17th century

“The Noble Birth of Robin Hood” (1662)


In the sixteenth century a peculiar genre of romance emerged known as picaresque fiction. It originated in Spain and portrayed the lives of rogues and criminals. The first such Spanish work was entitled Lazarillo de Tormes (1554). Works were translated into English such as James Mabbe’s Guzman de Alfarache (1622). Later in the seventeenth century was the famous work The English Rogue (1665) which, in the words of Hal Gladfelder, marked the genre’s full assimilation into English. [1] In the seventeenth century also one of the first prose accounts of Robin Hood’s life was published entitled The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1662). [2] Its author was said to be ‘an Ingenious Antiquary’ who had collected all of the different materials purporting to tell the details of Robin Hood’s life. It was reprinted several times throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, and again by the antiquary William Thoms in his edited collection of Early English Prose Romances (1828). Robin Hood scholars have often been dismissive of this work. But I think it is significant because it appears to be an attempt to situate stories of England’s most famous outlaw within the genre of English rogue fiction.


It is not known who the author of The Noble Birth was, other than that he was, as we have seen, ‘an ingenious antiquary’. The authors of English rogue fiction often claimed that their stories were either from the mouths of real criminals, or collected from their memoirs, or delivered directly to the author. Richard Head followed this practice in Jackson’s Recantation (1674) which declared that:

Reader, let me assure thee this is no fiction, but a true relation of Mr. Jacksons life and conversation, Pen’d by his own hand, and delivered into mine to be made publick for his Countrymens good, in compensation of the many injuries he hath done them. [3]

This is a practice which continued with criminal biography in the eighteenth century, as well as later novels. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), for example, claims to have been ‘written from her own memorandums’. The author of The Noble Birth is similarly attempting something of the same with Robin Hood; given the fact that Robin is not a contemporary seventeenth-century figure, however, the author needs to claim that he is an antiquary who has researched the subject.


Title Page: Anon. The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood (1678 Edn.)


As the title implies, the author states that Robin was born the heir to the Earl of Huntingdon’s estate. But to the antiquary, the fact that he is of noble birth does not automatically equal being upright and moral. He tells us that Robin was:

Outlaw’d by Henry the Eight for many extravagances and outrages he committed, [and] did draw together a company of such bold and licentious persons as himself. [4]

We are not told why Robin turns to a life of crime, merely that he was ‘bold and licentious’. There are no lofty ideals which make him take to a life in the greenwood. Rather, like many protagonists in seventeenth-century rogue fiction, Robin acts on impulses – self-preservation at any cost, money, revenge. [5] Robin’s actions are thus encouraged by the newly-emerging ideology of bourgeois individualism in the seventeenth century.


17th-century illustration from Robin Hood’s Garland (1663). Courtesy of Rochester University, NY.

The stories that follow the introduction to Robin Hood’s life are taken directly from many of the later seventeenth-century ballads such as Robin Hood’s Delight, Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham, Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Curtall Friar, and Robin Hood’s Chase. As with all seventeenth-century criminal narratives, the action moves at rapid pace. Rarely does the author expend more than two pages detailing the events of each ballad. This is another feature of English rogue fiction; they are episodic, move at rapid pace, and the world they imagine is unstable, characterised by chance meetings and clashes. [6] Adapting the later Robin Hood ballads to this end therefore works well for the author of The Noble Birth here, and further demarcates the work as a piece of English picaresque fiction. The rapidity of narration would be emulated in later criminal biographies during the eighteenth century, and Alexander Smith’s entry on Robin Hood in his A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Charles Johnson’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) owe a lot to author of The Noble Birth.

The major departure which The Noble Birth makes from the Robin Hood tradition is in its account of the outlaw’s later life. In the fifteenth-century poem A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode he is bled to death by the Prioress of Kirklees who conspires with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. And it is a story that is usually repeated in the oft-reprinted garland versions of the ballad of Robin Hood’s Death and Burial, as well as in Smith and Johnson’s eighteenth-century narratives. But in this story we are told that:

He spent his old age in peace, at a house of his own, not far from Nottingham, being generally beloved and respected of all […] Robin Hood dismissed all his idle companions, and betaking himself to a civil course of life, he did keep a gallant house, and had over all the country, the love of the rich, and the prayers of the poor. [7]

The penitence in Robin Hood’s later life is another feature of The Noble Birth which marks it out as a piece of rogue fiction. For example, The Conversion of an English Courtesan (1592) we are told how the author:

I have set downe at the end of my disputation, the wonderful life of a curtezin, not a fiction, but a truth of one that yet liues, not now in an other forme repentant. [8]

In this way the story of The Noble Birth, along with The Conversion, anticipate Defoe’s account of Moll Flanders who ‘during a life of continued variety […] at last grew rich, lived honest, and died a penitent’. [9] These types of narratives are there to provide moral instruction to readers, and they do this by showing the criminal repentant.


The account of Robin Hood’s life in The Noble Birth is not an historicist interpretation of the medieval period. There are no grand knights in shining armour as there is in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) or Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or the Days of King John (1838). In fact Robin is not a medieval figure at all in The Noble Birth, but instead is said to have lived in the early modern period during the days of Henry VIII. The work itself follows the conventions seen in English rogue fiction from the seventeenth century. Despite the fact that the author claims to be ‘an ingenious antiquary’, he pays little regard to scholarship, and is unconcerned with establishing the facts of Robin’s life. If attention to detail was his main concern, there were plenty of historical sources other than ballads which he could have used, such as John Major’s Chronicles. Had attention been paid to historical accuracy (as far as is possible in the Robin Hood tradition), he would certainly not have placed Robin during the time of Henry VIII. Despite being of little value to those who would seek to find a ‘real’ Robin Hood, this work is significant as it appears to be one of the first appearances of Robin Hood in an English mass market prose narrative (if ‘mass market’ can be applied to a seventeenth-century work). It is further evidence of the fact that, by the seventeenth century, the Robin Hood tradition is moving from being a predominantly oral tradition to a textual one. Previously Robin’s story had been told in ballads, poems, and Latin chronicles, but this work marks the assimilation of Robin Hood into the English literary sphere. It is a work that would have clear influences upon Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson’s accounts of Robin Hood’s life, which in turn would subtly influence Walter Scott’s nuanced portrayal of Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe, [10] the greatest Robin Hood novel.


[1] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[2] Excepting, of course, the ‘Sloane Life’ of Robin Hood in the British Museum which dates from around 1600.
[3] Richard Head, Jackson’s Recantation or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution : wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road (London: Printed for T. B. 1674)
[4] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth and Gallant Atchievements of that Remarkable Out-Law Robin Hood’ in Early English Prose Romances Ed. William Thoms 3 Vols. (London: William Pickering, 1828), 1: 3.
[5] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 7.
[6] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 33.
[7] Anon. ‘The Noble Birth’, op cit.
[8] Cited in Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2004), 249.
[9] Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Ed. John Mullan (1722 repr. London: Everyman, 1991), 1.
[10] Scott owned and read many criminal biographies and was particularly fond of Johnson’s Highwaymen. See Walter Scott, Reliquiae Trotcosienses or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns Eds. Gerard Carruthers and Alison Lumsden (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 254n.