively nullify his entire criminal career by pardoning his former misdeeds.

Despite Robin’s reconfiguration as a patriot in Ivanhoe, Scott did try to provide some balance. Whilst Richard I displays nothing but unqualified admiration for the outlaws, the jester Wamba gives a more nuanced assessment of the outlaws’ morality: he says that, however much good the outlaws may have done for Richard, ‘those honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable’. Richard asks Wamba to elaborate upon what he has said:

The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle – the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church – the setting free a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff; or, to come nearer to our point, the deliverance of a Saxon Franklin against the burning alive of a Norman baron. Gentle thieves they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at their worst. [14]

It is as though Scott is partially continuing the conventions of eighteenth-century criminal biography by allowing Locksley to be portrayed as a hero, yet simultaneously critiquing his actions. Scott highlights the outlaws’ heroism on the one hand, and their negative traits on the other. In Charles Johnson’s eighteenth-century account of Robin Hood’s life, for example, Robin is a ‘a very bold man, of a charitable disposition, generous and open to the last degree’, at the same time as being described as having lived ‘a mispent [sic] life’ and engaging in ‘unlawful practices’. [15] It is known that Scott owned and read Charles Johnson’s The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and owned several other criminal biographies which must have undoubtedly influenced his tale. [16]

Despite his attempt to provide some nuance, some reviewers were less than impressed with his portrayal of Robin Hood. A reviewer in The Monthly Review said that the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe comes across as nothing more than one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [17] Similarly, in 1820 Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Scott:

Has failed, however, in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant’.[18]

Nevertheless, despite Scott’s skilled and complex portrayal of Robin Hood, it is the vision of a patriotic English freedom fighter that has succeeded through to twenty-first century portrayals, and any nuances in Robin’s morality have been jettisoned.

Maid Marian (1822)

Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822) followed after Ivanhoe, and is a lighter work than Scott’s. The novel begins very dramatically with soldiers interrupting the Robert of Huntingdon’s and Marian’s wedding, declaring him an outlaw, a swordfight then ensues, and Robin and his men escape to the woods. Robin is not outlawed due to having committed any heinous crime – he is simply outlawed because he had fallen into debt. He gathers around him a band of men who are described, not as cut-throats, but:

A band of disinherited prodigals, outlawed debtors, excommunicated heretics, elder sons that have spent all they had, and younger sons that never had anything to spend; and with these he kills the king’s deer, and plunders wealthy travellers of five-sixths of their money; but if they be abbots or bishops, them he despoils utterly. [19]

Whilst there are elements of social banditry in Locksley’s character in Ivanhoe, it is in Maid Marian that Robin fully emerges as one. Peacock develops the themes of the outlaw code found in the A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450). [20] Robin’s merry men live according to noble principles, displaying ‘Legitimacy, equity, hospitality, chivalry, chastity, and courtesy’ in everything that they do. [21] Robin’s band is also commanded that:

All usurers, monks, courtiers, and other drones of the great hive of society, who shall be found laden with any portion of the honey whereof they have wrongfully despoiled the industrious bee, shall be rightly despoiled thereof in turn; and all bishops and abbots shall be bound and beaten, especially the abbot of Doncaster; as shall also all sheriffs, especially the sheriff of Nottingham’. [22]

Just as a true social bandit does, Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor. [23] Despite the worthy maxims of social banditry contained in Maid Marian, as with so many texts in which Robin and Marian are portrayed as Lord and Lady, the reader is never allowed to forget that these two are merely playing at being outlaws. [24] Marian expresses boredom in the domestic sphere, and longs to be liberated from ‘tapestried chambers and dreary galleries’. [25] When she joins Robin Hood and commences living in the forest with him, all that she is doing is swapping one bourgeois world for another. Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet, for instance, are all described as ‘peers of the forest’. [26] The main characters in Peacock’s novel, then, were people who essentially from the same world as the novel’s middle-class readers – a world of tapestried chambers and galleries, and ‘green tea and muffins at noon’. [27] Robin and Marian’s exploits in the novel are presented as an aristocratic frolic for Lord and Lady Huntingdon.

Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or The Days of King John (1838) and Pierce Egan the Younger’s novel appropriate the outlaw to serve a radical message. Miller imitates Scott, making Robin a supporting characters who allies with the protagonist Royston Gower – a Saxon – who experiences ‘a radical awakening’ after his Norman master asks him to kill a Saxon woman in cold blood, which he refuses to do. Gower, Robin Hood, and the other Saxon characters subsequently fight on behalf of the oppressed who suffer under ‘the tyranny of the Norman forest laws’. [28] Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood is no robber either, and instead is portrayed as a man who fights for the political rights of the Anglo-Saxon serfs. [29] Egan places Robin in a class apart from the other outlaws that existed during the period, and he acknowledges that both past and present criminals, for the most part, are indiscriminate in whom they rob. [30] A Review of Egan’s novel in The Westminster Review, in an article entitled ‘Modern Perversions’, says that

“Robin Hood and Little John” by Pierce Egan the Younger! Truly this is too bad’.[31]

The reviewer goes on to state that England’s national hero has become nothing more than:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob’. [32]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [33] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [34] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, [35] was at least a grudging compliment. Thus it is clear that nineteenth-century authors downplayed Robin’s criminality, but when certain authors attempted to critique his actions, reviewers were ever ready to criticise a writer who might present Robin Hood as anything less than an English patriot.

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

Thus far the view of Robin that has been given is the canonical view of Robin Hood, who was appropriated to serve nationalist, patriotic, and even radical ends. Books written for children insisted that:

Though Robin Hood was a robber, which, to be sure, is a bad thing, he behaved himself in such a manner as to have the good word and good wishes of all the neighbourhood. He never loved to rob anyone except people who were very rich, and who had not lived to make good use of their riches. [36]

But not everybody believed that Robin was a class apart from most criminals. Henry Walter in A History of England (1828) said that Robin was

Neither more nor less than a highway robber of notoriety’ in his lifetime, being ‘the hero in many an idle song, in the mouths of the dissolute. [37]

Charles Macfarlane in The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833) says that Robin’s life was a series of ‘predatory exertions of power’. [38] An anonymous correspondent in The Times made no distinction between Robin Hood and Little John ‘and their dingy imitators in this metropolis described by Dickens and Ainsworth’. [39] This article from the 1850s is especially interesting: nothing distinguishes the greenwood outlaws of old from the Fagins of the nineteenth century because

The same man passes from one form into another – developing, according to the changes in society, from a forester to a mountaineer, thence to a highwayman, thence to an instructor of pickpockets and the receiver of their day’s work in St. Giles. [40]

By the time that Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time was published, he was no ordinary robber. Instead he was portrayed in various manners such as a freedom fighter or dispossessed aristocrat. If authors attempted, like Scott, to portray Robin as a complex character, they were criticised by reviewers. People wanted to believe that Robin was not a regular criminal. Yet despite the image that the canonical texts put forth, there is a certain school of thought in non-canonical texts which saw no issue in placing Robin alongside other less respectable thieves such as Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, the highwaymen of the eighteenth century, or the Fagins described by Dickens in Oliver Twist. Thus there is a dichotomy between the representation of Robin Hood in novels, and his reception amongst lesser-known writers.


[1] Arrow S1E09 ‘Year’s End’, dir. John Dahl (The CW Television Network, 2012) [DVD].

[2] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1972).

[3] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time’ in The Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel Ed. April London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) [Forthcoming]. See also Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 147-150.

[4] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54.

[5] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, 2: 103-4.

[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1871), 12.

[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 84.

[8] Scott, Ivanhoe, 89, 110, 144, 145,148, 194.

[9] Scott, Ivanhoe, 193.

[10] Scott, Ivanhoe, 125-126.

[11] Scott, Ivanhoe, 338-339.

[12] Scott, Ivanhoe, 419-420.

[13] Scott, Ivanhoe, 414.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Anon. The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and His Merry Companions. Written by Capt. C. Johnson. To Which are Added, Some of the Most Favourite Ballads from an Old Book, Entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (London: J. Bonsor, 1800), 20.

[16] In Scott’s last written work Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns (1832), which is a guide to Abbotsford and its collections, Scott picks out Charles Johnson’s The History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) as being of especial interest, and indeed it seems he was familiar with several of the anonymous criminal biographies from the early eighteenth century such as The History and Lives of the Most Notorious Pirates and their Crews which is probably just a reprint of Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). See Walter Scott, The Pirate Eds. Mark Weinstein & Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Constable et al, 1832 repr. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 490n.

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

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

[19] Peacock, Maid Marian, 46.

[20] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 129.

[21] Peacock, Maid Marian, 88.

[22] Peacock, Maid Marian, 89.

[23] Peacock, Maid Marian, 126.

[24] This is the point made by Liz Oakley-Brown in regards to Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. See Liz Oakley-Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Munday’s Huntington Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval Ed. Helen Philips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 113-128 (115).

[25] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[26] Peacock, Maid Marian, 82.

[27] Peacock, Maid Marian, 5.

[28] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838 repr. London: W. Nicholson [n.d.] c.1890?), 5.

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

[30] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840 repr. London: W. S. Johnson, 1850), 12.

[31] Anon. ‘Modern Perversions’ The Westminster Review Vol. XXXIII (London: Henry Hooper, 1840), 425.

[32] Ibid.

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

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

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

[36] Anon. Tabart’s Collection of Popular Stories for the Nursery: Newly Translated and Revised from the French, Italian, and Old English Writers (London: Tabart & Co., 1809), 151.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Charles Macfarlane, The Lives and Exploits of the Banditti and Robbers of all Nations 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1833), 2: 75.

[39] Anon. ‘Editorial: Talk of Robin Hood and Little John’ The Times 22 June 1855, 6.

[40] Ibid.

Maid Marian in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls: A Proto-Feminist?

A paper read at the Women in Print Conference, Chetham’s Library, Manchester 20 May 2016

Header image scanned from my personal copy of J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian the Forest Queen (1849)  – unless otherwise indicated, all images have been scanned from books in my personal collection.


Penny Tinkler writes that ‘the study of popular literature, in particular novels and periodicals, has contributed important dimensions the history of girls and women in England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. [1] Studying popular literature is important in discussions of gender history because popular literature projected gender ideals to their readers. One of these ideals was that women should be the ‘the Angel in the House’, confined almost exclusively to the domestic sphere. When it comes to Robin Hood novels, however, representations of Marian differ from typical Victorian gender norms. This paper analyses successive portrayals of Maid Marian in nineteenth-century penny bloods/dreadfuls. The novels considered in this paper are: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest which was serialised between 1838 and 1840; Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen which was serialised in 1849; the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet (1865); and George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Outlaws of Sherwood Forest which was first published as a three volume novel in 1869, and later reprinted as a penny dreadful in 1885. This paper will show how penny dreadful authors represented Maid Marian as a strong and independent female figure. But this paper will also ask why, when nearly every representation of Maid Marian in penny dreadfuls represents her as an emancipated proto-feminist woman, [2] no female authors ever adopted her.

Illustration from J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Context: Maid Marian before 1800

In the earliest Robin Hood texts, Maid Marian is entirely absent. She appears nowhere, for instance, in the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, or Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. [3] In fact, the first clear association of Robin with a woman named Marian was in Tudor May Day celebrations. [4] From the May Day celebrations she made her way into two late Elizabethan plays written by Anthony Munday entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, written between 1597 and 1598. Following Munday’s plays, Marian appears as Robin’s wife in Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood, which was written in 1641. From then on, Marian became fixed as Robin Hood’s love interest. She appears in Martin Parker’s poem, A True Tale of Robin Hood, which was first printed in 1632, and in the late seventeenth-century ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [5] However, ballads featuring Marian do not appear to have been very popular and went quickly out-of-print. [6] This is not because audiences did not warm to her as a character. It is rather as a result of the fact that the ballads featuring her have a ‘complete lack of any literary merit’, according to the Robin Hood scholars R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor. [7] Another reason for this may be that, in the seventeenth century ballad tradition, Robin Hood was known to have had another love interest – a lady called Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses. Clorinda appears in a widely printed ballad entitled Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage to Clorinda, which was first printed in the Sixth Part of John Dryden’s Miscellanies, published in 1716. [8]

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe published in 1819, which is, in my opinion, the greatest literary work to feature Robin Hood, does not include Maid Marian. In Ivanhoe Robin of Locksley has to be celibate in order to concentrate on saving the nation. [9] Neither does Marian appear in the two volume novel Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time also published in 1819. [10] In that novel Robin’s love interest is an aristocratic lady called Claribel. Instead, Marian’s big break came in a now little-known novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marian published in 1822. It is In his novel, Marian is a headstrong, powerful woman who challenges established gender roles, [11] in fact it is rumoured that the character of Marian was based upon Peacock’s friend, Mary Shelley. [12] In the novel, Marian disregards the wishes of her father by joining Robin in the woods, [13] is fond of traditionally masculine pastimes such as hunting, [14] and is bored when confined to the domestic sphere of life. She declares at one point that: ‘thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers were indifferent to me’. [15] Peacock thus set the tone for subsequent portrayals of Maid Marian in literature.

Representations of Marian in Penny Serials

Robin’s first entry into the world of Victorian penny bloods came with Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John. He was a prolific novelist, and after Scott and Peacock is perhaps one of the better authors to have adapted the legend of Robin Hood. The idea of class struggle, although not fully articulated, is present within Egan’s novel, for he says that there are ‘two classes’ under whom the poor suffer (the poor are represented by the Anglo-Saxon serfs).[16] Egan’s vision of Sherwood society is truly egalitarian: Robin is elected as the leader of the downtrodden Anglo-Saxon serfs, [17] while Little John also has to be elected as his lieutenant. [18] Whilst critics such as Stephen Knight have interpreted Egan’s Robin Hood as a gentrified and conservative text, [19] it is more likely that, given the democratic ideals present within Egan’s Robin Hood, as well as his Wat Tyler (1840) and Adam Bell (1842), his novel was a radical text. [20]

Egan Robin Hood
Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840 – 1850 Edn.)

In the novel, Marian is committed to the democratic ideals of the Sherwood Forest society. Marian is first introduced to the reader as Matilda, but when she goes to live with Robin in the forest, her name changes to Marian. Egan explains the reason for this in the novel, saying that it was ‘a request she had made that all should call her thus, rather than they should think her birth or previous state above theirs’. [21] In contrast to the other female characters, Marian is made of sterner stuff, displaying fortitude and strength in the face of danger. She is a skilled archer, and able to hold her own against the rest of the outlaws in archery competitions. [22] This is in contrast to how Egan portrays other women in his novel: the other ladies are typical ‘damsels in distress’ – one character called Maude faints frequently at the first sign of trouble, [23] while another character, Christabel, has ‘scarce ever been from her chamber’. [24] Apart from Marian, then, the women in late medieval society are portrayed as thoroughly Victorian.

Title Page: J. H. Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Egan’s Robin Hood was immensely successful, going through at least five editions. It also inspired another novel authored by Joaquim Stocqueler entitled Maid Marian, the Forest Queen (1849). In the first half of the novel, Marian is the central character. Robin is away fighting the Crusades in the Holy Land with King Richard, and it is Marian who has been placed in charge of the outlaw band in Robin’s absence. The reader first encounters Marian alone in the forest, attired in a male forester’s outfit. [25] In keeping with Egan’s and Peacock’s portrayals of Marian, in Stocqueler’s novel she is skilled in the use of the bow and arrow. [26] She enthusiastically participates in hunting with her fellow outlaws, [27] and at one point even wrestles with a wild boar. [28] These vigorous activities do not make her unfeminine, however, and Stocqueler says that she was blessed with both ‘gentleness and firmness, feminine grace and masculine intrepidity’. It is because of these qualities that Stocqueler says that all women should strive to be like Maid Marian: active, brave, independent. [30]

Little John Will Scarlet
Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet (1865) – From Nineteenth-Century Collections Online

It is a similar case in the anonymously authored Little John and Will Scarlet. The novel is basically a rehash of Egan’s tale. There are two heroines in this serial, Eveline and Marian, and they are both expertly skilled with a bow and arrow, and do not flinch from killing people in self-defence. Eveline, for instance, rescues Will Scarlet by shooting a Norman with a crossbow. [31] During a battle between the outlaws and a horde of Norman soldiers, Marian saves Robin by killing a Norman who was about to stab Robin with his sword. This event, according to the author, is proof that ‘women [are] our best and safest shield from danger’. [32] The outlaws need women in their band: they are not there for decoration, but play an active role in the outlaws’ activities.

Aldine Robin Hood Library (c.1900)

In contrast to the examples discussed above, George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood presents Marian as a typical Victorian lady. She is delicate, and does not have the independence of mind that previous incarnations of Marian do, exclaiming at one point that ‘I know but little, my tongue is guided by my heart’. [33] She often requires rescuing by Robin from the clutches of the Sheriff, [34] and has a habit of getting captured by Norman soldiers travelling through the forest, [25] and from wild animals in the forest. [36] In Emmett’s novel it is the male characters who participate in the best adventures, and it is clear when reading the novel that it is the first Robin Hood story to be written specifically for boys. [37] In other adventures written for boys, Marian is present but often she is only a background character, as is the case with Aldine’s Robin Hood Library which were a series of 32 page pamphlets published between 1901 and 1902. When Marian is present, she more often than not requires rescuing from the Sheriff’s castle. [38] It appears that when the legend of Robin Hood is adapted specifically for a young male readership, writers left little room for free-spirited and independent Marian to appear in the text.

Emmett's Robin Hood
George Emmett’s Robin Hood and the Archers of Sherwood Forest (1885 Edn.)


The Emmett novel and the Aldine Robin Hood Library notwithstanding, it is clear that novelists enjoyed portraying Marian as a free-spirited, brave woman. When Egan, Emmett, and Stocqueler were writing in the early-to-mid Victorian period, the ideal of domesticity had reached its zenith. The idea of the Angel in the House was central to the image of Victorian moral society, [39] but in Marian there was a heroine who differed from Victorian gender expectations. She is out in the public sphere, actively assisting her husband. In fact, as John Tosh notes, ‘the doctrine of separate spheres […] has been more dogmatically asserted by modern scholars than it ever was by the Victorians themselves’, [40] a point which has also been echoed by Amanda Vickery. [41] June Hannam similarly notes that, ‘far from confining themselves to the home, a significant minority of women in the nineteenth century took an active role in public life’. [42] The representations of Maid Marian that appear during the nineteenth century are perhaps an example of this: the male writers who authored Robin Hood novels thought that headstrong and independent Marian was a better ideal of femininity.

FullSizeRender[3] (2)
Marian Hunting a Wild Boar – Illustration from Stocqueler’s Maid Marian (1849)

Just because Marian is portrayed as an active heroine, however, does not mean that she represents a woman that is fully emancipated from patriarchal restrictions upon her life. This is perhaps a consequence of the fact that it was male writers depicting her in their novels. Egan was much too concerned with politics in his novel, and gender issues appear to have taken a back seat. Stocqueler’s novel is interesting, however: Marian is a free-spirited woman while Robin is away on Crusade. When he returns, Marian becomes a typical ‘Victorian’ lady: she becomes weak and impressionable, [43] and almost kills all of the outlaws after she is beguiled by a witch who lives in the forest to administer an elixir to them. In fact, in Stocqueler’s portrayal of the witch there is an example of when female independence can apparently go too far. The witch has poisoned all of her previous husbands, and now lives alone. Poisoning in the nineteenth century was assumed to be a gendered crime, even if actual statistics prove this myth wrong. [44] Nevertheless, women who poisoned men were seen as perversions of ideal femininity. [45] And the witch is proud of her independence, declaring at one point that:

I am monarch in my own right – free, independent, absolute! – free to go where I will and when I will – unburthened by domestics and guards – mistress of the birds of the air and the beasts and reptiles which crawl at my feet – the arbiter of life and death. [46]

Her poisonous machinations know no social rank either, evident when Minnie exclaims: ‘peer or peasant, baron or boor, they have all had a taste of Minnie’s craft’. [47] Marian is an example of good femininity: she is independent, but only to a point – she still requires Robin’s leadership in most matters. Minnie, on the other hand, is what happens when women supposedly are allowed too much freedom.


It cannot have escaped people’s notice that all of these authors were male, and thus the paradox here is this: why did female authors not adapt Maid Marian as one of their heroes? The reason that later women writers, particularly those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, never adapted Maid Marian is because, despite her relative freedom and independence, she is only ever represented in relation to the other sex. Her whole life revolves around her husband, Robin Hood. This is something common to many fictitious heroines, and Virginia Woolf remarked in A Room of One’s Own (1929) something similar, to the effect that ‘all the great women of fiction’, for example, she concluded that they were ‘too simple’ because they were ‘not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.’ [48] Marian was never her own woman, and could never do as she pleased.

Maid Marian was usually depicted in nineteenth-century street literature as a quasi-feminist woman. At a time when the Victorian ideology of domesticity was at its height, Marian was a woman who shunned the private sphere and went out into the world. But there were several qualifications to this: Marian is independent only inasmuch as Robin allows her to be, and her independence, indeed her own world, revolves around her husband. Stocqueler’s novel is especially interesting, for Marian is contrasted with the witch, a woman who is independent but is a perverted form of Victorian femininity. Thus although at first glance Marian should have been an ideal figure nineteenth-century women writers, especially feminist ones, but the reality is that she is far from an ideal feminist icon.


[1] Penny Tinkler, ‘Women and Popular Literature’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 Ed. June Purvis (London: UCL Press, 1995), 131-156 (133).

[2] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[3] Critical editions of these poems are available in R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.), Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997) and Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).

[4] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 34.

[5] See Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 176-178.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Knight & Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, 527-540.

[9] Walter E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’ The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).

[10] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819).

[11] Marilyn Butler, Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in his Context (London: Routledge, 1979), 151.

[12] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.

[13] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. George Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 29.

[14] Peacock, Maid Marian, 20 & 36.

[15] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.

[16] Pierce Egan the Younger, Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), 191.

[17] Egan, Robin Hood, 144-146.

[18] Egan, Robin Hood, 146.

[19] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 128.

[20] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 50-68.

[21] Egan, Robin Hood, 101.

[22] Egan, Robin Hood, 191.

[23] Egan, Robin Hood, 94.

[24] Egan, Robin Hood, 88.

[25] J. H. Stocqueler, Maid Marian, the Forest Queen, being a companion to “Robin Hood” (London: G. Pierce, 1850), 2.

[26] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40 & 139.

[27] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 53.

[28] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 40.

[29] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 26.

[30] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 205.

[31] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, or, The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest (London, 1865), 11.

[32] Anon. Little John and Will Scarlet, 60.

[33] George Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood (London: Hogarth House, 1885), 76.

[34] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 176.

[35] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 251.

[36] Emmett, Robin Hood and the Archers of Merrie Sherwood, 201.

[37] Kevin Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’ in Popular Children’s Literature in Britain Eds. Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, M. O. Grenby (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 47-68 (54).

[38] Carpenter, ‘Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies to 1914’, 58.

[39] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2005), 135.

[40] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 77.

[41] Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’ in The Feminist History Reader Ed. Sue Morgan (London: Routledge, 2006), 74-86 (77).

[41] June Hannam, ‘Women and Politics’ in Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (London: UCL Press, 1995), 217-246 (218).

[43] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 132.

[44] See Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon, 2004).

[45] Radojka Startup, ‘Damaging Females: Representations of women as victims and perpetrators of crime in the mid nineteenth century’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, UCL, 2000), 10.

[46] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 109.

[47] Stocqueler, Maid Marian, 92.

[48] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 1929) [Internet <>https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter5.html>&gt; Accessed 04 May 2016].

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

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

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

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

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

Title Page to Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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).

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!