Bad Will Scarlet and the Good Sheriff: “Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time” (1819) | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

Between 1818 and 1822, the legendary medieval outlaw, Robin Hood, featured prominently in Romantic literature. John Keats’ poem Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822) are well-known to both Romanticists and Robin Hood scholars.

Edinburgh in the early 19th century

Few Romanticists are aware, however, of the two-volume historical romance Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, published in Edinburgh in July 1819. Authorship has been attributed to a “Mr Edwards” due to the fact that the publishers’ accounts state that that £20 was paid to him for the copyright of this novel. It is unclear, however, exactly who the author was; the ledger entry on Mr. Edwards could refer to an agent of the publisher and for this reason Robin Hood scholars have preferred referring to the author as ‘Anon’.

The novel’s framing narrative centres on an old woman named Goody living in 1819, said to be descended from Welsh bards and English minstrels. She agrees to tell her associates an old tale of Robin Hood, which has been passed down to her from several previous generations.

Goody’s story is set during the 1190s. Robin is the son of Alice Pevys and a commoner named Gilbert Hood. When Robin grows up he is informed that he is destined to inherit his uncle James’s Huntingdon estate. But Robin finds out that his half-cousin, William Scarlet, has conspired with the monks of Fountain Vale Abbey to deprive Robin of his estates.

Robin and his servant Little John then wander England for some time, and become acquainted with the Sheriff of Nottingham, who has two identical twin daughters named Claribel and Ruthinglenne. Robin falls in love with Claribel, but is unable to wed her when the Sheriff finds out that Robin is landless.

Title page to the novel

With his prospects of marriage shattered Robin takes to the road, and while travelling through Sherwood Forest, he encounters a band of good and pious outlaws who elect him as their leader (the extent of their criminal activity is unclear—they never actually break the law in the novel). Meantime, Ruthinglenne assumes Claribel’s identity and escapes from her father’s house to join Robin in the forest and the two eventually marry. For this Robin is then arrested by the Sheriff, but subsequently pardoned because, of course, the two are old friends.

When Robin returns to the outlaws’ camp, he finds that his wife has disappeared. Robin now discovers that the real Claribel has married his cousin Will instead. Heartbroken, Robin confronts the real Claribel about this while she is travelling in a carriage through the forest, and she professes not to know him.

It is then revealed that Robin’s real wife, Ruthinglenne, decided that life in a forest is not for her so she takes the veil and goes to live in a convent. She reveals to Father Athelstane that she is the wife of Robin Hood, and that she fled the Sherwood camp because she thought that he would be sure to die at the hand of her father, the Sheriff.

Whilst living in the convent, however, Ruthinglenne is accused of sorcery. However, she is saved at the last moment when King Richard I arrives on the scene and stops her trial. Richard then pardons Robin (it is not clear what he is pardoned for, because throughout the whole novel he appears never to have actually broken the law). Ruthinglenne is then released from her religious vows, and is permitted to continue as Robin’s wife—he completely forgives her for initially deceiving him as regards to her true identity. The novel then ends with an injunction to readers to ‘Fear God – Honour the King – Relieve the poor – Forbear to envy the rich’.

In the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin is quite a violent outlawed yeoman whose arch-enemies are the Sheriff of Nottingham and who does not flinch from stealing from corrupt bishops. Yet in this 1819 novel he is presented as a passive figure. Rather oddly for an outlaw, he refrains from stealing from anybody, saying at one point that the robbers’ way of life is ‘distasteful’ to him. He confesses elsewhere that the name of robber has ‘become hateful to his thoughts’. In fact, in this novel Robin is a true gentleman, and, as stated above, rarely is he seen carrying out any act that would warrant him being given the title of ‘outlaw’. He is also a very melancholic figure, and spends much of the middle part of the novel pining after his wife, when she deserts the outlaws’ camp.

Nor is Robin the only character depicted in a manner out of keeping with the folkloric tradition; Little John is depicted as a buffoonish, elderly character in contrast to the vigorous outlaw of earlier tales. Will Scarlet, who is usually depicted as one of the merry men, is Robin’s evil cousin who causes his downfall depriving Robin of his inheritance. Friar Tuck is entirely absent, and likewise Marian appears nowhere, for in this novel Robin’s true love is the unfamiliar Ruthinglenne. The Sheriff of Nottingham is actually not a bad guy at all but one of Robin’s personal friends.

A cynic might say that our anonymous author had initially written a generic inheritance drama but decided late in the game, for marketing purposes, to change it into a Robin Hood novel.

Our anonymous author may not have read widely into the existing Robin Hood tradition but they were clearly inspired by a number of previous literary works.

Edmund Spenser. Author Collection.

Gothic motifs permeate the novel and the story begins with the suitably foreboding announcement ‘the night was dark and stormy’. Thomas Gray’s The Bard (1757), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) are all referenced in the introductory chapter, thus situating the novel firmly within the tradition of the late eighteenth-century Gothic tradition. In true Gothic style, the novel is a tale of scheming monks, family intrigue and treachery, disinheritance, and double identity. As we have seen, it Robin’s cousin Will and corrupt clerical allies who are Robin’s enemies instead of the sheriff.

Francis Waldron’s critical edition of Ben Jonson’s Sad Shepherd, published in the late 18th century. Author Collection

Elizabethan and Jacobean literature is another significant influence upon the novel. Each chapter begins with quotations from Shakespeare’s plays. The name of the Sheriff’s daughter, Claribel, is also inspired by the literature of the Elizabethan period, being a name found in both The Tempest and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590). There are also pastoral elements in the novel, with scenes reminiscent of Ben Jonson’s unfinished play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631). Finally, the fact that Robin is depicted as the true Earl of Huntingdon and deprived of his inheritance by corrupt noblemen and churchmen is derived from Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1597-98). These Elizabethan influences remind us of Georgian medievalism’s heavy reliance on early modern rather than medieval sources in their re-imagining of the middle ages.

Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1598) Author collection

Finally, as Stephen Knight remarks, the novel appears to be the first to associate Robin Hood with the Anglo-Saxons. Some of the principal characters have Anglo-Saxon names such as Athelstane and Elgiva, names similar to those found in Scott’s Ivanhoe. Another similarity to Scott’s work is the fact that at the end the heroine undergoes a trial for witchcraft. Stephen Knight therefore concludes that Scott may have at least encountered this novel before he began to write Ivanhoe, and drew limited inspiration from it—it was, after all, printed in the same city that Scott lived in the same year that he wrote Ivanhoe. However, there are significant differences between the two novels: Robin Hood is a piece of Gothic fiction, whereas Ivanhoe is a historicist interpretation of the Middle Ages; the actual characters of the two Athelstanes in each novel are entirely different; Robin in Robin Hood is hardly the freedom fighter Robin of Locksley is in Ivanhoe. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two novels are thought-provoking, and for this reason alone Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time is at least worthy of a read if you are interested in the nineteenth-century Robin Hood tradition.

Further Reading

Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819)

Basdeo, Stephen, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019)

Knight, Stephen, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994)

Knight, Stephen, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003)