Robin Hood and Remote Rule

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Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

British North America developed from a landscape of religions into a nation of races over the course of the eighteenth century.This process culminated in a hot, locked Philadelphia hall in 1787, but the lessons upon which the drafters drew reached back to the Reformation of the sixteenth century and earlier to Rome.

Americans had, after all, just rejected their inclusion in the British variant. If they failed to grasp the significance of their success, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome, David Hume’s History of England, and the tales of Robin Hood1 served to remind them of the dangers of remote rule.

Early Modern Europe possessed two empires with established Protestant populations inhabiting borders under perpetual threat.The Holy Roman Empire’s borderland Protestants included the Southwestern Germans of Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland-Palatinate, for whom “cuius regio, eius religio” offered precious little protection from neighboring Catholic armies. The British Empire sent forth Scots to settle among and pacify the Catholics a few leagues away in Northeastern Ireland. These two groups moved away from their fraught locations on Europe’s bloodiest frontiers topopulate the so-called backcountry of eighteenth-century British North America from the Kennebec to the Altamaha.2

The Germans, Scots, and Irish, in a multitude of hyphenated forms, created a cultural and military frontier in the new world as they had in the old. The German Swabs and Ulster Scots had a great deal in common. Both had theological roots in the ‘second’ or ‘radical’ Reformation of the 1570s.  Southwest German’s Lutheranism was heavily influenced by Zwingli3 and Covenanters in Scotland and Ireland derived their beliefs from the Swiss reformer, Calvin, as well as Zwingli, as John Knox interpreted their theology.4 Both came from regions of Europe where radical Protestants lived cheek by jowl with counter-Reformation Catholics. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. By 1688 French troops bathed the Palatinate in blood.Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ in the same year may have peacefully secured a Protestant succession in England, but its new Protestant King, William, and Catholic claimant, James II, ensured that the Ireland suffered enough for all three British kingdoms combined.5 For both border populations, these traumas were but the latest horrors in litanies of loss wrought during centuries of constant crisis. Seeking escape, both landed on Atlantic shores with dreams of stability guaranteed by land-holding independence.6
In Europe, these ill-definied communities buffered their rulers’ borders from attack, but they also attacked their rulers.Luther’s condemnation of the South German’s Peasant’s Revolt of 1525, secured its infamy in historical memory.7 The covenanter’s revolt in Scotland and the Catholic revolt in Ulster cost Charles I his head in 1642.8 The sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries created real and imagined bandits throughout Europe. A few real bandits possessed the noble motives of the fictionalized Robin Hood, whom Wilkesites adopted as their mascot on both sides of the Atlantic.9 

All bandits, Eric Hobsbawm argues, thrived in the unruly borderlands: in the Roman, Holy Roman, and British Empires.10 Martin Luther drew the parallel with bandits in his tirade against the peasants wrecking havoc under the influence of Thomas Muenzer. “Like public highwaymen and murderers,” he raved, “It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person….”11 

The linkage between these peoples in Europeans’ corporate imagination dated back at least to the Roman conquest of both “Upper Germany” and Britain. The Romans built their most famous walls to keep out the populations (Der Limes for the Swabs and Hadrian’s Wall for the Scots) that British seaboard colonies invited into their midst.  Those south-west Germans misnamed ‘Palatines’ and those from north-east Ireland ‘With No Name’12 had once shared the label ‘barbarian’ to the civilized rulers of Rome.“All ancient writers agree,” writes Hume in his widely read History of England “in representing the first inhabitants of Britain as a tribe of the Gauls or Celtae, who populated that island from the neighboring continent.” These Celts shared language, manners, government, and superstition in Hume’s estimation.13 Even when a Roman colony, Gibbon thought the empire unable to “guard the maritime province against the pirates of Germany” leaving “independent and divided” Britons to fall prey to “rapine and destruction” when “the Saxons might sometimes join the Scots and the Picts in a tacit or express confederacy.”14 In Hume’s historical framework, after Rome fell, Germany became the prize in the medieval tug-o-war between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, while Scotland and Ireland played a similarly critical role in the Tudor-Stuart era rivalry between the French and English crowns.15

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