Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow” (1888)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is perhaps most famous nowadays for his brilliant novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). This post, however, is about a now little-known novel that he authored entitled The Black Arrow, which was originally serialised in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature over four months in 1883, and then published as a single volume five years later in 1888. It is a story about medieval outlaws during the War of the Roses (1455-1487). The novel appears to be a fusion of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834),[i] and the numerous Robin Hood children’s novels that were being published in the late Victorian period.[ii]

1

Stevenson was probably inspired to set his outlaw novel during the Hundred Years’ War as a result of having Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (1844). This history situates Robin and his merry men, not in the time of Richard I, a practice which had been popularised by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), but, as Stevenson does in his novel, between 1455 and 1487. In speaking of Warwick the Kingmaker (a prominent figure in the wars), Michelet writes that he was

The King of the enemies of property, of the plunderers of the borders, and corsairs of the Strait.[iii]

He then goes on to speak about how Robin Hood was one of Warwick’s men:

What is Robin Hood? The outlaw. Robin Hood is naturally the enemy of the man of the law, the adversary of the Sheriff. In the long series of ballads of which he is the hero, we find him first inhabiting the green woods of Lincoln. He is induced to quit them by the French Wars, so he turns his back on the Sheriff and the King’s deer, seeks the sea and crosses it […] All Robin Hood’s companions, all who were under ban of the law, were safe whilst Warwick (either personally or through his brother) was judge of the marches of Calais and Scotland.[iv]

4

Notwithstanding Michelet’s highly suspect scholarship, Stevenson must have been convinced that the time of the wars between Lancaster and York was the perfect period in which to set an outlaw novel. He singles out this passage in his own personal copy of the book.[v] While some of the illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (who worked under Robin Hood author, Howard Pyle, and provided the illustrations to Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures in 1917) in the 1916 edition are clearly supposed to evoke ideas of Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, of course, is not a Robin Hood novel; I suspect (but cannot prove) that the reason Stevenson did not utilise the famous outlaw in his novel is because of the fact that, by the late-Victorian period, the idea that the outlaw flourished during the 1190s has almost become a ‘fact’ in historical writing.

The prologue of the novel is quite sinister, opening with the death by an arrow which is fired out of the forest and directed at a seemingly innocent, harmless and friendly old man named Appleyard in the village churchyard:

An arrow sang in the air, like a huge hornet; it struck old Appleyard between the shoulder blades, and pierced him clean through, and he fell forward on his face among the cabbages.[vi]

The novel evokes the Gothic: family secrets are exposed, past crimes come to light, and as in Ainsworth’s Rookwood, which featured Dick Turpin (1705-1739) it is an outlaw/brigand who is instrumental in exposing these. Immediately after Appleyard’s death, another arrow is fired from afar and lands among the group assembled at the Church. Attached to the arrow is a letter:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,

Four for the greefs that I have felt,

Four for the number of ill menne,

That have opressid me now and then.

One is gone, one is wele sped,

Old Apulyard is ded.

One is for maister Bennet Hatch,

That burned Grimstone, walls and Thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,

That cut Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shall have the fourt,

We shall think it fair sport.

Ye shull each have your own part,

A blak arrow in each blak heart.

Get ye to your knees for to pray:

Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!

“John Amend-All. Of the Green Wood. And his Jolly Fellowship.”[vii]

In contrast to Robin Hood and the other outlaw stories that were circulating at this period, which often present a ‘merrie England’ view of the past, it is clear that this is a story of revenge. Among those assembled in the churchyard is Dick Shelton, who is perplexed at the note because it appears to imply that those closest to him, including Sir Daniel, whose ward he is, are responsible for his father’s murder. Upon finding out that his guardian, Sir Daniel, had his father murdered, young Dick teams up with the outlaws to get revenge on the murderous noblemen.

3

While the novel appeared in a children’s magazine and is viewed by academics as a children’s book (and has even been portrayed by the BBC as a kids’ television show), the only “childlike” thing about it is the fact that it features an adolescent protagonist. The novel’s fairly detailed plot recalls earlier highwaymen novels. Finally, while it is not part of the Robin Hood canon of stories, it does deserve a place, if not within, then alongside the study of other Robin Hood texts.


References

[i] R. L. Stevenson, ‘To Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1881’ in The Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson ed. by Ernest Mehew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp.197-98; it is known that Stevenson admired Ainsworth (1805-1882), for in a letter to a friend named Edmund Gosse he urged him, while visiting London, to ‘go and see Harrison Ainsworth, and if you do, give him my homage’.

[ii] Examples of these late-Victorian and Edwardian Robin Hood children’s books are numerous, of which a few are named here: Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]); Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897); Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood (London, 1840); Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912).

[iii] Jules Michelet, The History of France Trans. G. H. Smith 2 Vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1882), 2: 319.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the annotated database of Stevenson’s library books at the following website: ‘What Stevenson Read – His Personal Library’ Robert Louis Stevenson Website [Internet <http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/169-robert-louis-stvensons-library/> Accessed 3 February 2017].

[vi] Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow (London: Cassell, 1888; repr. London: Cassell, 1916), p.9.

[vii] Stevenson, The Black Arrow, p.17.

Rob Roy (1671-1734)

A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!

The Life of Rob Roy

Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]

The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:

They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]

During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.

rob-roy-1723-main-pic
Illustration from: Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by A. Lang (London, 1829; repr. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2005).

However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James.  At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).

It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:

Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]

In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.

When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.

In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.

rob-roy-1723
The Highland Rogue. 1723. (c) ECCO

But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.

As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.

He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.

The Legend of Rob Roy

The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.

The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:

Heaven gave Rob Roy a dauntless heart

And wondrous length and strength of arm

Nor craved he more to quell his foes,

Or keep his friends from harm.

Yet was Rob Roy as wise as brave;

Forgive me if the phrase be strong;–

A Poet worthy of Rob Roy

Must scorn a timid song.[iv]

rob-roy-title-page
Title Page: Walter Scott, Rob Roy 1st Edn. (Edinburgh, 1818). Personal Collection.

However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:

It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]

Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.

Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.

rob-roy-pd
Aldine Rob Roy Library (c.1900)

References

[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]

[ii] The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.

[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’

[iv] The Complete Poetical Works by William Wordsworth ed. by John Morley (London: MacMillan, 1888) [Internet <http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww242.html> Accessed 13 January 2017].

[v] Walter Scott, Rob Roy ed. by Andrew Lang (1829; repr. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2010), p.69.

The Roman Robin Hood: Bulla Felix (fl. AD 205-207)

(Header Image: Two Roman Bandits Fighting – 19th-Century Print)

This post is a précis of the following article: B.D. Shaw, ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’ Past & Present No.105 (1984), pp.3–52, as well as supplemental information from Thomas Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality Trans. J. Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2004). The story of Bulla Felix will also appear in an extended form in my forthcoming book: The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Pen & Sword, 2018).


Introduction

Throughout human history it appears that, as long as an ‘upperworld’ has existed – mainstream society with laws and systems of government – there has also existed an ‘underworld’ – those who have transgressed the law and set themselves in opposition to society. The ancient world is full of examples of bandits. The book of Judges in the Old Testament refers to robber bandits:

The leaders of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills, who robbed everyone who travelled by on the road (Judges 9: 25, New English Translation).

bandits-on-cross
Jesus was Crucified along with two Bandits (17th-century print)

Indeed, Jesus used the example of bandits to provide the illustration to his parable of the Good Samaritan:

After careful consideration, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of bandits. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead (Luke 10: 30, New International Version).

This post aims to introduce readers to a man who can justifiably be called ‘The Roman Robin Hood’: Bulla Felix, who flourished as a bandit in Brundisium, Southern Italy between 205 and 207 AD.

Interfectus a latronibus (“Killed by Bandits”)

The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits: Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile populations but also to protect travellers from robbers; similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.

killed-by-bandits1
(c) Bernard D. Shaw, Past & Present

Yet in spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs.

Indeed, there was a sense that bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified.

The Life of a Latrones

What type of person, then, became a bandit in the Roman Empire?

Shaw notes that it was mostly army veterans and deserters who took to this course of life. Their training in a state-sanctioned violent profession gave them the tools and experience in combat that they needed to turn to a life of banditry. Indeed, for some soldiers this way of life was their only recourse: the bonuses and earnings of a demobilised soldier were very frugal, and they needed to find some way to support themselves.

Another type of profession that was closely associated with banditry was that of a shepherd. The people who followed this profession were usually poor, yet a shepherd in the mountains would have known the local terrain, and often operated in areas where the state enforcement of the law was weak. Moreover, the shepherd could move about these places relatively quickly.

It is one thing to rob travellers on the highway, but it is another thing to dispose of the stolen goods. Most Roman bandits, as thieves in all ages, required the services of a receptator (a fence) to sell their stolen articles to. Often, as is the case with shepherds, the fences were usually local worthies who turned a blind eye and asked no awkward questions as to how certain items magically appeared in a bandit’s possession. The fences, if caught, were liable to the same punishments as bandits themselves – the amphitheatre, burning, or crucifixion.

Bulla Felix – the Roman Robin Hood

The main details of Felix’s life come from the writings of Cassius Dio, a Roman historian. One cannot help but be struck by the number of similarities between him and the much more famous English bandit, Robin Hood.

Like Robin Hood is said to have done, Felix headed a substantial army of around 600 men. Yet despite the attempts of the emperor to capture him,

[Felix] was never seen when seen, never found when found, and never caught when caught.

It was not simply an army of 600 brutish fighting men that he had built up but a sophisticated intelligence network: the information he received from those loyal to him allowed him to stay one step ahead of the law.

Another similarity to Robin Hood is that Felix only stole from the rich, and what is more, he gave a lot of these proceeds to the poor. This is another reason why he was always able to evade the authorities: the locals were loyal to him and his men. If the writings about him are to be believed, Felix was an early example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘a social bandit’: someone whom the lord and the state regard as criminal, but who remain within peasant societies and are looked up to as champions, freedom fighters, righters of wrongs.

Felix, like his medieval successor Robin Hood, was also a master of disguise, and there is one particular incident in particular which is reminiscent of a scene from early Robin Hood literature:

While in disguise he approached the Roman military officer who had been tasked with “exterminating” his gang. Bulla told the officer that he knew where Bulla could be found (not a lie) and said that he would betray Bulla if only the centurion would follow him to the bandit’s hideout. The gullible officer swallowed the bait and advanced into a wooded thicket where Bulla’s men promptly took him prisoner. Back in Bulla’s camp there ensued a piece of serio-comic drama in which Bulla reversed the normal lines of authority. He donned the official robes of a Roman magistrate, climbed onto a tribunal and summoned the centurion, with his head shaven, before his “court”. Bulla then delivered his sentence: “Carry this message back to your masters: let them feed their slaves so that they might not be compelled to turn to a life of banditry” (Shaw, 1984, p.47).

This is like a scene in the fifteenth-century ballad Robin Hood and the Potter, in which Robin, disguised as a potter, is invited to dine with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin informs the Sheriff that he can take him to meet Robin Hood and capture him. The Sheriff agrees, but when he and Robin are in the forest, Robin blows his horn at which all his outlaws come running, and Robin reveals his true identity. Robin allows the Sheriff to leave on the condition that he vows never to molest him and the outlaws again. The Sheriff, humiliated, agrees and is permitted to leave. Neither story is probably true.

In the end, it was a woman who proved to be Felix’s downfall: the authorities found out about a certain woman that he was intimately involved with. She was convinced to betray him for a fee. Felix was later arrested while sleeping in his cave. He was sentenced to be thrown into the wild beast pit and he was torn limb from limb.

‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.

1john-ball
Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]

(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)

That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.

Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to

Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

commonweal
Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:

My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]

The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:

Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]

Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.

After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:

Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]

Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.

While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).


REFERENCES

[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).

[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.

[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.

Pernicious Trash? “The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood”(1883)

There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible.[1]

The citation above denouncing penny dreadfuls as pernicious trash brilliantly encapsulates mid-to-late Victorian moralists’ views of popular reading matter. As previous posts on this website have shown, Robin Hood stories formed a staple of the penny dreadful publishing industry. Much like graphic novels today, penny dreadfuls were popular with both younger and more mature readers. Criminals such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) usually featured as their heroes. Sometimes they were issued as standalone periodicals, but more often than not a few chapters per week were featured in magazines such as The Boys of England. It was in The Boys of England that a long-running serial entitled The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood first appeared in 1883.

boys-england-1
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

As the title suggests it is the story of Robin’s youth. But the influence of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can be seen from the start. Robin and his father live on the Huntingdon estate, but the political rival of the Lord of Huntingdon is the Lord of Torilstone who lives not far from the Huntingdons.[2] Readers familiar with Scott’s work will immediately recognise the not-so-subtle reference to Torquilstone in Ivanhoe. One of the key villains is Sir Front de Boeuf.[3] There is also the usual Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme that is usual in Victorian Robin Hood narratives.

The actual story is relatively unremarkable and lacks the democratic political sentiments found in Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838-40) and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865). After Robin’s estates are confiscated by Prince John, Robin and Little John are forced to seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. They come across some outlaws and, upon learning that he is of noble birth they ask him to become their leader. Instead of being elected as leader of the outlaws in Egan’s novel, Robin is

Appointed King of Sherwood.[4]

Robin does steal from the rich and give to the poor, but this is done by the outlaws more out of a sense of Christian charity, rather than a desire to improve the lot of the commoners of England through political activism, as he does in Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, the Days of King John (1838).

boys-england-2
Illustration from The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood (1883)

But before we assume that this story was considered as respectable reading for youths, it should be noted that the narrative is filled with graphic descriptions and illustrations of violence. Here is an example of the cruelty of one of the Norman Barons to their own  soldiers:

“Base Slave!” thundered the Baron; and then with all the force of his muscular arm, he brought down the heavy drinking cup upon the skull of the soldier who stood uncovered before him. The wretched man fell to the ground and lay senseless, bleeding from a terrible scalp wound; the tankard was crushed and bent out of shape by the force of the blow.[5]

There is also an attempted rape upon the sweetheart of Allen-a-Dale.[6] The outrages of the Normans are met with an equally violent response by the outlaws. Robin and his men do not hesitate to resort to violence. This is the description of Robin shooting one of Baron Torilstone’s retainers through the eye:

The missile flew true to its mark, its steel point entering the man’s eye, pierced his brain, and he fell headlong to the ground.[7]

While the Victorians in general loved violent entertainment,[8] it was the violence contained in The Boys of England that led to it being widely condemned in the press as an example of the pernicious reading that was used as a scapegoat for juvenile crime.[9]

victorian-children-in-trouble-with-the-law-source-1
One of the many Victorian Juvenile Criminals who passed through the Courts. This one was named Joseph Lewis, and was indicted for stealing 28lb of iron in 1873. Sentenced to 12 months hard labour. (c) National Archives 5348 (PCOM 2/291)

Individual stories from The Boys of England were rarely picked up on, but there were many instances in court when the magazine appeared in the dock. For example, in 1872 thirteen-year-old Samuel Hoy was indicted for poisoning his stepmother with arsenic. At his trial it was said that amongst his possessions were copies of The Boys of England.[10] And the press usually made sure to point out whether a particular juvenile offender had on his person at the time of his arrest a copy of a penny dreadful. When thirteen-year-old Alfred Saunders was arrested for stealing £7 from his father, The Times reported that:

His pockets were crammed with copies of The Pirates League, or The Seagull, the Young Briton, Sons of Britannia and The Boys of England.[11]

Reading The Boys of England, along with other penny dreadful tales, made youths delinquent because it corrupted their morals, according to moralists in the Victorian press. For example, a headmaster in 1874 wrote that:

The hero in these periodicals, read openly in the streets, devoured, I should say, by the thousands of errand and work boys, is he who defies his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, and is the leader of the most outrageous acts.[12]

It is doubtful whether those who complained about penny dreadfuls ever actually took the time to read them, The genre as a whole was often condemned in blanket statements such as those seen above, while picking on one or two titles in particular.

It is not the intention here to discuss whether these magazines actually drove youths to crime or not. The supposed links between violent entertainment and criminal acts have raged since Victorian times. But I think the study of penny dreadfuls highlights some of the problems associated with Robin Hood scholars’ ideas of ‘gentrification’. A gentrified Robin Hood text is any text in which Robin is the Earl of Huntingdon. Scholars tend to assume, as in the case of Anthony Munday’s sixteenth-century plays, that if Robin is a lord then he is also a highly moral character. Yet surely this idea of gentrification is complicated if the vehicle in which these stories appeared was widely condemned in the press? Contemporaries did not view these tales as gentrified, and denounced them as ‘pernicious trash’. In light of this, are such tales really gentrified?


References

[1] Anon cited in Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence, 1850-1950 ed. by Charles Ferrall & Anna Jackson (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 12.
[2] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 9 March 1883, p.25.
[3] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 13 April 1883, p.105.
[4] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 11 May 1883, p.171.
[5] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 20 April 1883, p.122.
[6] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 8 June 1883, p.233.
[7] ‘The Prince of Archers, or, The Boyhood Days of Robin Hood’ The Boys of England 23 March 1883, p.57.
[8] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[9] John Springhall, ‘Pernicious Reading? The Penny Dreadful as Scapegoat for Late-Victorian Juvenile Crime’ Victorian Periodicals Review 27: 4 (1994), pp.326-349.
[10] Robert J. Kirkpatrick, Children’s Books History Society, Occasional Paper XI: Wild Boys in the Dock – Victorian Juvenile Literature and Juvenile Crime (London: Children’s Books History Society, 2013), p.17.
[11] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.9.
[12] Kirkpatrick, Wild Boys in the Dock, p.25.

G. W. M. Reynolds on Robin Hood

Modern period dramas on television often depict the Victorian era as a time when, although there were problems, people never criticised the monarchy or the established order. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, to the extent that Parliament felt compelled to pass the Treason Felony Act in 1848 which made it a felony to “compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend”:

  1. To deprive the Queen of her crown.
  2. To levy war against the Queen.
  3. To “move or stir” any foreigner to invade the United Kingdom or any other country belonging to the Queen.

Yet while most radical journalists during the period masked their republican sentiments by criticising Old Corruption – indeed, even the Chartists did not advocate republicanism – one brave journalist was unafraid of sounding his opinions in the public arena: George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879).

Reynolds was the nineteenth century’s most popular author, outselling even Dickens, and his novel The Mysteries of London (1844-45) was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. His output of novels was certainly impressive, for he authored over thirty, and was editor of three newspapers throughout his life.

He hated the idea all of the hereditary nobilities of Europe – Queen Maria of Spain he called:

A bloated, gluttonous strumpet. [1]

When it was proposed to erect a statue of Prince Albert, Reynolds denounced the measure as:

One of the most nauseating, degrading, and sickening specimens of grovelling self-abasement. [2]

The Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle was said to have:

A mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic. [3]

These attacks were not simply for sensationalism, however, for what Reynolds aimed to do was to present an alternative history of monarchy and aristocracy which in Reynolds’ view was too sycophantic and loyal. [4] When he published his history of England in Reynolds Newspaper, Henry VIII was:

The Royal Bluebeard. [5]

In his novel Canonbury House (1857-58), Queen Elizabeth I is described as being both a tyrant and ugly:

Despite the eulogies passed upon her by parasite poets and sycophantic scribes of her own time and subsequent periods. [6]

Charles II was:

One of the most licentious, dissipated, and unprincipled scoundrels that ever disgraced the earth. [7]

Moreover, in Victorian history writing, William of Orange was often viewed positively – as a Protestant King who freed the English from the tyranny of the Catholic Stuarts. But according to Reynolds William III was:

A sovereign to be execrated and loathed as one of the scourges of the human race. [8]

When the Duke of Cumberland died in 1851, many of the obituaries were overwhelmingly positive, but the obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper stated that the sum total of his character amounted to:

Perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder. [9]

Surprisingly, Reynolds did not adopt the legend of Robin Hood in any major way, in spite of the fact that radicals prior to him had done so, such as Joseph Ritson (1782-1803), Thomas Miller (1807-1874), and even his friend Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). On 10 January 1869, however, Reynolds’ Newspaper addressed the subject of ‘The Robbery of the Land by the Aristocracy’.

prologue
Title Page Illustration to Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.Victorianlondon.org]

In the article he discusses how the aristocracy came to hold their land, and argues that the people in the nineteenth century are essentially slaves to the nobility:

Albeit pretty certain that Britons never will be slaves to foreign masters, it is by no means equally sure that they are not even now bondsmen to native tyrants. [10]

The article then goes on to give a survey of the state of land ownership in nineteenth-century Britain: in pre-historical times, Reynolds argues, ‘providence intended that the produce of the earth should be enjoyed in common’. [11] However, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror rewarded those who joined him in battle with land stolen from the English. The result of this land grab by the Norman nobility resulted in the poverty that many people suffered during the Victorian era, according to Reynolds: ‘heavy rents hang round the necks […] like Millstones […] and thus it is that we find tens of thousands of our fellow men starving amid plenty’. [12]

But, Reynolds notes, throughout history there have been a few courageous men who have stood up to these tyrants, and they were mostly thieves:

Servile historians have depicted as robbers, rascals, and freebooters men who were in reality doing their utmost to save themselves and posterity from being plundered by the ancestors of those coroneted robbers who now hold possession of a large portion of English soil. [13]

Among these robbers and freebooters, Robin Hood is the most noteworthy. Although he was called a robber, Reynolds notes, he was gallant and brave, ever ready to help those who suffered under the oppression of Norman tyranny.

Perhaps as an indication of the continuing influence of Walter Scott’s Saxon vs. Norman idea, Reynolds argues that Robin Hood was most popular with the oppressed Saxons who looked upon Robin Hood ‘as their chieftain and defender’. [14]

Unfortunately, Robin was not to be successful in his endeavours:

The struggle, however, that endured for centuries between the people and the nobility – the former striving to retain possession of their land, the latter determined to dispossess them of it, has terminated in the complete triumph of the of the latter, and the result of this is despoilment is the terrible amount of pauperism, misery, destitution, and crime that overshadows the nation like a funeral pall. [15]

In many ways this is a topical post: the Duke of Westminster has recently passed away, and there have been ongoing debates in the press about whether the new Duke will pay inheritance tax upon the land and estates that now pass to him.Incidentally, the Duke of Westminster is descended from Gilbert le Grosveneur, who came over with William in the conquest annd was awarded land in and around London. It is impossible to know what Reynolds would have written about a situation like that, but he would have been questioning just by what right aristocrats continue to hold the land that they do.

References

[1] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press Eds. Anne Humpherys and Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), p.91.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’, p.92.
[5] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 26 October 1851, p.1.
[6] G. W. M. Reynolds, Canonbury House (London: J. Dicks, 1859), p.103.
[7] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 13 July 1851, p.1.
[8] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 5 September 1852, p.1.
[9] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 23 November 1851, p.12.
[10] G. W. M. Reynolds, Reynolds’ Newspaper 10 January 1869, p.5.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.

The Chartist Robin Hood: Thomas Miller’s “Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John” (1838)

The early nineteenth century witnessed two phenomenally successful Robin Hood novels: Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). After those two novels, authors took a break from casting Robin Hood in any of their historical romances. That was until the appearance of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (1838).

Thomas Miller (1807-1874) was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. His father died when he was very young as a result of having participated in the Burdett Riots in 1810, thus leaving Miller and his mother in desperate poverty. Despite the dire straits that the family were reduced to, however, Miller’s mother ensured that he received an education. From an early age he loved to read, and went on to become a poet and novelist. As far as his novels go, he appears to have been a ‘Jack of all trades’: capable of writing pastoral poetry, historical romance, and crime fiction. He even continued G. W. M. Reynolds’ penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (1844-45) after Reynolds fell out with the publisher.[1]

The Robin Hood who appears in Royston Gower can justifiably be called the Chartist Robin Hood. Chartism was a political reform movement composed of middle-class radicals and working-class men that really began to pick up momentum in 1838, the year that Miller was writing. Indeed one of Miller’s life-long friends was the Chartist activist Thomas Cooper (1805-1892). The Chartists had six demands:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot.
  3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament.
  4. Payment of Members, enabling ordinary people to serve a constituency when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections.

Although the movement ultimately failed, gradually the British Parliament have actually implemented all-but-one of the reforms – that of annual elections.

Medieval heroes were often appropriated by Chartist activists. For example, the Chartists had a ‘Wat Tyler Brigade’, named after the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. And figures such as Wat Tyler and Robin Hood have been easily appropriated by radicals of all shades during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, Robert Southey authored his dramatic poem Wat Tyler in 1794 which is highly supportive of the French Revolution. Thus although in its historicisation of Robin Hood Miller’s novel owes much to Walter Scott, and was meticulously researched from documents that Miller says he studied in the British Museum, in its political sentiments it is more alike to Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads (1795). Miller’s Robin Hood defiantly fights against the forces of King John, proudly declaring that ‘we own no tyrant’.[2] Miller presents Robin as a political reformer saying in his preface that his:

Earliest recollections of the brave freebooter are from “Robin Hood’s Garland,” which, embellished with rude woodcuts, represented this EARLY REFORMER as shooting deer, fighting rangers.[3]

In fact, advocating political reform is equated with patriotism in Miller’s novel, as he says that the outlaws in his novel are true patriots.[4] Miller’s novel was published in three volumes and retailed at a price of thirty-one shillings: the message for his affluent readers is that England’s great national hero Robin Hood would have been a Chartist/Reformer if he was alive in the nineteenth century, and readers should patriotically lend their support to the cause of political reform as well.

Significantly, while the growing trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Robin Hood literature had been to cast Robin as a nobleman, Miller gives him humbler social origins. In keeping with fifteenth-century Robin Hood poems, Robin is a yeoman. By the nineteenth century, the term ‘yeoman’ was understood to mean a small-scale land owner, as opposed to a person who was merely a tenant farmer. Thus Robin is definitely of the class that we might term the ‘labour aristocracy’. He is not a Lord standing up for the people, but is actually one of the people fighting for his rights and liberties.

Walter Scott’s idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans are opposed to each other is present in the novel, but in Miller’s novel the problem is not one of race but one of class. Miller highlights the fact that in the medieval period there were many good Normans living in poverty, and many good wealthy Normans.[5] What is needed in medieval England (and of course Victorian England), Miller argues, is complete reform of the political system. The problem back in the days of King John is a problem that would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers: Old Corruption.

Old Corruption was a term employed by middle-class radicals and the labour aristocracy in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century England to describe a political system in which the elites shored up their own interests at the expense of the people.[6] The callous and self-interested thirteenth-century elite are embodied in the character of the Norman nobleman De Marchmont, the principal villain of the tale, who Miller compares to nineteenth-century politicians:

The Baron gazed for a moment on the King, then cast his eyes towards the floor, as he feared his thoughts might be discovered; for he could not avoid comparing in his own mind the policy and hypocrisy of King John, with that which the monarch attributed to the Church of Rome. But De Marchmont was too much of a courtier to allow these thoughts to escape him, and too much of a tyrant himself, to murmur at the King’s conduct, and with a tact which politicians in our own day occasionally copy, he shaped his reply to suit his interests.[7]

Miller’s use of dating is also significant in this respect: by setting his novel after King Richard dies, and having Robin fight against King John, Robin is not required to side with a corrupt political establishment composed of Kings and noblemen, as he does in Ivanhoe.

Miller’s depiction of the outlaws’ society offers an alternative model for the creation of an egalitarian society. In Sherwood all men are equal: for instance, all of the outlaws including Robin Hood must undertake equal duties. This is so that there is no cause for murmuring or complaining from any of them, and to convey the message that all men are equal.[8]

While Miller sought to convey a political message to his readers, he also had to entertain them first and foremost. The Victorians loved violent entertainment. Millers novel is therefore filled with many violent scenes. Robin ‘dreams all night of cutting barons’ throats’.[9] When Robin kills a Norman soldier, we are told vividly how:

The blood gushed from his mouth.[10]

Thus Miller draws upon the early Victorians’ love for violent entertainment,[11] and presents us with a Robin Hood who is unafraid to resort to violence to achieve his political objectives.

In conclusion, what Miller’s Royston Gower shows us is that there was a resurgence of a radical image of Robin Hood in the late 1830s – a time of great political excitement due to the rise of Chartism, after having been made respectable in 1819 and 1822 by Scott and Peacock respectively. In the same year also, Pierce Egan the Younger would author the penny dreadful Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40) which similarly rails against Old Corruption and advocates for democratic reform. While Clare A. Simmons has argued that nineteenth-century medievalism became conservative and the preserve of the elites after c.1830, Miller’s novel, as well as Pierce Egan’s simultaneously published serial, means that we must rethink our understanding of Victorian medievalism as being conservative. A text which supports Chartism can hardly be considered ‘conservative’. At the very least, Miller’s novel deserves much greater attention from Chartist scholars than it has yet received.


References

[1] Louis James, ‘Miller, Thomas (1807–1874)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18738&gt; Accessed 4 Aug 2016]
[2] Thomas Miller, Royston Gower, or, The Days of King John (London: J. Nichols [n.d.]), p.171.
[3] Miller, Royston Gower, p.7.
[4] Miller, Royston Gower, p.333.
[5] Miller, Royston Gower, p.26.
[6] Philip Harling, ‘Rethinking “Old Corruption”’ Past and Present No. 147 (1995), pp.127-158.
[7] Miller, Royston Gower, p.107.
[8] Miller, Royston Gower, p.36.
[9] Miller, Royston Gower, p.309.
[10] Miller, Royston Gower, p.268.
[11] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).
[12] See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (New York: Palgrave, 2011), pp.191-194.

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons – Chartist Rally on Kennington Common.

William Windus’ “The Outlaw” (1861)

Robin Hood has always been popular, in that he has always been a people’s hero. But rarely does he make forays into ‘high’ culture. The expensive three volume novels which were aimed at the middle classes, such as Ivanhoe (1819), Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower (1838), and G. P. R. James’ Forest Days (1843) do not feature him in the title, although he is the hero of the narratives. Most likely this is a result of writers’ and publishers’ fears of casting an outlaw as the hero. In fact, Robin only got his first novel title when Pierce Egan the Younger, in a penny dreadful (incidentally aimed at the working classes) entitled Robin Hood and Little John (1838-40).

While Robin does feature prominently in literature (if not always in the titles of those works), one area he is, with one or two exceptions, altogether absent from is paintings. Daniel Maclise painted a scene from Ivanhoe in 1839, but images of Robin Hood have tended to be consigned to children’s book illustrations in the nineteenth century, or crude woodcuts on penny broadsides in the seventeenth and eigheenth centuries.

It is even more striking that Robin makes no appearance in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. From 1849 onwards the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led the way in Victorian medievalism. [2] The Pre-Raphaelites rejected classicist artistic conventions which, they thought, began with Raphael, and aimed to return art to what it was like before Raphael and Michelangelo; hence the ‘Pre’ in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’. For many of their paintings they took inspiration from (though not exclusively) medieval subjects; for example, William Holman Hunt painted The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro in 1848, which is based upon John Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes (1819).

180px-William_Lindsay_Windus-Self-portraitWilliam Windus – Self Portrait (Source: Wikipedia)

The founding members of the PRB were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). They were later joined in their endeavours by William Michael Rossetti (1819-1919), James Collinson (1825-1881), Frederic George Stephens (1827-1907) and Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), while their principles were shared by others such as Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893).

Another group which were influenced by the principles of Pre-Raphaelites was the Liverpool School of Painters. And from this school was William Windus (1822-1907) who painted The Outlaw in 1861 (see header image). The scene is a medieval greenwood, and the figure of a woman cradles the head of an injured man. The woman turns her head slightly to the side, and appears to look apprehensive. The outlaw and his woman are probably being chased by the authorities, signified by the fact that a bloodhound is running down the hill after them.

The main feature of the painting is the landscape, and the two human figures are almost slipping out of the picture. In the Robin Hood tradition, outlaws are always associated with the natural world. The natural world represents freedom from the laws of men and freedom from mainstream society. [3] Although evidently in this scene, the unjust world of men has begun to encroach upon the outlaw world.

To me, and readers here may disagree, while the title of the painting does not blatantly say that the two figures are supposed to be Robin Hood and Maid Marian, I think they are. Which other outlaw in popular imagination would have had a woman caring him for him the way that the woman in the picture is caring for the outlaw? The one thing which complicates this reasoning, however, is the fact that there is no comparable scene in the Robin Hood tradition.

There is nothing in Windus’ life to suggest that he was a fan of the Robin Hood tradition, and his life appears to have been the model of Victorian respectability. His wife died the year after the painting was completed, leaving Windus a single father. A brief biography [4] of him states that after the death of his wife, and being of some independent means, he wholly abandoned painting. He died in 1907 and The Outlaw can now be seen in Manchester Art Gallery. The Pre-Raphaelites never touched Robin Hood, but if Windus’ painting was intended to refer to Robin Hood, this is the only example of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism that does


References

[1] William Windus The Outlaw (1861) Manchester Art Gallery Oil on Canvas Accession No. 1937.28 [Internet <<http://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-outlaw-206425>&gt; Accessed 20 March 2016].
[2] Chris Brooks, The Gothic Revival (Phaidon, 1999), 283.
[3] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 13.
[4] Bob Speel, ‘William Windus’ [Internet <http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/speel/paint/windus.htm&gt; Accessed 20 March 2016].

Robin Hood’s Grave

Anon. 'Robin Hood's Death and Burial' ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)
Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)

Last Thursday (2nd July 2015), I and the other delegates to the International Association for Robin Hood Studies got the chance to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.

According to the legend, in old age Robin Hood fell ill and went to visit his cousin, who was the Prioress of Kirklees, so that he could be bled. However, his cousin conspired with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. So she opened a vein, locked Robin in the upper room of the gatehouse, and let him bleed to death. This is how the story is recounted in one of the earliest Robin Hood texts, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450):

Yet he was begyled, I wys, through a wycked woman, the pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of kynne.

For the love of a knyght, Syr Roger of Donkester, that was her owne speciall, full evyll mote they fare.

They toke togyder theyr counsell, Robyn Hode for to sle, and how they myght best do that dede, his banis for to be.

Than bespake good Robyn, in place where as he stode, to morrow I muste to Kyrkesley, craftely to be leten blode.

Syr Roger of Donkestere, by the pryoresse he lay, and there they betrayed good Robyn Hode, through theyr false playe.

Cryst have mercy on his soule, that dyde on the rode, for he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.

The Gatehouse - the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.
The Gatehouse – the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.

Later Robin Hood texts would expand upon the story of the death even further. The ballad Robin Hood’s Death and Burial says that in his dying moments, Robin sounded his bugle horn and Little John came running. John wanted to burn down the priory in revenge for Robin’s death, but, noble to the end, Robin commands him not to, for:

I never hurt woman in all my life, nor man in woman’s company.

Instead, Robin wishes John to help him fire one last arrow, and where the arrow falls, says Robin, is the spot that should mark his grave:

Lay me a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, and lay my bent bow by my side, which was my music sweet, and make my grave of gravel and green, which is most right and meet.

The arrow falls over a mile away from the priory, and the spot, legend has it, is now marked by the grave that now stands to this day.

(c) Stephen Basdeo
(c) Stephen Basdeo

On the grave itself there is an epitaph which reads (in a text which is supposed to resemble Middle English):

Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.

You may be able to see this epitaph on the accompanying picture, though you may have to enlarge it.

Now, there have been doubts about this grave for a great number of years. The earliest reference to the existence of this grave is in the year 1610 – quite a few years after Robin Hood, if he ever existed, actually lived!

Thomas Percy, the editor of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), admitted that the grave and the epitaph was suspicious.

Joseph Ritson, on the other hand, in his Robin Hood (1795), seemed to think that it was genuine enough.

The current structure around the grave actually dates from the 1850s, so what you’re seeing in the picture is not a medieval structure.

Whether there is a Robin Hood buried under there cannot be said. It’s around the right location for a grave of the famous outlaw (if he existed), and no one has ever disturbed the soil to see if anyone is buried under there.

Most modern researchers tend to take the grave with a pinch of salt, unless they’re a big part of the ‘real Robin Hood’ industry (a bit like the Jack the Ripper industry).

All doubts aside, it was an enjoyable visit, and it’s nice to see where Robin might have died, had he existed.

‘The Outlaws’ Code’. Robin Hood: Research Update, Number 7, December 24th, 2014

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

All organised crime gangs have certain codes of conduct which, to be counted as part of their respective gangs, they must adhere to. For the Italian Mafia there is Omerta, a code of silence which forbids them to talk about the gang to non-members. Members of the mafia are also forbidden from committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, theft (burglary, mugging, etc.), and in the past even to stay away from drug and human trafficking. The Italian Mafia was supposedly above these types of crimes, and forbade their respective members from carrying them out.

In the one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), Robin Hood similarly laid down a code of conduct for his men to follow. Little John asks Robin how they should conduct themselves:

Mayster, than sayd Lytell Johan / And we our borde shall sprede / Tell us whether we shall gone / And what lyfe we shall lede.

Where we shall take, where we shall leve /  Where we shall abide behynde / Where we shall robbe, where we shall reve / Where we shall bete and bynde.

To which Robin Hood replies, firstly, that the outlaws should never harm any company where there were women present and also:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn / We shall do well ynough / But loke ye do no housbonde harm / That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman / That walketh by grene wode shawe / Ne no knyght ne no squyer / That wolde be a good felawe.

The outlaws, therefore, are to protect women, husbandmen, and those that work the land, as well as yeoman, knights, and squires. But as for members of the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin is less kind:

These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes / Ye shall them bete and bynde / The hye sheryfe of Notynghame / Hym holde in your mynde.

Robin Hood had two main enemies: the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and gave his outlaws free rein to beat and bind them.

Organised crime historically emerges and flourishes in times where the state and its ability to enforce the law is weak (as the English State was in the late medieval period) and the local populace at the mercy of tyrant landlords. In these situations, groups that would normally be classed as criminal emerge as friends of the poor, they become, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm named Robin Hood ‘the international paradigm of social banditry’. Social Bandits, according to Hobsbawm:

Are peasant outlaws whom the Lord and State regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…men to be admired, helped, and supported.

The ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ makes no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, it merely says at the end that he ‘did pore men moch god’. This detail was added to the legend between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time that Joseph Ritson produced his pioneering work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood had become the ultimate social bandit:

That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denied…[But] in these exertions of power, he took away the goods of rich men only, never killing any person, unless  he was attacked or resisted; that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots…he was the most humane, and the prince of all robbers.

Perhaps these medieval ballads of Robin Hood and his men are recounting and glorifying the actions of medieval mobsters in the same way that movies like Goodfellas today do for us? Outlaw gangs were loosely organised, had customs, and codes of conduct, and were social bandits in the sense that they were supported by local people. Dr. Kelly Hignett of Leeds Beckett University has written a study of what is a comparable case of late-medieval organised crime gangs in Southern Russia, Dalmatia, and Bohemia, and the role which they assumed in the absence of effective state law enforcement. It was these outlaws’ codes of conduct, in which they did not (supposedly) hurt poor people, which earned them the support of local communities.


Further Reading:

Hignett, K. ‘Co-Option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’. In Galeotti, M. ed. Organised Crime in History (London: Routledge, 2008).

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).