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Later Ballads: Introduction

Robin Hood is one of the most popular topics in the broadside ballads of the seventeenth century, and as readerships and publishers grew more ambitious, the Robin Hood garland, a collection of ballads presented in booklet form, became a standard item of the bookseller’s trade. Where the earlier ballads were in many cases chance survivals, these later ballads are often found in multiple copies.

The partially autonomous nature of the printed ballads is indicated by the fact that there is relatively little continuity between the late medieval Robin Hood ballads and the staple diet of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the ballads presented in Early Ballads and Tales, none appeared in broadside or garland form. This is partly a matter of length: the Gest and Adam Bell are printed texts, but far too long to make into a one page broadside or to fit into a garland. Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood and the Potter would, at more than two hundred lines, have been too long. It may also be that their inherently medieval themes would not have suited the newly urbanized audience; the only one which does have printed connections is the town-focused Robin Hood and the Potter; in a shortened and adapted form as Robin Hood and the Butcher it was a typical broadside and regularly appeared in the garlands.

Though the form and topics of the broadside and garland ballads differ from the earliest group of Robin Hood texts, the themes of the later ballads show many connections with the medieval period. A number of them dramatize the process by which “Robin Hood meets his match,” that is encounters a stranger, fights a draw and invites him — in one case her — to join the outlaw band. This process is implicit in the earliest materials and is here dramatized in Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Little John, Robin Hood and Will Scarlet (formerly called Robin Hood Newly Revived), and, remarkably, Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

Augmenting the outlaw band is also a feature of Robin Hood and Allin a Dale, but this is a result of Robin’s doing a good deed, another theme fully consistent with the medieval tradition, as found in the Gest, and also in Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men (known to Child as Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires). The latter ballad also maintains the hostility to the sheriff shown in the Gest, as does, in a somewhat diluted form, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow. The vendetta against regular clergy is pursued in Robin Hood and the Bishop and Robin Hood’s Golden Prize, and is a subtext in The Death of Robin Hood, which gives full details of the story already known to the author of the Gest; Little John a Begging has a similar satirical thrust against religious-seeming pilgrims.

Two of the ballads in this section deal with issues not present in the earlier material. Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham tells how he became an outlaw through the oppressive stupidity of Nottingham foresters. This fierce and popular ballad may well have been developed as a “prequel” like some of the “Robin Hood meets his match” ballads — that concerning Little John especially. The theme of Robin Hood’s Fishing (also called The Noble Fisherman), in which Robin becomes a maritime hero in Scarborough, is certainly not known earlier, and it must be regarded as a hybrid ballad of a literary inspiration: its high relevance to a newly mercantile and nationally conscious context is indicated by its great popularity, shown in terms of the times it has survived.

That measure may not, of course, be fully accurate, because survival must to some degree depend on chance. It is hard to believe that Robin Hood and Little John and Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men, which do not appear until quite late, but then in substantial numbers, were not distributed widely during the seventeenth century (and they were not as scarce as might seem: Child found two versions of Robin Hood and Little John that preceded the texts he lists in his main entry, and Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men is in Percy’s folio and was known to Munday). It is better to assume that those two were popular broadsides of the earlier seventeenth century that just did not survive. A more curious enigma of apparent unpopularity is that The Death of Robin Hood, a fine and long-known story, does not turn up in the printed versions until a late eighteenth-century garland. This may be no accident: it could be that although the garlands liked to shape a quasi-biography of the hero’s career, they preferred to avoid its tragic ending.

Another source for a number of these ballads, and a sure sign of their being available by the mid seventeenth century at the latest, is Percy’s folio manuscript. As is well known, this was torn in many places and most of the Robin Hood texts have suffered badly; it is also not a very accurate piece of scribal work. However, it provides texts of some value and also a link between the early and later texts: in addition to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and a copy of Adam Bell which is taken from a printed text, it offers versions of Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men, and The Death of Robin Hood. The recently discovered Forresters manuscript of c. 1670 has provided a better text than Child of Robin Hood’s Fishing and the semi-gentrified archery contest story, Robin Hood and Queen Catherin.

It is noticeable that the broadsides and garlands do not deal much with the gentrified Robin Hood, who basically belonged to higher genres — formal drama, ballad opera, and masque — but one of the texts in this section does aspire to such elevation, and ennobled the hero in a determined way. Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood belongs with the broadsides because of its date, technique, and sources, and also because it, like the other late ballads, reworks the tradition in terms of a new urban audience and their contemporary concerns. Parker names Robin as an Earl and then follows Grafton and Munday in making him fall from grace through a mixture of his own foolish generosity and the ferocious hostility of members of the Catholic Church. Yet although Robin is for Parker a hero, he was also visibly an enemy of the newly centralized state, and the final stanzas in particular show the problems an anti-authoritarian hero provides for a period where those who wish to keep popular with the ruling powers were wary of concepts of freedom and resistance.

Parker’s stress on the viciousness of the unreformed church is a motif that in lighter form recurs through the broadside and garland ballads — abbots and bishops, rather than sheriffs, become Robin’s direct enemies, though only Parker conceives of the outlaws’ program of clerical castration. And literary, even modernized, as the thrust of the popular ballads clearly is, they are at the same time less politically conservative and austerely focused than Parker’s somewhat inflexible epic. The ballads, like all popular forms, remain in many ways contradictory and so they are dynamic: Robin tricks the monks in Robin Hood’s Golden Prize, but to do it he appears in full Catholic dress as a friar; he peacefully studies the considerations of honor in Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, but he massacres the foresters in Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham. A trickster par excellence in Robin Hood and Allin a Dale, in Robin Hood’s Fishing he is a hero of national and mercantile progress.

Like the earliest ballads, these later narratives are imbued with the sense of an elusive, polymorphic hero, a noble outlaw whose very appeal lies in the mobile, spirited dynamism that still comes clearly through the ill-printed, clumsily-illustrated, street-level texts that, for the harassed citizens of London, York, Bristol, and other urbanized ballad locations, imagined into being a hero who was, as far as the forces of law and order were concerned, still a moving target.

Go to Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar: Introduction
Select Bibliography


A Collection of Old Ballads. 3 vols. London, 1723.

Douce, Francis. Ballad collections II and III, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The English Archer. Paisley, Neilson, 1786.

The English Archer. York: Nickson, n.d. (late eighteenth century).

Knight, Stephen, ed. Robin Hood, The Forresters Manuscript, British Library Additional MS 71158. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998.

Parker, Martin. A True Tale of Robin Hood. London: Cotes, 1632.

———. London: Clark, Thackeray and Passinger, 1686.

Percy’s Folio Manuscript, British Library Additional Manuscripts 27879.

Robin Hood and Little John. London: Onley, 1680–85.

Robin Hood’s Garland: Containing his merry Exploits, and the several Fights which he, Little John, and Will. Scarlet had, upon several occasions. London: Coles, Vere, Wright, 1670.

Robin Hood’s Garland: or Delightful Songs, Shewing the noble Exploits of Robin Hood and his Yeomandrie. London: Gilbertson, 1663.

Wood, Anthony. Ballad collections 401 and 402, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Commentary and Criticism

Child, F. J. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Rpt. ed. New York: Dover, 1965.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robin Hood. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Hill, Christopher. “Robin Hood.” In Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth Century Controversies. London: Allen Lane, 1996. Pp. 71–82.

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

———. “ ‘Quite Another Man’: The Restoration Robin Hood.” In Potter (1998), pp. 167–81.

Ritson, Joseph. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads Now Extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. 2 vols. London: Egerton and Johnson, 1795.

Sampson, George, ed. The Cambridge Book of Prose and Verse in Illustration of English Literature: From the Beginning to the Cycles of Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924. Pp. 396–98.

Stallybrass, Peter. “ ‘Drunk with the Cup of Liberty’: Robin Hood, the Carnivalesque and the Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern England.” Semiotica 54 (1985), 113–45.

Walker, J. W. A True History of Robin Hood. Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co., 1952.