Friday, July 24, 2015

Notes from the Greenwood: Little John's Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)

Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)

By Stephen Basdeo

Leeds Trinity University

“When the people find themselves generally aggrieved, they are apt to manifest their resentment in satirical ballads, allegories, by-sayings, and ironical points of low wit.”
- Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke [1]


The early eighteenth century was the golden age of satire.
Photo by Stephen Basdeo
The satirical periodicals of Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler and The Spectator, attacked the vices and follies of polite society, whilst plays such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) equated those in ‘high life’ with the thieves, prostitutes, and beggars in ‘low life.’ A recurring target of many satirists’ writings was the Whig Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He was compared to the Thief Taker, Jonathan Wild (1683-1745), in both Henry Fielding’s eponymous 1743 novel as well as The Beggar’s Opera. [2] The Prime Minister was accused of many things including fraud, embezzlement, and it is no surprise that, with his nick-name being Robin, he was often equated with the freebooter of medieval legend, Robin Hood.  Satirical ballads were popular, and in 1727 two satires appeared. The first was Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster, which I will briefly speak of, and which has warranted a cursory commentary by Barrie Dobson and John Taylor. [3] Indeed, I feel that this ballad has been neglected somewhat, probably owing to John Mathew Gutch’s rather inaccurate comment that ‘it is not to be supposed that this ballad relates to any transactions in the life of our hero…it is in all probability a satire upon some courtier, who had made application to the king for the rangership of one of his forests.’ [4] After this brief discussion, however, I would like to bring to your attention an archival “discovery” that I made on 22 July 2015, the ballad Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster.


Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)

Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster reads as though it is a sequel to the Robin Hood legend. The year is 1202, and Robin has been pardoned by King John and has become the King’s ‘keeper.’ He is corrupt, and in the name of the King imposes high taxes on all the noblemen of England. The Duke of Lancaster is upset with this state of affairs, and travels to see the King in order to ‘expose’ Robin Hood’s corruption:

       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, called Bold Robin Hood,
       Keeps us all but himself, my good liege, in a wood.

       He riseth ere daybreak to kill your fat dear,
       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. [5]

The Duke is particularly concerned that Robin Hood is inviting his friends to serve with him in the government, and that concern rests with the appointment of one Harry Gambol:

       What is worse, he will make Harry Gambol a keeper;
       And the plot every day is laid deeper and deeper;
       Should he bring him once in, your court would grow thinner,
       For instead of a Saint, he would turn out a sinner. [6]

King John, it appears, is perfectly acquainted with the current state of affairs in his government, but has resigned himself to the fact that, even if he were to appoint anybody else as his keeper, they would be just as corrupt. And this is a view shared by the next ballad which I will discuss which is called Little John’s Answer.


Little John's Answer (1727)

The ballad Little John’s Answer was authored anonymously. Indeed, this was a common practice amongst the writers of eighteenth-century satire. It was a time when claiming authorship of a satirical work could sometimes land an author in a spot of bother during this century. Daniel Defoe, for example, once found himself in the pillory for publishing a satirical work that was deemed to be seditious by the authorities entitled The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702). Little John’s Answer is not a typical broadside ballad: it is a four page pamphlet and cost 4 pence. Broadsides were typically only one sheet and cost a penny.

Little John’s Answer is a response to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster. The year is 1202 and Robin has been pardoned and is now the King’s ‘keeper.’ The Duke of Lancaster travels to see the King in order to expose Robin’s corruption:
       Then soon the Duke, his tale did begin,
       How bold Robin Hood, did abuse the good King,
       By keeping his subjects, inclos’d in a wood. [7]

King John says that were the Duke of Lancaster in Robin’s position, he would be just as corrupt:

       Should I turn Robin out, that would not be all,
       You tell me, You would have no Robbing at all:
       But Robin will Robb, do all that you can,
       For he is a Wit, and a vast Cunning Man.
       I guess what your Grace, now, does mean, very plain,
       If Robin’s a thief you would be the same;
       I may as well have my keeper, a R------- that I know,
       Sir, you have your answer, and so you may go. [8]

As to the concern that Harry Gambol will be made a keeper also, the King responds in a manner that he is not one who can be played by politicians:

       Says my Liege, should I make Harry Gambol a Keeper,
       I do not think that the Plot it could be deeper:
       My Court, when he comes, shall ne’er be much thinner,
       For I’ll keep him out Sir, as I am a Sinner. [9]

The ballad concludes that the entire political system is broken. Robin and the Duke of Lancaster are the same type of people:  they are politicians, and are no better than robbers.

Robin Hood stands in for the then-current Prime Minister, Walpole, the Duke of Lancaster represents Baron Nicholas Lechmere, Harry Gambol is Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), and King John is King George I (r.1714-1727). And before relating the events to which both ballads refer, it is necessary to give some background to these historical personages. In 1714 the Whigs won the election, and they ousted from officers many of the Tories who had been members of the previous administration under Queen Anne. One of their targets was the Tory Lord Bolingbroke who, wanting to avoid a Court case on spurious charges of corruption, fled to France and began to serve the exiled Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766). Bolingbroke also played a major part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, serving as James’ Secretary of State. After the rising, James blamed Bolingbroke for its failure. Sensing he was about to fall out of favour, Bolingbroke secretly made contact with the British Ambassador in Paris and negotiated for himself a pardon, thereby allowing him to return to England. Bolingbroke returned to England in April 1723, though was still subject to some restrictions such as not being able to take up his seat in the House of Lords. [10]

Meantime, Walpole had entrenched his power in the House of Commons by ingratiating himself to the King, and also by appointing his key political allies to the top posts of the government. And by 1727 Walpole was indeed the ‘great man’ of British politics, and according to one early biographer, ‘stood in the highest estimation of King and nation.’ [11] Although supporters of the Tory opposition did not think too highly of him at the same time, as the satirical works of Fielding and Gay alluded to above indicate. In 1727 Bolingbroke also tried to effect the full restitution of his aristocratic rights, and so approached Ms. Kendal, the King’s “favourite” to see if she could have a word in the King’s ear, so to speak. She was dismissed outright by the King, and all seemed lost for Bolingbroke. However, Walpole proved to be an unlikely ally in this matter and convinced the King to at least have an audience with Bolingbroke as it was politically expedient for him to do so:
At a proper interval, Walpole besought the king to grant an audience to Bolingbroke; and urged the propriety, by observing, that if this request was rejected, much clamour would be raised against him for keeping the king to himself, and for permitting none to approach his person who might tell unwelcome truths. [12]

The King agreed, and eventually a meeting was arranged between him and Bolingbroke. 

Now begins the events to which Little John’s Answer refers. Another man, Lechmere (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancashire, hence the 'Duke of Lancaster' in the ballad), got wind of this and thought that Walpole was inviting someone who had previously been a traitor to serve in the government. On the day appointed for the meeting between the King and Bolingbroke, Lechmere travelled to see the King upon the flimsy pretence of getting him to sign some papers. When Lechmere asked to see the King he was told that he must wait for he was in an interview with Bolingbroke. At that moment Bolingbroke exited the King’s apartment, and this happened:
Lechmere instantly rushed into the closet, and without making any apology, or entering upon his own business, burst out into the most violent invectives against Walpole, whom he reviled as not contented with doing mischief himself, but as having introduced one [Bolingbroke] who was, if possible worse than himself, to be his assistant. [13]

The King was bemused as Lechmere had completely misunderstood the situation, and asked Lechmere if he would like to be Prime Minister, to which Lechmere did not answer, which accounts for the phrase in the ballad:

       Sir, would you succeed him? pray let us dispute,
       Obedience and silence, answer’d the Duke;
       The King turn’d about, and he smil’d for to hear. [14]

Lechmere left the King’s apartment, muttering to himself and having achieved nothing. Walpole, slightly confused, asked the King what had just happened, to which the King simply replied ‘Bagatelles! Bagatelles!’ [15] To the King, the entire situation was simply amusing. 

In the political climate of the eighteenth century, however, a funny event such as this was easily picked up on by satirists in the press to lampoon politicians. The events between Lechmere, Bolingbroke, Walpole, and the King would have needed to be current enough in the gossip of the town for people to get the joke, so it is primarily a London-based politically-informed audience that this ballad was written for.  I also think that the author of Little John’s Answer is appealing to a wider plebeian audience. For instance, it is evident that he intends his work to be sung, as a traditional ballad would be, because the title page reads ‘to the Tune of The Abbot of Canterbury.’ [16] Hence Little John’s Answer features the well-known ‘derry derry down’ refrain common to many folk ballads. Although it is evident that the ballad has relatively little to do with the Robin Hood legend, I think the author, in choosing Robin Hood as a subject, is appealing to people who would have been familiar with contemporary Robin Hood ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner (which also features the ‘derry down’ refrain). Indeed, all classes in the early modern period participated in what we would term ‘popular’ culture, [17] and as the research of Jurgen Habermas shows, furthermore, it was through the print culture of the early eighteenth century that contributed to the creation of the public sphere, in which the political issues could be debated. [18] Little John’s Answer is part of this critique of contemporary politics that was fueled by the press.  Whilst a lot of eighteenth-century political commentary is divided along party lines, however, this ballad is critical of corruption in the political system as a whole. This is perhaps why the author has chosen the medieval period; in his own supposedly enlightened times, the statesmen who run the country are no better than medieval lords.



The events which the ballad relates are often a mere humorous footnote in eighteenth-century political history books. And you are probably wondering why we, as Robin Hood scholars, should pay attention to Little John’s Answer. Robin Hood emerges from the ballad with a tarnished reputation; he is a thief and ‘a vast cunning man.’ [20] Although this description in reality refers to Walpole, it is the fact that Robin Hood can be used in such a way that is significant. In Robin Hood studies, there is currently a narrative, explained most excellently in Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (1994), which holds that the legend, throughout the course of its history, became gradually gentrified. It is a process that began, according to Knight, with Anthony Munday’s two plays entitled The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1601). Now taken alone, these two Duke of Lancaster ballads do not invalidate the entire narrative of gentrification which the legend clearly underwent. However, when taken together with eighteenth-century criminal biographies, in which Robin is described as a ‘sinner’  who gave into his ‘wicked inclinations,’ and led ‘a wicked, licentious course of life for above twenty year’ [21] (and criminal biography was one of the most popular forms of reading entertainment in the early eighteenth century), it is evident that such un-gentrified representations of Robin Hood co-existed for a time with the more ‘safe’ depictions and appropriations of Robin Hood, such as Moses Mendez’ play Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751), or Francis Waldron’s The Sad Shepherd (1783). I have not been able to find any gentrified representations of Robin Hood between c.1700 and c.1730; this indicates that the process of gentrification paused, at least for a few decades. This could be explained by the fact that, as property and money were sacrosanct to the aspirational middle classes during the early eighteenth century, it is no surprise that they did not wish to identify with, or think highly of a man, who stole from the rich.



These eighteenth-century satirical appropriations deserve attention from Robin Hood scholars. The appropriations nuance the narrative of gentrification and allow us to see the legend, and particularly its later components, as carefully using the past to make sense of the present. In the context of other contemporary documents and source, it becomes clear that the Robin Hood of the most popular forms of eighteenth-century print culture was not a man to be admired or respected. And the fact that Robin Hood can be equated with an embezzling and corrupt Prime Minister is evidence of this.



[1] Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, The Craftsman, 10 Feb. 1733 cited in Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 27.

[2] In an age before the establishment of a professional police force, the detection and prosecution of crime fell to the office of thief taker. They were private entrepreneurs who charged a fee to victims of robbery for the recovery of their stolen goods. The posts were open to corruption, and Jonathan Wild (1682-1725) became the head of a criminal network whilst functioning as London’s chief law-enforcer. He was finally caught out in 1725 when he lost his grip of power on London’s underworld and his henchmen began to turn against him. For more information see Lucy  Moore, The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997). 

[3] Barrie Dobson & John Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw (Stroud: Sutton, 1976), pp. 191-194.

[4] John Mathew Gutch, ‘Introduction: Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’ [1727] ed. by John Mathew Gutch in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode with other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, 1847), pp.396-400 (p. 397)

[5] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’ ed. by John Mathew Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, p. 397.

[6] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’ p. 397.

[7] Anon. Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster. A Ballad, to the Tune of The Abbot of Canterbury (London: Printed by T. White in Chancery Lane, 1727), pp. 1-4 (p.4).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] H. T. Dickinson, ‘St John, Henry, styled first Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751)’ The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet Accessed 8 April 2015].

[11] William Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Earl and Brown, 1816), p. 250.

[12] Coxe, Memoirs, pp. 252-253.

[13] Coxe, Memoirs, p. 253.

[14] Anon. Little John’s Answer, p.4.

[15] Coxe, Memoirs, p. 253.

[16] Anon. Little John’s Answer, p.1.

[17] Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith, 1978). 

[18] Jurgen Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. By Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MS: MIT Press, 1982).

[19] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’ p. 398.

[20] Anon. Little John’s Answer, p.4.

[21] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats [1719] ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), pp. 408-412.

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