The Reformation of England’s Past

The Reformation of England’s Past

There were those who believed that a reformation of religion could not be complete until a reformation of history had been attempted. They argued that the traditional story of early Christian conversion led by the divinely appointed leader of the Church, the Pope of Rome, was no longer valid. They claimed that the history of a united Roman Catholic Church acting against heretical groups and defending the West from heathen threats, no longer worked.

The Church, led from Rome had not acted in the best interests of humanity, they argued. It had not defended them from threats internal and external. Rather, it had misled the faithful, corrupted the holy men and the messengers, robbed from the poor to make themselves rich, forbidden all but the most learned from knowing the words that Christ had taught them. It had, in a word, failed. The price, and the danger, for such failure was the loss of the very soul of humanity. The stakes had never been higher.

In Germany the biggest attempt to resolve the problem of History was undertaken in the city of Magdeburg by a group of scholars who became known as the Magdeburg Centuriators. Over a period of fifteen years, they produced fourteen large volumes that analysed historical documents for a new, revised interpretation of past events. Heretics became the true faithful, the Church became corrupt and false, its heroes fell, and its laws were declared illegitimate.

Meanwhile in England, Queen Mary had died and her attempt to return the realm to Papal obedience died with her. The new queen, Elizabeth brought the realm back to a protestant religion, once again rejecting the divine authority of Rome, and setting out a string of laws meant as a final word on the question of religion. In this she was only partly successful. Many of those who had fled to the continent in the previous queen’s reign felt that much more needed to be done. The reformation of religion was, in their minds, far from complete.

Book cover

This, then, is where John Foxe comes in and the topic of my new monograph, The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century. If the past told a story that was no longer satisfying or useful, then what could be said to alter the interpretation? What new stories could be told to replace the old? What basis in evidence was needed to satisfy or deflect critics and enemies? These were the questions that Foxe tackled when he wrote his Acts and Monuments in the early 1560s, and again, when he revised and enhanced it for a second edition, published in 1570, and to a lesser extent in the revisions of 1576 and 1583. He believed that the past could be re-moulded to make sense of the present and, if told in a certain way, and if the sources were re-examined in a particular light, could provide much needed evidence for the pre-existence of the reformed faith. It could also, simultaneously, disrupt the claim to papal supremacy and continuity and offer an answer to the tricky question that Roman Catholics threw at Protestants: Where was your Church before Luther?

The answer Foxe gave turned the question on its head. His Church was the apostate church, the same Church that Christ had built, the one that the disciples had preached, the church that Rome had eventually betrayed. The Roman Church, Foxe claimed was not the Church of Christ that had survived for a millennium and a half, but the false church that had been warned of in Scripture. The Reformation had returned them to the beginning, to the purity of Christ’s intended faith.

Thus, were his claims and arguments. However, this tells us very little about the detail or the means that Foxe pursued to prove his version of past events. To say that the Bishop of Rome had no historical foundation for its supremacy over all other bishops was easy. To prove that this was true was another matter entirely. In The Reformation of England’s Past, I compare the portions of Foxe’s book dedicated to historical events to the sources that he claimed, or, in many cases, those that we can identify that he used.

For Roman history, Foxe used the records of ancient Church Councils to disprove Papal claims of superiority, continuity, and doctrine. He used Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (often relying on the interpretation first made by the Magdeburg Centuriators) to argue that Constantine the Great established a religion that differs markedly to that purported by Roman Catholics.


Foxe declared the Anglo-Saxons as foreign interlopers and failed Christians. Even when they demonstrated the Christian faith, they misunderstood. Kings endangered the safety of their subjects by abdicating to become monks or by building monasteries, or supporting monks over priests. He used early chronicles to make his claims, but referred more often to those that were lesser known, using the only extent copy of a chronicle ascribed to a John Brompton, rather than rely too heavily on Bede (as just one example).

The Norman Conquest, Foxe dismissed as another foreign invasion and another sign that the Roman Church had fallen to decay. He focused his history, using more chronicles and annals as proof, that the Church encouraged dispute and chaos. Foxe showed how Bishop fought Bishop over questions of power, and how the Pope declared war on secular rulers or used Crusades against heathens as a means of gaining increased power elsewhere. By the time that King John came to the throne a reckoning was overdue. In the traditional stories John was a tyrant and failure. For Foxe, he was a proto-Protestant, attempting to defend the true faith from further Roman encroachment and betrayal. John failed, leading to a period of servitude and slavery; England conquered by Rome. It was a failure only put right centuries later by Henry VIII, but more so, by his own queen, Elizabeth. More though was needed. Foxe also makes this abundantly clear.

Again and again, Foxe used his History to offer advice to the present. Foreign marriage was dangerous, as was no marriage at all. Treason and rebellion by the gentry never led to success; instead it encouraged enemies to further corrupt and disrupt the realm. These were messages for his Queen to marry properly, to provide further reform and defend the faith, and for the gentry of his own time to support their Queen or else foreign invasion and attack was likely. Foxe had in mind Spain, with her armada of ships looming ever darkly over English shores.

The Reformation of England’s Past is a book about sources and a book about interpretation. In it, I look first at the 1563 edition, and its initial rendition of history, and then at the larger history of the 1570 edition, starting with the Roman Empire, then the Anglo-Saxon’s, Norman Conquest, and Plantagenet kingship. What sources did Foxe use? Where did he obtain the from? How did he use them? These are the questions that this book asks and attempts to answer.

The Reformation of England’s Past is available now as part of the Routledge Research in Early Modern History series. It can be ordered direct from Routledge, or from other bookshop such as Amazon (UK) (US) and Waterstones.    


Images: Routledge/TAMO website.


Seminar paper – 14 June 2018, 5.30pm, Institute of Historical Research – The profit of bees and honey: beekeeping manuals on the cusp of scientific study, 1568-1657

Seminar paper – 14 June 2018, 5.30pm, Institute of Historical Research – The profit of bees and honey: beekeeping manuals on the cusp of scientific study, 1568-1657

On Thursday 14 June, I’ll be presenting for the first time a part of my early modern beekeeping research. This is at the Food History seminar, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London. The seminar is free and open to everyone.


Beginning in the sixteenth-century, beekeeping manuals were published in English by a variety of authors each offering a method for extracting honey from bee hives. This paper examines these early ‘how-to’ manuals, paying specific interest to how honey is conceptualised as a product for human consumption and use. From Thomas Hill’s 1568 treatise, A Profitable instruction of the perfect ordering of Bees, through to Samuel Purchas 1657, A Theatre of political Flying Insects debates abounded regarding the medical and health benefits, the potential as a sweetener, and concerning the nature of honey as a substance.

REPOST: “To play the man”: characterising the Protestant Martyr in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments

New blog post written for the Senate House Library Reformation London season: “To play the man”: characterising the Protestant Martyr in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments.


Then brought they a fagot kindled with fire, and laid the
same down at Doctor Ridley’s feet. To whom Master
Latimer spoke in this manner: “Be of good comfort
master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light
such a candle by God’s grace in England, as (I trust) shall
never be put out.”

John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (London, 1583), p. 1794

The story of English Reformation history is rarely told without reference to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (more often called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). Although researchers have made great strides in distancing themselves from Foxe’s biases and presentation of Tudor history the execution of Protestants under Queen Mary continues to evoke popular attention. Comparison, for example, of the description that Foxe gave for the execution of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to the opening scenes of the 1998 film, Elizabeth, aptly demonstrates a connection to Foxe’s story.

Although Michael Hirst (writer) and Skekhar Kapur (director) refrain from inserting into Latimer’s mouth, Foxe’s famous refrain to ‘play the man’, the scene invokes the slow burn of the fire that elitists a call ‘I burn too slowly’, or in Foxe’s terms ‘I cannot burne’ (1583, p. 1794). That the burning of Latimer and Ridley should become an archetype of sorts for Marian martyrdom is no surprise. They were amongst the best-known of the Edwardian Protestants who chose to remain in England when Queen Mary came to the throne.

There is, however, more to the story than this. When Latimer tells Ridley to ‘play the man’, Foxe expects his well-educated readers to recognise the reference. He expects a comparison to be made between the archetypes of Marian martyrdom and an archetype of ancient Roman martyrdom. To the modern reader, this is, perhaps, little more than an interesting oddity. To the readers of Foxe, however, it is an indication that the evocative tales of burning Protestants had more meaning than a contemporary memorial. They were a link in a chain. A number in a sequence. They were both individual witnesses to the true faith and a member of a community that displayed the same characteristics and enacted similar troupes across time and space.

Image: Woodcut depicting the burning of Ridley and Latimer from John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1570), p. 1977. (TAMO)

Turn the pages of the 1583 edition of Acts and Monuments from the tales of Marian burnings. Pass through those sections focused on Henrician martyrs such as Anne Askew and Henry’s passing of the anti-Protestant Act of Six Articles. Pass further back to stories revealing the Pope as Antichrist and King John, not as a tyrant but as a proto-protestant defender of the true church. Pass beyond the stories of Norman Conquest and Anglo-Saxon kingship. Turn back to the near-beginning of Foxe’s massive volume and you will find there a series of stories that summarise the first 300 years of Christianity and envisage it as an era of ten major persecutions. Nestled within that account is the story of Polycarp and the words ‘be of good cheer Polycarp and play the man’.

Foxe has not created these words for Polycarp out of no-where. It is a direct translation from the fourth-century ecclesiastical history written by Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). Latimer’s words, then, are a copy and a play on Polycarp connecting the sixteenth-century martyr to a second-century martyr through a fourth-century source. The comparison was an obvious one. Both Latimer and Polycarp were bishops and then martyrs. They were both old men. Eusebius tells us that Polycarp was over 80 years old. Latimer was well into his 70s. Their method of defence also contained parallels; both men argued that they had lived a long life and never once crossed the line into sedition and treason. In both cases, the establishment disagreed.

Does this indicate that Latimer never said those words on the pyre or does it suggest that Latimer, himself, copied Polycarp? Is this a literary invention or well-planned rhetoric by a man who knew he was going to die in front of a crowd? Scholars generally agree that Foxe went to strenuous efforts to get to the truth of eye-witness accounts of the Marian burnings. The stories were framed as hagiography. They depicted recurring themes of martyrdom. Yet, they were based on written and oral testimony. The style was literary. The content based on evidence. Foxe did not want his memorials revealed as fraudulent.

Nonetheless, there is a reason to believe it a literary invention. Foxe gets his material for Latimer and Ridley from two eye-witnesses. The first, George Shipside was a former servant of Ridley. He claimed that Latimer had said ‘Be of good heart brother, for God will assure the fury of the flame, or else straight us to abide it’. Shipside more-or-less claimed Polycarp’s words for Latimer. The second witness, Augustine Bernher, had been Latimer’s assistant. He claimed different words had been said, but he did also provide Foxe with testimony for another martyr, Robert Glover. We are told that Glover fell to despair once his execution had been set. Bernher claims to have comforted him:

Seeing his cause was just and true…exhorted him
constantly to stick to the same, and play the man,
nothing misdoubting but the Lord in his good time would
visit him, and satisfy his desire with plenty of consolation

(A&M, 1583, 1737).

Whilst we cannot say for certain that Latimer never spoke the words of Polycarp, the evidence from Shipside and Bernher would suggest literary invention, sparked, perhaps by something that Latimer did say or, at least, something that they thought he should have said. In the end, it is unimportant. What these words did was connect the classical martyr Polycarp to Latimer and, by association, to Glover. Examples such as this, demonstrate that Foxe’s Book of Martyrs must be treated cautiously. It is one part historical record, but another part a literary creation and a religious statement. Foxe’s book tells us more about the creation and curation of popular cultural knowledge by the Elizabethan printing press than it does about actual history.

Dr Matt Phillpott is a member of the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. The Reformation, on which he has published widely, is among his research interests, and one of his former activities was as a researcher for the digital John Foxe Project.


A few thoughts on Martin Luther

A few thoughts on Martin Luther

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the reformation. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther made his name by nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. This simple act of criticism represented something bigger than one monk with an axe to grind. It started a deluge of criticism, complaint, and debate regarding the nature of the church, its doctrines, its authority, and even its history. From one German principality, Luther’s name and complaint echoed across Germany, Europe, and across the seas into England and Scotland.

The story of Martin Luther and the reformation has always fascinated me. I remember reading a short narrative of Luther’s story for my A-Levels and becoming transfixed by it. The lowly monk who challenged a worldwide institution and won. It reads more like a work of fiction than fact. But it’s not a story. It’s history. It actually happened, and therefore there are consequences.

Travellers ambushed outside a small town during the Thirty Years War by Sebastian Vrancx
Travellers ambushed outside a small town during the Thirty Years War by Sebastian Vrancx

Around 15 million died in the Thirty Years War, a war that began between the protestant and catholic principalities. In England, John Foxe records 284 deaths of Protestants caused by Queen Mary. During the Bartholomew massacre in France somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 (figures vary widely) died. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many others died in multiple countries for either the Protestant or Roman Catholic faith. Then there is the upheaval itself. The ordinary people were suddenly told that their faith was wrong and had been for centuries. Whole swathes of what people considered to be ordinary and sustaining aspects of their lives were altered, removed, or dismantled. In England at least, the Bible could suddenly be read in English, the Mass was no longer considered supernatural in property, but simply claimed as a re-enactment, purgatory was declared as a lie and prayer for the dead made meaningless, and saints could not offer help in this world. The list goes on.

There are many other consequences of the reformation. Depending on your beliefs, people in European countries either found the true religion, removed themselves from the true religion, or still got it wrong whatever they did. Max Weber first suggested that the reformation also brought about the ‘modern’ world, encouraging innovation and capitalism. Its effects echo down the centuries in a variety of ways and, perhaps, gives us some pause for thought about how we should handle events in our own time.

If for a moment, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of ordinary people in the sixteenth-century, then the changes would appear overwhelming. For those who found themselves in Protestant controlled territories, their core beliefs and practices were overturned and made illegal within one generation. For those remaining under the care of the papacy, then there is the horror of such huge swathes of fellow Christians breaking from the church and declaring war upon it. For the ordinary person on either side of the confessional divide, the reformation was something to conform to; something to survive through. It provokes a familiar feeling. In a few ways the world that developed in 2016 in the West, of Brexit and Donald Trump, leads to a similar level of disruption, uncertainty, confusion, and outright fear in 2017. Yet, in the same way, life plods on. People adapt. Whether there are parallels to be made between then and now which prove fruitful remains to be seen, but certainly ‘history’ continues to play a role in the present and will continue to help shape our future, whatever that might be.

Robin Hood, Doctor Who, and the emergence of the a modern rogue!

Robin Hood, Doctor Who, and the emergence of the a modern rogue!

Ask anyone today what is Robin Hood all about and you will be almost certainly told that he stole from the rich to give to the poor.  This is Robin’s main motif, and his most popular attribute.  Robin Hood is an example for the modern day clash between the rich and the poor.  He is also an example of the tension between those in power (the government for example) and those under their control.  Robin Hood is the hero for the ordinary person against the greed and control exacted over them by the powerful.

He is much like Doctor Who – he has the moral and social right on his side but only because he is in conflict with the people in charge – he is a maverick and an outsider.  Like the more recent manifestations of Doctor Who, Robin Hood has had his past life taken from him and he is now the creation of his enemies.  But he won’t run away and hide, instead he fights for what he believes in, and that fight is very much the fight of the ordinary person.  We can therefore understand him and his plight, support it and defend his actions even when they are close to crossing the line.  Robin steals – this is bad – but he does so for a better, higher purpose, and only against those who – we would like to believe – deserve to be stolen from, because they themselves have robbed us; not literally of course, but certainly figuratively; through their careful and ruthless (we believe) use of capitalist systems and rules and laws. Doctor Who similarly sides with the oppressed and needy over those in power.


When did Robin Hood start giving to the poor?

It is interesting then that this whole aspect of Robin Hood was only really developed in the nineteenth century, quite late in the history of the legend.  The idea was there in a latent form in the very earliest tales.  Robin refused to steal from the impoverished Knight, he also returned his money to him when he managed to take it from the Sheriff.  But it was not explicit nor even the key message.

One man in particular can be credited with drawing out this moral aspect to Robin’s tales.  That man is Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), a Jacobin from Stockton-on-Tees, who collected together all of the remaining extent materials relating to the Robin Hood legend and published them in two volumes in 1795. Ritson acknowledged that much of the source material was of later origin than he had expected and that he had found much less than he had hoped. Nonetheless, he felt confident that he could form a fragile ‘life’ story of Robin Hood that was accurate to history. Ritson admitted that Robin was a robber and a thief, but that he had been taken in to the hearts of the people as he was an ‘honourable thief’ and rouge. He further argued that

in these exertions of power, he [Robin Hood] took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took any thing from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.

– Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood, p. ix.

Ritson’s interest in Robin Hood stemmed from his political opinions and fitted into the context of his times. In 1791 Ritson had visited Paris, and returned with an enthusiasm for the republican form of government that the French had recently established after their revolution.  Ritson believed that the French had freed themselves from the corrupt institutions of the past, and wished England would do the same. Ritson’s Robin Hood encapsulated that spirit. 

Walter Scott also followed a similar line in his Ivanhoe (published in 1820), giving Robin Hood and his men key roles in the story. Scott refers to Robin as Locksley basing this on an anonymous manuscript from the seventeenth-century, but unlike Ritson ignores the sixteenth-century claim that Robin was born a nobleman. Between Ritson and Scott the modern disjointed characteristics of Robin Hood emerges. Like Ritson, Scott described Robin and his men as merry and cheery and also, as decent and patriotic.

In chapter 32 of Ivanhoe, Locksley and his men rest after besieging the Castle of Torquilstone and rescued the Lady Rowena. They have amassed a seizable bounty after their success, but due to their customs ‘no one ventured to appropriate any part of the booty, which was brought into one common mass, to be at the disposal of their leader’.  Locksley distributes the wealth fairly amongst all those who took part in the siege.  When the Lady Rowena approaches Locksley to offer thanks, Scott has her affirm his tendency to defend the oppressed:


As Rowena bent her steed towards Locksley’s seat, that bold yeoman, with all his followers, rose to receive her, as if by a general instinct of courtesy. The blood rose to her cheeks, as, courteously waving her hand, and bending so low that her beautiful and loose tresses were for an instant mixed with the flowing mane of her palfrey, she expressed in few but apt words her obligations and her gratitude to Locksley and her other deliverers.—”God bless you, brave men,” she concluded, “God and Our Lady bless you and requite you for gallantly perilling yourselves in the cause of the oppressed!—If any of you should hunger, remember Rowena has food—if you should thirst, she has many a butt of wine and brown ale—and if the Normans drive ye from these walks, Rowena has forests of her own, where her gallant deliverers may range at full freedom, and never ranger ask whose arrow hath struck down the deer.”

“Thanks, gentle lady,” said Locksley; “thanks from my company and myself. But, to have saved you requites itself. We who walk the greenwood do many a wild deed, and the Lady Rowena’s deliverance may be received as an atonement.”

– Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820), ch. 32.

Ritson, Scott and other literary writers of the nineteenth century were less bothered with authenticity or historical accuracy, and more interested in creating atmosphere. This meant that the myths and legends of Robin Hood solidified and took on their modern appropriations at this time.  Robin as provider to the poor, and enemy of the rich fitted into discourses about wealth, power, and authority that was prevalent in the nineteenth-century, and remains so (perhaps even more so) today. In this sense Doctor Who is a modern day Robin Hood, but only in so-far as Robin Hood himself was characterised 200 years ago. In that sense Robin Hood himself is equally a modern invention.



Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: a collection of all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads now extant related to that celebrated English outlaw (2 vols., 1795).

Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820) Online Here

Image: ©BBC

The first tales of Robin Hood

The first tales of Robin Hood

This is less of a blog post and more of a brief list of the earliest Robin Hood tales.  All pre-date the sixteenth century in terms of their initial creation, but not necessarily in terms of when they were written down.  I have taken the details from J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (dated 1982) in which five initial MSS are listed.

  1. Robin Hood and the Monk (dated 1450) – This tale was included with a prayer against thieves and robbers as well as a treatise on the seven deadly sins, various poetic and moralistic materials.
  2. Robin Hood and the Potter (dated c. 1503) – This is part of a MS collection of romances and moralistic pieces.
  3. A Gest of Robyn Hode (printed early-16th century) – The Gest seems to be a drawing together of various Robin Hood tales into one large poem. It is likely to be representative of the legend as it existed at that point, but is not comprehensive as confirmed by the survival of other stories that are not included here.  It was printed fist in Antwerp in the early sixteenth-century by Wynken de Worde with three further editions produced with minor corrections and additions up to 1534.  It was probably derived from a single written source, dated to the early fifteenth-century.
  4. Percy Folio (published 1765) – derived from a MS probably from the early fifteenth-century, this document contained Robin Hood and his Death (closely resembling the Gest) and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (which shares some subject matter with a play which only now survives as a fragment in a MS dated c. 1475). Thomas Percy was Bishop of Dromoe, Ireland and had it published in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
  5. Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar (c. 1417) – a ballard.

Although all surviving early texts of Robin Hood date to the fifteenth century or later, these were certainly all based on earlier oral traditions probably beginning sometime early in the thirteenth century.  There were therefore over 200 years between when the legend began and the versions that we now have as evidence.  Holt notes that ‘they spring, not from the point of origin of the legend, but from different stages in its growth’ (Holt, p. 12).

Further Reading

J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames & Hudson: London, 1982)

The legend of Robin Hood

The legend of Robin Hood

How do we look at both the ‘real’ history and the myths and legends as they were portrayed and used in the early modern period? For the last week I’ve spent the afternoon train ride away from work to read up on the Robin Hood legends.  My sudden interest isn’t really all that sudden at all.  Myths and legends are of interest to me, especially within the context of how these depict knowledge and history in any given era.   However, in this case my decision to read up on the subject has been drawn on through my television habits.

I’ve recently been watching the 1980s Robin of Sherwood series created by Richard Carpenter.  Although the show was cancelled after only 3 seasons, it hooked a generation through a gritty but also at times light-hearted retelling of the myths.  The music, provided by Irish folk group Clannad added to the feel that you were entering a world of legend, rather than real history, but the show managed to mingle both very well.

This got me to thinking about what was behind all these legends?  How accurate was the portrayal on screen and how had the legend developed?  There is some evidence to suggest that Robin Hood was a real man, but not much, and most is circumstantial.  It’s not really important anyway.  The legend of Robin Hood and his merry men is what matters.  It has become an integral part of British culture continuing today in films, television, even comic book adaptations.  It is also, still, an oral tradition, told and retold by each generation – a collective and personal tale that becomes a part of us, an influence on the things we think, and the way we act.

What surprises me is relatively how recent many aspects of these legends are.  In reading J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (published by Thames & Hudson in 1982 and then as a second edition in 1989) I have learnt that the earliest surviving manuscripts to contain tales of Robin Hood date, at best, to the fifteenth century.  A brief reference to a man knowing of the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (1377) is our earliest written evidence.  Holt tells us that the tales were most likely started in the latter half of the fourteenth century, written down in the fifteenth, and reformed and solidified in the sixteenth.  Originally there was no Maid Marian, no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and no Friar Tuck.  Even the claim that Robin was active during the reign of Richard the Lionheart was not necessarily true in the earliest tales.  Like any legendary tale, the stories of Robin Hood have changed for each generation, evolving and producing variations according to need, location, and context.  Most recently, and as an example of how the legends can adapt, between the two editions of Holt’s book, the aforementioned Robin of Sherwood television series introduced a Saracen character into the ‘merry men’ which was then reused in Hollywood’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991.  He was not part of the legend before, but he is now; a new addition for late twentieth-century television and movie addicts.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)

If the addition of a Saracen is a twentieth-century addition to the legend, then Maid Marian is a sixteenth-century addition.  She only came into the tales via Robin Hood’s involvement in the May Games.  The early tales are also unconcerned about the idea of stealing from the rich, to give to the poor.  This comes in very late – the nineteenth century to be precise. Initially Robin Hood is an outlaw with a conscious; he ‘invites’ travellers to dinner then demands payment.  If they tell the truth about what their purse contains (this inevitably only happens when the man is poor) then they are allowed to go on their way unmolested and usually helped in defeating some trouble that they are about to encounter.  If they lie (usually a sign that they are rich) then that money is taken.  If anything, the tales include an element of anti-clerical posturing.  Robin Hood steals happily from the monks at York.  He is not so bothered about secular landlords.  Robin does enter conflict with the Sherriff of Nottingham but this is not primarily a morality tale about Norman overseers or unfair taxes.

In the early stories Robin is assuredly a yeoman.  There is no question of his status.  That changed in the sixteenth-century.  John Leland – the famed antiquary who travelled England’s monasteries during the time of their dissolution – described Robin as nobilis (i.e. a nobleman).  He had likely seen a prose life of Robin Hood (in reality a hotchpotch of the various tales and legend s rewritten from poem and ballad to prose) that claimed the hooded man as a nobleman.  In 1598 Anthony Munday wrote two plays in which Robin featured as Robert, early of Huntingdon.  Therefore, within a century Robin Hood had managed to do what few people could do in life – he had traversed the social hierarchy from lowly yeoman to the son of a nobleman, turned outlaw and thief.

It seems to me that the rise of a print culture solidified and impacted on many legends and myths in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries.  The tales of Arthur and Merlin were also repositioned and reworked because of the printing press. This is just one part of a wider trajectory for legendary stories – oral transmission continued and still continues an important part of this.  What all of it makes me wonder is how a study of mythology at this time might impact on our understanding of Protestant attempts to retell their history.  The reformation required a revised past; the question is, how much of this was real history and how much mythology?  I think that is still an open question, which has never fully been answered (if a definitive answer is at all possible).

Further Reading

J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames & Hudson: 1982).