Robin Hood the Angry Letter Writer

By Stephen Basdeo

Many people have adopted the name of Robin Hood over the years. The most obvious ones which spring to mind are the men who appear in medieval court records, being criminals who adopted the alias. The press today even applies the name to criminals who are perceived to be ‘good’ criminals. It was not only criminals who either assumed the name or had it applied to them: Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, who attempted to assassinate the protestant king, Charles I, were called Robin Hood’s Men. In the eighteenth century, we find the name of Robin Hood applied to the first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) in satirical ballads such as Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).[1]

We saw in another post how even poor little orphan lads assumed the name of Robin Hood.

This is just a small example of how the legendary figure of Robin Hood is truly “all things to all men”.

So now we turn to the years 1819–20, a turbulent period in English history. Soldiers returned home at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), many of them returned to high unemployment. Where labour in vital industries had been scarce during the wars, now the labour market was glutted with plenty of people needing a job. Yet there were not many jobs available: tradesmen had done well out of the war, having been contracted to provide war materiel, there was now a trade depression. The war had created an artificial demand for goods.

To make matters worse, since 1815, the hated Corn Laws were in effect. These laws were tariffs on imports of grain and other foodstuffs. During the war, Britain had imported vast amounts of food to feed its soldiers. Yet after the war, landowners, many of whom were part of the political class, decided that it was high time to protect their own businesses from imports of cheap food: the result was that the price of food was kept artificially high in order to protect the landowners’ inefficient businesses.

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National Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card

Nowadays, if a government treated its citizens that badly, it would soon be voted out. This was not the case in 1819: by and large, neither the working classes nor the middle classes could vote. The franchise was restricted to men who owned freehold property worth 40 shillings. Very few people, even the quite wealthy upper middle classes, owned property in this era. And many of the wealthy industrialists lived in new towns such as Manchester and Leeds—commercial and industrial meccas which drove British economic growth. Yet the large northern cities had no representation in parliament, while fields such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire containing one cottage returned 2 MPs to the Commons.

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Engraving of Reform ‘celebrity’, Mr Henry Hunt

It was an unjust system.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope.

Reformers, some who quite famous like Henry Hunt, were organising, marching, and most importantly: they were printing. Their cause was political reform through the extension of the franchise and a repeal of the Corn Laws. A number of penny periodicals were printed which contained opinion pieces on current affairs rather than reporting actual news (otherwise they would be subject to the paying of stamp duty, “the tax on knowledge”).

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The Medusa; or Penny Politician, No. 1

It is in the print culture of the early nineteenth century, then, that we find a man who named Robin Hood who wrote to The Medusa; or, The Penny Politician on three occasions in the years 1819–20.

The Medusa, named after the famous Greek mythical figure, was a satirical magazine which, through its humour excoriated the ruling class:

What! Will you not believe the Prime Minister, the Privy Council, the Bishops, the Judge, the Counsellors, the Lawyers, the Borough-mongers, the Placemen, and all the Pensioners? The Dukes, the Earls, the Marquisses, the Barons, the Knights, &c. &c.? Deluded multitude! Here is a collection of the happiest creatures in the world, united together to persuade you that you are extremely happy, and yet you give no credit to what they may either say or swear! O Shocking stupidity![2]

This was complete and utter sarcasm, a sly dig at the idea, propagated at the time by those in power, that Britain boasted of the most glorious constitution in the world—that Britons were “free” and “happy”! Lest anyone doubt the paper’s radical credentials, however, if the sardonic tone did not immediately hit home then the engraving of Henry Hunt, given away free with the paper’s first number, would have left readers in no doubt.

It was not unusual for people to assume pseudonyms in this era. It was an era in which, according to Robert Reid, England’s system of government, with its system of spies and informants, resembled more the Third Reich than an emergent democracy. People wanted to protect their names in public—after all, the campaign for reform was supported by both the working class and respectable tradesmen. Pseudonyms based upon medieval resistors of tyranny were especially popular. Some wrote letters under the name of Wat Tyler, some under Jack Cade, a Thomas Paine here and there, and, of course, Robin Hood.

When Robin Hood, when he wrote his letters, was angry about many things (if Twitter was around in 1819, his account would probably look a little like mine!)

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Britons Strike Home!!! Engraving of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819

One of the measures which this radical Robin Hood proposed was the formation of a fund to aid the legal defence of men accused of sedition, an accusation applied to many a radical publisher who was hauled through the courts on trumped-up charges:

The present system of persecution adopted by our tyrants to stifle the public voice, should be met by a correspondent determination on the part of the friends of freedom to oppose their diabolical measures: a “Stock Purse” should be raised and maintained to counteract their evil purposes, the funds of which should be appropriated to defray the legal &c. expenses of the deserving public characters, whom our tyrants think to bear down by accumulated indictments.[3]

Robin Hood speaks of politicians as being tyrants quite frequently. And in 1819, an event which no doubt confirmed him in his beliefs came to pass: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August in Manchester. Nearly 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators came to hear the famous Henry Hunt speak in support of the cause of political reform; the magistrates got scared, however, and called out the local yeomanry on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 people and injuring over 500, many of whom later died from their wounds.

Robin Hood was furious at

The late most atrocious outrages committed at Manchester, by order of a base Magistracy on a lawful multitude constitutionally assembled, by a banditti of FEROCIOUS MONSTERS, habited in the GARB of soldiers … Gracious God! Will Britons suffer themselves to be BUTCHERED by a banditti of lawless ruffians? Forbid it heaven! If the laws are perverted and an aggrieved people cannot obtain redress, they will be bound in justice to redress their own wrongs; they are called upon by the innocent blood of their murdered relatives, to AVENGE the deaths of numerous and unoffending individuals.[4]

The emphasis in the passage above was part of the original letter. Capitals were used back then in writing in the same way that we use them today: to show anger. The real law-breakers at Peters Fields in Manchester on 16 August were not the demonstrators but the magistrates.

Unfortunately, The Medusa did not last long; its last number was printed in January 1820, which was not unusual for some of these early publications. Yet while this would be worthy of nothing more than an interesting anecdote in a monograph, it does illustrate a wider point that the name of Robin Hood was being used at this point, as it had been before, as a symbol of resistance.

Of course, at the end of 1819, in the year that our pseudonymous Robin Hood was writing, radical readers would soon see their favourite historical outlaw appropriated by the Tory, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Ivanhoe (1819), in which Robin Hood sides wholly with the monarchical establishment.


[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1: 1 (2017), 15–31.

[2] ‘To the Public’, The Medusa; or, Penny Politician, 20 February 1819, 2.

[3] Robin Hood, ‘To the Editor of the Medusa’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 27 (1819), 216.

[4] Robin Hood, ‘Manchester Solomons’, The Medusa; or Penny Politician, 1: 32 (1819), 252.

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The Flemish Revolt: Pierce Egan’s “Quintin Matsys” (1838)

By Stephen Basdeo

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) is one of my most favourite Victorian authors. The son of the more famous Regency journalist and writer, Pierce Egan (1772–1849), he was an artist, illustrator, journalist, newspaper editor and novelist who, although rarely studied or read today, made a significant mark on Victorian popular fiction.

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Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

He was rather fond of outlaws and rebels and liked to tell their stories: throughout the early part of his career he published Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838); Wat Tyler (1841), in which the eponymous rebel is depicted as a medieval Chartist; Adam Bell (1842), a story of a lesser-known medieval outlaw who is said to have lived around the same time as Robin Hood; Paul Jones (1841), which is the story of a man who defects to the American side during the war of independence; and Captain Macheath (1842), which tells the tale of the hero of Macheath the highwayman who originally appeared in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). All of these stories were melodramatic and politically radical tales in which the protagonists fight against an unjust and oppressive government.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan the Younger’s Quintin Matsys (1838)

Before all of these, however, Egan wrote Quintin Matsys (1838).

It was his first literary project and he took an unlikely historical figure for its subject, the Flemish painter Quintin Matsys (1466–1530). Matsys will be familiar to all art history students as the founder of the Antwerp School of painting and some of his most famous works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), A Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1513) and The Money Changer and His Wife (1514). The first of these has become a popular meme in today’s internet culture while the latter is famous throughout the world.

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The Real Quintin Matsys by Jan Wertrix

Shortly before Egan put pen to paper, a short story fictionalising Matsys’s life was written by A. B. Slous, entitled ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, and appeared in volume one of The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature (1833), so this may have been where Egan got some inspiration from, as the opening chapter in Egan’s novel which tells of Matsys’s early life bears much resemblance to the first chapter in Slous’s short story.[1]

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

Yet Egan’s was no dry novel about the life of a painter. Matsys starts out in the novel as a humble and starving painter but becomes embroiled in a revolution against the noblemen of the City of Antwerp. Matsys leads a secret society of men known as ‘Redressors’ who punish noblemen who commit wrongs against the working and middle classes of Antwerp and its surrounding regions. Issues come to a head when a (very melodramatic and characteristically bad, scheming, and evil) aristocrat has Matsys’s future father-in-law arrested on a spurious charge of treason.

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The Revolution in Antwerp as depicted by Egan the Younger

After this, the Redressors lead the middle classes and working classes to the barricades in which they drive out the bad aristocrats and their private armies from the city. The many illustrations which accompanied the novel—which Egan engraved himself—are in fact highly reminiscent of the imagery of the French Revolution of 1830 (not the ‘big’ French Revolution of 1789 but the one featured in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor steps in and brokers a truce between the classes; when the working classes and bourgeoisie have secured certain political rights, Matsys is able to devote himself full time to the profession for which he would become famous. This is what might be termed an ‘origin’ story if we were talking about pop culture today.

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Young Quintin considering one of his paintings in Egan’s novel

Obviously, Egan intended this novel to be a commentary on the politics of England at the time, and not those of Belgium and there are allusions in Egan’s text to ‘the present day, when society is, in all its relations, as opposite as it can possibly be to that which 400 years since existed’.[2] And there is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that the historical Quintin Matsys ever led a revolt against the nobles of Antwerp.

However, this did not bother the authors of penny bloods like Egan as they regularly made stuff up anyway.

Egan’s radicalism is more of a pre-1832 style of English radicalism; the cause was the political enfranchisement of the people at large, and their struggle was conceived of in terms of a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with their main enemy being the aristocratic political establishment. This is the politics of Henry Hunt and those in attendance at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 1819; it harks back to a time in British politics when, prior to the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, the workers and the middle classes had indeed allied together to campaign for the vote. But ever sneaky, the British establishment used that classic tactic of divide-and-rule; they gave the vote to some middle-class householders (those who owned or rented property worth more than forty shillings), which left poorer people out in the cold. So, the working classes had to organise themselves, and in 1836, the London Working Men’s Association was formed to secure the vote for the working man, and two years later the Chartist movement was born. Egan’s depiction of the middle classes and working classes working together, writing as he does in 1838, suggests that he believes such an alliance is still possible.

Much emphasis is placed by Matsys and his fellow rebels upon the ‘rights and sovereignty of the people’ and ‘the people’s liberties’. The people of course are the working and middle classes, but the generalised idea of the people and of liberty recalls not only Henry Hunt but also Thomas Paine. The Chartists likewise drew upon such language, but it has to be remembered that the movement was not fully formed at the period when Egan’s novel began its serialisation in early 1838, and later, it was the terms of the People’s Charter which the Chartists most emphasised. And in Egan’s Wat Tyler, we see a firmer idea of a ‘Charter of Liberties’ with specific demands, while it’s left a little more hazy in the early Quintin Matsys novel.

More research is needed into the early works. As we noted earlier, all of Egan’s early novels—Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, Adam Bell, and Paul Jones—include revolts against ‘the powers that were’. The fact that the revolt in all of these novels, but most markedly in Quintin Matsys and Wat Tyler, is led by men of the middle and working classes gives us an insight into radical ideas in what is often a rather understudied phase in English working-class history and thought between the 1832 Reform Act and the emergence of Chartism.


[1] A. B. Slous, ‘The Pearl of Brabant’, in The Story Teller, Or, Table Book of Popular Literature, 1 (London, 1833), pp. 668–70.

[2] Pierce Egan, Quintin Matsys, The Blacksmith of Antwerp (London: W. Barth [n.d.]), p.179.

See also: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS, 2016).

The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

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Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

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Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

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19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


References

[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog: fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/.

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hood-and-guy-of-gisborne [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/05/our-lady-of-everything [Accessed 5 June 2018].

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

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

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Robin Hood talking to the ‘silly’ old woman

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

What news? What news? Thou silly old woman?

What news hast thou for me?

Said she, There’s three squires in Nottingham town

Today is condemned to die.[i]

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

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

O have they parishes burnt? He said,

Or have they ministers slain?

Or have they robbed any virgin.

Or with any man’s wives lain?

They have no parishes burnt, good sir,

Nor yet have ministers slain,

Nor have they robbed any virgin

Nor with other men’s wives lain.

O what have they done? said bold Robin Hood,

I pray thee tell to me.

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

Bearing their long bows with thee.[ii]

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

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Robin Hood rescuing three men from the gallows

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

The first loud blast that he did blow,

He blew both loud and amain,

And quickly sixty of Robin Hood’s men,

Came shining over the plaini.

O who are you the sheriff he said,

Come tripping over the lee?

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

They’ll pay a visit to thee.[iv]

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

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


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

[ii] Ibid.

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

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

Reading Robin Hood in World War Two (1939–45): Data from Mass Observation

Before the twentieth century, Robin Hood was a literary figure: he is the main protagonist in a number of important literary works such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450); Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98); Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Many fine scholarly studies have been conducted which have studied the production and dissemination of these texts.[i] In the twentieth century, the principal means through which the outlaw’s story was disseminated became films and, as domestic television ownership increased, serialised shows. Added to this we can, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, add videogames.[ii] Thus, in the twentieth century, Robin Hood became a visual rather than a literary hero.

While the late-Victorian period witnessed a number of new Robin Hood children’s books being written and published, there were noticeably fewer in the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the emergence of film technology. Robin Hood scholarship that focuses on twentieth-century sources likewise tends to privilege cinematic portrayals of the outlaw rather than the literature which appeared. Yet people were still reading Robin Hood, as we know from Mass Observation records.

Britain by Mass Observation
First edition of Madge’s Mass Observation Book.

Mass Observation was a project started by the philanthropists and filmmakers, including Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrisson, and Charles Madge, in 1937. Their aim was a simple one: to create a record of everyday life in Britain by having volunteers write about what they had done on a given day and submit it to the archive.[iii] The first major project was to chronicle people’s thoughts about the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1938. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War (1939–45) and was occasionally used by the wartime government as a means of collection information on public morale.

Sarah Hawks Sterling’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1928) was one of the most popular books requested by children at Fulham Library.[iv] This was surprising for me as a researcher because I assumed that, when Robin Hood books were read by children in the twentieth century, it was generally the American Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Indeed, when Penguin Books decided to publish a Robin Hood story as part of their Classics range, it was Pyle’s story that they chose for the collection, rather than any English author.

In Mass Observation records, we also see the continuing popularity of Scott’s Ivanhoe amongst children in London, in particular the Penguin Books 6d. edition.[v] The same record also records that nineteenth-century school editions of Ivanhoe remain in circulation and are popular among youths.

We see another unnamed child opting for Sterling’s book in 1942. In Marylebone, a Mass Observation worker saw a child carrying four books on their way home: Sterling’s Robin Hood, and some anonymous works The War of the Wireless, Shadow of the Swastika, and The First Quarter. More importantly, the child also gives the reasons why they have chosen these books: because they liked adventure books; because the books had been recommended by a friend; and they were similar to other books that they had read. They even told the interviewer that it generally takes them half a week to read through a full book.[vi]

Mass Observation did not focus merely upon children, however, for the investigators also interviewed adults. What is interesting are the Variety shows which were held on evenings. On 14 November 1942, a show was held in Bournemouth to raise money for civilians in USSR (the Soviet Union was part of the Allied Forces at this point). The theme of the show was “Merrie England”, Three Robin Hood songs were sung at this event. None of them were of the traditional ballad type, however, and the finale was a song that I have not yet identified, entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood.[vii] There is a Scottish ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John, as recorded in J. M. Gutch’s ballad anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847),[viii] but it is a minor ballad and certainly not worthy a spectacular finale, so it may have been a completely new song composed for the event.

What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. Such a big set-piece movie, released at the time Mass Observation was initiated, I assumed would have featured in some of the records, but there are none that I have found thus far. Perhaps this should prompt future Robin Hood scholars to reassess the reach and reception of Flynn’s ground-breaking movie, and perhaps it indicates that the ‘prose’ Robin Hood persisted in popularity much longer than previously thought.


[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); 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); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[ii] See Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, pp. 150-210. On videogames see Thomas Rowland, ‘“And Now Begins Our Game”: Revitalizing the Ludic Robin Hood’, in Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. by Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 175-188.

[iii] See David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (London: W & N, 2015).

[iv] Mass Observation, Topic Collection-59_1413, p. 2.

[v] Mass Observation, File Report-1332_127, p. 116.

[vi] Mass Observation, Marylebone, Library QQM15C, R.C.C. 8. 4. 42, Topic Collection-20_2595.

[vii] Mass Observation, Bourneville Works Musical Society, Topic Collection-16_3753.

[viii] Anon., ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 389-91.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.