The Adventures of Robin Hood

by Harry on April 15, 2008

I know that last week was children’s television week at CT, but I thought I’d just note that the Richard Greene version of The Adventures of Robin Hood is finally out on DVD in the US (it’s been available for years in the UK, and a few episodes have been available on region 1 in dollar stores for a while, but not the whole first series), and is almost free at amazon. This was Lew Grade’s first real foray into making ambitious television, and was written, in large part, by blacklisted and self-exiled Hollywood writers (I met Norma Barzman several times when I lived in LA; I was somewhat in awe of her and am only glad that I didn’t know then that she wrote for Robin Hood, or I would have been an embarrassing wreck. Like most Europeans of my generation I’m intensely grateful to the blacklisters for sending all those talented and decent people to start up TV for us). Watching it today, it holds up amazingly well — the film quality is excellent, the scripts are wry and well-plotted, and the acting is excellent (for a kid’s show) with major future stars turning up in nearly every episode. It compares very favourably with Disney’s Davy Crockett, which I also watched with my girls. Robin is a socialist, of course (very much in the Bows Against the Barons mould) and never commits violence in excess of what is needed, whereas Davy Crockett is full of morally dubious bloodbaths, and scripted….lightly. Highly Recommended — whether you have kids or not, frankly.



David in NY 04.15.08 at 1:56 pm

I loved it when I was a kid, oh, let’s not say how long ago. I think the dumb theme music still is stuck in my brain, however … “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen ….”


roac 04.15.08 at 2:29 pm

Feared by the bad, loved by the good!


chris y 04.15.08 at 2:37 pm

Denis Moore, Denis Moore, Denis Moore…


H. E. Baber 04.15.08 at 2:39 pm

Made me a socialist. Robin had curly hair and dimples, and looked good in tights. I also liked those quarter-staff bouts on bridges, where the loser fell into the drink and came up muddy and sputtering.


Henry (not the famous one) 04.15.08 at 3:15 pm

I always thought that the 1938 Warner Brothers picture had more of a cozier Popular Front feel. Robin was the CIO–not Sidney Hillman or John L. Lewis, but the much younger rank-and-filers who were willing to take bold gambles, infiltrating the court to surprise Prince John, the Sheriff and Count Guy the way the UAW tricked GM before it occupied Chevy Plant No. 1. King Richard, for his part, had that same familiarity with the peasants, despite the widest class differences you could imagine, the same eagerness to make alliances with them to battle his enemies and the same cheerful confidence combined with authority that FDR displayed.

We find out in the last few reels, however, that, while Robin Hood may have been fighting the rich, it was all in the larger cause of restoring King Richard. They didn’t make the sequel in which Robin, now the Baron of Locksley, expels the more radical members of his Merry Men, but it almost writes itself.


Nick 04.15.08 at 3:49 pm

Robin wasn’t exacly inclusive though was he? There was at least one episode where he started firing his arrows at something lurking behind a hedge that he took to be a rather noisy & bad-tempered bull. Up popped a rather surprised Scotsman wrestling with a set of bagpipes . . .


Nick 04.15.08 at 5:18 pm

I think the dumb theme music still is stuck in my brain, however … “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen ….”

I have that theme music stuck in my head, and I’m about 20 years too young to have watched it when it came out in the 1950s. I’ve got no memory of ever seeing it, but is it possible that it was rebroadcast on the BBC during the 1970s? If not, I have no idea how I know the theme, unless it had become part of the kid culture passed down from generation to generation on the playground.


Rob G 04.15.08 at 5:41 pm

Robin Hood, Dr Who, Top of the Pops and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. What more could a young lad ask for?


nick #2 04.15.08 at 6:55 pm

I should clarify that I, the nick in comment 7, am a different person than the nick in comment 6. Comment 6 nick obviously has seen the show.


David in NY 04.15.08 at 7:19 pm

“I have no idea how I know the theme, unless it had become part of the kid culture passed down from generation to generation”

If that were the case, I’m sure the words would have been altered to include references to private body parts or other stuff kids are really interested in. The song just about demands that kind of treatment. I would reference, for example, the version of “Lady of Spain” I learned in fifth or sixth grade.


Bob B 04.15.08 at 9:29 pm

The promotion of Robin Hood as a rob-the-rich-to-pay-the-poor prototype socialist outlaw is nothing more than ideological propaganda founded on myth with virtually no basis in recorded history. On any reasonably enlightened interpretation of the propagated myth, Robin Hood was a vicious terrorist and the repeated replaying of the constructed myth fosters tolerance of terrorism.

For any who might be curious about real historiography, there appears to be a wide selection of potential candidates who could qualify for the historic Robin Hood. A summary account of the various possibilities, based on J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood (Thames and Hudson, 1982 and 1989) is here:

I’ve absolutely little interest in medieval history or the mythology concerning Robin Hood but as best I can judge, a currently prevailing consensus – as presented in a TV documentary of a few years back – favours this selection among the alternative candidates:

The events concerning the most plausible candidate for the historic Robin Hood relate to the reign of (the infamous) Edward II in the 14th century, by which time the evil King John (1166-1216) was long dead.


Bob B 04.15.08 at 9:39 pm


Nick 04.15.08 at 10:42 pm

nick#2 in #9: I have indeed seen the shows, they were a regular childhood delight. What bothers me is that the bagpipes/bull scene is the only thing I can actually remember about the entire series.
& bob b in #11, given your lack of interest in medieval history & Robin Hood, I’m assuming your analysis of the TV series is, erm, ironic . . .


grackle 04.15.08 at 10:52 pm

Oh boy, am I ever grateful to Bob B for helping me see the relationship between Robin Hood and viscious tewwowists. I will be so careful now! Let’s hear it for the poncy kings and princes who out of the goodness of their hearts at one time did rule us all, serf and nobleman alike!.


SG 04.15.08 at 11:41 pm

Bob B, don’t be so ignorant. Robin Hood was the son of Herne the Hunter, a shamanistic fighter for the freedom of English workers at a time of coal mine closures, offshoring of manufacturing and the destruction of the post-war welfare state. Further, Will Scarlet went on to become Beowulf.

You should get your history right.


vivian 04.16.08 at 1:15 am

Just added it to the shopping cart! I can already see the family re-enactments in my future.


Nordic Mousse 04.16.08 at 3:30 am

#8: “Robin Hood, Dr Who, Top of the Pops and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. What more could a young lad ask for?”

A television


JamesP 04.16.08 at 7:56 am

Sounds like a new one for the Decents, for me. ‘While constantly deploring so-called American ‘atrocities’ in Iraq, I noticed that no-one else at the dinner party had a bad word to say about Robin Hood.’

Nick@7, I was born in 1978 and I know the tune without, until now, having ever realized it came from a tv show.


Bob B 04.16.08 at 8:33 am

#15: “You should get your history right.”

LOL! Until recently, along one bus route to my currently favoured superstore, I noted the presence along the way of a sandwich bar which prominently featured the name of “Edward II sandwich bar”.

Now the fortunes, propensities and eventual spectacular misfortune of our past sovereign Edward II are not a regular talking points nowadays. In fact, these are likely to be appreciated only by the relatively few who have at least some nodding familiarity with the illustrious medieval history of England:

I was therefore curious as to why anyone entrepreneurially disposed to open a sandwich bar would want to name it after Edward II, especially since sandwiches are so named after the Earl of Sandwich, who came along several centuries later and whose latterday descendents still flourish:

Alas, a few months ago the said sandwich bar closed down but has since reopened with a new name and new management. I wish it success.

Btw I absolutely disclaim any expertise on the history of Robin Hood but thought it might be entertaining here to post links to comparatively recent developments in the historiography.


chris y 04.16.08 at 9:09 am

I was therefore curious as to why anyone entrepreneurially disposed to open a sandwich bar would want to name it after Edward II

The proprietor was a Despencer of fast food.


SG 04.16.08 at 11:51 am

(Bob b, I’m not sure if you realise this but I was hinting at the best Robin Hood ever made, Robin Of Sherwood. It was made in the 80s in England).

In Australia there is a Shakespeare’s Pies…


Bob B 04.16.08 at 12:58 pm

Perhaps a more serious – and possibly productive – line of discussion relates to how later and recent criminal gangs and groups exploited the rob-the-rich-to-pay-the-poor mythology, associated with the Robin Hood legend, to buy cover and protection in poor communities from law enforcement agencies. It provided highly effective PR cover.

Consider the received histories of the Frank and Jesse James gang, Bonnie and Clyde, or the true-life Mafioso story depicted in: Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi and the related Martin Scorsese movie: GoodFellas:

There are British equivalents too in the Kray Brothers as well as in a very recent case concerning a Nottingham gang which was eventually closed down with exceptionally long custodial sentences:

By reports, in that case the specially picked police team who worked on it maintained cover and secrecy even within the policeforce to prevent leaks about the course of the investigation.

The propagators of the Robin Hood mythology in the media have much to answer for, IMO.


roac 04.16.08 at 1:18 pm

You forgot Pretty Boy Floyd:

It was in the town of Shawnee
It was on one Christmas day,
Came a whole carload of groceries
And a letter that did say:

“You say that I’m an outlaw,
And you say that I’m a thief;
Here’s a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.”

It was Woody Guthrie, in that case.


Bob B 04.16.08 at 3:22 pm

Thanks. There is a political dimension to all this.

Remember that old Samizdat joke that came out of the Soviet Union some 30 years back?

The late Brezhnev, Communist Party general secretary 1964-82, is showing his aged mother around his magnificent country dacha. “But, Leonid,” she says, “what if the Bolsheviks come back?”


Nick 04.16.08 at 5:56 pm

bob b at #22 – presumably you also blame the BBC for promoting the career of these guys:
leading to the current prevalence of sarcasm in our society?


richard 04.16.08 at 6:20 pm

Robin Hood was the son of Herne the Hunter, a shamanistic fighter for the freedom of English workers at a time of coal mine closures

Brilliant. He also spent a significant part of his take on conditioner and, in his later career, various bleaching products.

Malay pirates, Rio drug lords and any number of other organized crime figures have also used a cosmetic redistribution of wealth to bolster their popular appeal, often filling gaps that governments can’t or won’t deal with among the poor. I very much doubt that they all got the idea from tales of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. In fact, one could argue that this is a big part of how governments get started and grow legitimacy in general.


Helen 04.16.08 at 10:16 pm

I have that theme music stuck in my head, and I’m about 20 years too young to have watched it when it came out in the 1950s. I’ve got no memory of ever seeing it, but is it possible that it was rebroadcast on the BBC during the 1970s? If not, I have no idea how I know the theme, unless it had become part of the kid culture passed down from generation to generation on the playground.

Presumably you saw it as repeats in the 60s, as I did growing up in Adelaide. Now I’ll have that dratted theme song in my head all day – but great thread, thanks Harry!

Sounds like a new one for the Decents, for me. ‘While constantly deploring so-called American ‘atrocities’ in Iraq, I noticed that no-one else at the dinner party had a bad word to say about Robin Hood.’

Another keyboard ruined, thanks James P


Nickp 04.17.08 at 3:27 am

Presumably you saw it as repeats in the 60s, as I did growing up in Adelaide.

Well, I was born in 1970 and left the UK in 1975, so I suppose I may have seen it during that period or during some summer holiday trip to the old country during the late 70s. If it was in repeats during the late 60s, though, it may well have been current on the playground when I was an impressionable toddler. I guess I’ll have to check out the DVD to see if any of the images seem familiar.


Bob B 04.17.08 at 6:11 am

#26: “I very much doubt that they all got the idea from tales of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest.”

Over decades, there have been countless movies and TV serials supposedly based on the Robin Hood legends – eg for starters, try:

Excepting the names of the central characters, their common feature is not a vestige of historical accuracy or even consistency but to glamorize outlaws, glorify violence and promote the ethic: Rob the rich to pay the poor. The target audience is young people.

What is the likely downstream influence?

Compare the treatment of violence in Martin Scorsese’s movie: GoodFellas.

The depicted violence is repellent and the central characters are not glamorized.


David 04.17.08 at 7:59 am

Could we have a Geoffrey Trease thread, please?


SG 04.17.08 at 8:08 am

So what you are saying, bob b, is that Robin Hood was the original Liberal Fascist? The prototypical uberSocialistIslamoNazi?

I always wondered why nazir was in the team. In one fell swoop they have racial diversity, Islamofascism, and someone whose name sounds like Nazi. What I don’t understand, though, is why this lot fought against their French invaders?


ajay 04.17.08 at 9:23 am

Classic insurgency tactics – Robin Hood was setting up a “shadow government” to supply social services that the host nation was unable to provide, conferring legitimacy and popularity on his own movement. Hezbollah would recognise this tactic immediately from their own activities in southern Lebanon.


Nickp 04.17.08 at 12:39 pm

What is the likely downstream influence?

A passing obsession with archery and make-believe games involving “sword fighting” with sticks?


richard 04.17.08 at 1:32 pm

OK, I concede the point. If only Joe Pesci were known more widely, we’d see violent crime reduced across the world.


Bob B 04.17.08 at 3:21 pm

Several distinct issues are conflated here, IMO.

The sheer persistence of national legends, whether the Arthurian legends, the Robin Hood legends, Dick Whittington or Dick Turpin, are themselves interesting historical facts worthy of scrutiny.

The curious feature of the Robin Hood legends is their lack of consistency and the uncertainty even as to the century in which the central character was located. Rebellion against the Norman ascendency in England – a theme in the version recounted in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), for instance – makes sense in the early 13th century versions of the legend but not if the historic Robin Hood was located in the 14th century as currently prevailing historiography suggests. By then, the Normans were fairly well assimilated. Whatever the eccentricities of the monarch Edward II, his son, Edward III, was one of our more illustrious kings and an early, if misguided, pioneer of statutory incomes policies. But then he reigned over the cataclymic demographic consequences of the Black Death plague 1348-.

20th century visual media representations of the Robin Hood legend – the main focus of my complaint – are mostly careless about the historic roots and detail and mostly glamorize a violent mythology as well as extol a pernicious redistributive ethic which seems to have been adopted by a series of criminal gangs and insurgency movements.

That seems to be beyond coincidence and is surely an issue worthy of analysis.


richard 04.17.08 at 5:15 pm

20th century visual media representations of the Robin Hood legend … glamorize a violent mythology as well as extol a pernicious redistributive ethic which seems to have been adopted by a series of criminal gangs and insurgency movements.

The relationship, if any, would be difficult to prove. No doubt instances can be found of gangs that state a link to or influence by RH. No doubt informal redistributive systems based on violent crime pre-date RH or can be found in contexts that can be assumed to be free of the influence of RH legends.

A violent mythology + (arguably) pernicious redistributive ethic can be seen in Beowulf, for instance, and much the same social and literary structure can be found in the pre-Islamic Arabic form of the qasida (see the Mu`allaqa of Labid, for example), in which wealth acquired through raiding is turned into charity in the home camp. Chinese wuxia stories, on the other hand, add the element of violence against socially sanctioned authority figures: dating at least to the Warring States period, they feature extra-legal wandering vigilantes, whose personal codes of honour, often wildly at variance with those of bureaucratized society, lead them to a mixture of anti-state violent action and informal justice and redistribution. These marginal figures are valorized in the tales, even though they stand outside society, because they deal in a kind of justice that formal systems cannot – often ‘popular justice’ aimed against the regime, which, shorn of its ideology, is mere criminal action against the wealthy.

As to the hazy origins of RH, is it not possible that the archetype existed in the popular imagination before any historical progenitor figure? The rest of your argument seems to rely on the power of cultural types to replicate action in the 20th century: why shouldn’t RH legends in the 17th, 14th or an earlier century give rise to ‘real’ RHs?


Bob B 04.18.08 at 12:30 am

#36: “The relationship, if any, would be difficult to prove.”

I readily concede that after noting the perennial, intractable debates over whether violent behaviour in cartoons and video games induces imitative behaviour on the part of those who watch cartoons or play video games. However, I can only venture that any here who think my suggested connection is OTT might like to go through this on: The Robin Hood Syndrome:

As for the topicality of the violent gang issue, this was breaking news in Britain during Thursday:

“Schools are dealing with the ‘side effects’ of gang culture including weapons, according to research. Although gang culture affects a minority of schools, it is feared children as young as nine are being recruited to such groups. . . Following a spate of teenage murders, the extent of youth gang culture in the UK is a growing concern. It is also a growing problem, with experts estimating that the number of gang members under the age of 16 has doubled in the last five years, the report says.”

#36: “As to the hazy origins of RH, is it not possible that the archetype existed in the popular imagination before any historical progenitor figure?”

It is certainly possible – indeed, likely – that issues associated with the RH legends, such as lingering popular resentment of the Norman ascendency, had a prior independent existence and I’ve mentioned above that persistence of particular national legends is worthy of research in its own right. Why is it that Dick Whittington and his cat is a regular theme of London pantomimes?

Perhaps I could add that there is nothing new about my concerns regarding the social values depicted in popular visual media representations of the RH legends. I recall being embroiled in a similar online discussion about 10 years ago and that was before I became aware of recent developments in the historiography and just how fragile are the historic roots of the many – and contradictory – media representations of the legends.


Tom Doyle 04.18.08 at 8:25 am

Harry: ”Robin is a socialist, of course….”

bob b: #37 “Perhaps I could add that there is nothing new about my concerns regarding the social values depicted in popular visual media representations of the RH legends.”

“McCarthyism was permeating every state and every occupation, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes frightening, sometimes bordering on the incredible…In Indiana, Mrs. Thomas J. White, a member of the State Textbook Commission, charged that ‘there is a Communist directive in education to stress the story of Robin Hood. They want to stress it because he robbed the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.’

“[Indiana] Governor George Craig declined comment and State Superintendent of Education Wilbur Young announced that he would reread Robin Hood to consider the merits of Mrs. White’s charge. The 1953 Sheriff of Nottingham, England, William Cox, was more definite. ‘Why, Robin Hood was no Communist,’ he said.” (Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade-And After: America, 1945-1960, (Vintage Books, New York, 1960) 258-59.)

Shortly after I saw Harry’s essay, I was reading the book cited above (which I had picked up from a used book bin at our local supermarket. People donate books, the store “sells” them for a suggested donation of $2.00, and the money goes to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.) The episode related by Goldman seemed relevant to this discussion, thus this comment.

With respect to the TV series, I recall its 1955 US debut, and that we watched it frequently. I was surprised, and somewhat alarmed, to learn that the last episode was produced in 1960, because I remembered (or thought I remembered) watching it in later years. Dementia praecox? I thank the various commenters who mentioned the re-runs.


Bob B 04.18.08 at 10:50 am

Never mind Mrs White’s paranoia about Communism. Had she been a tad more perceptive, she might have remarked that media presentations of the legend of Robin Hood and his “merry men”, with their practice of armed robbery to live off the proceeds, had become a regular model for criminal gangs where side pay-offs are made in poor communities to buy cover and protection from law enforcement agencies.

There is a vast difference in prescriptive outlook between media presentations of violence by gangs who practised this MO between, say, Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) and the Errol Flynn version of one Robin Hood movie (1938), where RH is charactised as a heroic outlaw aristocrat rather than the more usual upstart peasant with a grudge against the Normans and a flair for charismatic leadership and archery.

The Scorsese movie does not convey a suggestion that emulation would be a good idea, whereas most media presentations of the RH legends foster an impression that RH is a heroic role model and emulation would be glamorous. Arguably, the conflicting narratives of the various presentations suggest that historic detail is an insignificant consideration in relating the legends.


richard 04.18.08 at 1:54 pm

I promised myself I wouldn’t get drawn into this, and yet, here I am. I’ve only had a chance to scan the article you cite on Robin Hood Syndrome so far, but AFAICT the authors invented the term themselves, and do not cite any literature as a source for their view of Robin and his ‘merry men.’ Further, they state that they adopted it because they wanted to avoid the negative connotations of the label ‘gang-related’ (if they were looking for a more ‘value neutral’ label, I fear they’ve failed) – so concern for history does not sem to be on their agenda.
What, then, do they use the label to describe? Exactly 3 behaviours, or attitudes:
1) don’t trust the future
2) control or be controlled
3) treat insiders and outsiders differently

Note: no sign of redistibution, ‘merriness,’ heroic stance or awareness of public reception. The authors could have called these attitudes a ‘pirate code’ or ‘Spartan values’ with at least as much accuracy. Actually, now I think about it, these might be the core values of the Kissinger doctrine. In any event, I think we can dismiss the paper’s relevance to the current discussion.

Arguably, the conflicting narratives of the various presentations suggest that historic detail is an insignificant consideration in relating the legends.
Or they may simply reflect the way Robin stories come down to us. Which historical details would you like to choose?

Fictional Robins quite clearly represent archetypes of popular action and social frustrations. I think this is what you object to: I also think it’s why Robin stories keep coming back, while Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, for instance, slips into obscurity: no narrative ‘hook.’ If you’re in the US, you probably get fed a line about how glorious it is to rebel against tyrannical governments that don’t represent your interests, complete with legendary, heroic figures who are presented uncomplicatedly as being identical with actual historical persons. This very narrative crops up again in Star Wars, for instance. Does it foster revolutionary impulses?


richard 04.18.08 at 2:37 pm

OK, Bob, I’ve had a chance to reflect, and I concede that you do have a point: people do seem to behave according to genres of action, those genres sometimes being drawn from fiction. Also, very often we see ‘criminal’ acts justified by narratives, and RH can be seen as one such narrative (he actually usually occupies a space between state and ‘natural’ law, which is probably what’s most interesting about him, but that’s secondary to this discussion). It may be (though here we’re on thinner ice) that supplying such ready-made narratives provides an environment that encourages certain criminal acts, or that presents those acts in a socially-acceptable light. So: stories of the RH ilk may contribute in some way to certain kinds of gang violence, and may help validate redistributive practices that would otherwise be seen for what they are: informal payments for popular consent in criminal activity.

I personally suspect that this points to a deeper structure, in which the adult man fulfills his duties to ‘natural justice’ by providing for the tribe/longhouse/mead-hall/whatever, through hunting and activities analogous to hunting, such as raiding, rustling, purloining property of others in some way… I confess my instinct is to pursue this line of reasoning across multiple cultures (at least Geat and early English, optionally Nuer, Bedu, Timawa and others) rather like Fraser, but that I acknowledge arguments raised against this mode of armchair anthropology.

Whether this structure can be overcome by repeated applications of propaganda against criminal organisations and their methods, I do not know.


richard 04.18.08 at 2:38 pm

…and I certainly do not accept the notion that RH invented gang behaviours, or that it’s anything more than a blip on a much larger issue


Bob B 04.18.08 at 8:41 pm

“Which historical details would you like to choose?”

I’ve already admitted that I’ve no personal expertise in the histiography of RH. My concern is the likely social consequences of the serial media presentations of the legends. For comparatively recent developments in the histiography, try the links suggested in #11 and #12.

As best I can tell, media presentations of the legends tend to locate RH in the early 13th century, during the reign of “evil” King John, whereas the currently prevailing consensus histiography puts RH early in the 14th century during the reign of (the eccentric) Edward II, who met with an unfortunate demise. A glaring problem with the 14th century version is that popular resentment in England against the Norman ascendency had rather worn off by then as the descendents of the Norman families, who came over with William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066, had become assimilated. We therefore need to find an alternative credible motivation for the reported frictions between the RH gang and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the RH legends are the basis of an original prototype for gang behaviour but mythical legends may be influential and consider just how many popular media dramas, targeted on young audiences, are located in the medieval period. For many folk, media presentations of RH legends are very likely the principal or only source of popular knowledge about the history of medieval England. And that is a pity because features of later English history are rooted in that period.

I’ve not dwelt so far on the wider significance of RH’s reported archery skills, which may have been a factor explaining the persistence and popularity of the early RH ballads.

The English were good at archery with long bows, an inexpensive technology, the effectiveness of which depended on regular practise. This was a critical factor in victorious battles in wars in France – Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). Archery practise was officially encouraged:

“Cause public proclamation to be made,” declared an Act of 1369, “that everyone of said City of London strong in body, at leisure times and on holydays, use in their recreation bows and arrows.” Popular amusements such as handball and football were banned on pain of imprisonment.
[Entry for “Archery” in Weinreb and Hibbert (eds): The London Encyclopaedia (1993)]

The interesting insight is that the authorities in England were evidently not concerned about the prospect of any number of practised, skilled and armed archers wandering around – and the long bow is a very deadly weapon in skilled hands. There seems to have been no fear that the prevalence of trained archers might constitute a threat to political stability in England – or become a potent cause of crime.


SG 04.19.08 at 2:09 am

Also, I think we should ban Guy Fawkes Night.

I mean, come on Bob B, the popular story of RH (as opposed to whatever the “truth” might be) has a bunch of people defending their land from slave-holding, French invaders who usurped their king and stole all their money. This is the right thing to do. It’s like a mediaeval Red Dawn. We need to send this message wide and clear, not worry about its implications for social stability.


Bob B 04.19.08 at 4:47 am

An obvious question: How come there have been so many ballads, movies and TV serials about RH when historians have so much difficulty finding unequivocal documentary evidence of his origins, life events and fate given all the trouble he supposedly caused the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Compare Richard Whittington (1354-1423), a regular subject of pantomimes in London during the Christmas season:

Why no movies about Dick Whittington, who is surely a better role model than RH?

“Also, I think we should ban Guy Fawkes Night.”

C’mon. Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was a true-life terrorist caught setting up gunpowder charges to blow up the Houses of Parliament at the state opening in November 1605. Guy Fawkes night is a celebration of uncovering the conspiracy and the capture of the conspirators. Recent estimates, based on the amount of gunpowder, show the consequences of the plot would have been devastating:

“Guy Fawkes could have changed the face of London if his 1605 plot had not been foiled, explosion experts have said. His 2,500 kg of gunpowder could have caused chaos and devastation over a 490-metre radius, they have calculated. Fawkes’ planned blast was powerful enough to destroy Westminster Hall and the Abbey, with streets as far as Whitehall suffering damage, they say.”


SG 04.19.08 at 5:53 am

Yes Bob, that’s right, Guy Fawkes was “the only man to ever enter parliament with honest intentions”. Anyway, I was just being silly with that comparison (though need I point out that Nelson Mandela and the original founders of Israel were also terrorists?) And given the allegations that he may have been a stupid or unwilling dupe of plotters he didn’t properly understand, given he was tortured into a confession, and his subsequent execution (a practice long since banned in the UK) surely celebrating this barbaric stage of English justice sends a bad message as well?

And the obvious reason that there are so many movies stories and such-like about Robin Hood is that a) he was clearly doing a good thing b) his supposed lifestyle is clearly very romantic and c) the British are a bunch of nationalist wankers who are willing to overlook almost any sin for a guy who is willing to stick it to the French.

I think you are getting a little too hung up on the “facts” about Robin Hood and ignoring the only important thing about him, which is the story. Isn’t that what this historiography thing is meant to be all about?


Bob B 04.19.08 at 10:33 am

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered, the prescribed lawful punishment for high treason at the time and which wasn’t abolished until 1790. Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, who were executed at various sites around London, were by no means the last victims of this appallingly cruel means of public execution:,_drawn_and_quartered

We can only speculate about the official motives for introducing this savage sentence for high treason but our ancestors were evidently wiser than is commonly supposed. If hanging was a regular judicial sentence for a wide range of crimes on conviction, such as petty theft as well as rape, robbery and murder, it was presumably appreciated that some extra refinement of deterrence was essential for especially heinous crimes, such as treason. We have an old saying relating back to those times which illustrates the perverse incentive effect: “Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

My favourite, documented story relating to hanging, drawing and quartering:

In 1447 five men had already been hanged, cut down while still alive and stripped ready for quartering when their Royal pardon arrived but the hangman refused to return their clothes – a legitimate perk of his job – so they were obliged to walk home naked.
[source: entry for Tyburn in: Weinreb and Hibbert (eds): The London Encyclopaedia (1993)]

Which only shows how ancient is the tradition of custom and practice in British trade unionism.

#46: “the British are a bunch of nationalist wankers who are willing to overlook almost any sin for a guy who is willing to stick it to the French”

I know of no source linking RH legends with the wars in France. More to the point, RH legends link him with lingering popular resentment against Norman rule in the north of England and associated insurgency there for well established historic reasons:


harold 04.20.08 at 4:53 pm

Robin Hood legend originates in a series of 18th Century broadside ballads, I believe. Scots hero Wallace the same. Though there may be some fragments of older ballads about Robin Hood.

Alan Lomax’s Folksongs of North America has an American one that begins, “When Phoebus had melted the shackles of ice/ and likewise the mountains of snow/ Bold Robin Hood, that archer so good/ Went a-frolicking about with his bow, brave boys,/ A frolicking about with his bow.” It’s very pretty. The first verse, I mean, at any rate.

I think I dimly remember from college days that the medieval Robin Hood literature (popular plays and the like) was not so political but merely comic and erotic. A sort of medieval vaudeville. That is my recollection — perhaps wrong. It is curious that political themes begin to appear in the 18th century. Could it have been a reaction to contemporary events? Land enclosure, for instance?

If I were looking for a children’s book about Robin Hood, I would seek out one with text based on the ballads (18th c.), just for the sake of historical not accuracy really but continuity.

Of course, I remember the Richard Green series — it was shown here — with nostalgia. Am planning to but some of the DVDs to give as Christmas gifts next December.

As far as Bob B., I can only answer:

“Why come ye hither, redcoats?
Your mind what madness fills?
There is danger in our valleys,
There is danger in our hills.
Oh hear ye not the ringing
Of the bugle wild and free?
Full soon you’ll hear the singing
Of the rifle from the tree.

cho: For the rifle, for the rifle.
In our hands will prove no trifle.

Ye ride a goodly steed,
Ye may serve a foreign master;
Ye forward come with speed,
But ye’ll learn to back much faster,
When ye meet our mountain boys
And their leader, Johnny Stark,
Lads who make but little noise,
Lads who always hit the mark!

Have ye no graves at home
Across the briny water,
That hither ye must come
Like bullocks to the slaughter?
If we the work must do,
Why the sooner ’tis begun,
If flint and trigger hold but true,
The quicker ’twill be done!–Song of the Bennington Riflemen


Bob B 04.20.08 at 8:51 pm

By many accounts, the Bennington Riflemen were more substantive and substantiated than Robin Hood and his merry men. I know of no special reason that might account for the emergence of RH ballads in the 18th century unless it be a sign of social unrest in the north of England at the time, most likely due to a run of bad harvests – at any rate, that is what I’m inclined to guess and would be inclined to research.

Many years ago, wandering around the graveyard of the Church in Howarth, Yorkshire, where the parson at one time had been the father of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte (1816-55), Emily (1818-48) and Anne (1820-49)), I was taken by the conspicuously (and horrifically) large number of grave stones recording the deaths of infants less than five years old.

This was a case where the Church and the village had all been well preserved because of present tourism generated by the literary fame of the sisters so this manifestation of high infant mortality c. 1800 was therefore more evident than it likely is in other, less preserved Church graveyards. Come to that, the Brontë sisters all had relatively short lives by today’s standards.

Hanging as judicial punishment in England for a wide range of offences, petty and serious, has already been mentioned in the thread. Consider this on the thesis that crime waves relate to cycles in living standards:

“Some thirty-five thousand people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830, and seven thousand were ultimately executed, the majority convicted of crimes such as burglary, horse theft, or forgery. Mostly poor trades people, these terrified men and women would suffer excruciating death before large and excited crowds.”

At the first census in Britain in 1801, the population was about 10½ million.


richard 04.21.08 at 3:01 am

Bob b: are you a bot?
sg: Oi! Who are you calling a nationalist?

On a slightly more serious note, it’s rare and refreshing to see someone thinking about the wave of state violence in the 18th century without going straight to E. P. Thompson and M. Foucault, and explanations based on the concept of a ‘baroque’ early modern transition, with governments facing novel social threats and responding with ever-increasing tyranny. Bad harvests in the North? Could be.


harold 04.21.08 at 4:18 am

The Robin Hood legend as we know it really emerged in the 19th c.

Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe
is responsible for locating Robin in the reign of King John and also for introducing / combining the theme of the resentment of the older Anglo-Saxon populace against the invading Normans and their laws (particularly the ban on hunting) with the bad government of King John. Fifty years ago or so virtually everyone had to read Ivanhoe in school.

Robin Hood resists bad government. That is supposed to be a bad thing?

In the end, though, he bows to “the rightful king” — i.e., the one with the mandate of heaven.

Scott was a conservative, by the way — or at least a Burkean moderate.

Not that in real life the people of Northern England didn’t have reason to complain of Norman rule. Or all Britain of the continued immiseration and famine and disease (not only in Ireland) that accompanied industrialization and land enclosure. Not to mention the onerous ban on poaching (which is why Americans who emigrated here during the 18th c. cling so passionately to their guns.) It’s not surprising that the sense of grievance about all this should have been simmering away in British folklore over the centuries.


Bob B 04.21.08 at 7:36 am

“Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe”

I’ve already remarked on Scott’s Ivanhoe in the thread (#35) – to point out that his version of the RH legend, located in the early 13th century, conflicts with the currently prevailing historiographic consensus of an early 14th century character, when it is much less credible to claim motivation of popular resentment against the Normans – who were fairly well socially integrated by then. What I don’t know is what sources underpin Scott’s version of the legend.

I’ve also tried to hint that making “evil” King John one of the background villains in the received tale was perhaps considered more socially acceptable than locating RH in the reign of the eccentric Edward II in the 14th century.

But regardless of the historiography, I’m committed to arguing that the theme of rob-the-rich-to-pay-the-poor in media presentations of the legends, including the ballads, has served as an insidious model for various criminal gangs, including Frank and Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde and the true-life Mafioso in Scorsese’s movie: GoodFellas (1990). There are several real examples in Britain too, some current or very recent. The motivation is that making side pay-offs is an effective model for buying cover and protection in poor communities from law enforcement authorities.

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