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

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

RH and Woman
Robin Hood talking to the ‘silly’ old woman

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

What news? What news? Thou silly old woman?

What news hast thou for me?

Said she, There’s three squires in Nottingham town

Today is condemned to die.[i]

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

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

O have they parishes burnt? He said,

Or have they ministers slain?

Or have they robbed any virgin.

Or with any man’s wives lain?

They have no parishes burnt, good sir,

Nor yet have ministers slain,

Nor have they robbed any virgin

Nor with other men’s wives lain.

O what have they done? said bold Robin Hood,

I pray thee tell to me.

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

Bearing their long bows with thee.[ii]

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

RH and Gallows
Robin Hood rescuing three men from the gallows

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

The first loud blast that he did blow,

He blew both loud and amain,

And quickly sixty of Robin Hood’s men,

Came shining over the plaini.

O who are you the sheriff he said,

Come tripping over the lee?

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

They’ll pay a visit to thee.[iv]

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

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


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

[ii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

‘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).

220px-william_morris_age_53
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.

The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or the Castle of Morford” (1791)

The first Robin Hood novel to be published was the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). A few months after this Walter Scott published his enormously influential Ivanhoe (1819). Yet these were not the first Robin Hood stories written: in the vaults of the Bodleian Library, Oxford there exists in manuscript form the first Robin Hood novel: Robert Southey’s Harold, or, the Castle of Morford (1791).[1]

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. When the French Revolution broke out, Southey, like many contemporary Romantic-era poets, found himself in agreement with the principles of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).[2] Unfortunately, Southey abandoned his revolutionary principles in later life, and then became an ardent opponent of parliamentary reform in the early nineteenth century when he was appointed as Poet Laureate to George IV.

Southey wrote the novel in three weeks, from 13 July to 6 August 1791.[3] The young Robert Southey was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. And the novel, like his other work, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794), displays all of the young Southey’s revolutionary fervour. The two main protagonists of the novel are Robin Hood and King Richard II.

In the novel Richard is a reforming King committed to cleaning up Britain’s corrupt political establishment. Richard is also an atheist, evident when he exclaims:

I wish that Villain Constantine was now living. I would proclaim a Crusade against him!’[4]

It is doubtful that Richard I would ever have uttered such sentiments. But the young Southey, as Raimond highlights, never cared a fig for historical authenticity.[5]

There are clearly Gothic influences at play in the novel. Southey admitted that he was inspired to write it after having read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).[6] Spenser’s influence can be seen in one of the songs that Robin sings in the novel:

A lovely damsel wanton played

Within the crystal tide

And oft beneath the glassy wave

Her dainty limbs would hide.

And oft above the waves appear’d

Her gently heaving breast.

That charm alone exposed to view

For waves obscured the rest.

‘Come Lancelot’ the nymph exclaim’d

‘Tis now the time for love

For silent is the midnight hour

And pleasant is the grove.’

With that she leapt from out the waves

Exposing all her charms

‘Come Lancelot’ again she cried

‘Come riot in my arms’.[7]

Oddly, while the manuscript has been known to Robert Southey scholars almost since time immemorial, it is not referenced in any Robin Hood scholars’ works (and believe me, I have combed through their indexes and bibliographies). Even Stephen Knight, whose work upon the later Robin Hood tradition is thorough, does not seem to have been aware of the novel, although he Knight is aware of Southey’s Robin Hood poem, Robin Hood: A Fragment (1847).

Yet the novel is significant for two reasons: first, and most obviously, it constitutes the first Robin Hood novel. Moreover, it is the first radical appropriation of Robin Hood, pre-dating Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795).

The bad news at the moment is that the MS. is locked away in the Bodleian. The good news is that I have been in touch with the Director of Research at my university, Dr. Graham Roberts, and he is keen to allocate me funding in order to go and transcribe the novel and have it published.

Further updates will follow.


References

[1] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114

[2] Geoffrey Carnall, ‘Southey, Robert (1774–1843)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26056> Accessed 18 Nov 2016]

[3] Jean Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’ The Yearbook of English Studies Vol. 19 (1989), pp.181-96 (p.183).

[4] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114, f. 180 cited in Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[5] Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[6] W. A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.183.

[7] Speck, Robert Southey, p.184.

The Peterloo Massacre & Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)

I have written many times about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) on this website. It is perhaps the greatest of all Robin Hood novels. Scholars have often been puzzled, however, as to why Scott, a Tory politician, chose to give Robin the relatively humble social position of a yeomen, and effectively linked him with the local body of militia that existed in most towns. Furthermore, this went against the grain of many preceding interpretations of the Robin Hood legend which depicted the outlaw as a member of the aristocracy. One likely answer to this is the fact that Scott, an historian, was simply being faithful to medieval texts such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) in which Robin is also named as a yeoman.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

But perhaps there is another reason for this depiction of Robin Hood as a commoner hero that was connected to an event in Manchester in the same year that the novel was published.

On 16 August 1819 a great crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt speak upon the subject of political reform. This was a time when neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote. These people had other grievances such as the Corn Laws: protectionist tariffs upon imported grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The gathering itself was peaceful. But the magistrates of the town of Manchester, fearing a riot, ordered them to disperse by having the Riot Act read out loud. In a crowd of what was between sixty and eighty thousand people, it is unsurprising that the majority of people in attendance did not hear it being read. The magistrates then ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to disperse the crowd. The soldiers charged at the protestors and in the process killed fifteen people and wounding up to seven hundred more (although historians have debated the actual numbers). This is the description of one of the eye witnesses:

On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain.[1]

Among the numbers of the killed and wounded were several veterans of Waterloo – men who had fought and defended their country in that famous battle just four years previously. Thus the event became christened as ‘Peterloo’.

peterlooimage2
Red Plaque Commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester City Centre

The event horrified Scott. [2] There was outrage against the authorities in many sections of both the provincial and national press. And the yeomanry came in for harsh criticism. This is one poem that appeared the magazine The Free-Thinking Englishman:

He [The Magistrate] took the advice, and, to make all things sure,
Read the riot act o’er, on the step of his door;
When the Yeomanry Butchers all gallop’d away,
To do some great exploit on Saint Ethelstone’s Day.
They hack’d off the breasts of the women, and then,
They cut off the ears and the noses of men;
In every direction they slaughtered away,
‘Till drunken with blood on Saint Ethelstone’s Day. [3]

The Yeomanry receive a similarly bad press in another political satire entitled The Bloody Field of Peterloo:

Methinks I see the crimson flood,
And mark well the aim’d fatal blow,
The yeoman’s sabre dy’d in blood,
Reeking on far fam’d Peterloo!
Wives, mothers, children on the plain,
In one promiscuous heap, I view;
The husband, son, and father slain,
Stretch’d on the field of Peterloo!
But Yeomen’s hearts are form’d of steel,
Ardent to fields of blood they go;
Their gallant souls disdain to feel,
Whilst dealing death at Peterloo! [4]

Other satires such as William Hone’s important and influential The Political House that Jack Built (1819) depicted the soldiery of England as the tools of the elites’ oppression of the working man:

political-house-image
William Hone,  The Political House that Jack Built (London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819) (c) NCCO.

England was a divided society when Scott was writing in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has brought economic depression, unemployment, and clamours for political reform.

Why, then, did Scott choose to depict Robin Hood, a people’s hero, as a yeoman at a time when the yeomanry of England were being almost universally excoriated?

Scott’s novel was a plea for national unity: he turned to the medieval period in order to find a harmonious ordering of society. In Scott’s vision of society, the feudal ordering of society in the Middle Ages was a model that could be adapted to solve social and political divisions in nineteenth-century Britain. In the words of Alice Chandler, Scott’s vision of a feudal ordering of society ran thus:

The serf should be willing to die for his master, and the master willing to die for the man he considers his sovereign.[5]

So why do I argue that Scott specifically wants the band of outlaws in Ivanhoe to be associated with the military? (They are rarely called outlaws in the text). There is a definite hierarchical structure to their set up: Locksley is called the ‘Captain’ of the yeoman on several occasions (and rarely is Robin himself referred to as an outlaw twice in the whole novel). This Captain Locksley has underneath him several ‘Lieutenants’. They are not a motley crew of undisciplined brutes but a well-ordered militia. Furthermore, Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, or Locksley as he is called, is a man who is unwaveringly loyal to the King. He works with Richard the Lionheart to help him regain his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and the Norman Templars. Robin the yeoman worse for the nation and for the King. He bridges social divides and effectively restores trust in a much-maligned body of soldiers.

Thus the above may be one reason why Scott chose to cast Robin as a yeoman, in defiance of what had become a convention in writing about Robin Hood where the outlaw, as we have seen, was usually being cast as an Earl at this point. He wants to reclaim the yeomen of England as servants of both the nation and the King. The important thing is that all classes and members of society must work together.


[1] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (London: T. Unwin, 1893), p.152.
[2] Simon J. White, ‘Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Pentridge Rising’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts 31: 3 (2009), 209-224 (p.212).
[3] Anon. ‘To the Editor of the Theological and Political Comet’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 16 (1819), p.125.
[4] Anon. ‘The Bloody Field of Peterloo’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 11 (1819), 85-86 (p.86).
[5] Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 314-332 (p.324).
[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1819; repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1875), pp.125-126