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How Robin Hood Defied King John and Brought Magna Carta to Sherwood Forest.

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Don’t let the title of this post mislead you.  Of course it was not Robin Hood and his Merry Men who brought King John to his knees in June of 1215.  That was accomplished by a band of John’s own barons.  But here and there over the last couple of centuries, stories of the legendary woodsman and vigilante have crept up in connection to the creation of democracy’s greatest historical document.

A color poster advertising the play "Runnymede." The scene depicted is captioned, "Robin Hood defies King John" and shows King John and Robin Hood arguing while their supports look on in the background.
Frederick Warde played Robin Hood in this loosely historical drama about how the birth of the rule of law saved the life of the prince of thieves. The Great Charter can be seen draped over the edge of a table in the background. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

Here is one such story.  The image on the left is reproduced from a promotional poster for a theater piece called Runnymede created about a hundred twenty years ago by a San Francisco man named William Greer Harrison (d.1916).  The play is set in the last days of the reign of King Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) and centers around the activities of Robin Hood and King Richard’s younger brother, Prince John.  Because of the liberties the author takes with the historical events of the time, the exact year the action of the play takes place is hard to pin down.  Harrison condenses the events of a twenty year span into a matter of days, beginning with Richard’s return from the crusades and ending with John’s granting of Magna Carta in 1215.  It begins the way that several nineteenth century romances of Robin Hood began: Prince John who serves as the regent of England while Richard the Lionhearted is off fighting the crusades is busy mismanaging the kingdom in the absence of his heroic brother.  John’s excessive taxation has led many men who were loyal to Richard to talk about revolt.  Meantime, Robin Hood and his men, who view Prince John as a usurper, go about making John’s life miserable by robbing the rich and giving to the poor – a campaign that generally prevents John from collecting his precious taxes.  This sets the young prince on edge.  When John discovers that in addition to these crimes Robin Hood has also stolen the affections of the woman he intends to marry (Marian Lea), the insult to his pride becomes too much to bear; and he resolves to have Robin Hood put to death.

The plot thickens when Richard returns to England and seeks to relieve John of his regency.  John, consumed by his desire for the throne, stabs Richard to death with a knife and claims the crown for himself.  Now nothing seems to stand in the way of John’s plan to kill Robin Hood and force Maid Marian to the altar.

What happens next is too good to be believed.  The barons of the kingdom suddenly make their move against John.  Horrified by his depredations, they take their new king captive and force him to sign Magna Carta.  This occurs onstage with great pageantry and ceremony.  Just on the point of signing, the unhappy king considers what he has consented to: the famous chapter 39 of King John’s Magna Carta, which reads:

Nullus liber homo capiatur vel imprisonetur aut disseisiatur aut utlagetur aut exuletur aut aliquot modo destruatur, nec super eum ibimus, nec super eum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terrae.

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

No freeman may be killed without the judgment of his peers.  In other words, King John is no longer free to kill whom he pleases.  Robin Hood’s life is saved and Magna Carta itself is the hero of the story.

A color poster showing Frederick Warde as Robin Hood. Poster titled "Frederick Ware's Runnymede."
Frederick Warde as Robin Hood. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

The play was performed in 1895 in both San Francisco, where the author made his home, and New York City.  The critics in New York apparently gave mixed reviews.  Some complained that the play’s story was rambling and disjointed.  Some complained that the characters were poorly drawn.  Some thought Harrison’s blank verse was stilted and artificial.  The play’s many grave historical inaccuracies irritated others.  All agreed, however, that the costumes were finely designed and crafted, and that the famous Shakespearean actor, Frederick Barkham Warde (1851-1935), for whom Harrison wrote the piece, executed his role as Robin Hood impressively.

While William Greer Harrison never became much more than an amateur poet and playwright (he was an insurance executive in his professional life), he took his literary interests seriously.  He published occasionally and was one of the founding members of the Bohemian Club, a social club which he took to represent the best association for the promotion of culture in the country.  This is certainly part of the reason that he took the criticism by the New York critics as badly as he did.  Not long after his play was closed down, he wrote a short, angry response to the New York Times snorting that New Yorkers’ tastes were too “slavish” to appreciate his work, and that “The Bohemian Club of San Francisco represents more refinement, more intelligence, and more culture than can be found in the whole City of New-York, so far as it is possible for a visitor to see it.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1895).  This naturally led to hilarity on the part of New York intelligentsia and terrible humiliation for Harrison and his Bohemian Club.  Harrison would eventually renounce his membership in the club over this and another literary dispute.

A black and white photography showing members of the Bohemian Club amongst several tents set up in a forest.
Image of members of Harrison’s Bohemian Club setting up camp in one of the club’s exclusive sylvan groves. Photo taken between 1896 and 1911. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

Here one has to have some sympathy for Harrison.  In retrospect it seems unfair to criticize a re-telling of the Robin Hood legend for historical inaccuracy, since Robin Hood probably never existed.  As for Magna Carta: anachronisms and inaccuracies about Magna Carta have almost always been more important for that document’s reputation and influence on events than the historical reality ever was.

An example: June 15, 1215 , the date everyone memorizes as the sealing of Magna Carta, is not the date from which Magna Carta has been a permanent fixture in English law.  King John never intended to uphold Magna Carta after it was created.  Within weeks after he removed himself from Runnymede meadow, he secured its annulment (by means of an agreement with Pope Innocent III) and dragged England back into a civil war that lasted until after his death.  (So much for saving Robin Hood’s life.)  John’s successor would reissue a much abbreviated and weakened version of John’s Charter in 1216 and then again in 1225 which began the long and uneven path that Magna Carta traveled before it became the law of the land.

Magna Carta will celebrate its 800th birthday in 2015.  Look for more news and blog posts on the heritage of English Liberties and Anglo-American Constitutionalism here on In Custodia Legis in the coming months.


Comments (5)

  1. there was a king john, , spoilt, his farthers favorite, he attempted to sell england to the pope for money, he did not want to rule england and part
    of france. however he left england a rich country with full coffers. mdb.dr

  2. It would do us well to re-phrase the entire Robin Hood income redistribution plan as something a bit different from a wholesale social democracy ploy. It would also be a much better representation of the Truth.
    The fact is that Robin the Hood, who probably did exist, stole from the agents of government, i.e. the agents of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his political allies, in order to return their essentially stolen wealth back to the rich, the yeoman-class, and the poor from whom it had been extracted.

    Thank you for your kind attention and time.

  3. I’m ashamed to say that the true story makes the King look slightly better. My ancestors are these Royals.

  4. My ancestor was also King John — much to my chagrin. I learned recently that the US Bill of Rights was fashioned after the Magna Carta (The Great Charter).

  5. I too am related to King John and now live a stones throw away from Sherwood Forest. This part about King John I was not aware of.

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