Article MT262

Robin Hood in Hampshire

Robin Hood Ballads in the George Gardiner Collection

It would seem that Robin Hood ballads have been sung in English speaking countries, at least since the later Middle Ages.  There are a number of references to the singing of Robin Hood ballads in the 14th century, and there are versions recorded in Samuel Pepys' and Bishop Percy's collections of the 17th and 18th centuries.  As many as thirty six are recorded in Professor Child's great work on ballad texts The English and Scottish Popular Ballads published between 1882 and 1898.  A few survived to be tape-recorded in the later twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first.

It is most likely that Robin Hood ballads were widely sung in England, and probably in Scotland and Wales as well.1.  In the eighteenth century Edward Williams said Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires was frequently sung in South Wales under the name of The Green Knight.  I do not know of any Robin Hood ballads collected in Ireland: perhaps there were enough other heroes fighting governmental tyranny to negate the need for songs of Robin Hood!1  Their popularity is suggested by the survival of examples as far away as the United States and Canada where they had been carried by British settlers.2.  Robin Hood Ballads noted in the USA and Canada. Eight Robin Hood ballads plus six additional variants have been recorded spread widely over western United States and Canada.  One of them: Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon has not been noted in Britain.  Robin Hood's life in the greenwood may have chimed in with the pioneer spirit of America.  Robin Hood as an individual standing up to tyranny may also have had great appeal to citizens of a new young country standing up to the British government.
2  A strong survival has also been recorded in the last half of the twentieth century from Scottish travellers in Fyfe and Aberdeenshire.3.  Robin Hood ballads collected in Scotland in the Twentieth Century. Robin Hood's free spirit and life in the open air seems to have had an appeal to the Scottish travellers, several of whom were still singing Robin Hood ballads in the second half of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first.3  Examples have also been recorded in Gloucestershire and Sussex in the last half of the twentieth century.

The singing of traditional folk songs had been in decline since perhaps the 1850s, and so it is not surprising that fewer ballads were noted in England than in Scotland where serious collecting had started much earlier.  A fair spread of Robin Hood ballads, however, were recorded among this reduced ballad-singing repertoire in England.  A single Robin Hood ballad has been noted in the counties of Dorset, Gloucestershire, Essex, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire; two were noted in Somerset and several have been noted in Sussex.4.  Examples were also noted in the mid 19th century in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and even Bermondsey, London.
5.  Sussex had the next biggest concentration of Robin Hood ballads to Hampshire with which it shares a border.  Two were collected around the turn of the 19th century and two in the later 20th century.
6.  Robin Hood ballads collected in England, as noted in Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, and from other noted traditional singers. Professor Bronson did not know of Gardiner's Hampshire Robin Hood ballads, except for Mrs Goodyear's Child 140 Robin Hood and the widow's three sons whiChild he mis-attributed to Ralph Vaughan Williams.  The six others collected there would have added appreciatively to Bronson's collection, especially Child 125 Robin Hood and Little John, which was not recorded elsewhere in England.4, 5, 6  This wide dispersal suggests that the songs had previously been very popular throughout England.

The survival of an impressive cluster of five different Robin Hood ballads in a small area of Hampshire underlines this popularity.  George Gardiner found a strong traditional singing community in the north east of Hampshire in the early 20th century.  He found five Robin Hood ballads sung there, two of which had an additional second tune variant from a different singer.  He also found another verse fragment that is very difficult to attribute, but it could even be from a sixth ballad.  This is probably the biggest cluster of sung Robin Hood ballads recorded anywhere.

This singing community seems to have been centred on the twin villages of Axford and Preston Candover7.  Axford and Preston Candover are twin villages which span a mile on the B3046, six miles south of Basingstoke.  The villages retain a rare tranquillity, outside of the rush-hours when the road can be noisy with rat-racers.7 which Gardiner visited many times between August and October of 1907.  Every singer either lived in the village or could walk there within an hour and a half, except William Randall who could be reached in a morning's walk.

All of the following song texts and tunes can be viewed on the Take 6 Collection on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library site at:   In the following, the numbering: H796 etc is the index number in the Gardiner archive.

One of the first ballads that Gardiner collected was from William Randall:

Robin Hood and the Tanner (Child 126, H79).  He lived in Hursley, just south of Winchester.  In the song, Robin meets a tanner who beats him in a fight with wooden staves, and the tanner is then invited to join Robin's band of men.  William Randall sung 12 verses to a major tune.  James Buckland, who lived ten miles to the north at Micheldever, sung a different variant of the major tune, H1221, and he gave 13 verses.

Frank Cole of Oakley, sung Robin Hood and the Pedlar (Child 132, H1284), to a mixolydian modal tune, but he could only remember 3 verses when Gardiner visited.  His ballad tells of a similar encounter where a pedlar beats both Robin and Little John in a sword fight.

Frank's wife had another ballad, Robin Hood and the Widow's three Sons (Child 140, H1283), which she sung to a major tune.  She gave 18 verses.  The ballad tells of Robin and his men freeing three brothers who were condemned to be hanged for poaching deer.

Mrs Goodyear of Axford also had a version of this ballad H796 of which she had 11 verses.  She sung it to another major tune, which Gardiner chose for publication in the Folk Song Journal.  He also made a phonograph recording of it (now sadly lost), which Ralph Vaughan Williams used to make a slightly revised transcription for the Folk Song Journal.  It was dully published in the 1909 issue, which contained 50 of Gardiner's collected songs.

Mrs Goodyear had a second Robin Hood ballad: Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford (Child 144, H797).  The bishop attempts to capture Robin for poaching, but he himself is captured by Robin's men, and he is forced to give up his money.  Mrs Goodyear sung the ballad to a striking major tune.  Gardiner noted 5 verses from her.  It would appear that Mrs Goodyear jumbled the verses of her two ballads, and Gardiner sorted them out later.  This would underline the fact that she had not sung the songs for some while.

Moses Mills, who lived a mile down the road at Preston Candover, gave another ballad: Robin Hood and Little John (Child 125, H727).  Robin fights Little John on a bridge, loses and falls in the water.  He summons his men, and Little John joins them.  Moses Mills sung it to a major tune, but he unfortunately only remembered three verses.

Mrs Matthews of Medstead, four miles to the east, gave a single verse fragment H1188.  Gardiner did not get her tune noted, and there is too little to attribute it to a particular ballad.8.  Robin Hood sung by Mrs Matthews.  George Gardiner 1908.8

It is obvious that the ballads were out of fashion when Gardiner visited, and the singers had to work hard to remember them.  It is not surprising that some remembered only a few verses.  It is more surprising that Gardiner managed to collect as many as five different Robin Hood ballads with tunes and virtually complete texts.  It is also notable that they were sung by both men and women.  This survival suggests that they were very popular a few decades before Gardiner's collecting.  I feel that the survival of so many Robin Hood ballads in this quiet part of Hampshire suggests that they had been very popular in England in previous centuries. 

The great English hero Robin Hood seems to have been well liked in England.  He is perhaps a most appropriate hero for England, being full of English ambiguity.  He breaks the law, but his deeds are morally good.  He is a renowned fighting leader, but he frequently loses in personal combat.  Robin also has a totally loyal band of followers, despite his ambiguities and incompetences, and they share his ideals of aiding the underdog against the harsh letter of the law.

Did the traditional singers of England, like Walter Scott, see Robin Hood as the free spirit of England standing up to unpopular aristocracy and authority?  It is now impossible to know what the singers of northeast Hampshire really felt about the Robin Hood ballads.  Most of the Edwardian collectors seem to have noted nothing but the bare tune and text in their rush to record as many songs as possible before the singers died.  The Robin Hood ballads were no longer sung when Bob Copper came to the area in the 1950s.9.  Bob Copper of the famous Sussex singing family came to live in Hampshire for a year in 1955.  He tape-recorded surviving traditional singers for the BBC, and he seemed especially fond of Enos White of Axford who remembered George Gardiner coming to the area in 1907.  (In Bob's book Songs and Southern Breezes Gardiner is wrongly named 'Old Vaughan Williams').  Bob managed to tape-record two different versions of Lamkin in the area, but he found no Robin Hood ballad sung there.9  We can assume, however, that singers sang songs that had some personal meaning to them.  It could be mere relish of a good tune or story, but the Robin Hood stories seem to have survived long beyond the era of their original creation which was the time of monks and medieval kings.  Many other outdated stories faded from memory, so their survival could suggest a continuing affinity with Robin Hood's activities. 

It might be possible to surmise a little from the singers' backgrounds.  They were all very poor agricultural workers at the bottom of the social structure.  Robin Hood ballads may have appealed to them because they depict a free hero, unbound to the dreary routine of agricultural toil, which the singers themselves had to endure.  The songs could provide a vicarious enjoyment of freedom from work and responsibility.  Robin Hood also glories in living in the open air, which is the working domain of an agricultural labourer, so the songs could be felt to be a celebration of their own working environment.  The workers may also have sung the songs because the hero defied the law and stood up to unfair and oppressive authority.  The songs could be seen as legitimising their own minor misdeeds, which they committed in order to survive.10.  Daisy Cosier, a local teacher, recorded some good insights into village life at Axford/Preston Candover at the turn of the 19th century which suggest some empathy for poaching.10  There was thus much matter for empathy for the Edwardian rural workers in these ballads.  I believe that the Robin Hood ballads remained popular with rural workers because they helped to keep their spirits free in their poverty through identity with aspects of Robin Hood's life.  All but one of the songs are in a major key which has a more positive uplifting sound than the rarer modal tunes.

It could be argued that the rural singers just sang the songs because they had inherited them, but I believe that they found much to empathise with.  This was the reason for such a strong survival in north east Hampshire in 1907, and this survival in turn attests to their once countrywide popularity.

Notes and Examples:

Much of the material for this article has been gleaned from Professor Bertrand Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. I would also like to thank Malcolm Taylor and the staff of the Vaughan Williams Memoral Library, Peter Shepheard and others for their assistance.

Bob Askew - 31.1.11

Article MT262

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 31.1.11