17th century

Robin Hood the Brute: The Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography

This is a copy of the paper that I presented at the International Association for Robin Hood Studies ‘Outlaws in Context’ Conference, 30 June – 1 July 2015.

Alexander Smith's A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)

Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)

Abstract. The eighteenth century was the perfect time for Robin Hood stories to circulate, being the golden age of criminal biography and ‘gentlemanly’ highwaymen such as Dick Turpin. Yet apart from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795), the outlaw’s appearance in eighteenth-century print culture is under-researched. Robin Hood frequently appeared in the genre of criminal biography. In these works, Robin Hood holds a dubious reputation, his life held up as an example to readers to avoid a life of sin and vice. This paper argues that to fully understand the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, then these hitherto neglected sources deserve critical examination from Robin Hood Studies researchers.


The image which most people have of Robin Hood in the eighteenth century is the Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies. He is the noble Earl of Huntingdon. He steals from the rich to feed the poor. But this is not the eighteenth-century Robin Hood of whom I wish to speak. During my BA and MA studies, under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore, I was introduced to one of the most fascinating genres of eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. So when I began my Ph.D. project, I decided to explore whether Robin Hood appeared in any of these criminal biographies, my reasoning being that, as the eighteenth century was the golden age of the highwayman, then Robin Hood, who in many respects is the original highwayman, must surely have made an appearance somewhere. And sure enough he did. Whilst some early eighteenth-century authors such as Sir Richard Steele call Robin Hood a ‘British Worthy,’ equal to classical heroes such as Jason, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar,[1] these criminal biographies depict Robin Hood as a cold-blooded killer, a sinner who turned to crime because he gave into his wicked inclinations.

You are probably wondering why I have called this paper ‘Robin Hood the Brute’. I will explain why by going into some of the theory which underpins this talk and my Ph.D. project as a whole. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no Robin Hood scholars have taken up the study of representations of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century criminal biography. So I have had to turn to the work of Lincoln B. Faller who in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987) studied over 2,000 criminal biographies from this period. Based on readings of these sources, he came up with a typology of thieves:

We may begin by positing three categories of thief: hero, brute, buffoon…practically all of them may be described within this range. [2]

I have found that Robin Hood is no exception to this rule, so at the moment I am arranging my own study of Robin Hood literature from the eighteenth century along these lines. The Robin Hood of the broadside ballads, in which he comes across as a bit of a jokey, carnivalesque type outlaw, falls under the ‘buffoon’ category. The Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies falls under the ‘hero’ category. And the Robin Hood I am about to introduce you to, in which he is portrayed as cold blooded killer, falls under the ‘brute’ category, and I will make the case that these hitherto neglected pieces of literature are worthy of our consideration as Robin Hood scholars if we are to understand more fully how the legend has developed over time.

The Significance of Criminal Biography in the 18th Century

Now, I realise many of you here are medieval historians and literary critics, so just as Henry Fielding frequently does in Tom Jones (1749), in true eighteenth-century style I would like to briefly digress, in order to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did, and to highlight just how popular it was with contemporaries. In the eighteenth century crime appears to have been the subject upon everybody’s lips. People believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. One late seventeenth-century commentator exclaimed that ‘even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed.’ [3] The situation was apparently still bad in the mid-eighteenth century, as Fielding wrote in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. (1751) that:

The great increase of robbers within these few years, is an evil which to me appears to deserve some attention; and the rather as it seems (tho’ already become so flagrant) not yet to have arrived to that height of which it is capable, and which it is likely to attain […] In fact, I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [4]

The English Rogue (1665) by William Head

The English Rogue (1665) by William Head – one of many criminal biographies originating in the 17th century.

The legal response to this perceived crime wave was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code, in which over 200 offences became capital felonies. Its concomitant cultural response was the proliferation of criminal biographies. Along with serialised publications such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, there were also many standalone criminal biographies such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) and H.D.’s The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death (1725). Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies. Daniel Defoe authored three of these types of criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of Jonathan Wild the Great (1725). In fact, some of Defoe’s novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) are often seen as more ‘sophisticated’ criminal biographies. [5] Fielding himself authored another history of Jonathan Wild entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). The point here is that this is not some fringe genre of literature which was read by only a few, but in some ways was the most popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century, especially the early part of it.

Robin Hood the Brute

The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ [6] Robin also makes an appearance in a similar compendium of felons’ lives, Captain Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen and Street Robbers (1734). Robin appears also in two more of these; the anonymously-authored The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737), and The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (1787). Smith’s Highwaymen is the model for all subsequent editions, and many passages in the later biographies are lifted directly from Smith’s work. Criminal biographies are formulaic, beginning with the birth and parentage of the offender. They then recount the criminal’s descent into vice and a life of crime, or, as Faller would put it, ‘a graduated sequence of steps downward, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ [7] Then there is the death of the offender, and all of the Robin Hood criminal biographies follow this pattern.

There is disagreement about Robin Hood’s social status amongst these criminal biographies. We are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as being the noble Earl of Huntingdon today, but Smith was not convinced:

This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second. [8]

The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood from 1737, on the other hand, does say that Robin was the Earl of Huntingdon, a tradition which has its origins in Anthony Munday’s and Henry Chettle’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1599), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601):

I shall not trouble my reader with a long genealogy of the descent of our famous Earl of Huntingdon, whose father was head ranger in the North of England, [and] his mother [who was] the daughter of the Right honourable Earl of Warwick, [and] his uncle [who] was the Squire of Gamwell Hall. [9]

To be honest, Robin Hood’s social status is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the eighteenth century, and indeed the authors themselves were rarely concerned with establishing facts. [10] There was no concept of a ‘criminal class’ in eighteenth-century England, and offenders were not sociologically different to law-abiding people. Instead all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners. [11] You became a criminal if you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.

Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws.’ [12] The theme of young men who ‘follow not their trade’ is a recurring motif in eighteenth-century criminal biography, and is often the first step towards a criminal career. In Defoe’s biography of Jack Sheppard, for instance, it is Sheppard’s gradual dislike of honest employment that ‘laid the foundation of his ruin.’ [13] It is a theme that is most apparent, of course, in William Hogarth’s series of prints Industry and Idleness (1747). Reminiscent of Hogarth’s prints, in which the tales of an industrious young apprentice is juxtaposed with that of an idle apprentice, is the 1737 version of Robin Hood’s life. The content of Robin’s life is heavily plagiarised from Smith’s work, but the interesting thing about this work is that it is bound together with The History of Johnny Armstrong of Westmoreland. Unlike Robin, Johnny Armstrong is industrious, and grows rich, and in time ‘there was such a providence upon his industry.’ [14] And this appears to have been a deliberate intention on the part of the author or publisher, for in contemporary ballads of Johnny Armstrong, he is every bit of a marauding freebooter as is Robin Hood. [15] If it was not the intention on the part of the author to present the tales of these two men as tales of industry and idleness, then why amend Johnny Armstrong’s story in such a way?

All of the criminal biographies then recount in prose the tales of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballads, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, and The Jolly Pindar of Wakefield. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the eighteenth century this does not make a thief anything special. It is almost as though people simply rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. Smith records other highwaymen, such as James Hind, doing this on occasion. [16] In fact, when one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told the Ordinary of Newgate that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the Ordinary sarcastically replied that it was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers.’ [17] Another way that the criminal biographies portray Robin negatively is when he meets the king. In A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450), which is one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, the king travels to Nottingham in disguise, meets Robin, and after a feast and a game of archery, the king reveals himself to Robin:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge,
Wystly in the face,
So dyde syr Richard at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place. [18]

These types of ‘King and Commoner’ tales, as we heard from Mark earlier, are common in folk ballads from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. [19] Now, the criminal biographies begin the tale of the king and commoner in the usual way; the king sets out on a progress to Nottingham, but ‘Robin Hood, hearing thereof, resolved to rob him.’ [20] And instead of the meeting between the King and Robin ending amiably, as we are used to seeing in adaptations of the legend today, Robin just robs him. Smith writes that ‘the King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.’ [21] So obviously we have here a very revised figure from the Robin Hood whom we would recognise today, and I would like to think that this image of Robin, if he existed at all, is probably closer to how he existed than the Robin Hood of, say, Ivanhoe (1819), or late Victorian children’s books.

The Theatre of God's Judgments (1748)

The Theatre of God’s Judgements (1748)

We all had the wonderful opportunity to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees yesterday, and I am sure, as Robin Hood scholars, we are all familiar with the accounts of how he dies in the Geste and Robin Hood’s Death and Burial; he is old, he goes to his cousin at Kirklees to be bled, but, conspiring with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, who wants him dead, she bleeds him to death:

Syr Roger of Donkestre,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe. [22]

In his dying moments Little John asks that he might burn the place down but Robin, noble to the end, commands him not too, for he never hurt any company that a woman was in. [23] But in the eighteenth century, the situation is represented rather differently:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay. [24]

Firstly, the nun receives no censure in this account. It seems as though his death is like divine punishment for having lived a ‘licentious course of life’ for 20 years.’ It has to be remembered that, to the reader of Smith’s work, Robin Hood was not a simple highwayman but also a murderer. Murder was a most heinous crime in the eighteenth century, a direct attack on God, for it was essentially defacing and maiming the image of God which he had placed upon the world. [25] It was believed during the century, even by men as “Enlightenment” as Fielding, that God himself directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murder. The author of the 1748 work The Theatre of God’s Judgement declared that ‘the justice of God riseth up, and with his own arme he discovereth and punisheth the murder; yea, rather than the murderer shall go unpunished, senceless creatures and his own heart and tongue rise to give sentence against him.’ [26] As you can see in Smith’s account, Robin’s own heart had risen up against him, when he was ‘struck with some remorse of conscience,’ and it was then, we he sought refuge in a monastery, that he was finally punished for his wicked ways.

An even more surprising account of the death comes in the 1787 version of Robin Hood’s life:

Being worn out with the many desperate battles he engaged himself in, he retired to his cousin’s who then resided at Kirkley-Hall in the County of York, and upon desiring her to let him blood, she did it so effectually that she meant him never to do any more harm, for, after opening a vein, she locked him in a room, where he bled to death; but, just before his departing, he sounded his bugle horn, when Little John, who heard the summons, directly [illegible] to his lord and master, who begged with his last breath that Kirkley Hall and the nunnery adjoining it, might be burned to the ground as revenge for his death – which request we are informed was complied with. [27]

I have included this account here just to show you all the extent to which the writers of criminal biography were prepared to revise the Robin Hood legend in their writings. He was not the ‘good yeman’ of early medieval texts, [28] nor was he the ‘gentle master’ of seventeenth and eighteenth-century plays. [29] He really was a brute.

Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774) [Source: Wikipedia]

Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774)
[Source: Wikipedia]

The authors of criminal biographies intended their works to serve as pieces of moral instruction. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led the felons to the gallows. And these are texts predominantly aimed at the middle classes. Volume three of Smith’s Highwaymen cost half a crown, whilst Johnson’s Highwaymen was published in folio format complete with fine engravings. [30] Perhaps the best indication of the audience for this type of literature can be gained by examining the frontispiece to another famous (multi-volume, and no doubt expensive) criminal biography entitled The Newgate Calendar (1785). In that picture, a well-to-do lady in a finely furnished apartment hands her son a copy of The Newgate Calendar whilst pointing to the gibbet outside the window, in order to ensure that her son heeds the moral lessons in the text. Whether people actually paid attention to the moral lessons of these texts is debatable. In fact, writers such as Hal Gladfelder have argued that the authors themselves were only paying mere ‘lip service’ to conventional morality in their writings, and that really the desire of Smith and others was to capitalise on people’s desire for sensational and violent entertainment. But I think Robin Hood’s case complicates that position somewhat. Why would the authors take Robin Hood, a man whom contemporary writers such as Steele thought was a ‘British Worthy’ and deliberately reconfigure him into a brute? Why do it if their moralism was only an ‘obligatory gesture’? It seems to me that it is more than mere ‘lip service’ if they were willing to do this.

In terms of our understanding of the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, I also believe that this complicates the rather clear-cut thesis that currently seems to be the consensus among Robin Hood scholars. Currently we think of the development of the legend in the following way: in the medieval period Robin was a bold robber, an often violent yeoman, then in the seventeenth century he becomes gentrified and that largely is a process that has continued to this day. [31] Robin is now usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, steals from the rich, etc. etc. These sources from the eighteenth century, however, almost make it seem as though the brakes were applied temporarily to the ongoing gentrification of the legend, especially between c.1720 and c.1740, for there is other sources such as the political ballad Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) which portray Robin negatively also.


I am sure we are all aware of what happens to the Robin Hood legend in the second half of the eighteenth century. Robin’s gentrification continues in plays such as Moses Mendez’ Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751), and Leonard MacNally’s Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784). It is in the works of late eighteenth-century antiquaries, however, that Robin receives a new breath of life. In Joseph Ritson’s 1795 work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Robin becomes, as the subtitle implies, the ‘celebrated English outlaw.’ Ritson’s text, including his ‘Life of Robin Hood’ and the anthology of ballads which was included in his work, have been studied at length by scholars, and Ritson’s work is said to be one of the most important works in the history of the Robin Hood legend. His work presents ‘a hero who was undeniably gentrified but also memorable, bold, and adventurous.’ [32] But the criminal biographies I have discussed here, I think, were more subtly influential upon the legend than we Robin Hood scholars have hitherto realised. When Ritson was writing the biography of Robin Hood, in his first paragraph, he references Robin’s previous ‘professed biographers.’ In his very first footnote, he cites some of the criminal biographies I have examined here:

“Former biographers”…the first of these respectable personages is the author, or rather compiler, of “The noble birth and gallant atchievements of that remarkable outlaw Robin Hood”…Another piece of biography, from which not much will be expected, is, “The lives and heroick atchievements of the renowned Robin Hood, and James Hind”…This, however, is probably nothing more than an extract from Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen. [34]

It almost appears as though Joseph Ritson, arguably the most famous man in the history of the Robin Hood legend, wrote his biography of Robin Hood in response to these criminal biographies. He is admiring of his forebears, referring to them as ‘respectable personages’ but Ritson aims to produce a more detailed and scholarly account than the stories of Robin Hood’s birth that were current during the eighteenth century. So I just want to conclude by saying that Robin Hood, for a significant part of the eighteenth century, and in one of the most popular genres of literature, Robin Hood was not a man to be admired, but was nothing more than a brute; knowing this will add to a more nuanced understanding of the development of the legend as a whole in the post medieval period.


[1] Richard Steele, ‘The Tatler, Tuesday 18 October 1709’ The Tatler and the Guardian Complete in One Volume (London: Jones & Co. 1801), pp.178-181 (p.181).
[2] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.127.
[3] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.X.
[4] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil. In Which the Present Reigning Vices are Impartially Exposed; and the Laws that Relate to the Provision for the Poor, and to the Punishment of Felons are Largely and Freely Examined (Dublin: Printed for G. Faulkner, in Essex Street, P. Wilson, R. James, and M. Williamson in Dame-Street, Booksellers, 1751), p.1.
[5] See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
[6] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats [1719] ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), p.408.
[7] Faller, Turned to Account, p.127.
[8] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[9] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (London: Henry Woodgate, 1737), p.1.
[10] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.84.
[11] Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
[12] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[13] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ [1724] ed. by Richard Holmes Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), pp.1-44 (p.6).
[14] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood, p.60.
[15] George Barnett Smith, ‘Introduction: Johnnie Armstrong’ ed. by George Banrett Smith Illustrated British Ballads: Old and New (London: Cassell & Company Ltd. 1894), p.330.
[16] Smith, Highwaymen, p.137.
[17] Stephen Roe, The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of Three Malefactors…Who Were Executed at Tyburn on Wednesday May 4th 1763 (London, 1763), p.35
[18] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ 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. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.73.
[19] Mark Truesdale, ‘The “King and Commoner” and “Robin Hood” Genres: þe best archer of ilkon, / I durst mete hym with a stone’ International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 30 June – 3 July 2015.
[20] Smith, Highwaymen, p.411.
[21] Smith, Highwaymen, pp.411-412.
[22] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.80.
[23] Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial,’ 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. II (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.186.
[24] Smith, Highwaymen, p.412.
[25] Faller, Turned to Account, p.73.
[26] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[27] Anon. The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (Knaresborough: Broadbell, 1787), p.16.
[28] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.2.
[29] Francis Waldron, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, a Fragment, Written by Ben Jonson, with a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix (London: J. Nichols, 1783), p.12.
[30] Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[31] See Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994).
[32] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p.96.
[33] Joseph Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ 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. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.iii.
[34] Joseph Ritson, ‘Notes and Illustrations’ 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. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.xiv.

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