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Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers: Introduction

This play is preserved in a quarto pamphlet printed for James Davis in London in 1661 and, according to the title page, played in Nottingham on August 23rd of that year, the day of Charles II's coronation. Dobson and Taylor reprinted the text with a brief introduction (1976, pp. 237-42).

As a play, especially a Robin Hood play, this is unusual in that all genuine action takes place off stage. It begins with a distant shout and Little John goes off to discover what is happening, to return with news of the Restoration and the repression of all outlaws as rebels, including themselves. The king's messenger is resisted by the outlaws in argumentative mood, but when he invokes the king's royal authority Robin gives in at once, saying "I am quite another man; thaw'd into conscience of my Crime & Duty; melted into loyalty & respect to vertue" (lines 131-33).

Just as the play is less exciting than the usual vigorous action of a short Robin Hood drama, so are its politics new. This is a long way from the Robin who, while respecting the king, firmly resisted his authority, and the servile reception of the messenger is markedly different from the ruthless treatment of royal agents in earlier ballads.

However, neither the inactivity nor the royalism of this play are to be clearly sourced to the equally conservative gentrified tradition: this Robin is not seen as the noble dissident of Munday or Martin Parker, but simply presented as a criminal who becomes a post-war convert to the victorious cause. He is the social bandit rejected rather than the gentleman adapted. Nevertheless, the ideas of the play are not without context: the title may reflect Parker's use of "crew" in a somewhat negative sense (lines 38, 214, 466), just as the reading of Robin Hood as a revolutionary can be linked to a remark by Robert Cecil who in a letter of 1605 referred to the anti-parliament Gunpowder plotters as "the Robin Hoods in your part of the country" (Knight, 1994, p. 42). Closer yet in date, the arch-conservative jurist Edward Coke shared the messenger's view of Robin. Although he located him in Richard I's time, he described his actions in a contemporary criminal way as "robbery, burning of houses, felony, waste and spoile" (1634, p. 197).

The setting in Nottingham also relates to political events. This was where Charles raised his standard in 1642, but the city soon came under parliamentarian rule, and towards the end of the war its leaders did not readily accept royal rule. Francis Harker was executed in 1660 for refusing to recant, and although Colonel John Hutchinson, a major local leader, was reprieved, he refused to conform fully and died in jail in 1664. There were clearly reasons why the anti-royal spirit of Nottingham, as represented by its most famous resistant hero, needed to be theatrically and publicly constrained on coronation day -- a process in which the old communal character of the Robin Hood play-game was appropriated by the triumphant royalist state.

Unique though it is, and uniquely political in its thrust, Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers seems to belong to a renaissance of Robin Hood publication shortly after the Restoration. This may in part be caused by the general flood of cultural activity in newly relaxed conditions, but it is striking how many of the texts from this period effectively divert the resistant force of the hero into less radical modes. The gentrified life of 1662, the inherently pacific garland of 1663, the generalized blandness of Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage are other examples of a market-oriented and politically conservative recreation of what closer examination may show to be a Restoration Robin Hood, with this short play as the political cutting edge of that reformed figure.

A notable feature of the play in formal terms is its abandonment of sub-Shakespearean blank verse for prose after the opening scene. Originally it seems the stylistic change is for Little John to speak, but the dialogue remains in prose until the final song. This reduced stylistic grandeur matches the displacement of the outlaws as heroes. It also permits the play to lay out lucidly certain positions for rejection, and lets the messenger's determined king-worship have the appropriate modern form of a sermon.

It is noticeable that the outlaws represent a range of attitudes that are, post-Civil War, regarded as unacceptable. John at first sees their only values as enjoying "the sweets of theft and roguery," but a little later he takes a more principled position of dissent by speaking like one of the Levellers, that hard-core of revolutionaries:
Every brave soule is born a King; rule and command o're the fearfull rabble, is natures stamp; courage and lofty thoughts are not ever confin'd to Thrones, nor still th' appendages of an illustrious birth, but the thatcht Hovell or the simple Wood oft times turns forth a mind as fully fraught with Gallantry and true worth as doth the marble Pallace . . . (lines 65-69)
Robin espouses a different rationale for resistance, and one that opposes royal rule from a quite different quarter. He asks "Why then should the severities of obedience, and the strait niceties of Law shackle this Noble soul, whom nature meant not onely free but soveraigne . . ." (lines 77-78). Stating that it is only "an easie fondnesse" (i.e., weak-mindedness) that allows men "to be manacled by Lawes" he, speaking as a "bold daring Spirit," sums up with a swashbuckling spirit, in a voice of curiously cavalier-sounding, yet actually anti-state, private interest:

No we have Swords, and Arms, and Lives equally engaged in our past account, and whilest these Armes can wield our Swords, or our uncurdl'd blood give vigor to those Arms, hopes of submission are as vain as is the strange request. (lines 92-95)

Ill-matched as John's socialism and Robin's rampant -- almost Hobbesian -- individualism might seem, they are both in fact implicit in some of the earlier material: the social bandit tradition can be re-read in the highly charged politicized context of post-Civil War England as a "levelling" position, and Martin Parker represented Robin as something like a rogue Cavalier. Both positions are equally dangerous to the monarchist state and are explored and rejected in this intriguing play.

Opposite as it is to the spirit and the vigor of most of the Robin Hood material, Robin Hood and his Crew of Souldiers still focusses on recurrent features of the myth: Robin is the leader, but others have a powerful and somewhat dissenting voice; loyalty is the central value, though here it is constrained into being loyal to the king and his officers, not to the outlaw band; and the text ends with a festal celebration, but that too is reconstructed. Not a celebration of forest fraternity, it is a suddenly imposed and distinctly literary royalist song which, for all its musicality, offers by way of climax the "halters" of execution and the "perpetual brand" of ferocious law. The text finally explores those fierce threats of violence and constraint that actually underlay the allegedly glorious Restoration and are shown in their full propaganda form in this remarkable play, which, while being in itself quite untheatrical, is nevertheless the most dramatic of all the reversals in the Robin Hood tradition.

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Selected Bibliography


Anon. Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers. London: Davis, 1661.

Commentary and Criticism

Coke, Edward, Sir. The Third Part of the Institute of the Laws of England. London: Hesler, 1634.

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

Knight, Stephen. "Robin Hood and the Royal Restoration." Critical Survey 5 (1993), 298-312.

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