Friday, September 18, 2015

Notes from the Greenwood: If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood

“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”

 Stephen Basdeo

Leeds Trinity University


Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Joseph Addison, from Robert Cochrane, ed., The English Essayists: A Comprehensive Selection from the Works of the Great Essayists from Lord Bacon to John Ruskin (London: William P. Nimmo, 1876).

Amongst the great writers of eighteenth-century literature, the names of two men stand out: Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719). These two quintessentially “Augustan” [1] writers dominated the literary marketplace between 1709 and 1715 through their essay periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Due to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which saw the end of government censorship, there was an explosion of printed material, [2] and Addison and Steele’s periodicals were part of this expansion in the availability of print culture. The public appetite for literature it seemed could not be sated. Although these periodicals had a seemingly modest circulation of just 3,000 copies, Addison claimed a readership for The Spectator that was somewhere approaching 60,000. [3] The fame of The Tatler and The Spectator also spread overseas: James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, recalled having read these periodicals daily (which by his time had been bound into 8 volumes and gone through numerous editions). [4] Addison’s high estimate for the number of readers is not unreasonable, for periodicals such as The Tatler, like many of the other periodicals available in the early eighteenth century, were designed to be read and debated in public arenas such as the coffeehouse and the tavern, and periodicals, or “moral weeklies” as Jurgen Habermas calls them, contributed to the birth of the bourgeois public sphere, or as we might phrase it today, public opinion. [5] Through the essays in these periodicals these authors promoted a culture of aristocratic politeness among urban readers, in which learning and self-improvement were the order of the day. [6]

It is Addison’s reference to Robin Hood in the eighty-first issue of The Tatler which I would like to bring to your attention. He opens his essay with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid:
Hic Manus ob Patriam pugnando Vulnera passi, 
Quique pii Vates & Phaebo digna locuti,
Inventas aut qui Vitam excoluere per Artes, 
Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.
Here are the hands that suffered wounds by fighting for their country 
And those devoted poets, who spoke words worth of Phoebus 
Or those who improved life through learned arts
And those who by their merits caused others to remember them. [7]

Addison tells his reader that he was musing upon the notion of immortality: “There are two Kinds of Immortality; that which the Soul enjoys after this Life, and that imaginary Existence by which Men live in their Fame and Reputation.” [8] It is with the second type of immortality that Addison concerns himself with in his essay, and he says that he spent the whole afternoon mentally cataloguing the various heroes and “military Worthies” that have appeared throughout world history. [9] He was so preoccupied with this matter, he says, that after many hours awake thinking it over, he fell into a deep sleep and proceeded to have a dream in which he was invited into a great hall in which a number of prestigious persons entered: 

The first who step’d forward, was a beautiful and blooming Hero, and as I heard by the Murmurs round me, Alexander the Great. He was conducted by a Crowd of Historians. [10]

Other ancient worthies enter: Xenophon, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey the Great, Augustus; it is all very classical, which of course ties into the neoclassical modes of the eighteenth century. 

All of these worthies sit at a table, but it is revealed that there is an empty seat at the table where these illustrious heroes are seated. They begin to whisper among themselves and discuss who, from British history, is worthy to join them at their table. Would they choose King Arthur? He had, after all, been called a “British Worthy” only a few years prior in John Dryden’s opera King Arthur; or, the British Worthy (1691). How about King Alfred, the only English King ever to have been given the epithet “the great”? No—neither of these men are good enough in the estimation of men such as Caesar and Augustus. They conclude by saying that, “if they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood.” [11] An outlaw who (supposedly) lived in the thirteenth century was greater than all of the other heroes of English history, and worthy enough to take his place amongst the likes of Alexander and Caesar.

In Addison’s essay all of the ancient worthies are from the Classical period, with the exception of Robin Hood. Indeed, Addison’s placing of Robin Hood—a medieval figure—among all those classical heroes seems incongruent. In the early part of the eighteenth century, whilst it was recognised that the Middle Ages were integral to Europe’s past, the period was “not much liked” by scholars and thinkers.[12] And 1750 is the date that Peter Raedt cites as having been the year when eighteenth-century scholars stopped being dismissive of the Middle Ages as a barbaric interlude between antiquity and the “enlightened” eighteenth century and the period began to be appreciated in its own right.[13] Raedt concentrates his article on Germany, and while some of his points are applicable to England, at the same time England seems to have never truly “lost” an appreciation of its medieval past during the early part of the eighteenth century. Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur has already been cited, and Dryden also “translated” (into perfectly rhyming couplets) parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). Handel also produced a medievalist opera Rinaldo (1711) set during the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thomas Arne and James Thomson also authored the libretto for the opera Alfred (1740), known most famously today for its finale Rule Britannia! An appreciation for England’s medieval past also manifested itself in architecture, most famously in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, designed in 1734 by William Kent. Whilst the marble busts of most of the great men on display there are mostly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there are two medieval figures present: King Alfred and Edward, the Black Prince. 

Yet Addison’s idealisation of Robin Hood as a British Worthy is an anomaly when compared to the works of Arne who venerated a King, Alfred, and the establishment figures that were sculpted in marble by William Kent. Robin is different to these other illustrious persons because he is an outlaw. And Addison’s reference to Robin Hood is certainly more positive than the one which would appear in Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) only a few years after Addison was writing, where Robin is described as a “wicked, licentious” individual. [14] This makes it seem odd that Addison would choose Robin Hood to make a point in a “moral weekly.” I have two theories about this. Firstly, it would seem that Robin Hood was by the early eighteenth century gentrified enough in the public consciousness for him to be used in such a way. The gentrification process had begun with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98) where Robin is recast firmly as an establishment figure. [15] The second is that an idealisation of Robin Hood fits in with eighteenth-century contemporaries’ love of liberty. In a later issue of The Tatler, Addison wrote about another vision he had in which he witnessed the goddess of Liberty presiding over the prosperity of the nation. [16] Although crime was increasingly viewed as a problem during the eighteenth century, as indicated by Fielding’s lament that the streets of London would soon become impassable except “without the utmost hazard,” [17] liberty-loving men of Georgian England resisted any attempt by the government to form a professional police force. In a rather odd sort of way, highwaymen (and Robin is the original highwayman) were loved by the people because to many they were seen to embody liberty. [18] People of all ranks held a degree of admiration for highwaymen. At the trial of the “Gentleman Highwayman,” James Maclaine (1724-1750), for example, “many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.” [19] This admiration of outlaws and highwaymen perhaps then explains why Smith, whose Highwaymen is a heavily moralist text, is so keen to recast Robin Hood in a negative light, for he evidently disagrees with the prevailing admiration for both Robin Hood and contemporary criminals.

Addison’s and others’ representations of Robin Hood raise questions as to whether the so-called ‘medieval revival’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was actually much of a ‘revival’ at all. In the eighteenth century, however, the Robin Hood tradition has a neoclassical overlay, in a similar manner to Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631), where the story of Robin Hood is portrayed as a classical and quasi-tragic story of lost pastoral love. [20] Drawing further connections with antiquity, in the play Maid Marian is equated with the goddess Diana. [21] After Addison was writing, Ely Hargroves, in Anecdotes of Archery (1792), catalogues all of the greatest archers in history, highlighting many of the illustrious archers of history such as Pandarus, Ulysees, Aeneas, and Robin Hood. [22] As Robin Hood scholars we are often told that the credit for popularising the medieval period rests largely with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), a novel which, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), ‘first turned men's minds in the direction of the Middle Ages.’ [23] Whilst Scott’s historicist vision of the Robin Hood tradition was different to the neoclassical eighteenth-century interpretations of it discussed above, a sustained interest, admiration even, for medieval figures can be traced throughout the eighteenth century, not just from the Gothic Revival of mid-to-late part of the century onwards. 

In conclusion, whilst many early eighteenth-century appropriations of Robin Hood are negative, Addison’s elevation of Robin Hood into the status of a “worthy” in the face of negative interpretations is interesting for it confirms to us that the gentrification process was not a linear process but an uneven one. Addison’s essay is the only “gentrified” representation of Robin Hood (gentrified in the sense that he is elevated into someone equal to the heroes of antiquity) which I have managed to find between c.1700 and c.1730 and is certainly deserving of consideration. It is often fleeting comments about Robin Hood in later texts such as The Tatler which allow us to map and construct an idea of how people in past ages interpreted the legend at various points in its history. By 1709 it seems that Robin’s status was firmly gentrified in public consciousness for Joseph Addison to speak about him in a “moral weekly.”


[1] “Augustan,” named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, is the term usually applied to “high” culture in England which flourished during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. It is so called because artists and writers imitated Classical styles in their works, e.g. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (in imitation of the Iliad), or his Imitations of Horace

[2] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors. Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880), 19.

[4] Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971), 39.

[5] See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1989).

[6] James V. H. Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, New Approaches to European History 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 96.

[7] “No. 81,” in The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2: 13-21. Bond notes that but “for the last two sentences, this number is by Addison,” 13. The Latin verse from Virgil included at the beginning of Addison’s article for my essay is translated by Richard Thomason (Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds). 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

[12] Peter Raedt, “Representations of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Medieval History 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-20 at 1.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Ed.  Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 412.

[15] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 44.

[16] “No. 161,” in Bond, The Tatler, 2: 397-401. This issue is also authored by Addison.

[17] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.

[18] Lucy Moore, Conmen & Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

[19] Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin ed. “JAMES MACLANE Called ‘The Gentleman Highwayman.’ Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery.” The Newgate Calendar. (accessed 26 August 2015).

[20] Stephen Knight, “‘Meere English Flocks’: Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd and the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 129-44 at 131.

[21] Ibid., 134.

[22] Ely Hargroves, Anecdotes of Archery from the Earliest Ages to the Year 1791 (York: Printed for E. Hargroves, 1792), 1-17.

[23] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19, no. 4 (1965): 315-32 at 315. 

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