During the sixteenth century a new genre of popular literature arrived in England. Adapted from literature that was flourishing in Spain, a stream of printed books and pamphlets shined a light on the seedy underworld in England’s capital city. The genre — Rogue Literature.
In this post I will focus on one piece of early modern English rogue literature titled The Black Dogge of Newgate (c.1596) by Luke Hutton.
The Identity of Luke Hutton
The Black Dogge of Newgate begins with a long poem (which you can read here) and was allegedly written by one Luke Hutton (d.1598). Hutton was a highwayman who robbed someone on St Luke’s Day in 1598, was captured, and subsequently hanged. It was said that
‘he feared not men nor laws’.
Whether The Black Dogge of Newgate was actually written by the Luke Hutton remains unknown. Early modern crime literature authors often appropriated the names of famous criminals, and wrote in their voice, to lend an air of authenticity to their works (in other pieces of rogue fiction the narrator’s identity is usually that of a concerned citizen). Luke Hutton, then, is most likely a pseudonym for an author whose identity remains unknown to us.
Selling for 3 ½d and addressing ‘Gentle Readers’ in the introduction, this was clearly a book intended to be read by the town-dwelling middle classes and served as ‘moralist entertainment’.
Origin of the Black Dog
The title of the work is taken from a horrifying legend that Hutton’s readers would have been familiar with: It is said that, during the reign of King Henry III there was a famine in England. As a result, the feeding of the prisoners lodged in Newgate was low on the government’s priorities. With many of the prisoners in the pit starving—the pit being the darkest dungeon in Newgate where pauper prisoners were thrown—they turned to cannibalism and devoured a poor, stout and healthy inmate. After the lad’s death, it is said that a monstrous black dog with glowing red eyes appeared in the prison and devoured all of those who ate the young man.
But Hutton’s text is more than a regurgitation of an old folkloric tale, which is not referenced much in the book anyway. He instead focuses his attention on the criminal underworld, in the hope that his well-to-do readers can be on their guard against the foul practices of street robbers and ‘cony-catchers’.
The poem in the first part of the text mimics the style of Book of Revelation. A spirit appears to Hutton and promises to reveal to him the secrets of Newgate:
I heard a voice which like an angel said,
“Hutton be bold for thou shalt see and hear
Men-devils, devils-men, both all-deluding;
World’s evils wrack then, sheeps’ cloth wolves’ prey concluding.
The spirit enjoins him to record all that he sees:
Fear not at all nor faint thou with beholding
But light thy lamp and take thy pen in hand
Write what thou seest, thy visions all unfolding
I will direct thee and let thee understand
What all these hell-hounds shadow by appearing
View thou their worst, and then write of their fearing.
Hutton’s guide is Time itself, and Time tells Hutton of the existence of a black dog—this is not an actual dog but ‘a cur in the shape of a man’. This cur, who can change his form, walks about the city at night, is seemingly responsible for every bad criminal act that happens in the metropolis:
Then did I fix mine eye upon this beast
Who did appear first in the shape of a man […]
But in a trice he did transform his shape
Which broke a treble horror to my heart.
A Cerberus, nay worse, he thrice at wide did gape
His ears all snakes, curling they will not part […]
Bribery his hand, the spoil of the poor his trade
Is fingers talons, seizing to betray
And with his arms he foldeth men in woe
Destruction still the path where’er he goes.
Outlaw versus Rogues
This dog, which prowls the streets of London and night and is representative of its criminal activity, is indiscriminate in who it targets. The point here is that the rogues of the urban underworld are mean and vicious; they are not Robin Hoods and they do not steal from the rich and give to the poor. Instead anyone can be their victim. And they will even steal from women, which is something that Robin Hood counselled his men never to do:
Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:
For dout of dydly synne,
Wolde he never do compani harme
That any woman was in.
After the poem, Hutton’s book then abruptly switches its form. The poem ends and the rest of the story is written in prose and takes the form of a ‘dialogue’ between Hutton and another prisoner named ‘Zawny’ who will tell him even more of the Mysteries of Newgate and the criminal underworld.
The switch to prose is interesting—the insertion of a poem at the beginning of Hutton’s text looks back to the older forms of crime literature such as the long poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), in which the deeds of the famous English outlaw are rendered heroic. Poetry in Hutton’s day was the genre of epic and of heroes, but the pseudonymous Hutton does not want his fellow criminals to be considered as such, so prose is more appropriate.
Zawny begins to tell a series of anecdotes that will reveal to Hutton and the well-to-do reader how thieves operate so they can be on their guard against them. Amidst the entertaining tales of how people are ‘conned’ by these ‘conny-catchers and cutpurses’, what is interesting is that, unlike the greenwood outlaws of the past, violence is rarely used or even threatened, as in the robbery of a woman whose money is taken simply by cutting her purse strings:
Here comes a woman with sixe pounds in her purse, which the Cutpursse met withall, she as it seemed hauing more minde on the pleasures of the present day and time, then she had of hir pursse. The jousts ended for that day, the woman thinking all had beene well, takes her way homewarde with a friend of hirs, yet by the way, this good woman must needs drinke with her friend a pinte of Wine: but heere was the mischiefe, when the Wine was to be payde for, the woman mist her pursse, and looking on the strings, with a colde heart she might perceiue hir pursse was cut away.
There is a minimum of fuss in the execution of the robbery; the woman might not even realise that her money is gone until a few hours later. Robbers’ modus operandi in the ‘new’ urban underworld, as it is represented in the era’s popular literature, has changed. Such an M.O. no doubt suited criminals.
It may have been easy for the likes of Robin Hood to threaten violence when stealing from people in a forest when the victim is alone, but in a town, if people were immediately accosted by robbers on a busy street, the alarm could be sounded, by standers would jump to the victim’s aid, and there would probably be a constable nearby as well. Rogues had to be more subtle than the old forest outlaws.
The rogue’s activities, being based in urban areas, are what distinguishes them from the forest outlaws of old, as Anna Bayman remarks
Rogues do not operate outside of the normal economic and cultural life of the city, but within it, developing ways to exploit its regular patterns of exchange and consumption.
Therfore, what made rogues more sinister than outlaws, furthermore, is the fact that it was difficult to tell if a person was a shady character or not. In A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495), the outlaws do distinguish themselves by wearing suits of Lincoln-green. This is not the case with rogues, who might appear to be respectable.
For example, in another rogue novel titled The Belman of London (1608) by Thomas Dekker—who wrote several such works—a demon from Hell comes to London to experience life amongst humans. But he is frequently robbed or defrauded of money by apprentices, sergeants, constables, innkeepers, and even gaolers.
All criminals are rogues, but not all rogues are criminals
Sometimes rogues’ activities, in fact, are not illegal. As one text titled The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606) shows, many rogues engage in what we would now call ‘white collar crime’: a type of criminal named the ‘Politick Bankruptisme’ charms wealthy merchants to invest in some venture which sounds too good to be true, and convinces a number of people to hand over money to him. He then declares bankruptcy and absconds with all the money he has raised.
Crime in the early modern city, therefore, has evolved.
That was the message inherent, not only in Hutton’s text but also in many of the other rogue novels that were published at the time—and there were indeed many:
- A Manifest Detection of Diceplay (1552)
- The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561)
- A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566)
- A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591)
- The Second Part of Cony-Catching (1591)
- The Third Part of Cony-Catching (1592)
- A Disputation between a He-Cony-Catcher and a She-Cony-Catcher (1592)
- The Black Book’s Messenger (1596)
- Luke Hutton’s Lamentation (1596)
- The Testament of Laurence Lucifer (1604)
- Lantern and Candlelight (1608)
- The Counter’s Commonwealth (1617)
Those listed above are the most famous and there were likely many more similar texts that were printed but which have not survived.
These books claimed to merely be reflecting the fact that crime levels were (apparently) spiralling out of control in Tudor and Jacobean England. Whether crime was, in reality, reaching such frightening heights is difficult to say.
But by shining a light on the activities of the criminal underworld, rogue literature left its mark on the criminal biographies of the eighteenth century, the ‘urban mysteries’ novels of the nineteenth century, and the modern organised crime drama.
 William Hutchinson, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, 3 vols (Durham: G. Walker, 1817), I, p. 581.
 Anna Bayman, Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 108–09.
 Luke Hutton, ‘The Black Dogge of Newgate’, in The Elizabethan Underworld, ed. by A. V. Judges (London: George Routledge, 1930), p. 1.
 Hutton, p. 267.
 Hutton, p. 268.
 Hutton, p. 266.
 Hutton, p. 270.
 Hutton, p. 270.
 Hutton, p. 281.
 Bayman, p. 106.
 Bayman, p. 108.
 Bayman, p. 103.