Page images

flow of his words, the harmony of balanced quantities, or the clink of his rhymes His compositions, delighting as they did our ancestors, sound rough and harsh in: the educated ear of our own times, for our taste is delicate in matters of smoothness and melody. They are, however, full of incident and of human character ; they reflect the manners and feelings of rernote times ; they delineate much that the painter has not touched and the historian forgotten ; they express, but without acrimony, a sense of public injury or of private wrong; nay, they sometimes venture into the regions of fancy, and give pictures in the spirit of romance. A hearty relish for fighting and fun ; a scorn of all that is skulking and cowardly; a love of whatever is free and manly and warm-hearted; a hatred of all oppressors, clerical and lay ; and a sympathy for those who loved a merry joke, either practical or spoken, distinguish the ballads of Robin Hood.

The personal character as well as history of the bold outlaw is stamped on every verse. Against luxurious bishops and tyrannic sheriffs his bow was ever bent and his arrow in the string; he attacked and robbed, and sometimes slew, the latter without either compunction or remorse; in his more humoursome moods he contented himself with enticing them in the guise of a butcher or a potter, with the hope of a good bargain, into the green wood, where he first made merry and then fleeced them, making them dance to such music as his forest afforded, or join with Friar Tuck in hypocritical thanksgiving for the justice and mercy they had experienced. Robin's eyes brightened and his language grew poetical when he was aware of the approach of some swollen pluralist—a Dean of Carlisle or an Abbot of St Mary's—with sumpter-horses carrying tithes and dining-gear, and a slender train of attendants. He would meet him with great meekness and humility ; thank our Lady for having sent a man at once holy and rich into her servant's sylvan diocese;.inquire too about the weight of his purse, as if desirous to augment it; but woe to the victim who, with gold in his pocket, set up a plea of poverty. “Kneel, holy man,” Robin would then say, “kneel, and beg of the saint who rules thy abbey-stead to send money for thy present wants;" and, as the request was urged by quarter-staff and sword, the prayer was a rueful one, while the gold which a search in the prelate's mails discovered was facetiously ascribed to the efficacy of his intercession with his patron saint, and gravely parted between the divine aud she robber. · Robin Hood differed from all other patriots--for patriot he was—of whom we read in tale or history. Wallace, to whom he has been compared, was a highsouled man of a sterner stamp, who loved better to see tyrants die than gain all the gold the world had to give ; and Rob Roy, to whom the poet of Rydal Mount has likened the outlaw of Sherwood, had little of the merry humour and romantic courtesy of bold Robin. This seems to have arisen more from the nature than the birth of the man ; he was no lover of blood, nay, he delighted in sparing those who sought his life when they fell into his power; and he was beyond all examples, even of knighthood, tender and thoughtful about women; even when he prayed, he preferred our Lady to all the other saints in the calendar. Next to the ladies, he loved the yeomanry of England; he molested no hind at the plough, no thresher in the barn, no shepherd with his flocks; he was the friend and protector of husbandman and hind, and woe to the priest who fleeced, or the noble that oppressed them. The widow too and the fatherless he looked upon as under his care, and wheresoever he went some old woman was ready to do him a kindness for a saved son or a rescued husband

The personal strength of the outlaw was not equal to his activity ; but his wit so far excelled his might that he never found use for the strength which he had so well did he form his plans and work out all his stratagerns. If his chief delight was to meet with a fierce sheriff or a purse-proud priest, “ all under the greenwood

100," his next was to encounter some burley groom who refused to give place to the king of the forest, and was ready to make good his right of way with cudgel or sword; the tinker, who, with his crab-tree staff, "made Robin's sword cry twang," was a fellow of their stamp. With such companions he recruited his bands when death or desertion thinned them, and it seemed that to be qualified for his servico it was necessary to excel him at the use of the sword or the quarter staff ; his skill in the bow was not so easily approached. He was a man too of winning manners and captivating address, for his eloquence, united with his woodland cheer, sometimes prevailed on the very men who sought his life to assume his livery, and try the pleasures which Barnesdale or Plompton afforded.

The high blood of Robin seems to have been doubted by Sir Walter Scott, who, in the character of Locksley, makes the traditionary Earl of Huntingdon but a better sort of rustic, with manners rather of a franklin than a noble. Popular belief is, however, too much even for the illustrious author of Ivanhoe,' and bold Robin will remain an earl while woods grow and wators run. He was born, it is believed, in Nottinghamshire in the year 1160, and during the reign of Henry II. In his youth he was extravagant and wild, dissipated part of his patrimony, and was juggled out of the remainder by the united powers of a sheriff and an abbot. This made him desperate, drove him to the woods; and in the extensive forests which reached from Nottingham over several counties he lived a free life with comrades whom his knowledge of character collected, and who soon learned to value a man who planned enterprises with judgment, and executed them with intrepidity and success. He soon became famous over the whole island, and with captains after his own heart, such as Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, and Allan-a-Dale, he ranged at will through the woodlands, the terror alike of the wealthy and the tyrannic. Nay, tradition, as well as ballad, avers, that a young lady of beauty, if not of rank, loved his good looks as well as his sylvan licence so much, that she accompanied him in many of his expeditions.

.6 In these forests,” says Ritson, “and with this company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign ; at perpetual war with the King of England and all his subjects, with the exception, however, of the poor and the needy, or such as were desolate and oppressed, or stood in necd of his protection.” This wild life had for Robin charms of its own; it suited the taste of a high but irregular mind to brave all the constituted authorities in the great litigated rights of free forestry; the deer with which the woods swarmed afforded food for all who had the art to bend a bow; and a ruined tower, a shepherd's hut, a cavern, or a thicket,

“When leaves were sharp and long," gave such a shelter as men who were not scrupulous about bed or toilet desired; while wealthy travellers or churchmen abounding in tithes supplied them, though reluctantly, with Lincoln green for doublets and wine for their festivals. Into Robin's mode of life the poet Drayton, who might have been a striker of deer in his day, has entered with equal knowledge and spirit :

“ An hundred valiant men had this brave Robin Hood,

Still ready at his call, that bowmen were right good,
All clad in Lincoln green, with caps of red and blue,
His fellows' winded horn not one of them but knew,
When setting to their lips their little bugles shrill,
The warbling echoes waked from every dale and hill.
Their baldricks set with studs, athwart their shoulders cast,
To which below their arms their sheafs vere buckled fast;

A short sword at their belt, a buckler scarce a span,
Who struck below the knee, not counted was a man:
All made of Spanish yew, their bows were wondrous strong,
They not an arrow drew, but was a cloth yard long:
Of archery they had the very perfect craft,
With broad arrow, or butt, or prick, or roving shaft.
Their arrows finely paired for timber and for feather,
With birch and brazil pierced to fly in any weather;
And shot they with the round, the square, or forked pile,

They loose gave such a twang as might be heard a mile." Nor was the poet unaware of the way in which Robin maintained all this bravery:

"From wealthy abbots' chests and churls' abundant store
What oftentimes be took he shared amongst the poor;
No lordly bishop came in lusty Robin's way,

To him, before he went, but for his pass must pay.” In that wild way, and with no better means than his ready wit and his matchless archery, Robin baffled two royal invasions of Sherwood and Barnesdale, repelied with much effusion of blood half a score of incursions made by errant knignts and ariaed sheriffs, and, unmoved by either the prayers or the thunders of the church, hc reigned and ruled till age crept upon him, and illness, arising from his cxposure to summer's heat and winter's cold, followed, and made him, for the first time, scek the aid of a lecch. This was a fatal step: the lancet of his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklces Nunnery, in Yorkshire, to whom he had recourse in his distress, freed both church and state from farther alarm by treacherously bleeding him to death. “Such," exclaims Ritsou, more moved than common, “ was the end of Robin Ilood; a man who, in a barbarous age and under complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people whosc cause he Inaintained, and which, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic cxertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.”

The personal character of Robin Hood stands high in the pages of both history and poetry. Fordun, a priest, cxtols his picty ; Major pronounces him the most humane of robbers ; and Camden, a more judicious authority, calls him the gentlest of thieves, while in the pages of the early drama he is drawn at heroic length, and with many of the best attributes of human nature. His life and deeds have not only supplied materials for the drama and the ballad, but proverbs have sprung from them : he stands the demi-god of English archery ; men used to swear both by his bow and his clemency; festivals were once annually held, and games of a sylvan kind celebrated in his honour, in Scotland as well as in England. The grave where he lies bas still its pilgrims; the well out of which he drank still retains his name; and his bow and one of his broad arrows were within this century to be seen in Fountains Abbey.

236.-A LITTLE GESTE OF ROBIN HOOD. The longest of all the ballads which bear the name of Robin Hood was first printed at the Sun, in Fleet Street, by Wynken de Worde. It is called 'A little Geste of Robin Hood;' but so ill-informed was the printer in the outlaw's history, that he describes it as a story of King Edward, Robin Hood, and Little John. It is perhaps one of the oldest of these com. positions.

The ballad begins somewhat in the minstrel manner:Come lithe a listen, gertlemen,

I shall tell you of a good yeoman, That be of free-born blood,

llis name Robin Hood,

Robin he was a proud outlaw

So courteous an outlaw as he was As ever walked on ground;

Has never yet been found. It then proceeds to relate how Robin stood in Barnesdale Wood, with all his companions beside him, and refused to go to dinner till he should find some bold baron or unasked guest, either clerical or lay, with wealth sufficient to furnish forth his table. On this Little John. who seems always to have had a clear notion of the work in hand, inquired anxiously,Where shall we take, where shall we leave, There is no force, said bold Robin, Where shall we abide behind,

Can' well withstand us now; Where shall we rob, where shall we reave, So look ye, do no husbandman harm,

Where shall we beat and bind ? . That tilleth with his plough.

He gives similar directions about tenderly treating honest yeomen, and even knights and squires disposed to be good fellows; “but beat,” said he, “and bind, bishops and arch. bishops; and be sure never to let the high sheriff of Nottingham out of your mind.”—“ Your words shall be our law,” said Little John; “and you will forgive me for wishing for a wealthy customer soon-I long for dinner. One, a knight, with all the external marks of a golden prize, was first observed by Little John, approaching on horseback through one of the long green glades of Barnesdale Wood : the stranger is well drawn:All dreary then was his semblaunt, His hood hung over his two eyne; And little was his pride;

He rode in simple array, His one foot in the stirrup stood,

A sorrier man than he was one The other waved beside.

Rode never in summer's day. “I greet you well,” said Little John, “and welcome you to the greenwood; my master has refused to touch his dinner these three hours, expecting your arrival.” “And who is your master,” inquired the stranger, “ that shows me so much courtesy?” “E'en Robin Hood," said the other, meekly. “Ah, Robin Hood !" replied the stranger, “he is a good yeoman and true, and I accept his invitation." Little John, who never doubted but that the stranger was simulating sorrow and poverty, the better to hide his wealth, conducted him at once to the trysting-tree, where Robin received him with a kindly air and a cheerful countenance. They washed together, and wiped both, Swans and pheasants they had full good, And set till their dinere

And fowls of the rivere;
Of bread and wine they had enough, There failed never so little a bird
And numbles of the deere

That ever was bred on brere. “I thank thee for thy dinner, Robin," said the knight, and if thou ever comest my way I shall repay it." "I make no such exchanges, Sir Knight," said the outlaw, “nor do I ask any one for dinner. I vow to God, as it is against good manners for a yeoman to treat a knight, that you must pay for your entertainment.” “I have no more in my coffer," said the other composedly, - save ten shillings," and he sighed as he said it. Robin signed to Little John, and he dived into the stranger's luggage at once: he found but ten shillings, and said, “The knight has spoken truly.” “I fear you have been a sorry steward of your inheritance, Sir Knight," said the outlaw, “ten shillings is but a poor sum to travel with." “ It was my misfortune, not my fault, Robin," said the knight; “my only son fell into a . quarrel, . “ And slew a knight of Lancashire, “My lands are sett to wad, Robin, And a squire full bold,

Until à certain day,
And all to save him in his right To a rich abbot here beside
My goods are sett and sold.

Of St. Mary's Abbeye. “My lands,” he continued, “are mortgaged for four hundred pounds. the abbot holds them: nor know I any friend who will help memnot one.” Little John wept; Will Scarlett's eyes were moist; and Robin Hood, much affected, cried, “Fill us more wine: this story makes me sad too.” The wine was poured out and drunk, and Robin continued, “Hast thou no friend, Sir Knight, who would give security for the loan of four hundred pounds ?" . * None,” sighed the other, “not one friend have I save the saints.” Robin shook his head. “ The saints are but middling securities in matters of money : you must find better before I can help you."

I have none other tlien, said the knight, Except that it be our dear Ladye,
The very sooth to say,

Who never fail'd me a day. Robin at length accepted the Virgin's security, and bade Little John tell out four hundred pounds for the knight; and, as he was ill apparelled, he desired him to give him three yards, and no more, of each colour of cloth for his use. John counted out the cash with the accuracy of a miser; but, as his heart was touched with the knight's misfortunes, he measured out the cloth even more than liberally: he called for his bow and ell wand, and every time he applied it, he skipped, as the ballad avers, “ footes three.” Scathlock he stood still and laugh’d, Give him a grey steed too, Robin he said, And swore by Mary's might,

Besides a saddle new,
John may give him the better measure, For he is our Ladye's messenger ;
For by Peter it cost him light.

God send that he prove true. “ Now," inquires the knight, “when shall my day of payment be?” “If it so please you, Sir,” said Robin, “on this day twelvemonth, and the place shall be this good oak.” “So be it," answered the knight, and rode on his way.

The day of payment came, and Robin Hood and his chivalry sat below his trysting oak: their conversation turned on the absent knight and on his spiritual security. Go we to dinner, said Little John; Have no doubt, master, quoth Little John, Robin Hood, he said nay,

Yet is not the sun at rest, For I dread our Ladye be wroth with me, For I dare say and safely swear She hath sent me not my pay.

The knight is true and trest. The confidence of little John was not misplaced; for, while he took his bow and with Will Scarlett and Much the Miller's son walked into the glades of Barnesdale Forest to await for the coming of baron or bishop with gold in their purses, the knight was on his way to the trysting-tree with the four hundred pounds in his pocket, and a noble present for the liberal outlaw: the present was in character:He purveyed him an hundred bows, And every arrow was an ell long,

The strings they were well dight; With peacock plume y-dight, An hundred sheafs of arrows good, Y-nocked to all with white silver,

The heads burnish'd full bright. It was a seemly sight. The knight was, however, detained on the way by a small task of mercy; he came to a place where a horse, saddled and bridled, and a pipe of wine, were set up as the prizes at a public wrestling-match; and as they were won by a strange yeoman, the losers raised a tumult, and, but for the interference of the knight and the men who accompanied him, would have deprived the yeoman of his prizes and done him some personal harm. The Abbot, too, of St. Mary's had raised difficulties in the restoring of his land and the receipt of the redemption money; and the sun was down, and the hour of payment stipulated with Robin expired, when the good knight arrived at the trysting-tree. Events in the meanwhile had happened which require notice.

As Little John with his two companions stood watch in the wood of Barnesdale, the former, who loved his dinner almost as well as he loved a fray, began not only to grow impatient, but to entertain doubts about the hour of payment being kept. He was now to be relieved from his anxiety:For as they look'd in Barnesdale wood, Then up bespake he, Little John, And by the wide highway,

To Much he thus 'gan say, Then they were aware of two black monks, By Mary, I'll lay my life to wad, Each on a good palfraye.

These monks have brought our pay. To stop and seize two strong monks with fifty armed men at their back seemed a daring task for three outlaws: it was ventured on without hesitation :My brethren twain, said Little John, Now bend your bows, said Little John, We are no more but three ;

Make all yon press to stand ; But an we bring them not to dinner, The foremost monk, his life and bis death, Full wroth will our master be.

Is closed in my hand.

« PreviousContinue »