Robin Hood and the Potter

Like the other early ballads, the 324 line Robin Hood and the Potter (the title supplied by Joseph Ritson, the first to publish it in 1795) cannot be given a precise date for its composition (see also, The Early Ballads, Robin Hood and the Potter (Joseph Ritson), and The Rhymes of Robin Hood 10). It survives in a unique manuscript in the Cambridge University Library (MS. Ee.4.35, fols.14v-19r), within a volume of twenty-four leaves, with approximately thirty lines to each page. Written throughout in largely the same hand, it has been described as ‘a household miscellany, consisting of a mixture of religious and secular texts’. The contents of the manuscript include (among others): The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (fols. 1r-2v), How to find Easter day (fol. 5r), The Cheylde and hes Stepdame (fols. 6v-13v), and The Kynge and the Barker (fols. 19v-21r). A record found immediately before the text of Robin Hood and the Potter is the ‘exspences of fflesche at the mariage of my ladey Margaret, that sche had owt off Eynglonde’ (fol. 14r). This appears to be a reference to Margaret Tudor’s marriage to James IV of Scotland on 8 August 1503, which supports the statement made by Joseph Ritson (Robin Hood, 1795), that the manuscript was copied in ‘the age of Henry the seventh, that is about the year 1500’.* Thomas Wright (Essays on Subjects connected with the Literature, Popular Superstitions, and History of England in the Middle Ages, Vol. 2, 1846, p. 84) claimed that the ‘Potter’ was written in the reign of Henry VI. John Mathew Gutch (A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, Vol. 2, 1847, p. 21) believed that ‘this ballad may be reckoned the second in point of antiquity of the Robin Hood series’, and ‘perhaps about fifty or sixty years earlier than Mr. Ritson supposes’, which is in the same time frame as Thomas Wright. Dobson and Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 123) thought that the manuscript was written in ‘either the very late fifteenth or, more probably, early sixteenth century’.

Thomas Ohlgren (Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 2007, p. 70) sites the last page of the manuscript (fol. 24v) that contains a merchant’s mark and the inscription Iste liber constat Ricardo Calle. Ohlgren believes that Richard Call (c. 1431 to after 1504) born at Bacton, Norfolk, was the original owner of the manuscript, and ‘the very person who took an active role in the selection of texts copied by an unknown scribe’. The importance of this lies in the fact that Call was the bailiff or estate manager for John Paston I and his two sons (both named John) during the last half of the fifteenth century. Call’s life and activities are documented in the Paston papers and letters and they contain a mention of Robin Hood (see, no. 31 in Robin Hood Timeline). Another connection with the Pastons and the Robin Hood legend can be found in the dramatic fragment of c. 1475 (see, The Dramatic Fragment).

* Ohlgren (Early Poems, p. 75) points out that the manuscript containing the ‘Potter’ should be dated to 1468 instead of the usual date of 1503. He arrives at this date because of a royal wedding that had ‘much closer ties to the Pastons and possibly to Richard Call himself’. The wedding, between King Edward IV’s sister Margaret and Charles, Duke of Burgundy, took place on July 3, 1468, in Bruges. In a letter dated July 8, 1468 John Paston III, who attended with his brother John II, describes the wedding to his mother, and he uses two phrases – ‘my Lady Margaret’ and ‘owt of Inglond’ – the same wording as the record of 1503 in the Cambridge manuscript.

Other Editions: J. M. Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1847, vol. 2, pp. 22-35; F. J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1888, vol. 3, pp. 109-13; MacEdward Leach, The Ballad Book, 1955, pp. 352-60; R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, pp. 125-32; S. Knight and T. Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, 1997; T. Ohlgren and L. Matheson, Early Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Edition of the Texts, ca. 1425 to ca. 1600, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2013. See also, The Play of Robin Hood and the Potter.

There are some points that should be mentioned:

1. The opening stanza of Robin Hood and the Potter:

In schomer, when the leves spryng
The bloschems on every bowe
So merey doyt the berdys syng
Yn wodys merey now


This is not too dissimilar to the opening lines of Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (see no. 2 in Robin Hood and the Monk).

2. Like the Gest and Robin Hood and the Monk, it’s possible that Robin Hood and the Potter was also written for the purpose of being read aloud to the audience. According to Dobson and Taylor (Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, p. 124), ‘There would now seem to be no doubt whatsoever that it was designed to be recited aloud, rather than sung, by a minstrel to an audience of yeomen or would-be yeomen’. They come to this conclusion because of the apparent address to the audience in the second stanza:

Herkens, god yemen
Comley, cortessy, and god
On of the best that yever bar bou
Hes name was Roben Hode


And in the last stanza:

Thes partyd Robyn, the screffe, and the potter
Ondernethe the grene wod tre
God haffe mersey on Roben Hodys solle
And saffe all god yemanrey


And in stanza 30 there is a break in the continuity of the narrative by a direct remark to the audience:

Tho Roben droffe on hes wey
So merey ower the londe
Heres mor and affter ys to saye
The best ys beheynde (still to come)**


** Ritson assumed that this phrase marked the end of the first two fyttes; and it is certainly probable that the ‘Potter’ was recited in two parts.

And also in stanza 80:

Now ye be com hom to Notynggam
Ye schall haffe god ynowe
Now speke we of Roben Hode
And of the pottyr onder the grene bowhe


3. The ‘Potter’ mentions ‘Y met hem bot at Wentbreg, (Wentbridge) seyde Lytyll John’ (stanza 6), which is almost certainly referred to in the Gest: ‘As he went at a brydge ther was a wrastelyng’ (stanza 135). The only other place mentioned in the ‘Potter’ is Nottingham.

4. Ohlgren (Early Poems, p. 85) states that ‘In Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin cleverly uses unorthodox mercantile practices in order to hoodwink the sheriff, to court his wife right under his nose, and to manipulate the marketplace restrictions in Nottingham’.