‘Not a Frenchman will I spare
Not a Frenchman will he spare.’
– ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, ll.104-108
Although Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren point out that the tropes, the ‘augmentation of the outlaw band’ and ‘Robin Hood meets his match’ are prevalent in the Robin Hood tradition, certain late ballads are more influenced by their historical military context than any previous Robin Hood material in the tradition. (1) ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’ is shaped by the Anglo-French relations of the seventeenth century and ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’ reflects the powerful threat of the Ottoman Empire.
Joseph Ritson recognises that the ‘most surviving common broad-sheet ballads were printed between the Restoration of 1660 and the Revolution of 1688’. (2) The relationship between France and England throughout the whole of the seventeenth century is characterised by war and military conflict, but it is most aggressive during, and shortly after the time Ritson refers to. The Anglo-French war of 1627-29 was sparked by the French refusal to ally with England against the Habsburg Spain and Austria. In the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667), the French allied with the English enemy. (3) Similarly, the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) brought William III to the throne and therefore caused England’s alliance with the Dutch against the forces of Louis XIV. (4) This Anglo-French rivalry is undoubtedly articulated in the late Robin Hood ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. Stephen Pincus notes that ‘[t]he streets of London and provincial towns were littered with pamphlets, broadsides and poems offering glosses on witticisms about the most recent doings of European dignitaries.’ (5) This confirms that this ballad could be a form of political propaganda. In it, the enemy is politicised. Robin Hood states, ‘not a Frenchman I will spare’ (6) and the narrator repeats, ‘not a Frenchman he would spare’ (l.108). Although ‘Frenchman’ is in the singular, it is symbolic of the entire nation which, is confirmed through the celebration of the violence in the ballad. The narrator repeats how Robin took his ‘noble bow’ (l.125). Despite the fact that the ballad comes after Munday’s gentrified version of Robin Hood, the adjective ‘noble’ is not connected with Robin, but with his weapon, and therefore with the violence. The bow is no longer being used for sport and archery competitions as it is in the early ballads, but is turned into a war weapon. The narrative of the ballad is celebrating the violence because of the political nature of the enemy which adds something new to the larger tradition, and shows its contextual influences. (7)
This celebration of violence in the ballad coincides with the negative portrayal of the French enemy. The fishermen were ‘awar of a French robber/Coming toward them most desperately’ (ll.79-80). This description, with the reference to robbery and the adverb ‘desperately’, suggests French greed and links with the absence of the fish in sea; Robin, disguised as Symon ‘neither gott great nor smaw’ (l.52). This lack of fish metaphorically suggests an impending French threat to goods on English soil as well as in the sea. This threat is confirmed towards the end of the ballad when Symon ‘found within that ship of war/[t]welve hundred pounds in gold so bright’ (ll.163-164). Pincus writes that in the late seventeenth century there was a ‘well-known Francophobia of Londoners’ and this shows how the ballad is responding to this popular negative feeling towards France and its ruler Louis XIV, who emerged from the Second Dutch War as immensely powerful. (8) This French power is reflected in the contrast between the ‘fisher and the waryer free/[…] the noble ship’ (ll.158-159). The English ‘fisher’ is unlikely to defeat the ‘noble’ French ship and this unprecedented success, alongside the greedy portrayal of the French, shows the ballad to be acting as a form of political propaganda. The ballad portrays the French as an easy defeat whilst also encouraging hatred towards them. Although the date of the ballad is ambiguous, the violence within it confirms that the negative attitude towards the French is shaped by the contextual military conflict between England and France in the late seventeenth century.
By the late sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire had established a large area of territory. However, the seventeenth century marked a change for the Empire. Their focus was now to defend existing land and trade routes, rather than further expansion. (9) Historian Cathal Nolan states that ‘by 1650 […] the empire was one of the largest states in the world at 800,000 square miles and 20 million inhabitants’ and because of wars, such as the Austro-Ottoman War (1683-1689), ‘much of Europe came to view the Ottomans as a lasting and direct security threat where previously it had been a distant and unknown country’. (10) This threatening perception of the Ottoman Empire is articulated through the late Robin Hood ballad, ‘Robin Hood Prince of Aragon’. (11) This ballad is particularly concerned with a racial othering of the enemy. The ‘proud Prince of Aragon’ (l. 49) is joined by two giants ‘most horrid for to see’ (l.56). They have ‘grisly looks, and eyes like brands, […] with serpents hissing on their helms,/[i]nstead of feathered plume’ (ll.57-60). The description of their eyes ‘branding terror’ and the ‘serpents on their helms’ makes the giants explicitly monstrous and inhuman. This othering of the enemy is taken further through use of the conjunctive adverb ‘instead’ which allows the narrator to show what is perceived as normal. It is not until later in the ballad when Robin encounters the Prince of Aragon and calls him a ‘tyrant Turk’ (l.141) that the significance of this othering is revealed. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire and their impending threat is allegorically dramatized through the otherness of the giants. Like, ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, this ballad is responding to the English perception of a potential military threat. This time the threat is the Ottoman Empire, which still confirms the large influence of the historical context.
This ballad places a larger focus on the violence between Robin Hood and the enemy in comparison to ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’. This could contextually suggest that the Ottoman threat is stronger than the French threat. In terms of setting, the enemy is already on English soil, not out at sea. The Prince of Aragon commands ‘bring forth my bride, or London burns’ (l.127). The narrative of the enemy is engaging directly with the Great Fire of London of 1666. This not only shows how the ballad is responding to its context but also supports the idea that it is a form of political propaganda, encouraging a national wariness towards the Ottoman Empire. This threatening persona of the enemy is mostly articulated through the violence in the ballad. At the battle, Little John ‘clove the giant to the belt,/[a]nd cut in twain his heart’ (ll.175-176) and to the other giant Will Scadlock ‘with his faulchion he run through/ [a] deep and gashly wound’ (l.181-182). The violence, which structurally takes up a large section of the ballad, is littered with adjectives associated with aggression such as ‘hewd’ (l.155), ‘deep and gashly’ (l.182), and verbs such as ‘struck’ (l.158), ‘slain’ (l.160), and ‘clove’ (l.175). In ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, Robin uses his ‘noble bow’ and shoots the Frenchmen from afar whilst being ‘bound to the main mast tree’ (RHF, l.105). Here, the ‘noble bow’ is replaced with the ‘faulchion’ which in itself is symbolic for the greater intimacy of the battle because it means Robin and the enemy must fight closer together than with the use of a bow. This change in weaponry coincides with the greater focus upon the descriptions of the wounds – ‘blood sprang from every vain’ (l. 56) – and suggests the Ottoman threat to be greater than the French threat because the narrative is much more focused on the action. Despite the difference in the way that the threats are portrayed, these late ballads still show how the military context shapes their themes.
Featured Photo: Image from page 20 of ‘Robin Hood; a collection of ancient poems, songs, and ballads, not extant, relative to that celebrated English outlaw, to which are prefixed historical anecdotes of his life’, accessed from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14766209342, [accessed on 29/11/18].
1) Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren, ‘Later Ballads: Introduction’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/later-robin-hood-ballads-introduction> [Accessed 11/04/2017]
2) Joseph Ritson, quoted in Rhymes of Robyn Hood by Richard Barrie Dobson and John Taylor (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 51.
3) Ronald H. Fritze and William B. Robison, Historical Dictionary of Stuart England (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), pp.203-204.
4) John Childs, The Nine Years’ War and the British Army, 1688-1697: The Operations in the Low Countries, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), pp.21-25.
5) Stephen C.A Pincus , ‘From Butterboxes to Wooden Shoes: The Shift in English Popular Sentiment from Anti-Dutch to Anti-French in the 1670s’ in The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1995), pp. 333-361 (p.335).
6) ‘Robin Hood’s Fishing’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), l. 104 available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 28/02/2017]. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.
7) In the medieval ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, the violence is casual; Robin kills Sir Guy and cuts him in the face in order to make it seem as though it is him who is dead. ‘Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode> [Accessed 08/04/2017]. In Munday’s play The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, the enemies are personal. Prince John is a rival for the love of Maid Marian. Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available online at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/downfall-of-robert-earle-of-huntington> [Accessed 08/04/2017].
8) Stephen C. A. Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy: 1650-1658, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 254.
9) Cathal C. Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715: An Encyclopaedia of Global Warfare and Civilisation (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), p. 344.
10) Nolan, Wars of the age of Louis XIV, 1650-1715, p. 344.
11) ‘Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales , ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), available at <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood/text/child-ballad-129-robin-hood-and-the-prince-of-aragon> [Accessed 14/04/17]. All other references to this text are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.
Written by Estelle Luck.
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