A Legend Appears
Copyright 2005 by Clyde List
Ten year old Richard II was England's new ruler in 1377. This was at about the time the Robin Hood ballads are mentioned in Piers Plowman. His uncle John of Gaunt was the person most qualified to ascend the throne and everyone knew it. Gaunt was not only older and more experienced than Richard, he was the fourth son of the previous king, Edward III (while Richard was only the grandson), and could have seized the crown for himself without the slightest whimper from anyone. John of Gaunt was a "..highly competent and ambitious man. But to John's credit (and this was no negative virtue in the Middle Ages and among the Plantagenets), little Richard lived to grow up." [Murray, pg. 155]. Gaunt seemed more interested in his position in Spain, where his name is remembered today as much as in England. A treatise produced by Thomas Walsingham, Monk of Saint Albans. accused Gaunt of plotting against Richard, but it is difficult to find evidence that Gaunt ever displayed anything but loyalty to his sovereign.
Richard sometimes showed contempt for Gaunt. In fact, he nearly charged Gaunt with treason at one point-- during a time when condemned traitors were disemboweled, with a noose holding the victim just high enough to keep his heels from touching the ground. Gaunt, who could not even spend a night in London without fearing for his life (his most perilous moment comes during the Peasant Rebellion of 1381), finally fled England itself.
The story begins to resemble a Robin Hood ballad, however, when Gaunt returns to England after a three year absence. Richard is in serious conflict with Parliament by this time and Gaunt steps in at the critical moment. Richard's lifelong tutor, Simon Burley, has already been beheaded (not disemboweled, thanks only to Richard's wife, the Queen of England, going to her knees to plead for the old man's safety). The King's closest friend, Robert de Vere, has been exiled for life.
Gaunt fears Parliament, but Parliament also fears him. A phrase from an Aesop's Fable, "The Mice in Council," becomes popular at this time: "to bell the cat." A parliament of mice finds the cat's skill with the dog useful. But they fear the cat almost as much as they fear the dog and so they put a bell around his neck in order to be certain of his whereabouts at all times. In England, Gaunt became that fabled cat. (The dog was France.) The popularity of the phrase also illustrates the usefulness of folklore in day to day communications. One can imagine how a Robin Hood ballad might likewise have been shaped to explain (to a troubled peasant class during the Rising of 1381 for example) the relationship between Richard and Gaunt. The similarity between the Robin Hood Legend and the reality becomes even more complete when Gaunt helps Richard organize his own band of greenwood archers to act as his personal bodyguard during his visits to Parliament. They wore green. They were from Cheshire, belonging (at least at that date in history) to the great ("shire-wood") forest that covered the greater part of north central England (SEE sherwoodforesthistory.blogspot). It is not difficult to picture Gaunt and his fellow archers strolling alongside his king the way Little John is described in the Ballad of Robin Hood and Little John:
It is amusing to take note of a descriptive adjective which enters the English language at about this time "gaunt" ("Abnormally lean, as from hunger; haggard-looking; tall, thin, and angular in appearance" --Oxford English Dictionary). "Gaunt" could be used to describe any number of Plantagenet dignitaries, judging from their portraits, including the King Himself.
With all the conflict between Parliament and King it is not surprising that the general population itself felt insecure. Most of their information came from church. One parson who fanned the flames among the people was Thomas Walsingham the Monk of Saint Alban's Abbey. The precise reason for Walsingham's invective has never been explained. He reminds us of the monk in a very early Robin Hood ballad: Robin Hood and the Monk.
Rebellion added a fourth factor to the domestic policy debate. A modern scholar must wonder if anyone had thought of spinning a rebellious people's music-- the Robin Hood ballads in particular-- in a direction contrary to the one the Church was favoring.
The 14th Century Internet
If the Robin Hood legend had royal involvement, one would expect the finest musicians and writers in England to be the ones adding a touch or two.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a close friend of Gaunt. His description of the Yeoman in Canterbury Tales is often used as a description of Robin Hood. John Gower was a close observer of the 1381 Rebellion and liked to portray himself as a greenwood archer-- with his sardonic pen/arrow point always ready to skewer some deserving victim. Either of these two geniuses could have dashed off a ballad as an after dinner's amusement (though Gower wrote mainly in French). As well: "There are signs that Richard developed some expertise in music." (Saul, Page 14)
One person very likely to add details to the Robin Hood Legend was John De Montagu Earl of Salisbury. He was a member of King Richard's inner circle. Somewhere, lost in the vast Internet is a remark made by Salisbury himself, that he enjoyed entertaining the king's guests as they journeyed about the country together, from estate to estate. During the late Middle Ages, "kings and nobles were obliged to flit from manor to manor" in a never ending chase after food and provisions, because "even in castles, accommodation was very scanty..." (Coulton, Page 109 and 233 ) Sir John De Montagu would have been good to have along during these constant peregrinations. According to Henry Hartwright: "Right well and beautifully did he also make ballads, songs, roundels and lays.... Ballad-making was much in fashion at that period, and a man of cultivated tastes would not be likely to neglect it."
His role as the King's ballad-master mattered as much as that of web-master in today's world. Before the invention of the printing press, folk songs and ballads functioned like the world wide web. The medium was owned by no one and shared by everyone, from king to shopkeeper. It is possible to imagine how the king's involvement in this 14th Century "Internet" would have prepared Richard, at age fourteen, for his famous confrontation with Walter ("Wat") Tyler, a folk hero so admired in the English speaking world that a U.S. President (John Tyler) would someday claim him as an ancestor. Wat Tyler entered into history during the peasant rebellion of 1381. The confrontation between this self styled Robin Hood and his King must go down as one of the strangest coversations in history. (If you find the following conversation between an English king and an English outlaw hard to follow, it was no less so for those who actually witnessed the discussion!)
According to Froissart, Tyler...
The scene, described by Jean Froissart (c.1337-1410?), ends with Tyler's death at the hands of Richard's bodyguards. In spite of the unhappy ending, it is amazing enough that there could have been any sort of conversation at all between a French speaking king (who apparantly learned English as a second language) and a common thief whose gutter tongue probably could not have been understood anywhere within twelve miles of the isolated Kentish village where he was born. What is amazing to the historian is that instead of walking into a bloodbath on that fateful day, the common people left the scene in peace. They could have chopped off their King's royal head, but they decided not to. They embraced Him instead, "and long did they cherish his memory." (Churchill)
Winston Churchill dismisses some deeds and words of Richard II that make him seem hostile to the underprivileged. It is true that Richard II said the words, "Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain." to a group of peasants after the Rising of 1381. But he also "...freed many peasants from their fuedal bonds [by the same letters patent mentioned above]. He solemnly promised the abolition of serfdom. He had proposed it to Parliament." These good deeds were not forgotten by the underprivileged folk. After his death, "He was deemed, whether rightly or wrongly, a martyr to the causes of the weak and the poor. Statutes were passed declaring it high treason even to spread the rumour that he was still alive." [Churchill, Pg. 285]
Today we think of King Richard the First as Robin Hood's benefactor. However, it seems more likely that the Lion Heart's namesake and distant relation, Richard II, was the one that kept the legend active in the popular imagination. Like Richard I and John I (who shared the throne instead of going to war over it) or their father Henry II (who preferred to spend his time in the law courts listening to arguments than to be out hunting for game), Richard II --like so many other Norman school boys before him (Coulton, Page 58) would prefer to win a debate with his opponent than to attack him by stealth. However, on that fateful day in London in 1381, a willingness to debate was not enough. Both sides had to speak the same language. The Robin Hood Ballads would have provided all the words an English king and an outlaw needed in order to agree about the future of their country.
and Tyler too: A Biography of John & Julia Gardiner Tyler by Robert Saeger II, McGraw-Hill Book Company, N.Y, Tennessee, London, 1963 "Lyon G. Tyler, the Tyler family biographer [and father of United States President John Tyler], once argued that Henry Tyler was an aristocratic Cavalier in flight from Puritan despotism, and that the whole Tyler clan was directly descended from the famous Wat Tyler, the fourteenth-century revolutionist against the tyranny of Richard II. To further this dubious connection Judge Tyler named one of his sons Wat. But... the claim can be established neither historically nor genealogically.... [Wat's brother, President] John Tyler himself accepted the alleged family connection with Wat the Red and gloried in it, defending its legitimacy against all doubters. 'I am proud of Wat Tyler and cannot let him go.' he once confessed." In 1842, President Tyler purchased a 1,150 acre estate in Virginia and named it "Sherwood Forest." He and his wife also owned 70-some slaves!
"BENEFACTORS OF OREGON: JOHN TYLER," Morning Oregonian, (Portland, Oregon) June 24, 1901. Page 5. "Speaking of the pioneers who started for Oregon In 1843, he said: 'Our laws should also follow them . . . new republics are destined to spring up, at no distant day, on the shores of the Pacific...'"
www.britannica.com., "John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury (1350-1400)", Article of February, 2009.
The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century, by William Chester Jordan, Princeton University, 1996. The rumor that your Caucasian ancestors and mine were driven to cannibalism during the 14th century is not dispelled. In The Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman asks if the appalling cruelty visited upon Richard and his court by the famed "Merciless Parliament" could have been a symptom of mankind's psychological response to the ice, starvation and plague of the 14th Century.
Hereward by Victor Head, Alan Sutton, 1995. This closely researched book validates many of Kingsley's classic assertions about the (arguably) last great Anglo Saxon defender against the Normans. There are intriguing similarities between King Richard II and Hereward. For example, Robin Hood, Richard and Hereward all had problems getting along with monks. Richard and Hereward also had a difficult but fabulously wealthy family friend named "Gaunt" (Gilbert De Gaunt and John of Gaunt) on whom they depended for their survival. They had interesting mothers (Joan the Countess of Kent, and the notorious Lady Godiva). In fact, Joan's mother belonged to the family Wake, which claims a connection to Hereward. The names "Hood" and "Hereward" are similar enough to invite speculation. There are many other similarities among Hood, Richard and Hereward, but these similarities remind us of what the Book of Ecclesiastes says about history: "What once was, will be again. There is nothing new under the Sun." In the Medieval world, as in the Old Testament, history does not progress. It circles. Did I mention that half of Gilbert De Gaunt's lordships were in Nottinghamshire, and that a Robin Hood inn now rests on the site of one of his castles....?
Hereward the Wake by Charles Kingsley, Grosset & Dunlap, [no date] "And then Hereward rode up the Ermine Street, through primeval glades of mighty oak and ash, with holly and thorn beneath, swarming with game... the yellow roes stood and stared at him knee-deep in the young fern; the pheasant called his hens out to feed in the dewy grass; the blackbird and thrush sang out from every bough; the wood-lark trilled above the high oak tops, and sank down on them as his song sank down. And Hereward rode on, rejoicing in it all." Pg.47. On the other hand, the English greenwood could be "...a sad place enough, when the autumn fog crawled round the gorse, and dripped off the hollies, and choked alike the breath and the eyesight; when the air sickened with the graveyard smell of rotting leaves, and the rain-water stood in the clay holes over the poached and sloppy lawns." Pg.437
The History of the English Speaking Peoples, The Birth of Britain, by Winston S. Churchill, Bantam, N.Y., 1963.
John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe by Anthony Goodman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992. Having "won the jackpot in English noble inheritance" by his first marriage, Gaunt devoted his time to England's problems at home and abroad, the most important problem abroad being the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo. Gaunt set an example of "public service" long before the concept was introduced by political scientists. Goodman explains that Gaunt's "cardinal error" may have been "his failure to develop a harmonious personal relationship with Richard." Goodman's chapter on Gaunt and the Church is especially interesting. Like many Christians of his day, Gaunt was devoted to the Virgin. However, the intensity of his devotion is counted as one of Gaunt's eccentricities. "It seems likely... that Gaunt's devotion to the Virgin intensified after he escaped from the disaster of 1381." Pg. 247
John of Gaunt by Sydney Armitage-Smith, Barnes & Noble, 1964.
The Hollow Crown by H. F. Hutchison, The John Day Company, New York, 1961. The Robin Hood ballads were "...part of an organized and inflammatory propaganda..." that encouraged the Rising of 1381. Strangely, one of the rebellion's catch phrases named "Hob the Robber" as the enemy. (Pg. 57) Robin Hood is not the only ambiguous figure in King Richard's world. "Both contemporary chroniclers and modern historians have found it difficult to decide whether John of Gaunt was a benevolent or a wicked uncle..." to Richard. (Pg. 14) This book's title is from Shakespeare's Richard II.
Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide, by Jane Murray, Scribner's Sons, NY, 1974
Medieval Panorama: The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation, by G. G. Coulton, Meridian Books, New York, 1955. "villeins" were bound to the land and could not "quit their condition without leave of their masters. " Page 66.
The Medieval Village, by G. G. Coulton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England,1925. Chapter VII gives a clue as to how difficult it must have been for any two strangers (not just kings and outlaws) to hold a conversation in the English language. "The self-sufficing nature of the medieval village" left the peasant in comparative isolation even from neighbouring villages. In each village: "The people are few, and their ideas and words are few, the average peasant has probably never known by sight more than two or three hundred men in his whole life; his vocabulary is almost certainly confined to something even less than the six hundred words...." Page 65.
A Monastic Renaissance at St. Albans: Thomas Walsingham and His Circle, by James G. Clark, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This delightful document brings back those days during the 15th Century, when Oxford "...was 'rich with poets' who 'sang together the melodies of the Muses.'" Page 235. There is no doubt that, during the reign of Richard II, "...a growing mass of popular polemics, rhymes, and verses passed through [the large monestaries]. Indeed it is possible that houses (such as St Albans) close to major conurbations and transport routes served as clearing-houses for scurrilous and even seditious texts." The St. Albans monks "...were conscious of the characters of popular romance; indeed in one of his sermons the preacher [and Oxford graduate] Hugh Legat makes a swipe at 'Robin Hood, that never shot-in his bowe'" Page 158
Paris: The Early Internet by Robert Darnton, essay in The New York Review of Books June 29, 2000.
Poetry and the Police: Communications Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Robert Darnton, Harvard, 2010.
Richard II by Nigel Saul, Yale, 1997. Richard was surrounded by writers and poets who were discovering the joys of writing in English, but there is no evidence that Richard encouraged this experiment. Wat Tyler may have gotten away with addressing him as "Sir King," but in later years, Richard "...was given to seeing himself in Christlike terms." Page 325. He was the first English king to insist on being addressed as "Your Highness."
Richard II by Anthony Steel, Cambridge, 1962 Richard was well remembered by the poor after he died. "The Franciscans in particular took up his cause and some suffered death for it." Page 287
Richard II by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is rarely accused of getting his history right. However, most historians do agree that Richard's tragic flaw was his extraordinary faith in the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings.
Story of the House of Lancaster by Henry Hartwright, 1897, pp. 102-3 "Last of a Line"