Thomas Love Peacock’s “Maid Marian” (1822)

170px-Old_T_L_Peacock
Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

In honour of International Women’s Day, I discuss Thomas Love Peacock’s ground-breaking novel “Maid Marian” (1822).


The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian does not figure in any of the earliest Robin Hood texts. We know that she was a feature of Tudor May Day celebrations, [1] and that from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98). She was also featured as Robin’s wife in Ben Johnson’s unfinished play The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631). Despite this, Marian never seems to have figured largely in seventeenth-century ballads, apart from Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) and, later in the century, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, although the latter ballad was never very popular, and certainly never made it into the often reprinted versions of Robin Hood’s Garland in the eighteenth century.

In fact, if you lived during the eighteenth century, the lady whom you would be familiar with as Robin’s love interest would have been Clorinda, the ‘Queen of the Shepherdesses’. Clorinda appears in a very popular ballad that was reprinted often throughout the eighteenth century entitled A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Showing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour, and Marriage at Titbury Hall, which, Francis James Child says, first appeared in John Dryden’s Miscellanies in 1716. Even in the afore-mentioned Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, Robin’s true love is a lady named Claribel, which is a nod to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Fairie Queene (1596).

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Title Page to Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)

Marian’s ‘big break’, in fact, only came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novella are based upon Byron and Shelley. [2] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott. [3]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. [4] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. [5] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. [6] Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, [7] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [8]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. She is no delicate little lady; instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. Marian’s headstrong attitude is indicated in the following passage:

‘Well, father,’ added Matilda, ‘I must go into the woods.’
‘Must you?’ said the Baron, ‘I say you must not.’
‘But I am going,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will have up the drawbridge,’ said the baron.
‘But I will swim the moat,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will secure the gates,’ said the baron.
‘But I will leap from the battlement,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will lock you in an upper chamber,’ said the baron.
‘But I will shred the tapestry,’ said Matilda, ‘and let myself down.’ [9]

Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’. [10]

She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. She is an emancipated woman in the Wollstonecraft feminist tradition. [11]

IMG_6178
Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. [12] Early ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) were hastily thrown together from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c.1370). Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent; in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. Hence Stephen Knight speaks of ‘the brilliance and influence’ of Peacock’s novel. [13]

Influential upon the tradition as a whole Peacock’s novel certainly was (I would  disagree with this somewhat, however, for after its first printing it was soon discontinued, being revived only once in the 1830s and then again in the 1890s). But I must respectfully disagree with Stephen Knight regarding the novel’s ‘brilliance’. Throughout the whole novel, we are never allowed to forget that Robin is simply a lord who is playing at being an outlaw, which is the case with all ‘gentrified’ texts where Robin is presented as a Lord. [14] Robin never faces any real danger, and his presentation as a Lord robs him of the power he possesses in Scott’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, although better than the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and the several eighteenth-century criminal biographies of him, Peacock was no Scott. Robin and Marian’s adventures in Maid Marian amount to nothing more than an aristocratic frolic – a game for the lord and lady.

Peacock, however, did set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), which was a sequel to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial, Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.


References

[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 190.
[2] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[3] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[4] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[5] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[6] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[7] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[8] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[9] Peacock, Maid Marian, 28.
[10] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[12] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[13] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[14] This is the case with all gentrified texts, as is the case in Munday’s plays. See Liz Oakley Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Anthony Munday’s Huntingdon Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post Medieval Ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 115.

“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.


References

[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].

Greatness vs. Goodness in Henry Fielding’s “Jonathan Wild” (1743)

Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

I have previously written on this blog about London’s first mob boss, Jonathan Wild (1682-1725). He was the Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland. In the days before the establishment of a police force in England, thief takers were men who were hired by the victims of robberies to effect the return of their stolen goods. In time, he became the master of nearly all the criminals in London.

He was the subject of numerous criminal biographies, including one written by the novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

One of the most lengthy treatments of his life, however, was written by the novelist, Henry Fielding, entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). It is similar to the many criminal biographies of the period, but it is also different in many ways, for this was a satire (which will be explained more fully below).

At the outset, Fielding explains himself to the reader, telling them why he has decided to call this quite reprehensible man ‘the Great’. All the great men of history, he says, are in effect bad people:

Greatness consists of bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and Goodness in removing it…In the histories of Alexander and Caesar, we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, – we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them.

This is what “great” men do, whilst “good” men do the opposite.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Fielding beguiles his readers into thinking that Wild is a hero (in the proper sense of the word – a man to be admired, respected), etc. And Fielding proceeds to write about his ‘hero’ as though he were some illustrious person, exercising all the qualities of “great” men. For example, when he works behind the scenes to have one of his own friends imprisoned in Newgate, Wild immediately goes to visit his friend in gaol, ‘for he was none of those half-bread fellows who are ashamed to see their friends when they have plundered and betrayed them.’

Wild, the ‘Great Man,’ as all great men do, has nothing but contempt for good men. This is shown by his treatment of an old school friend called Mr. Heartfree. Fielding writes that this Mr. Heartfree:

Had several great weaknesses of mind; being too good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess. He had, indeed, little regard for common justice…his life was extremely temperate, his expenses solely being confined to the cheerful entertainment of his friends at home.

Of course we, the reader, secretly want to sympathise with Heartfree, especially when Wild moves things behind the scenes to have him committed to gaol and hanged (he does this a few times in the novel).

Towards the end of the novel, however, Fielding tells the reader that they were silly, all along, to admire such a creature as Wild, when he is finally arrested for being a receiver of stolen goods, and Fielding lists the qualities of this “great” man in great detail, so that his readers too would know when they came across “greatness” in a fellow and avoid them. Wild lays down his maxims for being a great man in the following way:

  1. Never to do more mischief to another than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
  2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
  3. Never to communicate more of an affair to the person who was to execute it.
  4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows that he hath been deceived by you.
  5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
  6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
  7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
  8. Never to reward any one equal to his merit, but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
  9. A good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring any advantage.

This was not merely an attack on Wild, however, for it was also a critique of politicians, and in particular the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Walpole was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and, in Fielding’s view, entrenched his power in the world of courtiers and MPs in the same way that Wild set himself up as the master of London’s low-life and thieves. Walpole was regularly lampooned in the press, and even was equated with Robin Hood on occasion. The constant references to “greatness” and “great man” are a reference to Walpole, who in his role as Prime Minister was often derogatorily called “The Great Man”.

Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild)
Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild) [Source: http://www.corbould.com/artists/rc/rc_ex.html%5D

To Fielding, there was no difference between the great men in high life and those in low life.

But I think Fielding’s lessons on goodness and greatness have resonance beyond the 18th century. When people think of history, they often do so in terms of a “great man” approach, and they often (I do on occasion) confuse goodness in a man with greatness. They are not the same thing. Napoleon was a great man, but he was not a good man. Fielding says of Caesar similarly that:

When the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw; we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses [gifts] to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

Fielding chose Caesar and Alexander because the Georgians practically idolised the Classical period, but the same could be true of our own day and our veneration of, say, Winston Churchill. The English nation praises him for being a Great Man, but he was not necessarily a Good Man.

“Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster”

The early eighteenth century was one of the best ages for satire. Writers such as Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) wrote their Spectator and Tatler magazines to expose the follies and vices of polite society, whilst people such as Alexander Pope (1688-1714) wrote The Dunciad in 1728. A favourite subject among the satirists was the mocking of political figures (not even the King was sacrosanct), and one of their favourite targets was Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745).

To the Glory of the Right Honourable Robert Walpole-a Satire on ‘Robinocracy’ (c.1730).

In the eighteenth century, the King chose which party would form the next ministry, and also chose the Prime Minister. George II chose the Whigs under the leadership of Walpole. Between 1721 and 1742 Walpole, as Prime Minister [well, officially Walpole was First Lord of the Treasury as in the 1700s the term ‘Prime Minister’ was a derogatory term], extended his grip over his own MPs, and entrenched his position as Prime Minister under the King. During his time in office many charges of corruption were leveled at him by his Tory opponents, notably during the South Sea Bubble – a major financial crash from which many MPs profited. Those same MPs were protected by Walpole when Parliament launched an enquiry into the matter.

Robert Walpole, Prime Minister between 1721 and 1742. [Source: Wikipedia].

Walpole was often compared to a thief. In the 1728 ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, Walpole was compared to the Thief Taker, Jonathan Wild, and would be again in 1743 in Henry Fielding’s novel, The Life of Jonathan Wild the Great.

It should be no surprise, then, that he was on occasion equated with England’s most famous thief, Robin Hood. A nickname for Walpole’s regime was ‘Robinocracy’ or ‘Robin’s Reign’, and in 1727 a satirical ballad appeared entitled Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster.

It’s an odd piece. The year is 1202 and King John is on the throne. The people are oppressed through exorbitant taxes, not by King John, but by his first minister, Robin Hood. It transpires that Robin Hood is actually one of the most corrupt people in the kingdom, and the Duke of Lancaster travels to see the King to expose Robin Hood:

My good liege, quoth the Duke, you are grossly abused
By knaves far and near, by your grace kindly used;
There’s your keeper so crafty, call’d Bold Robin Hood,
Keeps us all but himself, my good liege, in a wood.
Derry down, etc.

He riseth e’er daybreak, to kill your fat deer,
And never calls me to partake of the cheer.
For shoulders and ‘umbles, and other good fees,
He says for your use, he locks up with his keys,
Derry down, &c.

Robin Hood also solidifies his own position as the King’s favourite minister by appointing his friends to top government jobs:

What is worse, he will make Harry Gambol a keeper,
And the plot ev’ry day is laid deeper and deeper,
Should he bring him once in, your Court would grow thinner,
For instead of a St. he would bring in a sinner.
Derry down, &c.

The King, however, is unimpressed. These charges are hardly “revelations” to him. He’s fully aware of Robin Hood’s corrupt ways; yet what is he to do?

Quoth our liege “Would you have Robin out? Is that all?”
“I would have” quoth the Duke “no robbing at all”
“Why man” quoth the King “on my troth you’ll bereave
All my court of its people, except ‘tis my Sheriff”
Derry down, etc.

“Besides who’ll succeed him? Because without doubt
You’d have someone put in as sure as put out”
Then a smile so obliging the Duke did display
And made a low ‘beisance as if who should say.
Derry down, etc.

The King has placed Robin Hood in charge, quite simply, for want of anyone better. This is exactly how the situation was with George II in 1727. The ballad was written for a politically informed urban audience. It was at the more expensive end of the range of ballads which were available, costing 4d. (ballads often cost 1d. at most).

The subject matter refers to the time that Lord Nicholas Lechmere (1675-1727), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, heard a rumour that Walpole had invited the disgraced Tory Jacobite supporter, Lord Bolingbroke, back to England (he had been exiled to France) to serve in Parliament. The King was fully aware of what was going on, and when Lechmere burst into the King’s presence, he was embarrassed by the King’s dismissal of his concerns as mere ‘bagatelles’. The King, by way of a joke, then offered the Premiership to Lechmere, who of course refused it. In any case, Lechmere did not live long enough to be too embarrassed about this affair as he died of apoplexy in the same year.

Most scholars are quite dismissive of this ballad, saying that it does nothing to add to the overall legend of Robin Hood because it is a clear product of the eighteenth century. In the second respect they are correct; the events clearly relate to Walpole, George II, and Lechmere. But I think it does add to the legend: it shows, as I am arguing in one section of my thesis, that Robin Hood was not always viewed as a hero even in comparatively modern times. In the eighteenth century Robin Hood was both a villain and a hero, and in my opinion, it shows a continuity with some medieval sources which described Robin Hood in a negative light. Such a portrayal of Robin Hood would have been unthinkable in the nineteenth century, as after Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, Robin of Locksley was transformed into an honest, caring, gallant, and heroic Saxon freedom fighter.

Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Robin Hood’s History

Whilst re-organising my home work space, I came across my undergraduate dissertation. I focused upon representations of polite society in eighteenth-century print culture, with a particular focus upon the periodicals of two men: Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).

The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]
The Spectator [Source: Wikipedia]

Between them these two men created the most important periodicals of the eighteenth century, entitled The Tatler and The Spectator. Each issue was printed on one sheet of paper, and numbered approximately 2,000 words.

The content was mainly satirical – not ‘satirical’ in the way that a modern TV show like Mock the Week was satirical – rather, it was a more subtle satire, which aimed to represent to its readers aspects of eighteenth-century life through the eyes of fictional characters, or correspondents.

The main correspondent in The Tatler was the fictional Isaac Bickerstaffe. He wrote his articles out of the various coffeehouse locations of early eighteenth-century London. In the first issue he explained that readers would receive:

Poetry under that of Will’s coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestick news…from Saint James’s Coffee-house – The Tatler, April 23rd, 1709

Interior of a London Coffeehouse [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]
Interior of a London Coffeehouse c.1700 [Source: British Museum Archives AN00162021_001]

In fact, these periodicals were designed to be read and discussed in coffeehouses. The coffeehouse was, in the words of Brian Cowan, ‘a unique social space’ where, irrespective of rank, men (and it was primarily men who frequented coffeehouses) could gather together and discuss the news of the day, as illustrated by the image ‘Interior of a Coffeehouse held by the British Museum’. Look closely at the image, and you can see that whilst the men are enjoying their coffee, there are copies of a periodical freely available to them.

The correspondents in The Spectator were an interesting lot, and these fictional characters were supposed to represent an eighteenth-century gentleman’s coffeehouse club: there was Mr. Spectator who ‘lived in the world, rather as a Spectator of mankind than as one of the people’. Next there was Sir Roger De Coverley, who was the “nice old man” type – a Tory Lord whose political views no one really took very seriously. After the aristocracy members of the increasingly influential middling sorts were represented: Andrew Freeport, a merchant; a lawyer from the Inner Temple; a retired army officer named Captain Sentry; a rakish young gentleman named Will Honeycomb, and finally an unnamed clergyman (who visited the coffeehouse club but seldom).

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

What, if anything, does this have to do with Robin Hood? In issue 81 of The Tatler in 1709, the character Isaac Bickerstaff recounted a dream in which he met many ancient worthies such as Hercules, Jason, Achilles, Aenaeus, Socrates, Caesar, and Augustus. You will notice that the foregoing list of heroes is mainly comprised of figures from the classical period.

In fact, the eighteenth century is not a period usually associated with any significant interest in the medieval past. The Georgians were living in the age of the Enlightenment, and for cultural and intellectual inspiration looked to the continent and the Classical period, which explains why many Georgian and Regency buildings were built in the neo-Classical style. To the Georgians the medieval period was a “dark age” dominated by monks and tyrant kings.

Which is why it is surprising that, in Bickerstaffe’s dream, when they are searching for another hero to join them at the table, the ancient heroes of old tell Bickerstaffe that:

…If they must have a British worthy, they would have Robin Hood – The Tatler, Number 81, 1709.

Cultural and intellectual interest in medieval times and persons was not, it seems, restricted to the gothic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and our hero, Robin Hood, can sit comfortably alongside the great heroes of the ancient world.


The Tatler, Number 81

The Spectator, Full Text of Volume One at Project Gutenberg

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013).

Cowan, B. The Social Life of Coffee (Yale University Press, 2005).

Habermas, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Polity, 1989).


The newest research on Addison and Steele’s periodicals which I have recently been made aware of has been undertaken by Dr. Adam James Smith – see his blog!