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Myth, legend, and mystery in the Oxford DNBfree

  • Philip Carter

It is often stated that Robin Hood was the only mythical figure included in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB, 1885–1900). However, this ‘fact’ is itself part myth. As the DNB's second editor, Sidney Lee, made clear in his final 'Statistical account', the dictionary initially contained 'eleven articles [among them Robin Hood] on legendary personages or creatures of romance who have been mistaken for heroes of history' (DNB, 63.xi).

What distinguished the original DNB entry on Robin Hood was Lee's emphatic identification of its subject with the stuff of legend, a figure for whom evidence of 'historical existence, although very voluminous, will not bear scholarly examination'. About the remaining ten subjects—among them Merlin, King Arthur, the dragon-slaying Guy of Warwick, and the Yorkshire prophetess, Mother Shipton—the dictionary's Victorian authors were a little more equivocal. These were figures of obscure origin for whom there was no solid evidence of real life, though this did not rule out the possibility that they derived from historical persons. More certain was that these were subjects whose life stories had been considerably embellished with the passage of time.

Myths and legends have therefore been a feature of the DNB from the start. That they remain so in the Oxford DNB owes much to subsequent developments in historical research. A century of new work provides a fresh perspective on Lee's original eleven, and prompts reassessment of some earlier conclusions. As a result, formerly ‘real’ figures—such as the seventh-century St Bega—now pass into myth, while others, including Robin Hood, gain a firmer, if certainly not complete, grounding in fact. A second development is historians’ recent engagement with myth as an integral part of history, which turns attention away from literal identity and towards the meaning of those lives that create and sustain legend. It is a changing perspective reflected in the Oxford DNB's inclusion of an additional set of subjects—heroic, wicked, mysterious, and romantic—who, like Lee's original eleven, possess an often questionable relationship to historical truth.

Far from being a single type, mythical or legendary lives assume several forms defined by their proximity to biographical fact. The result is a sliding scale which moves from wholly fictitious subjects, such as the iconic Britannia, to pure myths once thought to have existed (such as King Lear), to probable and still-debated myths (Merlin), to unresolved mysteries (Jack the Ripper), to those who lived but, through disguise or time, remain anonymous (Junius and Lindow Man); and even to those who allegedly lived on after death (the ghostly Louisa Coppin). But common to all are names and deeds that have generated popular perceptions, or misconceptions, of British history. It is this human presence that makes them a legitimate part of the national biography. As the remit of historical studies extends, so too do its myths, legends, and curiosities—now identified less as Lee's 'mistakes' than as legitimate commentaries on British history and character.

Iconic lives: whose nation?

Of the many types of legendary life the most conspicuous comprise Britain's national icons or abstractions,

Britannia (fl. 1st– cent.21st)

by Jan Roettier, 1667 [reverse]

© Copyright The British Museum

John Bull (supp. fl. 1712–)

by Charles Williams, c. 1816

© Copyright The British Museum

Britannia and John Bull, who, as entirely fictional characters, have represented aspects of the nation in human form since the first and eighteenth centuries respectively. Their roles, however, have proved distinctive. Britannia's has principally been to embody the island nation, whereas Bull epitomizes its people, particularly the English population of the British Isles. Britannia has also presented a rather more consistent character. Following a brief sixteenth-century association with England, a growing attachment to the sea and empire has established her as a wholly British icon, replacing early modern depictions in which she often appeared alongside and equal to Scotia and Hibernia. Likewise, while powerful depictions of Britannia as victim conveyed the drama of the American War of Independence (1776–83), her predominant historical image has been one of authority, a figure whose combined trappings of war and peace reassuringly demonstrate the nation's military and financial integrity.

John Bull, by contrast, cuts a more changeable and often beleaguered figure. Today's Bull—stout and proud in Union-Jack waistcoat and top hat—is an Edwardian development of a character who in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century depictions was more frequently portrayed as enduring the consequences of establishment corruption and fiscal irresponsibility. As an embodiment of the English everyman, Bull was variously depicted both by conservatives and progressives, who co-opted him to demonstrate the undesirable implications of opposing political views. During the French Revolutionary Wars, therefore, Bull's bluff stoicism and disrespect for continental niceties were viewed as assets, widely shared by a pragmatic and down-to-earth people. But accompanying calls for franchise extension also prompted opponents of reform to produce disturbing images in which Bull, a former national representative, was rendered a coarse and violent epitomist of factional interest within domestic politics.

By the early twentieth century, an increasingly patrician and nostalgic icon found his political role assumed—albeit in a more benign form—by a youthful ‘cousin’, Joan Bull, the short-lived cloche-wearing flapper, creation of the cartoonist David Low, who epitomized the effect of more recent franchise reform. This period likewise saw the decline of Bull's capacity to represent the common man, a role which passed—at least during the mass conscription of the First World War—to the figure of Tommy Atkins. While Bull's origin can be traced to a political satire of 1712, Atkins's background remains obscure. It is possible that the name, if few of his later characteristics, derives from a soldier whose conduct at the battle of Boxtel (1794) impressed his regiment's commander, Arthur Wellesley, later first duke of Wellington. Thomas Atkins was subsequently proposed by Wellington as a generic name for the British infantryman; thereafter Tommy became the name of the typical rank-and-file soldier and his personality became increasingly coherent. His, broadly, was a positive image. None the less, in specific circumstances Atkins, like Bull, reflected a range of character types—heroic, quotidian (and therefore flawed), and potentially subversive—all of which were in evidence during the period of his greatest prominence between 1914 and 1918.

Mythical lives: where do they come from?

Not all figments gain national currency. Others are created by specific interest groups and serve, as during early nineteenth-century protests against industrialization, as focal points for a campaign. Between 1811 and 1816, for example, the fictitious Ned Ludd was the signatory of letters which threatened the destruction of knitting frames, initially in the villages of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, and later in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Using the collective term Luddites, Ned's supporters (many being identifiable regional leaders who assumed his name) later carried out acts of riot and incendiarism. During the early 1830s similar episodes of agricultural machine-breaking occurred in southern England in the name of the mythical Captain Francis Swing, a figure who, following the transportation of convicted supporters, later entered Australian folk culture.

Both Ludd and Swing were relatively short-lived examples of mythical lives created ‘on demand’ to achieve specific political or cultural ends. But many more figments originate retrospectively—that is, from misinterpretation, unconscious or otherwise, by historians, which confers legitimacy on subjects who exist only in fragmentary records of questionable veracity. The historian's role in creating and perpetuating myth is especially evident in some of the dictionary's earliest examples of the figmentary life. The Scottish king Fergus I (d. c. 305 bc), long a subject of folk narrative, gained wider credibility with his inclusion in John Fordun's mid-fourteenth-century study of Scottish prehistory. Likewise, Bede and the author of a derivative thirteenth-century account both identified St Bega (late 7th cent.), abbess of Hartlepool, as a real-life subject. And 'though wrapped in much obscurity', she was also presented as such in her original DNB entry of 1885. But the discovery of inconsistencies between these medieval texts, coupled with the significance attached to her jewellery (said to have been left in Cumbria on her departure for the north-east), now indicate that the abbess never existed. More plausible is the suggestion that St Bega was the personification of a Cumbrian cult centred on ‘her’ bracelet (Old English: beag).

The soldier, man of honour, and hermit, Guy of Warwick (c. 930) similarly gained life only in a work of history. It was the appeal of Guy's impressive and apparently accurate biography—portraying chivalry, self-control, and religious observation—that prompted later scholars, among them Ralph Holinshed, to acknowledge him as a valid subject of tenth-century England. Regrettably, Guy's reported life bears no relation to that of any known individual, being derived instead from the work of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century romance writers equally attracted to the perfection of this legendary hero. Another subject adopted by Holinshed is also one of the earliest featured in the Oxford DNB. The early British ruler Leir [Lear](c. 820 bc) was first encountered by Holinshed, and other early modern historians, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Historia regum Britanniae. In this account Leir was ruler of Britain, and fell victim to the greed of his daughters before being rescued by his youngest child, Cordelia, and the army of her husband, Aganippus, king of the Franks. From Monmouth via Holinshed, Leir entered literature through the work of Edmund Spenser and, of course, William Shakespeare. However, it is reasonable to conclude that Monmouth's king was no less fictitious than Shakespeare's: no evidence can be found to corroborate the Historia, making Leir Monmouth's personal figment cast as historical truth.

The legitimacy gained from an appearance in historical or creative writing is often supplemented by alleged material evidence of a mythical life. Examples range from Fergus I's portrait in a late seventeenth-century sequence of early Scottish kings, to St Bega's bracelet, the supposed effigy and correspondence of the fictitious traveller Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357), and the relics of Guy of Warwick displayed in the city's castle. Occasionally, mythical lives originate entirely from such evidence. In 1910 an amateur fossil hunter, Charles Dawson (1864–1916), claimed to have recovered parts of a human skull at Piltdown in Sussex. Over two years the retrieval of further remains enabled Dawson and

Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864–1944)

by Walter Stoneman, 1918

Arthur Smith Woodward (1864–1944), keeper of geology at the British Museum (Natural History), to suggest the discovery of an early human who became known as Piltdown Man. Dated to 4 million years bc, the figure assumed considerable significance as Europe's oldest evidence of mankind and raised profound implications for existing theories of human evolution. But, as research in the 1950s finally proved, the substance of Piltdown Man's biography was fabricated: he was nothing more than a combination of artificially aged human and animal bones, deposited, and found, by a team of hoaxers whose precise identity is still unknown.

Legendary lives: did they really exist?

To these now accepted myths can be added somewhat less dubious figments, whose legendary status may have developed from the activities of a single, real-life individual but for whom no firm historical record exists. It is here that many of Lee's 'creatures of romance' may be placed, though subsequent research has often led to changes of emphasis concerning just where individual subjects sit on the spectrum between figment and fact.

Thus the DNB's definitive myth, Robin Hood, is now recognized as at least a possible historical subject for whom a shadowy biography may be attempted. This suggests that Robin—or in one source Robert Hod—was a thief active during the 1190s; was outlawed, possibly to the greenwood for a second time in 1225; died in 1247; and emerged as a legendary criminal by the early 1260s. Even so, arguments for a single origin remain open to question. More plausible is the claim that Robin was a composite figure, the result of a gradual coalescence of genuine but anonymous historical individuals—initially criminal and only later charitable—whose shared attributes account for the emergence of a single figure named Robin Hood. As the legend gained greater consistency in stories from the late medieval centuries, so it developed to encompass subjects like Friar Tuck, for whom there is firmer evidence in the life of an early fifteenth-century Sussex chaplain, Richard Stafford. However, as for claimants to the name Robin Hood, it is unknown whether Stafford was the first to assume the alias Friar Tuck or was appropriating an existing legend when he adopted the name for a spate of criminal acts in the 1420s.

Another of British history's most celebrated pairings—that of the sixth-century Arthur and Merlin—likewise originated, long after their supposed lives, through the claims of a retrospective historical and literary tradition. From this there developed a dual, and often divergent, biographical narrative concerned with either further historicization of ‘real’ subjects or the fantastical embellishment of now well-known types. For Charles Francis Keary, author of the original DNB entry (1885), Arthur's place in the dictionary was justified only by the possible accuracy of Nennius's ninth-century Historia Brittonum, in which he was identified not as a king but as a 'battle leader'. By contrast, the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Historia—a figure on whom later romance writers drew heavily—was deemed 'worthless for any historical purpose'. In the Oxford DNB, by contrast, Arthur's validity as a biographical subject derives in large part from the very coherence and influence of this romance image as it was subsequently developed in literary, theatrical, and, later, cinematographic forms. Of particular interest—as in the lives of Friar Tuck or Mother Shipton (1530)—is the extent to which the fleeting evidence of Arthur's real life has been adapted in posthumous fabrications similar to those shaping later medieval depictions of Robin Hood.

Mystery and anonymous lives: who were they?

Similarly prone to literary embellishment are subjects remembered for their actions but who are otherwise anonymous. A figure like Sweeney Todd (1784), the so-called Demon Barber of Fleet Street, now exists as an almost wholly fictional life developed from late eighteenth-century reports of a celebrated murder. Unrestrained by an attachment to historical events or firm life information, Todd's biographers have been free to consider their subject in a range of contexts from nineteenth-century horror fiction to twentieth-century light entertainment. Other criminals, by contrast, gain legendary status by combining anonymity with perennially disturbing forms of violence, a combination that heightens infamy and keeps alive the urge to investigate and uncover identity.

No figure has more fascinated in this respect than the late nineteenth-century serial killer Jack the Ripper (1888), whose notoriety owes much to his being one of the first criminals subject to widespread media speculation. An earlier personality of the Victorian penny dreadful was Spring-Heeled Jack (1837–1838), now a lesser-known figure, who attacked women in south and east London with a combination of physical assault and monstrous disguise. Though Jack was thought by many to have really existed, the fantastical nature of witness statements—including accounts of the assailant's vomiting flames and performing feats of extraordinary agility—suggests the possibility of a true figment given shape and life only through collective hysteria. That he may have been a personification of early Victorian anxieties surrounding urbanization recalls an earlier ‘life’ of the Scot Sawney Beane (15th–16th cent.). A mass murderer and cannibal of legendary cruelty, the elusive Beane and his unsubstantiated crimes flourished in oral tradition before gaining validity in eighteenth-century print accounts of celebrity criminals.

Other mystery subjects live on not through reports of their actions but by what they leave behind. The evidence for some such figures derives, as in the cases of the thirteenth-century music theorist Anonymous IV, the eighteenth-century political commentator Junius, and the nineteenth-century pornographer Walter, from surviving written work. Other anonymous subjects enter the historical record with the recovery of a body. Discovered in 1984, the partial corpse of what became known as Lindow Man, or colloquially Pete Marsh, had been preserved in the tannin-rich soil in which he was buried, probably during the first century ad, at Lindow Moss, Cheshire. From studies of extant hair, skin, bone, and internal organs has emerged a life story of possibly a priest, bard, or prisoner, whose final meal, before a violent death suggestive of ritual sacrifice, consisted of griddle bread and peat water. Though six hundred years later than Lindow Man, the seventh-century

Sutton Hoo burial (early 7th cent.)

parade helmet

© Copyright The British Museum

Sutton Hoo burial in Suffolk has provided no evidence of human remains during excavations from the 1930s. However, the wealth of recoverable artefacts that must once have surrounded a corpse—from the remnants of a 90 foot ship, to weaponry and bronze and silverware—has again made possible a historically informed biography of the commemorated subject who, as an aristocrat or monarch, is thought to have been connected with the East Anglian royal house.

Anonymity and speculative biography are inevitable features of lives recovered through archaeology. In the more recent case of the Unknown Warrior, however, anonymity was deemed a requirement when selecting the body of a First World War soldier for reburial at Westminster Abbey in November 1920. The idea of an army chaplain, the Reverend David Railton, the Unknown Warrior was chosen from at least four (or possibly six) unidentified corpses exhumed from the Somme, Aisne, Arras, and Ypres, and was brought to London for the state funeral of a 'British warrior unknown by name or rank'. Anonymity was essential for the success of the warrior's national representative function. But even here the remit of selection enabled the press to speculate on the bare outlines of life. The government's preference for identifying a soldier killed in 1914 ensured that the body was that of a British rather than a dominion serviceman, and implied that, as a member of the original expeditionary force, he was a young single conscript, a Territorial, or an older married reservist.

Afterlives: should we believe in ghosts?

The importance of subjects such as the Unknown Warrior rests, of course, on their posthumous role—in that case as part of a post-war culture of national and individual commemoration. A final set of individuals is likewise included in the Oxford DNB not for activities in life but their alleged significance after death. After she died, aged four, in 1849 Louisa Coppin was said to have visited her father as an apparition. As a ghost Louisa, known also as Little Weesy, apparently revealed the location of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, whose ship had recently disappeared during a search for the north-west passage. Though rejected by the Admiralty, this unorthodox evidence was adopted and pursued by the explorer's wife, Jane Franklin, Lady Franklin. And Little Weesy returned forty years later as the subject of a controversial and much debated study, Sir John Franklin, the True Secret of the Discovery of his Fate (1889), which, with the ship now found, claimed the accuracy of Louisa's prediction.

Others, among them Elizabeth Crofts (b. c. 1535) and Elizabeth Parsons (1749–1807), enter the historical record for their ultimately unsuccessful attempts to pass as ghosts. Crofts gained brief celebrity by issuing anti-Catholic slogans from behind a false wall, which crowds (said to number 17,000) took to be a spectral endorsement of the Reformation. Visitors who came in the 1760s to experience the phantom at Elizabeth Parsons's home at Cock Lane, London, included the duke of York, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson. It was Johnson who correctly surmised that the Cock Lane ghost—said to be that of a murdered lodger—was actually the work of the eleven-year-old Elizabeth, a child skilled in ventriloquism, about whom, like Crofts, few if any details are known following disclosure of the hoax. As with Piltdown Man, it is the deception—not its subject—that has entered popular culture.

Myth, biography, and history

By virtue of their composite form, mythical and legendary lives possess a historical relevance that goes beyond the individual biography, suggesting shared interests or concerns that are best expressed through their embodiment in human form. Regardless of the existence or extent of individuals’ veracity, the importance that later historians, romance writers, or artists attach to exposing or developing a mythical personality ensures them a significance beyond the purely factual. None of the subjects discussed here can now be said to constitute 'the myths we live by'; even Britannia, arguably the most pervasive of our national abstractions, today serves an increasingly nostalgic rather than active purpose. None the less, icons, figments, and legends retain a historical value. They demonstrate how myths work not to negate history, by apparently replacing complex narratives with simple truths, but themselves become significant historical influences in their own right. Open to changes in personality and character, they and the historical forces that shape them consequently emerge as valid figures in a work of national biography.

The historical messages that may be drawn from such lives are as diverse as the form itself. ‘Biographies’ of icons such as Britannia and, in particular, John Bull were contested by interest groups keen to promote regional or political rivalries, with often ambivalent implications for a resulting national image. National self-interest was equally strong in the creation, and vitality, of lives such as the mythical Fergus I, indicating Scots’ ongoing desire for a prehistory to rival that of the English, or in the historicizing of the admirable, but fictional, Guy of Warwick. Similarly the murderous, but probably wholly fictitious, Sawney Beane points to a periodic English fear of the Scottish highlander, which peaked at times of proposed union between the crowns.

As the example of Fergus or Beane shows, mythical lives serve both to reassure and to threaten their audiences, though just how this is achieved depends on their historical context. Modern criminal legends are noteworthy for their focus on the dangers posed to lone individuals, a shift based in part on their relocation from verdant medieval greenwood to sinister industrial city. Similarly, as concerns surrounding highland integration, cannibalism, and banditry have lost potency, so their human representation has declined or, as with Sweeney Todd, assumed a more benign, even comical, tone. But legends can equally suggest the durability of certain human attributes. The black magic of Mother Shipton may have been replaced by the helpful advice of Louisa Coppin, but both indicate a continuing commitment to the psychical. The campaigns of Ned Ludd and Francis Swing may have been specific to an age of industrialization but they also reveal, as does Robin Hood, the importance of strong leadership in the organization of rural protest movements. Common to all is the power afforded to a generic cause—be it national rivalry, political campaign, or social concern—when expressed and interpreted through the medium of biography.


  • J. Roettier, gold medal (reverse), 1667, BM, George III, Eng. med. 87; Britannia [see illus.]
  • C. Williams, caricature, engraving (coloured impression), 1816, BM; John Bull [see illus.]
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1918, NPG; Sir Arthur Smith Woodward [see illus.]
  • parade helmet, BM; Sutton Hoo burial [see illus.]