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

By Stephen Basdeo

This post originally appeared on the IARHS website

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

Addison and Steele’s periodicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marble bust of Alexander the Great

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

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

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

Augustus of Prima Porta

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

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

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


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

Temple of British Worthies at Stow Gardens

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors. Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880), 19.

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

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

[13] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[21] Ibid., 134.

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

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


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’.

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.


[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.

“Ballad of Robin Hood” (1846)

Research into the Robin Hood tradition has hitherto tended to focus upon canonical texts and poems, especially those from the fifteenth century. Obviously the Robin Hood tradition did not stop there but evolved over the centuries. In the seventeenth century he became Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Anthony Munday’s plays. In the eighteenth century he was a wicked criminal. It is only really during the nineteenth century that Robin is firmly established within the bounds of respectability. This occurred largely as a result of three texts: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822).

It is Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003) who made the later tradition a valid area of scholarly enquiry. His wide-ranging survey of the legend covered various incarnations of Robin Hood from his medieval incarnations to the twentieth century.

But the way scholars do research has changed since Knight wrote his study. The digitisation of many primary sources, and in particular Victorian periodicals, has meant that scholars can now uncover many more previously unknown literary works. Robin Hood was featured in a number of minor poems during the nineteenth century. Some were good, and indeed some were bad. The piece I have transcribed below is taken from Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. The periodical was started by Richard Bentley in 1836, who invited Charles Dickens to be its editor. Some very famous novels were first serialised in the magazine: Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839) made their debuts here.

As people are unlikely to have read this particular poem before, I therefore leave it for readers without providing any commentary or argument upon it – though any thoughts people have are welcome in the comments.

I have found quite a few of these minor poems, and in the coming weeks will be uploading more of them.

W. H. C. W. ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’

Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1846, p.246

Under the merry greenwood tree
With me who likes may roam;
And there, although we shall be out,
We’ll make ourselves “at home;”
And, by your leave, beneath its leaves
Will we conn o’er again
The quips and cranks, and merry pranks,
Of Robin Hood and merry men.

To Sherwood Forest Robin Hood,
Real Earl of Huntingdon,
An outlaw fled, and there, ‘tis said,
Was join’d by Little John,
Who was a great man, as they say,
At drawing well the strong bow;
And as his shaft went a long way,
No doubt he drew the “long bow!”

Bold Robin Hood was so beloved,
His band increased in haste,
As also Friar Tuck’s, the fat,
Who never would see waste
In any thing that he conceived
The inner man might succour:
He bib’d the wine, and if ‘twas wrong,
Twas but a bib and Tuck-er(r).

A useful member to the band
Was Tuck at Feast or fire;
The deer they took ‘twas wrong to cook,
So in conscience kept a friar.
Though ven’son then, as now, was dear,
This vantage they could reap –
Just like their means the game was near,
And so they got it cheap.

The chieftain as the chief of darts
Contentedly down sat him;
But couldn’t ‘scape sly Cupid’s arts,
Or shafts he levell’d at him.
Maid Marian was made Robin’s queen,
Queen of the greenwood shade,
Annd kindly kept his cave well swept,
Because he’d no house made.


That Robin was a robber bold
May well be understood;
In every joke you saw he told
That he was Rob(b)in(g) Hood.
We’re told Tell was a telling shot,
(Nice even to a hair,)
And because he shot the apple,
Tell and Hood are deem’d a pair.


Let this opinion current go,
From monarch to the pedlar;
Who’d spoil them of their sweet deserts,
A most obnoxious meddler!
Long may the fame of Robin Hood,
And all his merry men,
As merry make all merry hearts,
Who’d merry make again!

“The Railway Robin Hood” (1868)

"The Railway Robin Hood and Little John" Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.
“The Railway Robin Hood and Little John” Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.

‘Rail fares a rip-off,’ thundered the Daily Mail in an article of December last year. [1] Indeed, there seems to be a constant debate in the United Kingdom these days about what exactly the cost of rail travel should be, and whether it should be run for profit or as a public service. Yet as Chris Bowlby has recently pointed out in an article for History Today, the Victorians had the same concerns. Until the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 Victorian extra-parliamentary pressure groups and the rail companies seem to have perpetually been at loggerheads over the issue of rail prices. [2] Rail travel could be quite expensive for some commuters, and even the penny-per-mile cost of rail travel which the (supposedly laissez-faire) government demanded of rail companies on certain routes still meant that travel over long distances could be quite expensive. [3]

It is with this historic (and seemingly perpetual) debate over the price of rail travel in mind that I would like to direct your attention a humorous ballad entitled ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ which appeared in 26 September 1868 edition of Punch. The magazine was launched in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells and was originally a radical, reformist publication, drawing attention to social ills through satire. [4] Most of the satirical pieces in the magazine were what we would consider ‘Horatian’ satire; clever, gentle, and light-hearted humour designed to poke fun at social and societal follies. The ballad itself is written anonymously, which was standard practice for many of the articles in Punch. We are not in the medieval period in ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John,’ however, for the second verse sets the premise of the ballad. It is a time when:

The Railways did their fares increase
Upon a certain daye;
Itt was a fytte of Robin Hood
To make the public pay. [5]

It goes without saying that the author is not too concerned with historical ‘authenticity’ here, as railways obviously did not exist in the medieval period, although it does seem that he wants to give and air of historicity, given that he uses some archaic spellings such as ‘itt’ and ‘fytte’.

The advent of the railway construction has, it seems, harmed Robin Hood’s and Little John’s revenue, and the two men discuss how to get more booty out of travellers now that the vast majority of people have taken to commuting by rail instead of road travel. They conclude that it is best to raise the price of rail travel:

As rogues for true men breeden bale,
Soe counsel Robin and John
Did take how folk, that go by rail,
They best mote put upon.
And soe on all that went by rail,
Whereon a holde they had,
The fares were raised by those two fellows:
Men swore it was too bad. [6]

It is not clear how Robin and John, as outlaws, manage to place themselves in such a position of authority whereby they might raise rail prices, but they do. Besides, I suspect the author of this ballad is not too concerned with explaining it, and the results of Robin’s policy of price hikes are:

And many took to going-a-foote,
Far over stock and stone,
They had liefer that than that Railwaymen,
Soe moche sholde stick it on.
But Robin’s and Little John’s plan to fleece poor commuters backfires on them:
A bad shoote Robin shote, and John,
With waste of might and mayne:
Men first-class carriages gave up fast,
And third to take were fayne.
These shooters with their long bend-bowe,
Their marke did overshoote:
Their gains do so fall off that now
They find they have missed their loote. [7]

And to close the ballad the author gives a warning to those railway bosses who would try and rob commuters with excessive fares:

Woe worth, woe worth, the knaves who would,
Fleece true men in such a degree,
And may they ever find all bale,
That boote they hoped wold bee. [8]

The ballad is significant because it is illustrative of the ways in which the earliest Robin Hood texts were familiar to people in the nineteenth century. ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ opens in the following manner:

When clouds be white and skies be blue,
And fields both dry and browne
It’s merry riding in the railway train
Going South out of Towne. [9]

There is similarity here with the opening to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (c.1450):

Whan shaws beene sheene and shraddes full fayre,
And leaves both large and longe,
Itt’s merrye walkyng in the fayre forrest
To heare the small birdes songe. [10]

The author had to be reasonably confident that his readers would recognise the ballad that he was adapting to the circumstances of the present day, which ties in with the fact that a work such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) was republished several times throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, the ballad holds significance for students of medievalism. It belongs in the same category of medievalism as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Ivanhoe (1819) sequel entitled Rebecca and Rowena (1850). Whilst Walter Scott in Ivanhoe at least makes an attempt to recreate the medieval world of ‘merrie England,’ Thackeray is content for his medieval world to be full of glaring anachronisms. When Thackeray brings Robin Hood into his narrative, for instance, he says that Robin, after the events of Ivanhoe, has become a mean and hard-hearted magistrate. In his role as magistrate, Robin ‘sent scores of poachers to Botany Bay.’ [11] Transportation of offenders from Britain did not come about until the Transportation Act of 1718, allowing those guilty of capital offences an alternative to hanging. [12] Botany Bay, moreover, was not “discovered” until 1770 by Captain Cook, and it was in 1788 that Arthur Phillip established a penal colony there. It seems that in the nineteenth century there were two types of representations of the medieval period: the ‘authentic’ recreation of it as witnessed in works such as Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the heavily anachronistic type of representation such as ‘The Railway Robin Hood.’

In conclusion, ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ is a light-hearted mockery of what to the Victorians was the ever-increasing price of rail travel, a debate which is still ongoing in Britain today. The famous outlaws Robin Hood and Little John are equated with what was perceived to be the robbing rail barons of Victorian England. They ‘fleece’ their commuters. The ballad is an example of the ‘fun’ and less serious medievalism of the nineteenth century that was prevalent in the works of Thackeray and others, in contrast to the work of Sir Walter Scott.


[1] Martin Robinson, ‘Here comes the £5,000 for annual season ticket: Rail fares blasted a ‘rip off’ after latest 2.5% price hike’ Daily Mail 5 December 2014 [Internet <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2861854/Rail-fares-raised-2-5-January-record-numbers-pay-5-000-year-season-ticket.html&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[2] Chris Bowlby, ‘Worried about the price of train travel? So were the Victorians: Chris Bowlby looks at the history behind rising rail fares’ History Today 27 December 2012 [Internet <http://www.historyextra.com/feature/worried-about-price-train-travel-so-were-victorians&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[3] Ibid.
[4] A. J. Doran More Pick of Punch (London: The Folio Society, 2001), p.17.
[5] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ Punch, or the London Charivari 26 September 1868, p.129.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ p.129.
[10] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.115.
[11] William Makepeace Thackeray Rebecca and Rowena (1850, London: Hesperus, 2002), p.13.
[12] Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker ‘Crime and Justice – Punishments at the Old Bailey’ Old Bailey Proceedings Online [Internet <https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].