17th century

Robin Hood and his Crew of Soldiers (1660)

By Stephen Basdeo

This is a précis of a chapter from my book Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (2019), the Ebook of which is currently on sale from the publisher Pen and Sword (Click Here For More Information). [1]

While the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed a boom in English literature, the mid-seventeenth century was a turbulent time, for England experienced its first revolution.


King Charles I

Charles I ascended the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1625. From the beginning of his reign made a series of mistakes that alienated not only the parliamentary ruling class but a significant number of the people at large. In 1626, when parliamentarians were unhappy with one of his advisors, George Villiers, and asked that he be dismissed from office, Charles, viewing this as an affront to his authority, dismissed parliament.


Parliament in the 1600s

Charles was forced to call Parliament back again later when he needed money to finance a war, but the relationship between king and Parliament was on the rocks. Another of his blunders was to demand Ship Tax from people; it was previously a tax which the monarch could levy on the inhabitants of coastal towns and it did not require the consent of parliament. Charles, however, attempted to enforce it upon tax payers from living in inland parts of the country as well.


Table of Ship Money assessments for each of the counties of England and Wales from the Privy Council Register, 1636 (catalogue reference: PC 2/46, 394)

Charles’s led MPs to draw up the Petition of Right which, in one of its articles, said that any merchant who paid any “illegal” tax which had not been authorised by parliament was a traitor to England. Charles had some of the MPs responsible for drawing up this charter arrested, which further alienated him from the very people he was supposed to be working with to govern the country. Exasperated with Parliament for not bending to his will, in 1629, he commenced an eleven year period of personal rule during which he governed with the use of the Royal Prerogative. It was Charles’s attempted arrest of five MPs in 1642 which brought the country to the brink of war; Parliament refused to recognise the charge and, as a result, Charles raised his standard against Parliament.


Execution of Charles I

The result of the English Revolution is well known. Charles’s armies eventually lost and the king was placed on trial for treason, found guilty, and was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell then established the Commonwealth of England which lasted from 1649 until 1660.

Cromwell banner

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, England’s great republican leader.

By all accounts, it was quite an austere experience living under the puritan republican dictator. Theatres were closed in 1642, and playwrights, theatre managers, and even spectators could be fined if it was found out that they had attended a play. As an environment, the theatre was associated with irreligious debauchery, and was deemed to be at odds with godly puritan ideology. The ban was not wholly effective, and a further ban on theatres had to be passed in 1648.[2]

Christmas in this period, contrary to what some might believe, was not banned, but the Cromwellian Parliament did insist that it should cease to be a time of overindulgence and mirth but should, as a public holiday, be kept as a sombre reminder of the Lord’s birth.


Christmas under Cromwell was not banned but the Puritans did want it to be remembered as a solemn occasion

After Cromwell’s death, his son Richard was briefly installed as Lord Protector but he was clearly not up to the task as he lacked the support of the army. England needed a ruler and so Charles Stuart, the son of Charles II, agreed to return to England and take up the throne. He commenced his reign in May 1660.


Charles II – The “Merry Monarch” – he was everything that Cromwell was not.

Known as the “merry monarch”, the theatres reopened and it seemed that people could enjoy themselves again. Charles II was fond of music, theatre, and also liked his women. While there are debates as to just how ‘merry’ Charles was, he was, in his person and his character, everything that Cromwell was not.

Crew of Soldiers

Title page to Robin Hood and his Crew of Soldiers (performed in 1660, published in 1661)

We see Robin Hood briefly appear on stage again during the Restoration in a short play entitled Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers, which was ‘acted at Nottingham on the day of His Sacred Majesties Corronation’ in 1660, the text of which was published a year later.[3] Nottingham by this time had been firmly established in popular consciousness as the place where Robin Hood had allegedly carried out his exploits.[4]

In the play, Robin Hood and his men, having for a period of time been unruly and disobedient to the king, are reconciled to him at the end and agree to be his servants.

The opening passage is clearly meant to reflect the sense of optimism that greeted the arrival of a new king in the 1660s:

Enter Hobin [sic] Hood, little John, William Scadlock, &c.

Whence springs this general joy?

What means this noise that makes Heavens

Arch’d vault echo?

… Tis the Kings Coronation; and now the Shieriffe with a band of men, are marching to reduce us to loyalty.[5]

The sheriff’s messenger eventually persuades the outlaws to swear loyalty to the new king because he offers all those who were previously opposed to him a pardon:

This Great, this Gracious Prince is this day crown’d, and offers Life, and Peace, and Honour, if you will quit your wilde rebellions, and become what your birth challenges of you, (nay what ever your boasted gallanty expects of you that is) loyall subjects.[6]

The play speaks of Robin Hood and his men as having committed vaguely defined ‘crimes’. This can be read as crimes against the government, and not simply petty theft or highway robbery.

Robin Hood had served as an anti-government figure in the earlier part of the century, when the men involved in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 were described ‘Robin Hoods’.[7] So it was not unusual to see Robin Hood and his men depicted as semi-revolutionaries in this period.


Illustrations from a soldier’s manual given to members of Cromwell’s New Model Army. After Charles II’s ascension, most of the New Model Army were incorporated into the new Royal Army. But there was a message for them in Robin Hood and his Crew of Soldiers: DO NOT DARE REBEL OR YOU’LL BE HANGED!

The sight on a stage of a king’s messenger urging soldiers to lay down their arms and support a new king would have had resonance for people seeing it. While Charles II did experience some opposition from Cromwell’s New Model Army, some of the regiments after 1661 were, as a result of their services in ensuring the continuation of law and order in the capital, incorporated into the new royal army. At the end of the play, Robin and his soldiers break out into a sycophantic song expressing their love for the new king:

Let us all then joyne in the present sence of our duty, accept the profer’d pardon, – and with one voice sing, with hearty Wishes, health unto our King.

Since Heaven with a liberal hand,

Doth choicest blessings fling,

And hath (not only to our Land

Restor’d but) Crown’d our KING.

Let us to joy and generall mirth

This glad day set aside,

Let the Neighb’ring Woods now Eccho forth,

Our shouts and Loyal Pride.

May Halters that Mans fate attend

That envies this dayes Glee

And’s name meet a perpetual brand

For his Disloyalty.[8]

Robin and the king are thus reconciled in a similar manner to that in which the once rebellious English nation, having given tacit support to Cromwell, had committed a ‘crime’ against their king. Now all was to be forgiven.

Yet clearly there was a veiled warning to those who would shun the king’s good grace: a halter would be placed around traitors’ necks and they would be forever branded as an enemy of the king. Whoever the author of this play was, they were clearly supportive of the new monarch.

[1] See Stephen Basdeo, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019).

[2] Martin Butler, ‘The Condition of the Theatres in 1642’, in The Cambridge History of British Theatre, ed. by Jane Milling and Peter Thomson, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1: 439.

[3] Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers (London: J. Davis, 1661), [p. 1]. The surviving printed edition of this play is not paginated, page numbers given are ones which I have added in for reference. The play can also be found in R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1992), pp. 236-42.

[4] Dobson and Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 237.

[5] Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers, [pp. 3-4].

[6] Ibid., [p. 10].

[7] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 42.

[8] Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers, [pp. 13-14].