Robin Hood, a Foundling

By Stephen Basdeo

As one of England’s most famous historical figures, the name of Robin Hood appears in countless records. The first record we have of a man named Robin Hood is in the York Assize Records for the years 1225–26. This man is listed as a ‘fugitive’ and it is him whom scholars such as J. C. Holt argue was the ‘real’ Robin Hood. The fictional outlaw who appeared in countless poems, songs, ballads, and novels also inspired other people to take his name. Thus we have Robin Hoods who appear in medieval court records during the 1300s and the 1400s.

On a recent work-related trip to London, I got chance to pop into the Foundling Hospital where, to my surprise, I found another person—a young boy—also named Robin Hood, although he did not live in the medieval period but actually lived in the Georgian era.

How on earth did a lad called Robin Hood appear in the records of an eighteenth-century institution?

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To begin with, let us briefly consider the context:

A ‘foundling’ is an archaic term for our modern word ‘orphan’, although a foundling usually would have had no knowledge of whom his parents were, whereas orphans might well do, and foundlings were usually from poorer families.

Foundling (noun): an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.

If you were poor in eighteenth-century London—if you had found yourself out of work, or if you were a woman and your husband had died leaving you penniless—you weren’t totally friendless. Since the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the government deemed that parishes should assist those who had fallen on hard times by giving them ‘outdoor relief’. Paupers could apply to the local parish and they would be assisted with money, food, clothing, or goods to get by until their situations improved. This was often much preferable to having them enter one of the parish almshouses or workhouses.

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A 19th-century painting entitled The Pinch of Poverty, highlighting the hardships which many women faced if they had been abandoned by or lost their partners.

If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time.

At other times, condemned criminals might, in their last hours, implore the governors of the hospital to take care of their children after death. Giuseppe Ricciardelli, an Italian immigrant sentenced to death in 1752, wrote to a friend and asked him whether he might do him one last favour after he had gone:

…and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling Hospital and educated in the Protestant Religion.[i]

The Foundling Hospital was set up in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram in 1739; the first children admitted were sent to live with nurses before a purpose-built facility was opened in 1745, the remains of which can be visited today at Coram’s Fields, London.

Coram was a naval captain but on his retirement, but the reason why he set up the hospital was because, having returned to London, he was dismayed at what he saw: orphans living on the street left to fend for themselves. While he and his wife did not have children of their own, they resolved set themselves a mission to save the children.

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Henry Nelson O’Neil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital, 1855 © The Foundling Museum, London

To raise money, the Corams enlisted the help of the great and the good and got them to donate money. Georg Handel lent his assistance and even conducted a special performance of his celebrated oratorio Messiah for a charity concert—the concert was fully booked and tickets for the event ask ladies not to wear their hoops and gentleman to attend without their swords. The Corams made the plight of pauper children fashionable.

So how did a child end up in the Foundling Hospital?

A mother would deposit her child with the receiving officer. The mothers would leave some kind of token with the hospital so that they would know their child if they returned to collect them at any point. These tokens could be all sorts of items: the exhibits in the Foundling Hospital show that mothers left rings, coins, buttons, badges, pieces of string and even nuts. The fact the hospital still has many of these tokens is a sad testament to the fact that many mothers and their children were never reunited.

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Tokens of unclaimed children (c) Foundling Hospital, London

Once the child had been admitted, they were given a new name which was entered in the register. There is a wonderful assortment of names to be found in the records of the Foundling Hospital, which were often taken from famous historical figures. It was hoped that a new name might enable the child to have a completely new start and that their lives might be free from prejudice, particularly necessary if their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman.

As one might expect, quite a few were named after their ‘adopted’ father, Thomas Coram; there are a few Walter Raleighs and Francis Drakes, named after the illustrious Elizabethan seafarers; and it is in these records that we find our little Robin Hood, a name given him by a Mr Edwards who worked at the Foundling Hospital.[ii]

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Robin Hood’s name can be seen on the right-hand side, second entry down.

Robin’s parents’ names are not recorded, and we do not know his date of birth, but we know that he was baptised on 25 May 1746. He would have been less than a year old when admitted and, just like the children admitted to the hospital in the earliest days, would have been sent to live in a foster home until the age of 5. He would then have been readmitted to the hospital to receive a rudimentary education, until having been apprenticed to a trade or forced to enlist in the military at age 15.

Further archival work will be required to ascertain what happened next to our eighteenth-century Robin Hood. Luckily, there are no records of anyone bearing his name hanged in the Old Bailey Record (which are all now online, free to search and view) — maybe he went on to prosper in a trade? Maybe, and hopefully, he may finally have been reunited with his mother who left him at the hospital in the hope of a better life?

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The Foundling Restored to its Mother (c) The Foundling Hospital, London

References

[i] The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, 23 March 1752, cited in Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 259.

[ii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4396

Further Reading

Berry, Helen, Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Holt, J. C., Robin Hood, 2nd Edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)

 

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Robin Hood of the Anti-Corn Law League

By Stephen Basdeo

While physical archival research remains the “bread and butter” of the work of any historian, the rise of online repositories of primary sources have proved to be of invaluable use to many a historian over the years. This is particularly the case when you want to investigate what, say, the Victorians thought about a person like Robin Hood. A simple key word search will bring up a number of results from often quite obscure places. And I came across a rather interesting commentary on a Robin Hood ballad, titled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, which was reprinted in Toby Veck’s Facts and Figures: Ten Tables Telling Tales of My Landlord and the Church (1846).

Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford is one of the more humorous songs of Robin Hood that was first printed in the seventeenth century. Robin and John meet with the bishop (The earliest surviving text is in the so-called Forresters manuscript (British Library Additional MS 71158), which dates to the 1670s). The song sees Robin and Little John, disguised as shepherds, poaching in an area of the forest which they know the bishop will pass through. The Bishop does indeed see them and demands that they come with him to face the king’s justice. The outlaws scoff and Robin, blowing his horn, summons his soldiers who surround the bishop and his men. The outlaws tie the bishop to a tree and force him to sing Mass for them; they then hold a feast for which, harking back to earlier Robin Hood tales such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the bishop is compelled to pay.

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Anti-Corn Law League Membership Card. Note how membership comprised the middle and working classes.

The Bishop of Hereford soon became an integral character in the Robin Hood legend. His encounter with the outlaws was featured in Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1719) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734). He is also an integral character in Robert Southey’s unpublished Robin Hood novel Harold; or The Castle of Morford (1791), while variants of the ballad were given in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). In the Victorian era, the Bishop of Hereford was also a rather comic villain in Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1838–40).

When Egan was writing, the price of bread was kept artificially high because of the Corn Laws. After the Napoleonic Wars, or the “first” World War, the British industrial and agricultural sectors were on their knees. When the war ended in 1815, British landowning elites, who had done very well out of the war, feared that, with the opening of the continent to British trading again (it had of course been cut off under Napoleon’s Continental System), the price of grain, and their incomes, would be slashed. As the government of the day was dominated by an aristocratic oligarchy for whom few could vote, the ruling class naturally legislated for something that in their narrow party interests against the benefit of the British people-at-large. So tariffs were placed upon imports of grain. The ruling class was happy.

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A meeting of the “Leaguers” in the 1840s

This policy hurt both the middle-class tradesman and the poorer labourer. Everyone had to eat, and everyone had to pay the same high price for bread.

Much opposition to the tariffs, or the “Corn Laws” as they became known, was voiced by radicals and reformers in the press, and the policy even had a few enemies among MPs. Yet it took a while for opposition to the laws to coalesce into a firm, united front. While the tariffs had been legislated for in 1815, it was not until 1836—almost in tandem with the emergence of the Chartist movement—that one of Britain’s most successful pressure groups was formed: The Anti-Corn Law League.

The Anti-Corn Law League certainly alarmed the Tories, whose policy it was. By 1836, the middle classes could now vote and even stand for parliament providing they owned or leased land or property worth over 40 shillings. One response by the league, which was backed by some big names of the day such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, was to donate a 40 shilling freehold to friendly would-be MPs and field them as candidates for parliament in by-elections where “protectionists” stood.

And they wrote, and they printed, and they mobilised mass support among the working classes through large rallies. Much of the opposition came from the industrial towns while support for the laws came from Tory and Whig landowners. But so successful was the Anti-Corn Law League that they even managed to convince the Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, of the necessity for ending the Corn Laws and, by all accounts, even secured the backing of Queen Victoria herself!

It is in one such Anti-Corn Law League pamphlet where we find our “free trade” Robin Hood: the aforementioned work Ten Tables by Toby Veck. The name was a pseudonym, for Toby Veck is a character who appears in Charles Dickens’s The Chimes (1844). When reading Veck’s work, we find him making numerous appeals to an idealised Anglo-Saxon past in which, so he believed, Englishmen enjoyed political liberty and did not starve under the benevolent rule of the various Anglo-Saxon kings.

At the end of his work, he decided to share a little anecdote.

He told readers that when he was a boy, he knew “a fine old English gentleman”—a farmer—who could sing from Robin Hood’s Garland for six hours straight! (Slight exaggeration here, most likely—that’s a tall order for any singer, then or now). Of all the ballads this farmer sung to him, he recalled Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford.

He reprinted the ballad in full and then commenced upon a short explanation.

The Bishop in the ballad was definitely a Tory, so Veck reasoned: he was against the “free trade” in venison, which Veck assures us was a catch-all term which included not only meat but also bread (a reach, certainly, but definitely not the wildest appropriation of a Robin Hood character I’ve seen).

Robin Hood, on the other hand, was a medieval Anti-Corn Law Leaguer: his attempt to go a poaching on the Bishop’s land represented the good Saxon Englishman’s yearning for free trade. Veck even gave his readers a useful key to the antiquated terminology used in the ballad:

Explanations.—“Bishop of Hereford and Company,” the Protectionists and their leader; “ven’son” means cheap corn; six of his men, Repealers in the disguise of conservatives; “Lives away,” to turn ‘em out; a Tree, “public opinion;” “a thorn,” the League; “the horn of Repeal,” three score and ten Leaguers; “cut off his head,” immediate Repeal; “staying at Barnsdale,” delay of three years during which they are in a state of alarm; and at the expiration of that period comes “the reckoning.”

So, let us try and work out that allegory in full now Veck has given us the key to decipher this seventeenth-century rant against the nineteenth-century Corn Laws:

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Late Victorian illustration of Robin Hood’s meeting with the Bishop of Hereford.

Robin Hood is an Anti-Corn Law Leaguer who with “six of his men” ventures into the Tory Bishop’s lands to poach and steal and really put free trade into full practice for they are Repealers disguised as Tories who are venturing into the hostile land of protectionism when all they want is cheap “venison”/Corn—whatever! When the Bishop tries to prevent Robin’s exercise in forest free trade he sounds the horn of Repeal at which many other Repealers flock to his side. Little John, the more hot-headed Repealer, wants to immediately cut off the Bishop’s head and gain an immediate repeal of protectionist forest laws; but the Bishop has by this point been tied to the “tree” of public opinion and just a little stay longer will make the Bishop see the wisdom of forest free trade too! And of course, soon would then come the reckoning: the floodgates of repeal would burst open and there would be forest free trade for all!

While amusing to us, this was not satire: the Corn Laws meant that many poorer families did indeed go hungry due to the high price of bread. Usually, Victorian medievalists were a little more subtle in their appropriation of the Norman Forest Laws to serve different political causes. Thomas Miller’s Chartist novel Royston Gower (1838) is particularly good in this respect, being a novel in which the outlaws seek a “Forest Charter” to reclaim their ancient rights. Robin Hood fans will also be pleased to know that Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1819),opposed the Corn Laws.

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Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1846

Repeal finally came in 1846, when Prime Minister Robert Peel used the votes of the opposition to carry through the measure. Yet it split the Tory Party: the “Peelites” broke away and joined with the Whigs and the Radicals in Parliament, and formed the Liberal Party. The Tory party limped on and remained practically on its deathbed for a few years until it was popularly revived under the leadership of Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.

Read and download Veck’s pamphlet: Anti-Corn Law League Robin Hood

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Commemorative Banner celebrating an end to the hated Corn Laws (c) Manchester Archives+

Further Reading

Dickens, Charles, The Chimes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1844)

Miller, Thomas, Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John, 3 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1838)

Turner, Michael, ‘The “Bonaparte of free trade” and the Anti-Corn Law League’, The Historical Journal, 41: 4 (1998), 1011–34

Veck, Toby, Ten Tables Telling Tales of “My Landlord” and “The Church” (London: Longman, 1846)

The Chartist Robin Hood: The Poems of W. J. Linton (1812–97)

By Stephen Basdeo

During the 1830s, in spite of the passage of the ‘great’ Reform Act (1832), most working men could not vote, while women did not enter the equation at this point. So, in 1836, six working men and six MPs drew up a list of demands calling for political and constitutional reform. In its final form, this People’s Charter consisted of six demands: the vote for all working men; the abolition of the property requirement to serve as an MP; equally sized electoral districts; the secret ballot; salaries for MPS, so that working men as well as the independently wealthy could sit in the commons; and annual general elections. The movement—which acquired the name of Chartist—became the first mass working class movement; large-scale outdoor meetings were held which were attended by thousands, and three petitions were launched in the hope that the government would respond to and ratify their demands.

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W. J. Linton–radical and reformer, poet, publisher, and engraver

The Chartists left us with a large body of prose and poetry—much of which was often written by working class people—which sought, through the arts, to inspire its members to soldier on in their just cause in spite of government opposition. One prominent Chartist writer was William James Linton (1812–97). He was born in London to a lower middle class family who, throughout his life, campaigned tirelessly for political and constitutional reform. His politics were overtly radical and bordered on republican, and he often wrote under the name of ‘Spartacus’; it was a telling pseudonym and suggests that he was a proponent of ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, which favoured direct action over ‘Moral Force’ Chartism, which aimed to convince the elites to grant the people’s demands with kind words.

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Outline of the People’s Charter. (c) The Victorian Web

Above all, however, Linton considered himself a patriot. His patriotism was not a narrow patriotism based upon loyalty to the state but rather what Eric Hobsbawm would call the ‘social-democratic’ form of patriotism: loyalty to the people of the nation rather than state institutions. Patriotism in any country often depends upon a thorough knowledge or awareness of a nation’s past events and famous people. When the Chartists looked back to the past, they more often than not looked back to the medieval period for inspiration; Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was the figure who was chosen by them as their main historical forebear, and he was cast as the hero of the people in several Chartist poems and even serialised novels. Less is known, however, about Robin Hood’s place in the movement. I have previously written about ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ in my analysis of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838), but Linton also appropriated the outlaw’s legend to serve a radical political cause.

The first Robin Hood poem which Linton wrote appeared in The Plaint of Freedom (1852). This was a privately printed collection of poems which circulated only among his friends. Simply titled ‘Robin Hood’, it is part of a much larger narrative of separate but connected poems which trace the onward march of democracy with resistance to tyranny from the ancient period onwards:

Robin Hood

Yet far better in tangled wood

Than palaced with the tyrant’s men;

And nobler than a Norman den

The forest lair of Robin Hood

 

Ay, better even for yeoman good,

Than service under foreign lord,

To roam at will on springy sward

And rouse the deer with Robin Hood.

 

Cease villain! O’er thy woes to brood;

Be woodman’s law thy only friend,

Thy quarry vengeance: out, and bend

A freeman’s bow with Robin Hood!

 

A thankless life in the merry green wood:

Natheless in the shadow of Freedom there

Some worthier hearts may learn to dare

And aim beyond bold Robin Hood.

The poem was written towards the end of the Chartist movement; the failure of the 1848 petition, and the general fading of the movement towards the end of 1851, meant that reformers such as Linton would have to wait until seeing their goals fully realised. Linton’s poem looks back nostalgically to the time of Robin Hood. Although men were not ‘free’ in any sense during this time period—a fact acknowledged by Linton in the poem—there was one spot in England where men might roam free of any tyrants: this place was of course forest lair of Robin Hood. As a reflection of the idea, current among many Chartists in 1852, that there was still work to be done in the cause of political reform, Linton urges his contemporaries to be better than Robin Hood, to aim higher and achieve more, or, ‘aim beyond bold Robin Hood’.

Research tells us that English politics entered an ‘age of equipoise’ in the post-Chartist period. It is certainly true that there was a brief feeling of calm. However, while there were fewer mass meetings, people continued to organise and the question of universal male suffrage did not go away over the next decade. Former Chartist activists continued writing and pushing the cause of reform in the press; Linton wrote several articles for The Red Republican (which also published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto), and Linton himself also founded The English Republic.

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Beginning in the 1860s, things picked up again as several new organisations dedicated to the cause of political reform were founded: The Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes (est. 1863); The International Workingmen’s Association (est. 1864); the Reform Union (est. 1864); and the Reform League (1865). And it was in 1865 that Linton published his next Robin Hood poem entitled ‘An Hour of Robin Hood’, which was published in Claribel and Other Poems:

An Hour of Robin Hood

O for an hour with Robin Hood, deep, deep in the forest green,

With fern and budding bramble waving o’er me as a screen,

In mid-noon shade,

Where the hot-breath’d Trade

Came never the boughs between.

 

O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,

Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathe, fragrantly,

Where heaven is seen,

And the smile serene

Of heavenliest liberty.

 

O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free

Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:

Better with men

In the wildest glen,

Than palaced with Infamy.

 

My life for a breath of Robin Hood, with the arrow before my eye

And a tyrant but within bow-shot reach: how gladly could I die

With the fame of Tell,

With Robin so well

Embalm’d in history.

 

O but to rest, like Robin Hood, beneath some forest green,

Where the wild-flowers of the coming spring on my mouldering heart may lean;

For England’s sward

Is trampled hard

With the journeyings of the Mean.

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Victorian children with rickets–a disease caused by a Vitamin D deficiency and low calcium intake. Notice the ‘bow legs’ on some of the children; rickets causes abnormal bone growth.

The forest is imagined once again as a place of freedom from tyrants. Yet interestingly, the freedom which the forest gives is not only one from overhearing Norman lord but also ‘from the noisome smoke’. This was an era, of course, of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, in the words of William Blake. Very particular to London and many industrial cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and Sheffield was heavy pollution which sometimes resulted in ‘pea-souper’ fogs which blackened buildings and shut out the sun for days at a time. The heavy pollution was one of the reasons why many children developed rickets, which is deficiency of Vitamin D (it causes ‘bow legs’ and ‘pigeon chests’ in children). This was not the first time that environmental concerns would be expressed in retellings of Robin Hood, for John Keats had famously criticised deforestation in Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818), and recently we have seen the rise of eco-critical studies of the Robin Hood tradition.

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Manchester, c. 1870

The Chartists wanted the right to vote. They had little to say about capitalism in its early years—they aimed to curb its excesses but were relatively speaking happy with the prevailing capitalist economic system. Linton was neither a socialist nor a communist, and criticised both groups in The English Republic. Yet it is clear that some influence from that movement has filtered through subtly into Linton’s poetry with comments such as ‘the market-place of human slavery’. These words anticipate some of the comments about capitalism and ‘the market’ which William Morris would make in News from Nowhere (1888). This being said, while Linton never embraced socialism, after 1848 many former Chartist campaigners took a leftward turn and found a natural home in the socialist movement.

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The Reform Act was eventually passed under Disraeli’s Tory government in 1867

After the (apparently) Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, died in 1865, the government decided to look into how it might extend the franchise. Yet these discussions were just that: discussions. With the passage of working-class suffrage yet two years away and by no means a sure thing when Linton was writing Claribel, we see much anger come through. Linton longs to have a tyrant to aim his bow at and, the story of England’s working class in the modern era is still one of oppression: England’s ‘sward’ is still trampled by the journeyings of the ‘mean’ who cannot enjoy the forest as Robin Hood of old did.


Further Reading:

Linton, W. J., Claribel and Other Poems (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1865)

——, The Plaint of Freedom (London: Privately Printed, 1852)

Sanders, Mike, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Sir Robin William V. Harcourt Hood, M. P.

By Stephen Basdeo

Whenever a politician proposes raising a new tax or cutting a public service, a newspaper columnist will often respond that the proposed changes are ‘Reverse Robin Hood’. Alternatively, those who look favourably upon governmental tax and finance reforms might attempt to portray the politician in question as embodying Robin Hood values. We see this in the case of Donald Trump’s recent tax reforms, in which newspaper comic artists, as well as some gifted and not-so-gifted meme-makers on both sides of the debate portrayed Trump as an outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, or who steals from the not-so-fortunate to give to the rich.

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Robin Hood, as previous research of mine has shown, has always stood in for politicians when satirists wish to make a point about a politician’s – or indeed any public body’s – financial management of the country. Back in 1727, two ballads entitled Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster equated the ‘robbing’ Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, with the outlaw of medieval legend.[1] Other writers in the Georgian era went further and argued that robbing civil servants are more skilled at hiding their frauds than Robin Hood ever was:

Had [Robin Hood] turn’d his head to politics, had he been placed in the finances, or promoted to the station of Paymaster, Receiver General, Treasurer […] and robb’d the Exchequer, as Falstaff says, with unwash’d hands; had he plunder’d the publick, in a civil employment, till he had been almost the only rich man in the kingdom, we may conclude from many passages of history that there would have been no signs of him at this day.[2]

And it was no different during the Victorian era. Railway fares have always been the bane of workers in the United Kingdom and we see in this era satirical poems depicting Robin Hood and Little John tiring of their life in the greenwood and opting to become railway bosses instead, so they can steal from people legally.

One of the most famous satirical magazines in Victorian Britain was Punch, and British politicians were not immune from the Punch Brotherhood’s pens. In 1894, the Liberals were in power, and Sir William Vernon Harcourt introduced a new budget which proposed a very modest form of wealth redistribution to help the poorer classes of society, but it was a measure to which the conservative press objected.[3] The measures included financing modest increases in ‘dole’ for working families using funds raised from increased death duties. The ‘Graduation’ to which the ballad refers was Harcourt’s introduction of an estate tax, payable upon a person’s death, of one per cent on properties worth £500, and eight per cent on properties worth £1 million.[4] Harcourt tried to sell it as a graduated income tax which would be paid by only the wealthiest, and this would be sure to go down well with working-class householders (the male heads of working-class households could vote since 1867).

Harcourt 1

Thus in the poem Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce, which is written in faux-Middle English, Robin stands in for Harcourt who robs a merchant in Sherwood Forest:

“There thou speketh soothe,” the Merchaunte cried,

“Thou scourge of Propertie!

But the thing thou dubbest ‘Graduation,’

Is Highway robberie!”

“Robberie?” quoth Bold Robin Hood,

“Nay that’s a slanderous statement.

Redistribution it is not Theft –

Nor Exemption, nor Abatement.

“I robbe thee not, thou Mammonite!

The aim of all my Labours

Is – to ease thee of superfluous wealth

For the goods of thy poorer neighbours!”[5]

The poem was accompanied with a full page illustration depicting ‘Sir Robin Hood Harcourt (addressing “The Marchaunt”)’ saying ‘“Nay, Friend, ‘Tis no robbery! I do but ease you of this to relieve your poorer brethren”’.[6]

Clearly the writer of this piece was opposed to the measures, like the Tory opposition were. And it the fact that this rather small poem was given such prominence tells us something about the political leanings of the magazine in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Punch. When it was originally founded in the 1840s, it was a fairly liberal magazine which, being founded by Henry Mayhew of London Labour and the London Poor fame, was sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Yet during its golden age, it became a magazine that was (small ‘c’) conservative in its outlook and enjoyed in the middle-class drawing room. Although it hardly liked Disraeli, it often favoured the Tory party over the Liberals. The complaint expressed in this poem, therefore, is, what we might term today, a ‘middle-class problem’. It was not the working class who had to worry about death duties so, very oddly, although readers of Punch were supposed to disapprove of Harcourt’s redistributive graduated tax, Robin Hood is still, in spite of the fact that readers were meant to disapprove of Harcourt’s actions, a man of the people.


References

[1] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1 (2017), 15-31.

[2] ‘Bravery: The Characteristic of an Englishman’, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, No. 8 (1738), 300.

[3] ‘Sir William Harcourt’s Possible Budget’, The Spectator, 24 March 1894, p. 7.

[4] Donald Read, The Age of Urban Democracy, 1868-1914 (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 295.

[5] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood: A Fytte of Forest Finaunce’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 210.

[6] Anon., ‘Bold Robin Hood’, Punch, 5 May 1894, p. 211.

The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

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

Umbria,_jacopo_da_varazze,_leggenda_aurea,_1290_ca._01
Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal 2 B.VII, f.206
Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

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

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

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

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

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

12827.h.1/3, opposite 148
19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.